The ‘collective paranoia’ behind Islamophobia: interview with Jan Hjarpe
Jan Hjarpe - Photo courtesy of

CAIRO: In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and its backlash in a number of countries, and the recent Chapel Hill shootings in North Carolina of three young Muslims, the issue of Islamophobia as well as the role of Islam in “Western” countries is a keenly debated topic.

Youm7 interviewed Swedish Islamicist Jan Hjarpe, a professor emeritus in Islamic studies at the Center for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University.

Youm7: There have been a number of attacks on mosques in Sweden, what do you think the motives behind these attacks and how can the country confront it?

Hjarpe: These attacks on mosques and small local prayer rooms have a character of being “private enterprises,” performed by individuals or small groups, not openly but at nights and without witnesses. They are done with so to speak limited competence, i.e. the damages have been considerably small. The attacks have to do with the polarization in society where a minority of people finds expression for their frustration towards changes by voting or sympathizing with the so called “Swedish Democrats” Party, a party spreading anti-Muslim propaganda especially in social media.

The party combines a certain nostalgic back-looking nationalism with Islamophobia in a way we can see in similar groups in other European (and non-European) countries too. The party is politically isolated, not regarded as acceptable to cooperate with by the other parties in the Swedish parliament. But Islamophobic propaganda on the Internet plays a role in promoting a dualistic antagonistic worldview which attracts some people. The attacks have regularly been followed by demonstrations in protest against them expressing solidarity with the local Muslim communities. In that way there is a polarization in society.

Y7: How do you interpret the ongoing rallies and stated concerns of the PEGIDA movement in Germany? Is there anything the government or the Muslim community could do to dissipate these fears?

Hjarpe: The demonstrations by the so-called PEGIDA constitute a strange phenomenon. It is concentrated mainly in the German city of Dresden. I do not know why it is so. There must have been some local conditions behind them, but I have not yet seen any scientific analysis of it. Personally I see it as a kind of collective paranoia. I think it is essential that all responsible persons, politicians, religious leaders, writers and all those active in the cultural life strongly express their dismay at the phenomenon, and declare that they do not share the paranoid worldview of this unpleasant movement.

A problem is that, due to the enormous amount of information and disinformation available today, each group and movement has a tendency to select only such information that they think can strengthen their views and prejudices. There is obviously a lack of real communication. An active and visible participation of Muslims in the social and cultural life of society is therefore important.

Y7: France has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe, after what happened at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, how do you think French Muslims will be treated?

Hjarpe: I think that after these tragic events in France, the society in general will successively become more and more inclusive, open and tolerant – after a certain wile. The extremists (of all kinds) will be more marginalized. In contrast to many other commentators, I am rather optimistic as for the French society.

Y7: There are some opinions saying that France and other countries are paying the price for the policies they adopted in Syria, how far do you agree with this?

Hjarpe: There is certainly a connection between actual military engagements in the Middle East and in the Sahel region and the choice of targets by the terrorists. They want to regard themselves as soldiers in a war, and the targets of terrorist acts as “battlefields”.

Y7: Do you think Europeans and Westerners in general understand the difference between Muslims and Islamists like those fighting for ISIS?

Hjarpe: As we can see from a whole range of expressions of solidarity with Muslim communities, it is quite evident that the vast majority of Europeans understand the difference between ordinary believers and extremist jihadist who perform acts of terrorism while justifying it with religious language. But there are evidently groups in society who very loudly deny it, having decided to be blind for this difference. So there is a polarization between these nostalgic “new nationalists” and the majority. This too ought to be investigated and analyzed.

Y7: If you have a message for Muslims, what would it be?

Hjarpe: In a globalized world we are more than ever dependent on a functioning global society, i.e. we need functioning ways of communication, values and norms promoting a feeling of a common humanity and cooperation for “the common good.” It is essential now, I think, that intellectuals in the Muslim world seriously discuss and analyze the phenomenon of the terrorists’ use of religious language and the tradition of Islam to legitimize violence and terrorism, the actual use of takfīr [branding other Muslims apostates] in order to kill human beings and destroy cultural heritages. What has gone wrong, and why has this happened?

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