Islamophobia in Spain on the rise: What is the role of right-wing extremists?

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The instrumentalisation of anti-Muslim sentiments by extreme right actors is an undeniable phenomenon. Often, Islamophobic tropes are used as a throw weapon against immigrants at large, whether they be followers of the Islamic faith or not. Consider the recent victory of Geert Wilders, a renowned anti-Islam rightwing politician, in the Netherlands, which now joins the list of European countries that have voted extreme right political actors into their parliaments. In the last decade, we have witnessed Koran burnings motivated by and related to anti-immigration violence in Sweden and Denmark, and many more policies restricting Muslims in the open display of their faith. A case in point is France’s ban on public school students from wearing abayas, a loosefitting robe worn by some Muslim women.

How Muslims are portrayed by the extreme right

European extreme right actors are very skilled at turning public opinion against Muslims and immigrants at large, blaming the blights of the era – unemployment, housing scarcity, inflation – on their presence. This link is established by ‘otherising’ Muslim individuals in the most negative way possible, depicting them as invaders, terrorists, and resource takers, who will, if they can, corrupt and destroy the supposed foundations of the European order and civilisation: peace, security, and tolerance. This message, political at its core, has been propagated by extreme right politicians, sometimes through traditional media and sympathetic journalists but usually through the preferred channels of social media, where censorship is, at best, self-enforced, and at worst non-existent. Popular sites like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit suffer an epidemic of Islamophobic hate speech, linking Muslims to threat, violence and mayhem.

Spain is no exception. Despite the much celebrated political defeat of the right-wing incumbent, Santiago Abascal, and his party, Vox, who came close to forming a government in the recent Spanish elections, anti-Muslim speech continues to grow, with the extreme right doing much to capitalise on this momentum. Recently, extreme right supporters of Vox joined a demonstration in front of the Socialist Party’s headquarters, nominally against the government decisions on Catalonian amnesty, but chanting slogans like “¡España cristiana, no musulmana!” [Spain is Christian, not Muslim!] or “¡Con los moros no tenéis cojones!” [You don’t have balls (don’t dare to mess) with the Moors!]. These chants patently have little to do with Catalonian independence; rather, they point towards the instrumentalisation of anti-Muslim discourses for political leverage.

Tracking the rise of hate speech and hate crimes

We can take hate speech as a proxy for the permeation of Islamophobic tropes in mainstream society. Since July 2020, OBERAXE (Observatory for Racism and Xenophobia), a tool created by the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, has published bi-monthly reports monitoring online hate speech frequency and composition. Before that, OBERAXE participated starting in 2017 in joint European monitoring of hate speech, in the framework of the EU Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online. The overall data points to the growth of Islamophobic content online in Spain.

The first OBERAXE report in 2017 found 7.7% of the total hate speech online to be Islamophobic content. But by January-February 2023, OBERAXE reports that attacks specifically on Spanish Muslims and Islam had approached 23% of online hate speech, a 13% increase over the 10% recorded in November-December 2022. The March-April 2023 report shows that Islamophobic discourses have reached 26% of all hate speech instances. This is also mirrored in traditional media, as we show in the aforementioned 2021 and 2022 reports on Islamophobia in Spain.

These discourses in turn have permeated from the political elites to mainstream Spanish society and are apparent in everyday episodes of anti-Muslim sentiment, depicting Spanish Muslims as invaders and barbarians. Last summer, in Benicalp (Valencia), a Spanish Muslim woman wearing a hiyab (religious veil framing the face and covering the hair, a garment worn by some Muslim women) was refused entry by the pool’s security guard, who told her to “go back to her fucking country”, and that “her clothing was disgusting”.

The reports of the Spanish Ministry of the Interior do point to an increase in hate crimes. Its latest Report on the Evolution of Hate Crimes in Spain tells us that they increased by 3.7% in 2022, going from a total of 1,802 hate crimes in 2021, to 1,869 in 2022. Most of these crimes (755) were related to racist and xenophobic motivation. The trend started gradually, from 1,419 hate crimes in 2017, of which 524 due to racism/xenophobia, to 1,598 in 2018, of which 531 due to racism/xenophobia; then increased more sharply after 2019, with 1,706 hate crimes. The trend decreased slightly during 2020, due to the pandemic and confinement, but rose again as from 2021.

We suggest there is a pattern, where anti-Muslim discourses in Spain, legitimated by the Spanish political extreme right and propagated through social media to mainstream society, are a result of efforts by both non-violent right-wing actors, such as political actors and journalists, and violent ones, such as neo-Nazis. One example of this transformation of extreme discourses into legitimate discourses and increased violence is an attack against a mosque in Madrid, in the wake of the Brussels 2016 terrorist attacks. The perpetrators, though brought to trial, ultimately went largely unpunished. The neo-Nazi who coordinated and executed the attack proclaimed, with pride, that the group’s reason for attacking this mosque had been several posts and news divulged by extreme right propagandists in social media linking the Mosque to (unfounded) claims of terrorism financing, news which finally proved to be fake news.

Other anti-Muslim incidents that we discuss extensively in our 2021 and 2022 reports on Islamophobia in Spain support this hypothised pattern of creation and dissemination of Islamophobia by the extreme right.

Anti-immigration fearmongering

Why are these different actors (right-wing politicians, the media, some everyday citizens and organised violent groups) interested in propagating anti-Muslim slurs and accusations, such as those mentioned above? It allows them to steer public opinion towards xenophobic views, discursively conflating the presence of Islam in Spain with existing local fears about immigration. The Islamophobic tropes serve to scapegoat Muslim Spaniards as an incoming wave of migrants replacing local workers, undermining cultural norms, or even bringing diseases. It is not coincidental that a range of political actors and public opinion, extreme and less so, have forcefully called for urgent anti-immigration measures such as border closures, tougher restrictions and immigrant selection, and the hardening of citizenship requirements.

Most recent hate crimes relate to racist and xenophobic sentiments. Often, these are acts of street violence, whether political or not, committed under a broad anti-immigration argument. Two elements combine. First, anti-Muslim views are widespread among the younger generation, who are very affected by economic crises and unemployment. A recent report shows that least 25% of young Spaniards declare themselves openly xenophobic or racist. Second, while measures do exist in Spanish law to protect Muslims from religious or ethnic discrimination, impunity for anti-Muslim discrimination and violence is widespread in Spain (recall the mosque burning case). A 2022 report funded by the Spanish Ministry of Social Rights and Agenda confirms that only 33% of all hate crimes committed by the Spanish young people result in a police report.

A few steps in the right direction

Despite these worsening conditions, there have been some positive developments born out of the government’s willingness to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and tackle Islamophobia in Spanish society. The Spanish Ministry of Interior has published its second Action Plan to Combat Hate Crimes (2022-2024) meant to help laying foundations to systematically combat hate crimes. Furthermore, to counteract anti-Muslim discourses in the media, in 2021 the State Secretariat for Migration of the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration launched the Protocol to Combat Illegal Hate Speech Online. This national plan promotes cooperation with the private-industry actors involved in maintaining the servers and infrastructure that popular social media platforms need to function, and where extremist content should be flagged and eliminated. This measure draws inspiration from the European Code of Conduct, which also champions partnership with Internet providers.

Finally, there are some recent practice and research advances on the relationship between Islamophobia and the dissemination of fake news on immigration, thanks to the recently concluded MAGIC project (Muslim Women and Communities against Gender Islamophobia in Society). The main focus of this project is to correlate the volume of fake news to events that trigger narratives and public discussion about Muslim communities, even if the majority of the country’s population has no relationship with Muslim or Islam at all.

 

Inés Bolaños Somoano is a recent Doctor in Political Sciences from the European University Institute. Inés researched on preventive counter-terrorism in Europe, online radicalisation, and the extreme right. 

Sergio Gracia Montes is a graduate in Law from the University of Cordoba and a civil society member of the REDOI – Spanish Network Against Hate Speech and for Reporting Hate Crimes. Sergio also conducts independent research on Islamophobia and the extreme right in Spain.