Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, Muslims in the West have been viewed with suspicion.
In Switzerland about half of people think Islam is a danger to national security.
A study published by the Center of Security Studies in Zurich states that although 56% of the Swiss population believes Islam is a peaceful religion, 46% see it as a threat.
When someone in Switzerland complains of discrimination on grounds of religion, they tend to be disproportionately of the Islamic faith. The Federal Statistical Office shows in a 2016 survey that 12 % of respondents had been discriminated against because of their religion. One-third of those were Muslims.
This has direct consequences for Muslims in Switzerland. They are regularly victims of racism such as verbal abuse or difficultly integrating into the workplace.
But Muslims didn’t have to wait until 9/11 to be discriminated in Europe. Unfavorable attitudes to Islam go back several centuries and have shaped part of European history.
“In the Middle Ages there was war, and hostile propaganda on both sides,” says Andreas Tunger-Zanetti, a researcher in religious studies at the University of Lucerne.
An example would be the status given to Algerians under French colonial rule. They could only acquire French citizenship after giving up their Islamic faith.
This sentiment of Western islamophobia has only been aggravated by the 9/11 attacks, perceived as a turning point in the history of relations between the West and the Islamic world.
“Since then, Islam has been seen as the main threat to the Western model,” says Darius Farman, a researcher at Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich.
Then United States President George W. Bush did not hesitate to use the word “crusade” to justify his fight against terrorists.
These negative attitudes to Muslims in Europe and the US were further reinforced by the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London in 2004 and 2005, where some 200 and 50 people were killed respectively in a set of coordinated attacks.
“That was the time when Europe realized that terrorism happened not just on the other side of the Atlantic,” says Tunger-Zanetti.
Extremists’ propaganda which proliferated online and in certain mosques after 9/11 made it easy for people to demonize Islam as a whole.
When extremists’ terror arrived in Europe, Islam also was perceived as a potential threat to Switzerland. Tunger-Zanetti puts it this way, “If I only hear about Islam in connection with wars or terror attacks, then I inevitably get the feeling that there is a strong connection between this religion and terrorism.”
On the political level, Islam and Muslim migrants became a security issue, says Hansjörg Schmid, Director of the Swiss Centre for Islam and Society of the University of Fribourg.
On the ground, this blanket suspicion of all Muslims gave them the impression of not being welcome in Western countries. That in turn confuses them. “In their own personal experience, perhaps, they have had very positive experiences, and thus are unable to understand the discrepancy with what they hear in the public debate,” says Schmid.
Extremist propagandist fed off this fear and confusion, further dividing Western societies and accentuating discrimination. Studies show that discrimination can be a significant motivating factor for extremists’ radicalization.
“For this is precisely the goal of the terrorists: to accentuate differences and exploit them,” warns Schmid.