On Thursday 23 June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in the so-called “Brexit Referendum.” A sudden rise in hate-crimes against Muslims and Islamophobia in the UK cannot but be considered closely related to the country’s decision of leaving the EU. Discourses in support of the “Leave” position assumed a religious dimension when claimed that a victory of the “Remain” would destroy the UK’s Christian roots and encourage the rise of Islamic terrorism.
Some questions about the role of religion in the Brexit are in order. Why does a referendum about very secular EU in the even more secular UK have such a religious dimension? And why does a decision that will likely and mostly impact very Christian Polish, Spanish, and Italians working in the British healthcare and hospitality sectors seem to be so much about Islam?
The answers to these questions lie, quite unsurprisingly, in the fact that the UK (and Europe in general) is not as secular as it likes to claim. Not only: the Brexit referendum had a strong religious aspect that likely appealed to the recondite fears of more than half of the British population, fears that are probably shared by a growing portion of EU and US citizens. Indeed, as much as UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage declared that the Brexit referendum was the “Independence Day of Britain,” its impacts are far from being limited to the UK or to EU bureaucrats in Brussels alone. On the contrary, the Brexit is part of a worldwide problem with cultural and religious identities that is connected with the rise of political extremisms and racism. For these reasons, the EU referendum in the UK must become an occasion to reflect on political discourses and political decisions in Europe and the US.
Religion in the Brexit debate was prominent in two main ways, which are deeply connected with each other. First, the Brexit became an occasion to reiterate the importance of Christianity. The fight against a “Dechristianization” of the UK is symptomatic of a general fear of losing national identity and culture. If certain “Leave” positions went as far as claiming the importance of preserving national food, apparently threatened by olive oil and French cheese import from Europe, it is not surprising that they see an impellent need to preserve country traditions in their entirety, including religion. This need of protecting “Britishness” quite naturally resulted in anti-immigration discourses and the wish to leave the EU to safeguard national borders.
This need of protecting Christianity was expressed by Farage in a speech at the European Parliament after the Charlie Hebdo attack, when he claimed that “We are going to have to be a lot braver, and a lot more courageous, in standing up for our Judeo-Christian culture.” The use of the word “Judeo-Christian,” a term invented in the U.S. during World War II to oppose Nazism and Communism, reveals an interesting approach to European culture that artificially combines Christianity and Judaism with the implicit exclusion of Islam. Despite his advocacy to protect the religious culture of the UK, Farage declared in the past that he is not a person of “deep religious conviction,” a characteristic that he shares with almost 40% of his compatriots. This indirect mention of his personal non-religiosity can be read as a willingness to use Christianity mostly as a set of values to contrast Islam. Farage’s attitude summarizes some of the “Leave” positions that seem willingly to give up some secular principles in order to prevent the risk of an “Islamification” that will make the country lose its identity. Indeed, even if Farage specified in his speech that “we must embrace the vast majority of Muslims who themselves are horrified with the civil war that is going on in Islam,” his use of religion as political tool apparently makes him one of the celebrities that inspire Islamophobia the most.
This use of Christianity to support anti-Islam stances leads to the second point. The Brexit debate needs to be understood in a general context of rising racism and xenophobia, response to mass migration from the south of the World and an increasing number of refugees from war-lacerated countries such as Syria, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. The anti-Islam tendency in the UK is exemplified by some recent events, such as the killing of Labour MP Jo Cox, probably inspired by far-right racist ideologies, and the formation of the UK branch of anti-Islamic movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), which vocally supports the “Leave” position.
Quite unsurprisingly, Pegida have been attacking the recently elected first Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, both for his religiosity and for his support of the “Remain” position. And, more alarming and equally unsurprisingly, the Brexit decision culminated with a series of episodes of physical and verbal violence against Muslims, reported by the association Tell Mama. Immediately after the referendum, Muslim have been insulted and threatened, and told that “Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!” because of their “non- Britishness”. While many of these victims are British citizens, such Islamophobic acts are likely the result of a surge of nationalism people felt after the decision of leaving the EU and, symbolically, its principles of tolerance and multiculturalism.
Why is Islam so important in the Brexit debate? For the same reasons it is important in many political discourses in Europe and in the US: it seems that leaving the European Union was an occasion to publicly and violently voice the Islamophobia some British have been holding for years. Certainly, many citizens must have voted in hope of better economic and political conditions; however, since many others apparently were not that well informed about the European Union and the consequences of leaving it, it is reasonable to think that anti-Islam and anti-immigration discourses played a central role for the “Leave” triumph. And Islamophobia is growing in Europe, for centuries a crossroad of different cultures and always prone to colonize some more, now trying to reject migrants who cross the Mediterranean in dinghy boats. This Islamophobia is growing in the U.S., a nation by definition made of immigrants, but now concerned with Muslims turning into potential terrorists.
Islam apparently became one of the favorite scapegoats for the malaise of British society. Surely, the UK has seen a growing racism toward different ethnic groups, exemplified by violent and discriminatory episodes against Polish after the Brexit. While these episodes are probably different in nature from those against Muslims, they are arguably part of the same reaction to anxieties of Western late modernity. Anxieties that see Europe not as a free space of circulation, but as an institution that could destroy its so-called “Judeo-Christian” roots by promoting multicultural identities, and that could welcome “evil” Muslims by accepting migrants and weakening border controls. The reinforcement of nationalism responds to these anxieties by creating a “Muslim other,” with the implicit endorsement of a worldview that wants Islam as incompatible with Christianity and with secular democracy, and that prefers to tell stories of Muslim terrorists instead of narratives of Muslim refugees escaping from ISIS.
Brexit needs to be understood in terms of this problematic perception of Islam in the Western world. The happy marriage between Western democracy and Judeo-Christian values, proudly celebrated by an increasing number of conservative voices, often happens at Islam’s expenses. People have voted “Leave” in the UK also because they feared an alleged “Muslim invasion” that would destroy their country’s identity. In the very near future more and more people will likely have their political decisions guided by similar fears of Islam, and will feel comfort in the discourses of political leaders that promise to bring the country back to a mythical past where Christianity leaves no space for Muslims.