KENT, Britain — All summer and into the fall, Britain — and the wider European Union — has been convulsed by fear. Its leaders and many of its citizens are reacting — and dangerously overreacting — to an “enemy” within and without.
In the first instance, the specter is a native son or daughter, schooled in Western ways but choosing instead to follow an extreme interpretation of Islam. In the second, it is the desperate and traumatized refugee, threatening to monopolize not merely local resources but also, more unsettlingly, cultural space. Both look pretty much the same: the migrant Muslim “other.”
The punitive and unrelenting focus on Muslim migrants makes devils of too many ordinary Britons and plays into the hands of demagogues.
In a book about Britain’s hysteria over dueling mods and rockers in the 1960s, sociologist Stanley Cohen declared that “societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic.” He suggested that key conditions for such a panic are a perceived threat to the social order and a suitable enemy: “a soft target, easily denounced, with little power.”
A moral panic, Cohen argued, is a reaction out of all proportion to the actual threat. In Europe and Britain, the Muslim migrant, to or from Syria, is just such a target and just such a threat.
It hardly matters that the motives of the fanatical militant and the refugee could not be more different. One Islamic State propagandist, who left Britain for Raqqah, Syria, earlier this year, tweeted: “I came here to die. I will not leave till I get what I came here for: shahadah [martyrdom].”
For Syrian refugees, the exact opposite holds: They come here to live.
Yet both journeys raise the same fears and anxieties over the true face of Islam and the challenges it poses to the liberal West. The right intuitively understands this, as does the fringe jihadist element within Islam. Both seek to amplify and exploit this fear in an effort to win support and intimidate their enemies.
“The kuffar [nonbelievers] in Europe are panicking because they know that in 20 years Muslims will be a majority there, and in 40 years a huge majority,” tweeted another Islamic State supporter, referring to the migrant crisis.
Though wildly inaccurate, that is exactly how Europe’s far-right groups frame it. Britain lacks the blatantly xenophobic political parties of France and Greece, but pollsters say British voters would support a party running on a ban on all immigration.
Without a doubt, Britain and every other European country face real terrorist threats and rapid, discomfiting change brought on by multiple factors. But the punitive and unrelenting focus on Muslim migrants makes devils of too many ordinary Britons and plays into the hands of demagogues.
Of the more than 20,000 foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2011, it is estimated that 500 to 600 are from Britain, including at least 40 women and girls in the last year. Yet, 500 to 600 recruits is still a tiny fraction of the approximately 3 million Muslims in Britain.
As American commentator Juan Cole has pointed out, “Most terrorism in Europe is committed by European separatist groups; only about 3% is by Muslims.”
Despite this, the British government has responded with new and wide-ranging measures to counter all forms of “extremism,” defined in part as “vocal and active opposition to fundamental British values.”
Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester, warned last year that in such measures “there is a danger of us being turned into a thought police [and] ... a drift to a police state.” Among many British Muslims, there is a conviction that this has already happened, with even the most innocent acts or gestures — such as the invocation of an Arabic phrase or expression of support for Palestinians — coming under scrutiny as potential markers of radicalization.
British Prime Minister David Cameron would not dare to say, as the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, put it, that he will not take more Muslim refugees because Britain is a Christian country, but his approach hasn’t exactly been Christian. Cameron would point out that Britain has provided $1.7 billion in aid to Syria since 2012, but when 2,000 attempts were made by migrants to enter Britain via the Eurotunnel terminal in July, his response was more fences, more sniffer dogs and the use of the word “swarm.”
The British tabloids followed his lead: “We kept out Hitler,” read one online headline, “why can’t our feeble leaders stop a few thousand exhausted migrants?”
Cohen’s study of moral panic showed how skirmishes between the mods and rockers in the 1960s came to be seen as an attack on the moral core of the British nation. Despite causing only minor property damage and physical injury, these disturbances were not so much described in reportage as they were dramatized and exaggerated. The result was heavy-handed policing and harsh penalties. The mods and rockers made for ideal folk devils, not because of what they did but because of who they were: portents of a new order of affluence and sexual freedom.
In a similar way, Muslim migrants press against sensitive nerves about the future of Europe and its cultural identity. They are a perfect target against which to redefine ever-blurring boundaries, the conjured folk devils stalking a troubled and rapidly changing landscape.
Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent in Britain and the author of “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.”