It's been a bad year for Muslims in the West. The ground zero mosque uproar, the worry over halal burgers in France, Geert Wilders' parliamentary gain in the Netherlands, an apparent anti-immigrant sniper in Sweden, a preacher in Florida planning to burn the Quran, the advance of a stridently anti-immigrant party into Sweden's national parliament, and a bestselling polemic by a German banker, Thilo Sarrazin — who thinks Muslim immigrants are worse for his country than any other — amount to a backlash in Europe and the United States unprecedented since 2001.
In fact, it would have made more sense in 2001. But the shock of the actual 9/11 attacks seemed to make Americans as well as Europeans more careful about mass judgments and even hate speech than they are now, as a whole, nine years on.
"Indeed, the astonishing thing is not that suspicion of Islam is growing in America, but that it has taken so long to do so," writes blogger Matt Petterson, who considers it high time for Americans to push back against radical Islamists (as if we haven't done that in Afghanistan and Iraq). Since September 11, he argues, "Americans have been treated to a string of attacks and failed attacks by Muslims on American soil: Faisal Shahzad and his Times Square truck bomb; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a Northwest flight with a bomb on Christmas Day; Nidal Malik Hasan, who reportedly shouted 'Allahu Akbar!' as he opened fire and murdered thirteen at Ft. Hood; John Allen Muhammad, who killed ten and terrorized Washington, D.C., as the 'Beltway Sniper,'" in 2002. "And on, and on."
But none of these smaller or failed attacks can explain the level of ire expressed against Muslims in the past year. Everyone knows there's a war on; everyone knows a violent fringe of Islamists has been trying (for over a decade) to hit Western targets. Hasan's bloody fifth-column attack on a U.S. military base was appalling, but it couldn't match the national trauma of 2001, and the fizzled attempts by Shahzad and Abdulmutallab were no big surprise.
So what's different? One answer is that the organizational skills of anti-immigrant groups have improved. Not only have movements like the Tea Party in the U.S. or Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands polished their acts for domestic consumption; they've started to work together. Tea Party figures like Pamela Geller and Nachum Shifren (the "surfing rabbi," who ran for state Senate in California) cooperated in October with a new far-right group called the English Defence League, which likes to issue dire warnings about Islamification from behind hockey masks painted with the St. George's cross.
"We're seeing groups across Europe trying to form a transnational challenge to Islam," Matthew Goodwin, author of The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain, told CBS News last month. "Going to the United States is particularly interesting because the far right in Britain has never gone that way, it has always gone toward Europe. If it did forge strong links to the Tea Party, it would be important because the Tea Party has significant resources."
Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes. The year 2010 saw national elections in the U.S., Britain, and Sweden as well as regional elections in France. Anti-Muslim rhetoric played a role in each campaign, and they all ended in a political swing to the right.
The world recession might account for the rhetoric as well as the election results; but as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas put it recently in The New York Times, "the real cause for concern is that ... cool-headed politicians are discovering that they can divert the social anxieties of their voters into ethnic aggression against still weaker social groups."
Anti-Islam movements come in different flavors. In America they tend to be socially conservative and religious. In Europe they might be socially liberal or atheist. Geert Wilders' party is pro-gay and inveighs against Islamic intolerance of Dutch-style freedoms, a position that caused trouble when the Christian Action Network produced a film about Wilders and his controversial career ("Islam Rising: Geert Wilders' Warning to the West"). CAN invited him to the L.A. premiere, and Wilders said he was "honored" until a quote emerged from Martin Mawyer, the group's founder, characterizing homosexuals as child abusers with a "filthy sickness."
For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com
Wilders pulled out. The man who compares the Quran to Mein Kampf wanted nothing to do with CAN. Mawyer denied it was embarrassing for his group, and argued for diversity and tolerance within the anti-Islam movement.
"We understand that in this movement to fight jihad ... there's going to be a variety of people with different political viewpoints," he said. During the same interview with Radio Netherlands last March he insisted that Wilders would find a surprising measure of support in the U.S. "Christian churches in America are behind Mr. Wilders. They support his message, and we think this is going to be huge in America," he said.