Critically reflecting and distancing oneself from one's own perceptions and stereotypical constructions of realityIntercultural CompetenceKnowledge of interrelations within a given groupRefers to dimensions such as connectivity and complexity between identity, politics, society, history and others

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – A Common Seed? – Pt. 1

There is a new kind of racism growing in Europe nowadays, which is often disguised under other issues such as lack of integration, immigration procedures, defense of women’s rights, safety and security, among others. While all these issues are exceedingly important and do need our attention, we need to also be aware of who we might be accusing of not integrating, which potential immigrants we might be unjustly rejecting, whether what we perceive as the defense of women’s rights is actually protecting women’s rights or doing the exact opposite, and if we are jeopardizing the safety, security and peace of mind of certain people under the justification of protecting our own. Generalizing about entire groups of people is not generally known to be an acceptable and objective stance, and yet somehow when it comes to the perception of Muslims it seems that this is accepted and even encouraged. With part 1 of this article, we look at what is happening around Europe and in the media regarding Muslims, and in part 2 we look at where this has happened before and what can be done to stop it before it is too late.

Why did I choose this tool? Having a European nationality but not having actually lived in Europe very much, I had quite a utopic view of Europe as a place where there is equality, peace, and justice. However, my experiences trying to live in Europe while engaged to an Iraqi Muslim have shown me the darker side of Europe, one that I probably would not have known about otherwise. I chose this tool because I think it’s important to understand not only what Europe stands for in theory, but what is actually happening in practice. It is my hope and dream that in the future Europe will truly be a place where there is justice, freedom and equality for all, with no exceptions.

How does this apply to being a trainer? I have seen trainers deal with the issue of racism, Islamophobia, refugees, etc., without actually having an in-depth knowledge of what is actually happening in these areas, particularly in relation to Muslims. With so many projects these days focused on these issues as well as prevention of extremism, it is essential to be able to also see the situation from their perspective if sustainable solutions are to be found, and it is also important to take a look at ourselves and our own perspectives to see if we may be consciously or sub-consciously contributing to the problem.

Main content:

What Muslims have to endure – Today

If you are a European citizen, it may be hard to imagine a life without the freedom of movement that we often take for granted. It may be hard to imagine that even when you are over-qualified for an education program, and have paid for it, that you may be refused entry into the country where the program will take place. It may be hard to imagine that even if you have fought to obtain a visa (possibly even been rejected once or twice) to enter a country, that the police can take you aside and interrogate you for hours about your “true intentions”, based only on your country of origin and nothing you have actually done or actually are. It may be hard to imagine that even though you are so lucky as to find the love of your life, based on certain discriminatory laws you may not be allowed to live where he/she is. It may be hard to imagine that even if all hell is breaking loose in your country, forcing you to find your home elsewhere, you can be refused the right to asylum whether it’s because the relevant authorities don’t seem to think that your situation is “hellish enough” to warrant it, or because you don’t fit their preferred profile based on your chosen religion and lifestyle. You may have given up everything and paid a fortune for the chance of a better life, risking your life in the process, and yet be inhumanely rejected and denied basic rights, never to be heard about again or mentioned in the press. If you are one of the few lucky ones to reach your destination of choice and be granted some kind of legal residence there, you may still have to endure suspicions, scrutiny, extensive security screenings, difficulty getting a job, ridicule, insults, and in some cases even violence and death, all because of where you are from and what you believe in.

All of the above and more has occurred and is likely to continue occurring to decent people, who just happen to be Muslims from Muslim countries. You might think that these things don’t happen in modern day Europe, which has come a long way from treating people this way, including instituting regulations so that the rights of every individual are upheld and safeguarded.

Indeed, the bill of human rights does state the following rights clearly and unequivocally:

Article 1: Right to Equality

Article 2: Freedom from Discrimination

Article 3: Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security

Article 11: Right to be Considered Innocent until Proven Guilty

Article 12: Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

Article 14: Right to Asylum in other Countries from Persecution

Article 15: Right to a Nationality and the Freedom to Change It

Article 16: Right to Marriage and Family (without limitation due to race, nationality or religion)

Article 18: Freedom of Belief and Religion

Article 25: Right to Adequate Living Standard

Article 26: Right to Education

Yet in spite of these clearly stated rights, they are not always respected and upheld when it comes to Muslims, particularly those coming from Muslim countries. Why is that?

Certain people would have us believe that allowing Muslims to have their above-mentioned rights will result in the infringement of the rights of European citizens, and as such they have the right to infringe on the rights of Muslims in order to prevent the rights of others (Europeans) from being infringed upon. Here are some of the actual words and actions regarding Muslims in several European countries. It is only a sample, research on this topic will yield far too much of these hateful words and actions then can be contained in one article.


Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, suggests that Muslims should “tear out half of the Koran if they wished to stay in the Netherlands” because it contains “terrible things” and that Muhammad would “… in these days be hunted down as a terrorist”.

He has also referred to Mohammed as “the devil“. In September 2009, Wilders proposed putting what he called a “head rag tax” on Hijab wearing by Muslim women; he suggested that women could purchase a license for €1000 and that the money raised could be used in projects beneficial to women’s emancipation.

He believes that all Muslim immigration to the Netherlands should be halted and all settled immigrants should be paid to leave.


Le Pen pledged that she would take strong steps to protect France from the threat of radical Islam. She pledged to use the French secret services to spy on “radical” mosques, and she promised to deport those who travel to Afghanistan. In the cases of French citizens, she even proposed forcing them to wear ankle bracelets.

“We will act with zero tolerance” she pledged.

These comments have drawn worry from French Muslims. The full numbers of French Muslims are being bundled with the crimes of the individuals who have chosen to set themselves apart by acting out as terrorists. It is wrong to judge by the group, especially on the basis of a few bad actors.

However wrong it may be, it seems to be good politics. Le Pen’s remarks drew stomping feet and applause as the crowd cheered her remarks.


Siegfried Däbritz posted a comment to Bachmann’s Facebook group. “We want to gather to oppose the advancing Islamization of our country. We don’t want terrorist, Islamist powers to fight their religious war on our streets. We are against IS, PKK, al-Qaida and all the others,” Däbritz wrote.

A phrase which later became one of the movement’s main rallying cries could also be found in his Facebook post: “For this reason, let us take to the streets and show our region that WE ARE THE PEOPLE and that we are tired of paternalism, political correctness, Islamization and the constant insulting of us as Nazis just because we stand up for our country and for Europe!”


The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes reported across Britain increased by 593% in the week after a white supremacist killed worshippers at two New Zealand mosques, an independent monitoring group has said.

According to figures passed to the Guardian, 95 incidents were reported to the group between 15 March, the day of the New Zealand atrocity, and midnight on 21 March. Of those, 85 incidents – 89% of the total – contained direct references to the New Zealand attacks and featured gestures such as mimicking firearms being fired at Muslims.

The news will alarm community groups who may have expected extremists to lie low after the massacre of 50 Muslims in Christchurch, which drew widespread condemnation around the world.

In the last seven days, Muslims in Oxford, Southampton and Colindale, north London, have reported gun gestures or firearms noises being directed at them. In Colindale on Thursday, a mother walking with her daughter reported four youths making gun gestures. In Oxford earlier this week, a woman wearing a hijab said a man made noises mimicking a gun.

Verbal abuse directed at Muslims in London in separate incidents is alleged to have included shouts of “you need to be shot”, “you deserve it” and “Muslims must die”.

Incidents were reported in Scotland, where a mosque was attacked; in Stanwell, Surrey, where police declared the stabbing of a teenager to be a suspected far-right terror attack; and in Lancashire. Meanwhile in Birmingham, police continue to hunt for those behind sledgehammer attacks on five mosques.


The imam of a Galway mosque which was attacked during the hour of prayer on Monday evening has appealed for “calm” in the wake of the London terrorist attack.

Imam Ibrahim Ahmad Noonan of the Masjid Maryam mosque in Galway told The Irish Times that up to 100 members of the Galway mosque were left “terrified” when rocks smashed through the windows during the attack on Monday evening.

“Last night, during the time of prayer and actually as we prayed, rocks smashed through the windows”, the Imam said.

Muslim participants of this study reported experiencing physical assaults (22%) ranging from being struck, having hijabs forcibly removed, to being pushed, spat at; some reported being threatened or harassed (20%). A white Irish male revert to Islam recalls his experiences of physical forms of abuse: “I have been pushed and have had people spit in my face, for being Muslim”. 14% of participants indicated that they had property damaged. Those who detailed how this manifested referred to tyres being slashed, having eggs thrown at their home inter alia.

If this widespread hatred and violence were happening to any other group of people, the world would be up in arms about it, and rightfully so. How can anyone in this day and age condone or promote violence and hatred against innocent people?

Many have been led to believe that Islam and Muslims are dangerous and violent, and that as such violence against them is justified. But this has absolutely no basis in reality. As you can see from the above-mentioned examples, the violent acts and hateful words were not against members of Isis or Al-Quaida, they were against innocent people going about their lives and practicing their religion in a harmless and peaceful way. If we followed this logic, then American and British tourists around the world should be attacked for the atrocities that their government and army have committed. But we wouldn’t do that, why? Because they are just innocent tourists, they are not responsible for the crimes that others have committed. But when it comes to innocent immigrants, it is justified? What happened to article 11 in the declaration of human rights, right to be considered innocent until proven guilty? It seems that when it comes to Muslims, this article is reversed to meaning “they are guilty until they are proven innocent, and are rarely given a proper chance to prove their innocence”.

This is not to say that there aren’t guilty Muslims, just as there are guilty people from every religion and nationality. But they are hardly the ones being targeted, or even negatively affected, by all of the above. In fact, all of the above is playing right into their hands and supporting them in promoting the notion that the West hates Islam and therefore deserves to be punished. These guilty Muslims are very few and far between, and it is the job of the police and relevant authorities to investigate, find and punish them accordingly. It is not up to us to assume the guilt of innocent people and to harass, ridicule, speak hatefully towards or attack Muslims. Most of the Muslims who are victims of this are in fact trying to escape from the terrorism, war, violence, injustice and bigotry that is present in their own country, and so it is even more saddening that they would be treated as terrorists or villains when they are in fact victims of terrorism and violence. Yet this is what is happening.

Common Media Portrayals of Muslims

The media has been instrumental in promoting and reinforcing the connection between Muslims and terrorists. The truth is that the vast majority of people have not actually had any meaningful interaction with practicing Muslims. Which brings the question: if Islamophobic views aren’t stemming from personal negative experiences with Muslims, then where is it coming from?

The human brain is naturally more open and receptive to stories then it is to mere facts. We are wired to process facts and stories very differently.

It’s quite simple. If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, though, things change dramatically, according to researchers in Spain. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.

The media is currently the most powerful way to tell a story, whether it is a news story, a movie or a series. And while news agencies might have some obligation to stick with the facts (or at least appear to), fictional stories and characters have no such obligation. Therefore, a case could be made that the most effective tool there is to convince people of something, without igniting too much of their critical reasoning and as such facilitating openness to and acceptance of the story, would be through fictional media.

To understand how this is working in practice, let’s take 2 examples of series that were released in 2018: Homeland (US made) and Bodyguard (UK made).

The Washington Post called “Homeland” the most bigoted show on television. And here’s why:

“Homeland” carelessly traffics in absurd and damaging stereotypes. The show hit peak idiocy, for instance, at the beginning of season two, when Beirut’s posh Hamra Street was depicted as a grubby generic videogame universe of Scary Muslims in which Mathison must disguise herself to avoid detection. The real Hamra Street is a cosmopolitan, expat-filled area near the American University, where Western chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s compete for customers and no one would look twice at a blonde, blue-eyed white woman with uncovered hair. Islam itself is presented as sinister and suspicious: Brody secretly prays in his garage to foreboding music, and an imam who’s outraged that worshippers were shot during a police operation at his mosque turns out to be hiding information about Brody’s fellow POW-turned-terrorist Tom Walker.

These errors all add up to something important: The entire structure of “Homeland” is built on mashing together every manifestation of political Islam, Arabs, Muslims and the whole Middle East into a Frankenstein-monster global terrorist threat that simply doesn’t exist.

In “Homeland”, Muslims can play one of exactly two roles: terrorists or willing collaborators with U.S. intelligence forces. (This latter role is repeatedly filled by women on the show, who of course need the CIA’s protection from their violent Muslim husbands). When Brody’s wife discovers he’s a Secret Muslim and waves the Koran at him, shouting, “These are the people who tortured you!” she’s not just being melodramatic. She’s expressing the show’s core philosophy. Muslims — be they Arab, Iranian or Pakistani — are brutal terrorists who can’t be trusted, and they’re all out to get us.

It’s easy to argue that “Homeland” is just a TV show, a thriller that naturally demands diabolical villains and high stakes. But these same stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims are used politically to justify actions in the real world — U.S. wars, covert operations and drone strikes; CIA detention and torture; racist policing, domestic surveillance and militarized borders. In this context, “Homeland” is not just mindless entertainment, but a device that perpetuates racist ideas that have real consequences for ordinary people’s lives.

When it comes to Bodyguard, although the storyline is different and it was produced in a different country, it perpetuates the same stereotypes and bigotry about Muslims, arguably even more so.

Frustratingly, right from the onset of the BBC’s hugely popular drama Bodyguard, we were bombarded with negative stereotypes of Muslim women. We first see a hijab-wearing woman hiding in the toilet of a busy train, about to detonate a vest she is wearing packed with bombs (stereotype one: Muslim woman as terrorist). It then transpires she is actually a victim who looks frightened and vulnerable while our hero steps in to save the day (stereotype two: the oppressed Muslim woman).

Watching those gripping opening scenes I still hoped that the writers would change the narrative and make her the unsung hero. As the weeks passed my hopes faded. The victim narrative prevailed. However, my heart sank even further in the series finale when this Muslim woman was revealed to be the terrorist mastermind. As she says, no one suspected her because they were taken in by the “vulnerable Muslim woman as a victim scenario”.

There are many communities in Britain that may not have had much interaction with Muslims, or only ever hear or see Muslims on TV. I believe the media needs to be accountable in some way for the content they produce, especially when levels of anti-Muslim hate crime are soaring. Instead, we need more powerful narratives and stories that bring about a better understanding of Muslims.

The British actor Riz Ahmed has highlighted the lack of accurate representations of Muslims in the film and TV industry, and subsequently a test called the “Riz test” has been devised to examine this phenomenon using five key questions: are Muslims portrayed as a victim of, or the perpetrator of, Islamist terrorism? If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? If female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts? Are they presented as irrationally angry? Are they superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern? Do they appear to be a threat to a western way of life? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the representation fails. Bodyguard fails on every count.

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, many of whom are pioneering women doctors, lawyers, architects and politicians, but we never see any of them on screen. Instead writers continually play on stereotypes that have the potential to further heighten Islamophobia.

In part 2 of this article, we will look at when in history this kind of widespread hatred and antagonism has happened before, what the consequences were, and what can be done now to stop it before it’s too late.

Reflection questions

Reflecting on all of the above, do I feel that there is Islamophobia in my community?

What is perpetuating it (entertainment media, news, politicians)?

What are my own views about Muslims and Islam? Where do these views come from?

What actual experiences have I had with practicing Muslims? And what conclusions can I draw from those real life experiences?

Have I unconsciously adopted stereotypes and/or antagonism towards Muslims?

Do I fear Muslims or Islam? If so why?

What can I do to balance out my views so that they more accurately reflect reality (ex: having an honest conversation with practicing Muslims, researching the other side of the story, empathizing with what they are going through, etc.)?


Watch at least 1 episode of Homeland or Bodyguard and see if you can recognize the elements of Islamophobia and/or stereotypes that are embedded into them. Use this to train your critical thinking skills so that whenever you are watching or reading something (whether fiction or non-fiction) you can be aware of any embedded propaganda and not let it automatically become a part of your mindset.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Carr, J. (2018). Mixed-Methods Research, Anti-Muslim Racism and Muslim Communities in Ireland. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from 10.4135/9781526436931 Dodd, V. (2019, March 22). Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes Soar In UK After Christchurch Shootings. The Guardian. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.comDurkay, L. (n.d.). Homeland is the most bigoted show on television. Washington Post. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.comNazeer, T. (2018, September 24). Memo To Bodyguard Writers: Muslim Women Are More Than Victims Or Terrorists. The Guardian. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.comOnline, C. (n.d.). French Politicians Cash In Votes With Islamophobia - Europe - International - News - Catholic Online. Catholic Online. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from ONLINE. (2015, January 12). Prying Into Pegida: Where Did Germany’s Islamophobes Come From? . SPIEGEL ONLINE . Retrieved August 6, 2019, from Nations. (n.d.). Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from

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