Does Europe Have an Inquisition Problem?

Switzerland banned the construction of minaretsSpain and Italy have placed heavy restrictions on permits for building new mosques; Austria adopted a law to redefine the status of Islam and Muslims in the country; France has layered bans on the Hijab, Niqab and now Burkini; and the continent-wide massive surveillance of Muslims raises an important question: Will Europe forever have an inquisition problem when dealing with the Muslim subject.   The current stream of policies targeting Muslims across Europe harken back to an earlier and darker period in the continent’s long history, the Inquisition.

Certainly, the inquisition involved forced conversion to Christianity for Muslims and Jews, as well as expulsion for those who either refused or secretly continued to practice. At a certain level, the inquisition involved a repressive monitoring and regulatory structure that governed Muslim and Jewish bodies and spaces. Muslim and Jewish bodies were subject to intrusion with limits imposed on clothing, food, hygiene and movement.

Furthermore, the inquisition imposed limits on wearing distinctive religious clothing and garment colors so as to prevent a continuation or adherence to religious norms and practices by both Jews and Muslims. Regulating the bodies involved forced consumption of pork and to do so publicly so as to demonstrate a breakaway from keeping Kosher and Halal dietary requirements. Muslims and Jews were required to keep windows and doors to their homes open on Fridays and Saturdays in order for the inquisition monitors to ascertain that no activities, reading of texts or engaged in ritual washing in observance of any type of religious holiday or preparation for prayers.

At the height of the inquisition, both Jews and Muslims were subject to state-organized violence, torture and a reign of terror, which concluded with mass expulsion in 1492. The Moriscos, the Muslims who went through forceful Catholic conversion but remained in Spain practicing Islam covertly, were expelled in 1609, and mostly ended up in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Immediately, the expected response from the Islamophobia industry will be that the question and the comparisons are faulty because Europe is facing massive terrorist attacks and security threats coming “mainly” from Muslim populations. While I concur that Europe is facing security threats and terrorist attacks, the sole focus on Muslims while neo-Nazis and separatist perpetrators who are responsible as a great of a threat are not problematized on the basis of their supposed European identity.

More broadly, the repressive policies and regulatory structure pursed by European countries was present during the long colonial period and was enforced in the colonies. How a Muslim man or woman should dress, act, eat and “be civilized” has been written down by the blood of so many a Muslim subject in North Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Sub-Sahara Africa or the contemporary heartland of the Arab world. Regulating the Muslim subject’s body and space is epistemically woven into past and present European discourses.

Europe’s assertion that regulating and governing the bodies and spaces of the Muslim subject is undertaken in defense of secularism and democracy is faulty when measured against the principle of individual freedom and choice. Here, constitutive orientalism becomes operable, which allows Europeans to claim the action in defense of a Muslim woman’s right to choose and freeing her from the oppression of the evil and uncivilized Muslim man. This outdated and over-used European argument, if one can call such crude racism a valid argument, is again asserting the trope of the white man saving brown women from the evil and violence of the brown man. The debates and arguments around Muslim women and the Hijab in Europe is a recent chapter in a well-documented and extensive racist book that denies agency for both Muslim men and women.

Here, just like at the time of the inquisition, Europe is in the throngs of massive demographic, political, social, economic and religious contestation, which is being projected into the Muslim subject as the distinctive other. For a long time in Europe, the Jews served as the scapegoats for internal or external challenges and failures; presently, that blame has been exclusively focused on Muslims in the hope of silencing all dissension and debate as to what type of a society the continent will have in the future.

The restrictions today are imposed in the name or in the defense of European secularism but the target remains the Muslim subject; a mere 60 years ago it was the Jewish subject. Instituting a type of inquisition in the name of secular fundamentalism differs little if the outcome is the same from the victim’s point of view.

The failure or coming to an end of the Crusades, loss of 1/3 of Europe’s population in the Great Plague, political instability and internal religious conflicts were key driving factors for the inquisition. At present, the stimuli for the current policies include the failure of the post-colonial state formation, blowback from the Iraq intervention, economic instability and differing conceptualization of the European project and its future. The inquisition directed at the Muslim subject is an easy way to negotiate Europe’s identity in the midst of social, political and economic crises.

The inquisition witnessed the construction of a European distinction centering on whiteness and coupled with Christianity, which meant casting out the other — the Jew and Muslim — to arrive at “purity of race” or “pure to the source” epistemic. At the time, Europe was in the throngs of major religious, political and economic wars between Protestantism and Catholicism as to whose vision of society would dominate. The inquisition was a tool, on the one hand, to defend the existing order and on the other to shore-up Catholic Orthodoxy by creating the needed alliances with the Spanish Crown. This was accomplished by removing the impure internal other and prosecuting, imprisoning, torturing and killing by means of the inquisition all those who did not adhere to the constituted vision for the society.

Today’s Europe is in the middle of an identity crisis centering around the European Union project and questions on who belongs in it and those to be kept out including those from other parts of the continent.

Secular and economic orthodoxy are being used to define membership and belonging in the European project. The real question that must be asked is whether Europe is able to live with and include a different internal other. So far, Europe’s history is evidence of an inability to do so for any sustainable period. The Muslim of today is Europe’s Jews of the not-so-distant past and time will tell if the same outcome is the prescribed course for the future. I hope it’s not the case!