Skip to main content
Initiative: Democracy & Disorder
Supporters of the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) attend a demonstration in Dresden, Germany, October 21, 2018. REUTERS/David W. Cerny - RC126AC48970

The role of Islam in European populism: How refugee flows and fear of Muslims drive right-wing support

Europe's DebateExecutive Summary

Today, fear of and opposition to Islam or Muslims provides a connective thread uniting otherwise disparate political parties. In Europe, nearly every major right-wing populist party emphasizes cultural and religious objections to Muslim immigration. The bigger issue is that the immigrants in question are Muslim, not that they are immigrants. Importantly, anti-Muslim sentiment also affects Muslims who are already citizens. The ongoing debate then is less about immigration and more about integration.

This paper argues that anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment should be considered as defining features of right-wing populism. Moreover, the extent to which a given populist party—which might otherwise be ambiguously positioned on a left-right spectrum—can be considered right-wing is closely related to its positions on Islam-related questions. This is particularly relevant for parties that have not always been characterized as “right-wing,” such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, which, after vacillating on refugees and immigration, has increasingly highlighted its anti-Islam bona fides.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is fueled by perceptions—some of which are supported by survey data—that Muslims are less assimilated, particularly when it comes to prevailing norms around secularism and the private nature of religious practice. These markers of Muslim religiosity include workplace prayer accommodations, abstention from alcohol, discomfort with gender mixing, conservative dress, and demands for halal meat options. Observed by significant numbers of Muslims, these are all practices that reflect “private” faith commitments that are at the same time either publicly observable or have public and legal implications.

It would be a mistake to view the debate over Islam and Muslims as only that. The increased salience of anti-Muslim attitudes signals a deeper shift in the party system away from economic cleavages toward “cultural” ones. Increasingly, attitudes toward Muslims become a powerful proxy for a long list of primarily cultural issues and grievances, including gender equality, gay rights, sexual freedom, the role of the European Union, secularism, the decline of Christianity, race, and demographic concerns. Demographic fears—even if they don’t correspond to reality—are difficult to ignore in democracies, where the changing ethnic or religious composition of the population can shape and even determine whether a party can win on the local or national level.

In established democracies, we might expect party systems to be resistant to change, with shifts happening along the margins without altering the basic structure of electoral competition. This makes the current shifts in party alignment and agenda-setting more striking. If party realignments are rare, occurring perhaps only once every few generations, then this suggests that the emerging party system may become entrenched for the foreseeable future, just as previous economic “left-right” divides dominated for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

If there is a cultural divide—and one that is likely to persist—then there are two basic directions to go in response: either some form of top-down, state-driven forced integration; or an effort to accept and accommodate at least some cultural and religious difference. Instead of imposing the responsibility to adapt solely on Muslim citizens or immigrants, both “sides” would need to make compromises.

Get daily updates from Brookings