The terrorist attack of Al Qaeda in the United States on 11 September 2001 not only marked a turning point in US politics, but the horrible event also had far-reaching effects in Europe. European populist parties were quick to claim ‘legitimacy’ by pointing to their previous warnings against the evil of Islam. Islamophobic prejudice was indeed spreading around the Western world. In Austria, for instance, Jorg Haider proposed that the EU should from then on only accept asylum seekers from Europe.
The aftermath of 9/11 saw a wave of hate crimes rising against Muslims in both America and Europe. Hateful acts included assaults, arsons, vandalism, threats and also several killings. Surveys showed that people of Middle Eastern origin felt discriminated against and were being targeted (Iyer, 2001). AntiMuslim sentiments were now widely spreading, far beyond the shadow communities where racism had always thrived.
The most common and persistent conspiracy theory around 9/11 insisted that US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair knew about the attacks in advance and let them happen. This is significant, as conspiracy theories were in the aftermath of the event transferred further into the mainstream than perhaps ever before in contemporary history (see Bergmann, 2018).
Conspiracy theories around Muslims have indeed been abundant in the milieu of the Neo-Nationalists (Bergmann, 2020). One insisted that a Muslim caliphate created the horrendous 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and planned to weaponise the virus, for example by blowing up an Ebola victim in the busy Times Square in New York City.1 Perhaps the most far-fetched claimed that Islamic fascists inhabit the centre of the moon.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks also brought the White Genocide conspiracy theory back to the forefront. This notion of cultural replacement has since echoed loudly within many anti-migrant far-right movements, on both sides of the
Atlantic. Cas Mudde (2016) illustrates how right-wing populists in Europe have been especially successful in depicting Muslim migrants as external threats to the benign native society. In this depiction, Muslims are generally portrayed as a homogeneous group of violent and authoritative religious fundamentalists, who were pre-modern and primarily anti-Western in their politics.
In wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the British National Party (BNP) launched in the UK what they called ‘Campaign Against Islam’ (Shaffer, 2017). On a premise that migration from far-away was undermining British society and culture, the BNP demanded an end of non-white immigration. Initially, the party advocated compulsory expulsion of all non-whites from the UK, but after Nick Griffin assumed power, they called for voluntary removals. Another change accompanying Griffin’s reign in the BNP was that their previous anti-Semitic stance was exchanged with Islamophobia. They viewed Islam, as such, as posing a threat to ‘our British culture’ (Woodbridge, 2010). This even related to those that they referred to as ‘mainstream Islam’.
The party insisted that every Muslim in Britain was a threat to the country. After the London bombing of 7 July 2005, by Islamist terrorists, Griffin referred to Islam as an ‘evil, wicked faith’ (Copsey, 2009). He went on to describe Islam as a ‘cancer’ that needed to be removed from Europe through ‘chemotherapy’ (Trilling, 2013).
The BNP was always a fringe party on the margins of British politics and never amounted to having any kind of significant influence. On the other side of the power spectrum, Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was also quick to jump on the wagon of post-9/11 anti-Muslim rhetoric. He insisted that Western civilisation was ‘superior to Islamic culture’ (T/ie Independent, 2001). In its wake, Berlusconi was able to push through stricter immigration policy, including the Bossi-Fini law in 2002, named after his two populist coalition partners. The new legislation provided for the expulsion of illegal immigrants. It was criticised in the European Parliament as being too restrictive and severe. In the 2008 general election, Berlusconi described jobless foreigners as an ‘army of evil’ (Fekete, 2018).