Is Islamophobia rational?

Islamophobia can be defined as dislike or hatred of, or prejudice against, Islam or Muslim. The phobia part of the word, however, originally refers to fear. Mayo Clinic defines phobia as “an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.” Is fear of Islam rational, or is it an equivalent of panicking about flying, heights or spiders?

A few days ago, TV personality Sonia Kruger has created an epic shitstorm with her comments in the media:

Kruger appeared… on a panel section of Channel Nine’s The Today Show to discuss the question: “Do more migrants increase the risk of terror attacks?”.

In response, Kruger referred to a column by News Corp’s columnist Andrew Bolt where he linked Muslim immigration to France for the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the country.

“Andrew Bolt has a point here, that there is a correlation between the number of people who are Muslim in a country and the number of terrorist attacks,” Kruger said.

“I have a lot of very good friends who are Muslim, who are peace-loving, who are beautiful, but there are fanatics.”

She called for an end to Muslim migration, citing the reason that she wanted to “feel safe”.

“I would like to see it stopped now for Australia because I want to feel safe, as all our citizens do, when they go out to celebrate Australia Day and I’d like to see freedom of speech as well,” Kruger said…

Panel moderator and The Today Show co-host Lisa Wilkinson asked Kruger:

“Just to clarify Sonia, are you saying you’d like to see our borders closed to Muslims at this point?”

Kruger answered: “Yes I would.”

Wilkinson responded: “Which is the Donald Trump approach.”

Kruger replied: “I think we have something like 500,000 now in our country, and perhaps it is, but for the safety of the citizens here, I think it is important.”

Sonia wants to feel safe, and thinks that, as they say, less is more. Let’s look at Europe, the place that everyone is looking at as a harbinger of things to come.

The picture is complicated. As Pew Research Centre’s demographer Conrad Hackett writes, “in recent decades, the Muslim share of the population throughout Europe grew about 1 percentage point a decade, from 4% in 1990 to 6% in 2010. This pattern is expected to continue through 2030, when Muslims are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.” But the Muslim population is extremely unevenly spread across the continent – in Bulgaria, Muslims constitute 13.7 per cent of the population; in Poland, under 0.1 per cent.


Pew2In Western Europe, France has the highest proportion of Muslims in its population (7.5 per cent) and has indeed experienced a significant number of high fatality terrorist attacks in recent years. But many other countries have large Muslim populations and significantly less terrorism, for example Germany (5.8 per cent and 3 fatalities post 2001), the Netherlands (6 per cent and 1 fatality, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh), or Sweden (4.6 per cent and two injured in one bombing in 2010). These figures perhaps do not give the full picture because a significant number of potentially deadly plots have been stopped by all the police and security services over the years.

In fact, according to Europol’s just published Terrorism Situation and Trend Report for 2016, there have been a steady increase in failed, foiled and completed attacks, from 152 in 2013 to 211 in 2015, and an even steeper rise in the number of arrests, from 535 to 1077 over the same period (you can see the 2015 country breakdown below).

EuropolWhy the differences from country to country? Clearly it’s not just a matter of rough population numbers, but also the ethnic background and mix, the degree of integration, the country’s foreign policy, and so on.

Regardless, there is an important point here: the odds of dying or being injured in a terrorist attack are almost astronomical. There are significantly smaller than being killed in a car or workplace accident, drowning or even being struck by lightning.

But that’s precisely the nature – and purpose – of terrorism: its propaganda effect is infinitely greater than the actual destruction, death and injury directly caused. From that point of view, terrorism has been extremely successful (in the US, for example, people think more frequently about terrorism than hospitalisation or falling victim to crime).

The situation is the same in Australia. Post September 11, there have been only two terrorism-related fatalities in Australia (I’m only counting victims, not perpetrators), both during the recent Lindt Cafe siege. More Australians died in terrorist attacks, but overseas (for example in Bali). Again, there has been a large number of plots stopped by the police. And again, there is widespread fear and concern about terrorism.

Statistically, that fear and concern are completely out of proportion to the actual risk. One could say they’re irrational. But there is more to life than statistics. It’s a well-known fact of human psychology that we fear catastrophic if unlikely events more than ordinary but common ones. There is also, I think, a perception about inevitability and unavoidability of certain occurrences. We can’t live without cars, therefore as a trade-off we accept there will be car accidents. Similarly, we know that no matter what we do there will always be accidents in the workplace or at home. But on the other hand, no Muslims, no terrorism (there is of course other terrorism than just Islamic terrorism, but it very rarely comes up on the public radar in the West). This sounds simple in theory, but is more fraught in practice. No one is going to expel their Muslim population. A further migrant intake can be stopped (again, at least theoretically), but what real impact will there be if we have 500,000 instead of 510,000 Muslims?

But terrorism, however singularly significant, is not the whole picture. When people talk about fear of, or concern about (however rational or irrational) Muslim population, terrorism might be the top of their mind, but the concern is broader. It has to do with worries about the rates of welfare dependency as well as rates of crime, and about the compatibility of religious and cultural values. These worries are very common in relation to most migrant groups in most societies, but they are particularly pronounced in relation to Muslim immigrants in the West.

Some of these concerns might be more factually based than others. For example, in Australia, the top five nationalities with the highest rates of imprisonment are the Sudanese, Samoans, Vietnamese, Colombians and Romanians. On the other hand, around 1 in 7 of Lebanese-born Australians receive disability payments (the figure for all Australians is 1 in 27). The picture is mixed.

It cannot be repeated too often that only a minuscule number of Muslims are involved in terrorism or crime. Where the problem is wider and slower burning, is the perception that a significant minority of Muslim migrants bring with them political and social attitudes and beliefs, which are at odds with the values of their host countries, and that, furthermore, these political and social attitudes prove very resistant to change, preventing the assimilation into the mainstream. Again, how big a problem this is varies from country to country, and again depends on the actual ethnic background of migrants as well as the approach of the host countries (migrant societies like Australia or the United States are generally better at embracing and assimilating new arrivals than the Old World). But it’s pointless and dishonest to blame a large proportion of (in this instance) Australians for being concerned about the European experience, where, in some circumstances it seems once a critical population mass and density of Islamic population is achieved, problems start, such as “no go zones”, radicalisation, ghettoisation, and separatism.

Think about the car analogy again – the society accepts car accidents and other problems associated with cars as a trade-off because of the immense benefits motorised transport brings to all our lives. But for a large number of Australians and other Westerners, the perception of problems – some real, some exaggerated, some imagined – that Muslim migration can bring means the whole things is just not worthwhile; the minuses outweigh the pluses.

This is a real problem, and a real tragedy for the society and for the migrants. How to solve it is beyond the scope of this post, but two things are certain: shutting down the debate and pretending that everything is OK will not help; and secondly, we have to have greater confidence as a society to embrace migrants but insist that they in turn embrace the basic social and democratic compact that binds us all.