Mapping the Politics of Fear in Europe

Raymond Taras

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on Religious Discrimination and Hatred.

20140215_130506Much has been said, understandably, about pathological fears affecting contemporary European societies. The most cited are xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. A Eurosceptism informed by ethnocentrism and ultranationalism deserves to be included in this list. Political parties and ethnic entrepreneurs have done well by sounding the alarm about ‘foreign’ threats of different kinds. But analysis of fear’s place in contemporary politics often appears muddled, imprecise, moralistic, or polemical. This piece seeks to encourage greater reflexivity in elaborating critiques of this key phenomenon.

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Who uses fear?

‘Othering’ of those perceived as strangers, sometimes on the basis of religious differences, sometimes for other reasons, has been the subject of penetrating scholarly research and even journalistic accounts for some two decades, since cold war politics were succeeded by identity politics. Of course we can go further back to find uses of othering: the outbreak of each of the world wars – whose centennial and 75th anniversaries we are commemorating this summer – have been framed in terms of othering. What narrative about the trigger mechanism for the Great War does not mention Sarajevo, the Serb terrorist, and the Austrian grand duke as pivotal? In the Second World War the Nazi propaganda machine perfected the art of othering.

Clashing identities have played a critical part in the making of more recent conflicts too. One of the first major identity-driven clashes in postwar Europe was in Northern Ireland that began in the late 1960s. In many ways the Troubles foreshadowed what extreme forms of othering could lead to over the next half-century. The Balkan wars in the 1990s further underscored the political salience of the narcissism of small differences.

Debates on the virtues and pitfalls of hyperdiversity, multiculturalism and social cohesion have revolved around othering and the fears they can evoke. It may be valuable then to draw a distinction between the politics of fear from above and those of fear from below.

“Christian fundamentalists’ engagement in a politics of fear is far removed from the exhortation contained in Isaiah 41:10: ‘Fear not, for I am with you’.”

The politics of fear from above has been mastered in the United States by conservative, often Christian fundamentalist groups which incite ordinary people to fear. Who are citizens urged to fear by these groups? Above all, those who purportedly are stealing their money and their livelihood – like immigrants, the unemployed, welfare recipients, tax authorities. Only those who actually do rob ordinary citizens of their wages and benefits are not mentioned – greedy capitalists, unscrupulous employers, enabling politicians, predacious religious groups. Engaging in such politics of fear is far removed from the exhortation contained in Isaiah 41:10: ‘Fear not, for I am with you’.

In turn I associate the politics of fear from below primarily with European right-wing populist movements trading on xenophobia, racism, and religious prejudice. This current shares certain characteristics with the revival of street politics, understood as the politics of everyday life, documented recently in Public Spirit.[1] Some of these populist movements were the electoral overachievers in the European Parliament vote of May 2014. France’s Front National was the biggest winner but has been framed as being so anti-Semitic and Islamophobic that it has been ostracized by only slightly more respectable parties which have also been riding the wave of fear from below.

“The politics of fear from below has to be viewed as an anti-elitist, anti-establishment movement.”

In addition to ethnic and religious ‘others’ as targets, the politics of fear from below has, almost by definition, to be viewed as an anti-elitist, anti-establishment movement. It captures both the grassroots politics of rage associated with young Spanish indignados as well as the doctrinal protest against socio-economic inequalities and injustices contained in Pope Francis’ 2013 Papal Exhortation Gaudium Evangelii.

Minorities and immigrants as objects of fear

I wish to identify three identity-framed targets of fear-mongering politics. One comprises historic minorities, fear of whom is of political salience mainly in eastern Europe. Examples include Magyars in Slovakia, Turkic Gagauz in Moldova, Romania and Ukraine, and Muslim Pomaks in Bulgaria. Jews and Roma have suffered sustained discrimination in and beyond eastern Europe. Indigenous Sami people have been victims of discriminatory practices across the Nordic states. The EU has adopted a series of legal conventions providing protection for minorities’ rights and languages.

A second category of ‘others’ who have become objects of fear consists of communities of immigrants including their descendants. Islamophobia is today the most pervasive of fears of immigrants. It serves as an umbrella term for diverse orientations: Turkophobia in Germany, antipathy towards people of Maghrebi and Sahel origin in France, discriminatory practices aimed at Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in Britain. General anti-immigrant sentiments have been on the rise too in Scandinavia which plays host to growing numbers of Muslims from different regions of the world as well as of eastern Europeans.

The argument that Islamophobia should be used only in cases of fear of or hostility towards Islam qua religion is well intentioned.[2] But empirically it is a distinction difficult to maintain, especially in light of the belief held by some Muslim religious leaders that there can be no secular side to Islam. By this logic, an Islamophobia which indicts Muslim cultural practices must necessarily implicate Islam.

Most Europeans are conscious of the extraordinary ethnic and religious diversity of immigrants. Some migrate from other EU states and may become victims of cultural racism,[3] others originate in distant countries differing profoundly from Europe like sub-Saharan Africans. Some arrive in Europe as refugees; survey results (for example, the German ALLBUS) suggest they may be the most disliked group of immigrants because they abuse European laws. Others are members of reunifying families. Some have lived in Europe for a long time or have even been born here; they fit the category of ‘faraway locals’ that Zygmunt Bauman identified.[4] Others have only recently settled in Europe as a result of wars and hardships in the Middle East and Africa; driven by desperation, many of them have an irregular status.

The distinction between historic minorities and immigrant communities is malleable. No formula or algorithm exists which can tell us how to classify such groups. The passage of time can transform immigrants into minorities and, with assimilation, even into majority group members. But there are no benchmarks and no guarantees: length of residence and full integration into a receiving society do not always change popular perceptions of who belongs and who does not. Preserving the faith and continuing distinctive religious practices are double-edged swords, fating people to be a historic minority or a perpetual immigrant community.

A fascinating account of how social constructions of others determine their status is presented in Maud Mandel’s recent book on Muslims and Jews in France. Both are groups framed by their religion regardless whether they wish it. Master narratives can construct and maintain the foreignness of particular groups or they can deconstruct it. In Mandel’s study, then, ‘the very terms “Jew” and “Muslim” hide as much as they reveal, because they cluster various national and ethnic origins under broad religious categories that imply homogeneity and communal identifications in place of the profound heterogeneity that characterizes each population’.[5]

Mandel reports on the different roles that the two groups were expected to play in France’s colonial project in North Africa. When in 1954 armed rebellion broke out against French rule in Algeria, Algerian Muslims were turned into ‘the central and even unique symbol of “the enemy within”’.[6] At the same time France recognized the French citizenship of Jewish Algerians, thereby enfolding them into the wider European family.

In the decades that followed, Jews arriving in France joined a rooted French Jewish community. By 1962, when Algeria obtained independence, France had legally done away with ‘distinctions between Jews and other “Europeans” thereby juridically sealing the “Frenchness” of Algeria’s Jewish population’.[7] A ‘Jewish Story’ was narrated in France which differed markedly from the scripted ‘Muslim Story’.

“By 1962, France had legally done away with ‘distinctions between Jews and other “Europeans”. A ‘Jewish Story’ was narrated in France which differed markedly from the scripted ‘Muslim Story’.”

With regard to relations between the two Algerian communities which were migrating to France after Algeria’s independence, lasting images were formed of each other. ‘In Jewish memories, Muslims seem to embody the negative representation of the “other”, while the hostility of the Europeans has been minimized’. Not so for Muslims who ‘were presented as an existential threat to the Western world’.[8]

Thus ‘the inequities built into the colonial structure and transferred to the metropole created the context in which Muslim-Jewish relations would evolve in France’. Some Jewish leaders in the metropole emphasized ‘the fusion of Jewishness and Frenchness in contradistinction to Muslim foreignness’.[9]

Annie Kriegel drew a telling comparison of the reconstructed identities of the two groups in France. Jews constituted a voluntary, religiously-based community while Muslims comprised a minority group.[10] The latter were framed permanently as a minority of foreigners and aroused distrust and fear. For Mandel, these ‘socially constructed categories had legal, administrative, and cultural implications for those categorized as “Muslims” whether they embraced the label or not’. Consequently ‘The categories “Muslim” and “Jew” had social meaning for those inside and outside of the “communities” collapsed therein’.[11]

Fear thy neighbour

The third, often ignored category of people inspiring fear can sometimes be a country’s neighbouring nations. A unique geo-cultural feature setting Europe apart from other civilizations is its labile eastern frontier. Historians have noted that many people in European states entertain the idea that civilization ends on their eastern border. It appears in some Dutch views of Germany, Germans’ of Poland, Poles’ of Russia. The English understanding of the continent is not inconsistent with this pattern.

Russophobia in particular embodies the fear that many eastern European nations have of its neighbour and historical nemesis. The current crisis in Ukraine is illustrative. The country’s prime minister, among others, has called it a European crisis not just because it is seen as the EU’s responsibility to resolve. It is European because it pits a supposed organic European entity against a non-European one, Russian civilization.

The notion of Russophobia has undergone a process of transposition. The Kremlin has artfully collected and catalogued supposed Russophobic discourse in the West in order to highlight Russia’s alleged encirclement by hostile forces.[12] In this way Russian leaders construct a self-serving victimhood. Russophobia is rarely employed as a signifier of antipathy towards the Russian Orthodox faith and instead is a highly politicized term.

What can be called Orthodoxophobia hardly exists on the scale of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. Yet the Russian Orthodox faith is regularly cited as a cause for the country’s historic backwardness, for its lack of an Enlightenment experience, for its authoritarian proclivities, and for its misplaced emphasis on aesthetic and liturgical over intellectual and doctrinal features. Whether the schism between Moscow and Rome is dated back to 1054 or to the final break in the 1450s, many historians consider that in choosing Byzantium over Rome Russia sealed its fate as a non-European civilization.

Eastern Orthodoxy does seem to evoke negative assessments in an indirect way. Nations which today frequently top surveys (for example, CBOS in Poland) of least liked or least trusted countries are predominantly Orthodox (and backward): Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia. To be sure, the part played by religious identity is usually subordinated to cultural or political cleavages. Negative stereotypes of these countries may furnish examples of the Orientalizing of select eastern European states. They should be included in any mapping of the rise of phobias across Europe.


Phobia sensu stricto means fear and is one of five words used by Thucydides to capture the many different kinds of fear he observed in Greece of his time. In History of the Peloponnesian War he employed phobos to depict a great, irrational fear of an imminent threat.[13] But today phobia is a conceptual shortcut to label everything from distrust through hate. In contemporary discursive practices phobia connotes much more than mere fear.

“For our common good we need unequivocally to reject the equation between fear and evil.”

Similarly ‘xenophobia today is used as shortcut, describing the societal sentiment of distress, agony, antagonism, fear, alarm and suspicion that has come to be a companion of migrant flows to Europe after the end of the cold war’.[14] Its current usage in politics is to denote not just anxiety about but strong dislike of foreigners.

‘What we fear, is evil; what is evil, we fear’, ironized Bauman about xenophobia’s logic.[15] For our common good we need unequivocally to reject this equation.


Raymond Taras is 2014-15 Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex. He is the author of Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe (2012) and the forthcoming Fear and the making of foreign policy: Europe and beyond, as well as editor of Challenging multiculturalism: managing diversity across Europe (2013), all with Edinburgh University Press.



[1] Titus Hjelm, ‘The Return of Street Politics?’ Public Spirit 06/05/2014

[2] Olivier Roy, The Mediterranean and its Metaphors (San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy: Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, 2009), 8–9.

[3] Ambalavener Sivanandan, ‘The contours of global racism,’ IRR News, 26 November 2002,

[4] Zygmunt Bauman, Europe: An Unfinished Adventure (New York: Polity Press, 2004), 19.

[5] Maud S. Mandel, Muslims and Jews in France (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 2.

[6] Mandel, 4.

[7] Mandel, 35.

[8] Mandel, 58, 65.

[9] Mandel, 79, 126.

[10] Annie Kriegel, ‘Juifs et Musulmans’, L’Arche, November 1987, 28-30.

[11] Mandel, 8-9.

[12] Valentina Feklyunina, ‘Constructing Russophobia’, in Raymond Taras (ed.), Russia’s Identity in in international relations: images, perceptions, misperceptions (London: Routledge, 2012), 98-100.

[13] Brian E. Calabrese, Fear in Democracy: A Study of Thucydides’ Political Thought (Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2008), 19-21.

[14] Marie Demker, ‘Attitudes toward immigrants and refugees: Swedish trends with some comparisons’. Paper presented at the International Studies Association 48th Annual Convention,

28 February-3 March 2007, Chicago, 2.

[15] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Fear (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 54.

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