Skip to main content
Muslims pray in the street during Friday prayers near the Poissonniers street Mosque in Paris December 17, 2010.  REUTERS/Charles Platiau  (FRANCE - Tags: RELIGION) - PM1E6CH141E01

The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists

Despite Muslims comprising only one to eight percent of the population in various Western countries, their very presence has become one of the defining issues of the populist era, dividing left and right in stark fashion. Right-wing populist parties differ considerably on economic and social policy. But nearly every major right-wing populist party emphasizes cultural and religious objections to specifically Muslim immigration as well as to demographic increases in the proportion of Muslim citizens more generally.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the debate over Islam and Muslims as only that. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment signals a deeper shift in the party system away from economic cleavages toward “cultural” ones. With this in mind, attitudes toward Muslims and Islam become a proxy of sorts through which Western democracies work out questions around culture, religion, identity, and nationalism.

Focusing on nine European countries and the United States, this project — The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists — will examine how the growth of Muslim minority communities and fears around Islam’s public role are shaping the formation of new “populist” identities and ideologies in Western democracies. This unique focus offers an important entry point to address increasingly salient questions around what it means to be a nation—and who constitutes its members—at a time when elections are increasingly fought around so-called “who we are” questions.

This project is led by Brookings Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid and Visiting Fellow Sharan Grewal, and is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation. It will cover nine European cases — Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary — along with the United States, capturing a wide diversity of experiences and contexts.

The 2015 decision by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to open Germany’s borders opened a new German debate around questions of “Who Are We?”

While the two populist parties currently governing Italy—one right-wing and the other ambiguously left— advance different diagnoses of the relationship between “native Italians” and Muslim minorities, they share a convergent prognosis.

Anti-Islam rhetoric has played an increasingly important role in the Freedom Party’s political strategy and has subsequently influenced other political parties and Austria’s broader public discourse around the place of Islam and Muslims.

In 2017, in the lead-up to elections, Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, declared that “the biggest problem in this county is Islamization.” But the party has gone further than most in elevating with almost missionary zeal the question of Islam’s role in Dutch society.

Though Muslims count as less than 0.1 percent of Poland’s population, Islam and Muslims have increasingly featured in the country’s political debates. How did anti-Muslim sentiment rise in importance in a country with almost no Muslims?

Since 2015, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz party have kept immigration on the top of Hungary’s political agenda. In the 2018 elections, the question of Muslim refugees was central in the campaign, with Orban using the issue not just to solidify his base but also to expand his support.

In Denmark, right-wing populist readings of Islam as a marker of cultural and societal difference have spilled into the mainstream. Across the spectrum, we are witnessing political convergence towards more restrictive positions on immigration and integration, including the implementation of laws and regulations with broad political support.

Immigration is a top concern for Trump supporters, but they are not primarily concerned with Islam per se. Interviewees’ suspicions about Muslims were often tied up with broader concerns about immigration from culturally and linguistically different groups who threatened America’s cohesion.

Understanding the relationship between right-wing populists and Islam in France requires keeping in mind three key historical pillars: the Republic’s attitude toward religion of any kind, colonialism and decolonization, and France’s history of anti-Semitism.

The humanitarian doctrine of “Swedish Exceptionalism” might have been a point of national pride and a marker of Swedish identity. That capacity has now been challenged by the growing popularity of the nationalist Sweden Democrats.

Get daily updates from Brookings