Refugees and Islamophobia in Western Europe: The Boomerang Effect

By: Jocelyne Cesari

March 27, 2023

Even when religious life in the country of origin stops because of exile and displacement, the influence of religion persists not only through family life, culture, and transnational forms of communication, but it is also changed by the cultural and political contexts of resettlement. These religious transformations are not sufficiently studied across different religions and political contexts. The rare research on that topic concerns mostly Muslim refugees in Western Europe. It highlights two important factors that shape the perception of and the policies toward refugees: on one hand, the religiosity gap between refugees and nationals of the receiving countries; and on the other hand, the securitization of religion in general and Islam in particular.

The Religiosity Gap

Refugees from Muslim countries often arrive in very secular spaces where citizens rarely identify with a religion to make sense of their daily social interactions or civic actions. That stands in stark contrast to the fact that these refugees come from countries (such as Syria and Somalia) where Islam is a marker of social and national identities. In other words, the European privatization of religious activities and the decline of religious practices weigh heavily on the political expectations of refugees whose religious behaviors and claims have to fit into this idealized secular space, devoid of religious expressions. Therefore, tensions arise when people contradict this standard by adopting dress codes, dietary rules, or other religious obligations with social implications. This tension is not created by the refugees: Muslims in Europe from immigrant backgrounds are facing the same challenge. 

The influx of displaced persons from Muslim countries exacerbates the tensions. In this respect, it is worth emphasizing that all Muslims across Europe, from refugees to citizens, are the most religiously assertive compared to any other religious groups, which fuels the dominant understanding that “Islam is problematic.” As a result, Islam is seen as an impediment to cultural and political integration. The paradox is that by all existing accounts, religion is a positive factor in the settlement of refugees. It provides psychological resources for resilience and facilitates the bonding of congregations and communities. This positive influence is often neglected in the modes of interactions between the refugees and the receiving countries.

Another issue is that refugees from one particular country are often seen as a homogenous religious group. In this regard, the condition of women and sexual minorities is critical. Integrating into a host state may lead to new or repeated forms of exclusion and marginalization: patriarchal, xenophobic, and homophobic structures and attitudes which may have underpinned the causes of persecution before seeking asylum and may continue doing so in resettlement conditions. Veiled women in particular experience Islamophobia and racism, in addition to a continuation of patriarchal structures of oppression in countries of asylum or resettlement. 

Another political consequence of perceiving refugees through a unified and homogeneous form of religion is discrimination against religious minorities within the displaced population. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) found that religious minority refugees from Syria are not registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) out of fear they will be targeted in the camps. USCIRF shares the concern that religious minorities in camps could become vulnerable to attacks based on sectarian and religious lines. UN programs may not have sufficient resources to develop specific protection for religious minorities in refugee camps.

The Securitization of Religion

The international dimension of radical Islamic groups from Al-Qaida to ISIS has exacerbated the insecurity of European citizens who see Islam as a threat. Not just extreme right-wing parties, but also mainstream parties now share this perception of Muslim refugees as a terrorist risk. By using the image of the “foreign criminal” and “Muslim terrorist,” politicians regularly stroke public fear and promote demands for more restrictive policies on foreigners and asylum seekers.

More generally, Muslims are portrayed as a social threat because Islam is associated with crime, terrorism, the oppression of women, honor killings, backwardness, and intolerance. Terms like “Islamic Terror,” “Muslim extremist,” or “cancer/ulcer of Islamism” regularly appear in European newspapers. This amalgam is particularly potent because it combines fear of external political attacks with fear of cultural transformations, especially when women are concerned. For example, the fear of “sexual jihad” has been on the rise in Europe, wherein a fear of sexual violence from immigrants and refugees is combined with a fear of these immigrants “tainting” white European women, both sexually and culturally. The German far-right movement Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicisation of the Occident (PEGIDA) coined the term “rapefugee” to encapsulate the combination of sexual and moral threats that immigrants (especially Muslim immigrants) pose in Europe. A visualization of this concept of the “rapefugee” was demonstrated through the February 2016 cover of the Polish magazine Wsieci, which depicted a blond woman in a European flag being attacked by brown hands, and bore the title “The Islamic Rape of Europe.” It is worth noticing that the refugees from Ukraine are not seen through the lens of security and terrorism.

As a consequence of such a perception, policies link security, religion, and forced displacement, which justifies impingement on the civil liberties of individuals and groups. Additionally, when terrorist attacks occur, they affect attitudes toward migrants and refugees not only in the targeted country but also in the neighboring ones, as threat perceptions from terrorist groups are combined with feelings of imminent danger because of the geographical proximity of the attack and the intense media coverage. Such an understanding is not easily deterred, despite the fact that there is no proven connection between the total immigration population of a state and an increase in terrorism, and the fact that a large number of terrorist attacks are committed by natives of the targeted country.


This overview of the condition of Muslim refugees in Western Europe sheds light on two structural challenges. First, there is the necessity to (re)examine “religion” as a category in humanitarianism, to shift away from the tendency to homogenize religious affiliations and identities, and to engage with the complexities and challenges of religious heterogeneity. Second, it is important to take into account the perceptions and assumptions held by a range of refugee groups (religious or otherwise) in order to ensure that misunderstandings between religious groups and humanitarian actors are alleviated. In this regard, European policymakers will have to come to terms with the fact that refugees can make positive contributions to the country of resettlement and that almost none of them are a “threat” to the receiving country.

Ultimately, religion can offer strong resources with the ability to mobilize large numbers of individuals, communities, and institutions toward positive ends. Notwithstanding, its social, cultural, and political presence is unavoidable.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges.

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