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Muslims in "Our" Very Middle-Contemporary European Identity Construction

Helle Rytkonen
Modern Thought and Literature
Stanford University
November 2002


My dissertation is primarily an analysis of how contemporary Europe responds to Muslim immigrants who live legally in Europe. I also look at how Europe has had a problematic relation to foreigners in the past (the Nazi past in particular). I do this by closely reading legal, political and cultural texts from two cases in Denmark and Austria.

On February 6, 2000, a head cut off a Muslim military leader 318 years ago and kept in storage in the basement of a history museum in Vienna, Austria resurfaced in an article in the New York Times.

The Muslim head belonged to Kara Mustapha and is a souvenir, or trophy, of the last battle against the Muslims in the Ottoman siege in Vienna in 1683. It was used by the New York Times journalist as a symbol of how Europe's long buried, but still problematic relation to its own past of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and general anti-immigrant sentiments still rears its ugly head in today's Europe.

That is what I am interested in my dissertation; how contemporary Europe relate to the 15 million Muslims who now live legally inside of Europe, and how Europe copes with its own past of anti-foreign and Nazi sentiments. I argue that contrary to most analyses of anti-foreign sentiments in Europe, it is not exclusively a right wing phenomenon but crosses party lines and is deeply embedded in European thought.

In my dissertation, I analyze two cases. The first case is an analysis of European heads of states' unprecedented response to a new government in Austria in 2000. For 7 months, all diplomatic relations with Austria were suspended. The Europeans responded strongly to the Austrian government because it included the right wing Freiheitspartei and its then-leader Jörg Haider. The party and its leader are infamous for making anti-immigrant statements against the Muslim population in Austria and for making remarks that can be interpreted as promoting Nazi ideas.

During the boycott of Austria, Europe decided to assess how well the country lived up to what were called "European ideals" of human rights, and the protection of minorities, and they published a report which discussed those issues. The Austrian government also published its own report about how well the country in fact did live by these European ideals.

In my dissertation, I do a close reading of both of these texts and analyze the different notions of what "Europe" means in those reports. I also argue that both reports ignore how the so-called "Austrian" problem is not only Austrian but also a widespread European problem - a problem with relating to foreigners and to the past.

The second case supports that claim. I look at how the Danish Social Democratic government changed the immigration law in 2000 so that it, in effect, bans forced marriages for Muslim immigrants. The law was described by the Danish government as being an attempt to "rescue" particularly Muslim immigrant women under 25 years from being forced to marry somebody from their parents home country - typically thought to be an illiterate distant relative out to exploit the Danish welfare system.

An immigrant in Denmark under 25 years can still marry and be reunited with her foreign spouse, however - if she can prove, for example, that the marriage is voluntary, that she can financially support the foreign spouse, and that the couple has access to a home where a maximum of two people live per room. Six months after the law went into effect, only one person had been denied a visa for her foreign spouse because the Danish authorities suspected that her marriage was forced upon her. But even though the law might not work as it was intended, it does work in the sense that it creates a hierarchy of who really belongs in Europe, I argue. It does so because European immigrants are not subjected to the law, only non-European (Muslim) immigrants are. Muslim immigrants and their marriage habits are thereby put under suspicion in the Danish law.

That is what I am interested in - how the idea of "a normal Europe" and "true Europeans" come about in the Danish and the Austrian case. While the Austrian case was heralded by scholars and the media as the return of right wing tendencies in Europe, the Danish case shows that these tendencies cross party lines and that Europe is still constructed as non-Muslim.

Hence, even though battles over European identity and civilization are no longer fought in wars on the borders of Europe as in the Ottoman war which ended with the decapitation of a Kara Mustapha 320 years ago, Europe still defines itself in relation (and sometimes contrast) to Muslims. Only today, the Muslims have also moved inside of Europe and live in "our" very middle and should, I argue, be considered part of who "we" are. But despite the fact, that the European heads of states were outraged by the Austrian Freiheitspartei's attitude towards Muslims and foreigners in general, the Danish case shows that what has been called "new racism" or a new wave of right wing tendencies in Europe is a widespread phenomenon which crosses party lines (and is not just an Austrian problem with a right wing party as the boycott suggested).

It also shows that what it means to be a true and normal "European" is sometimes defined in something as banal as a national law on how many (Muslim) heads can live in one room.