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Can We Blame Neoliberalism for Anti-Muslim Racism?

Nina Łazarczyk wrote “Can We Blame Neoliberalism for Anti-Muslim Racism?” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.

Islamist extremists constitute about 0.007 percent of the whole Muslim population, which is a tiny fraction out of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Most of those religious extremists fight locally in their own homeland against people of the same nationality and usually same religion as theirs. Nevertheless, most of the media coverage of terrorist attacks gives a completely opposite impression, focusing solely on attacks conducted in the Western hemisphere. For instance, the news reporting the terrorist attack carried out in Brussels by the self-proclaimed State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) made headlines for several days, whereas the attacks organized by ISIS in the same week in Yemen, Afghanistan, Tunisia, and Turkey were barely noticed by the European and American public although they ‘scored’ a much higher death toll. Similarly, few realize that the number of victims killed in attacks carried out by Muslims in the United States (US) is significantly lower than the number of people killed as a result of gun violence. In 2001, 2,990 people died in 9/11, whereas 29,573 citizens were killed in the same year by firearms. Furthermore, from 2001 to 2013, 3,380 US citizens were killed in terrorist attacks (including 350 Americans killed overseas) in comparison to 406,496 victims who died from firearms.

Such a selective and often preconceived portrayal of facts leaves most of the Western public with a conviction that the main goal of Islamist extremists is to invade the Western hemisphere and impose strict Sharia law. Consequently, anti-racism institutions register more online hate speech targeting Muslims, and warn the public about an increasing number of verbal and physical attacks against those perceived to be Muslims. Not surprisingly, journalists, mostly far-right politicians and pundits are to be held accountable for the current state of affairs. Nevertheless, why has it been so easy to instill anti-Muslim hatred in so many Americans and Europeans? They do not live in a socioeconomic vacuum. The reality is they all operate within a neoliberal paradigm that has been present in the Western hemisphere since the late 1970s. Researchers claim that the neoliberal ideology has been one of the driving factors for (anti-Muslim) racism in the US and Western Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK). To what extent can we blame neoliberalism for breeding a fertile ground for anti-Muslim racism in the US and the UK?

The concept of anti-Muslim racism, often called Islamophobia, encompasses fear, discrimination, prejudice, and hatred against Muslims as well as acts of verbal or physical violence targeting those perceived to be Muslims. In short, anyone who seems to be a Muslim could fall victim to anti-Muslim racism, because for many people there is no difference between a Muslim, an Arab, or a person with dark skin. That is why the narrative in this paper deliberately conflates Muslims and Arabs into one category, using concepts such as ‘anti-Muslim’ or ‘anti-Arab’ depending on the context. Such an approach will help to discuss the relationship between anti-Muslim racism and neoliberalism, which will be presented chronologically.

Neoliberalism symbolically begins in the 1970s and ends in 2016 with Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US. In the 1970s and 1980s, the introduction of neoliberalism and anti-Arab rhetoric development were parallel phenomena that developed simultaneously but did not result from each other. Nevertheless, the following paragraph will briefly present how these two different phenomena shaped the historical landscape with the goal of explaining the evolution of anti-Muslim rhetoric during the neoliberal era.

Anti-Arab/Muslim Rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s

When member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices as a strategy, thousands of car owners in the US queued for hours to get a barrel of gas. The oil crisis (1973) caused mostly by Arab countries sparked the first major wave of anti-Arab rhetoric in the US and Western Europe. The Western perception of Muslims further worsened at the end of the 1970s with the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran where the Pahlavi dynasty, supported by the US, was overthrown and replaced by anti-Western Islamic republic led by the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini. During the revolution, fifty-two US citizens were held hostage for 444 days. Consequently, Americans and their European allies began to perceive Muslim-populated Iran as ‘evil’ and dangerous.

The Satanic Verses controversy in the late 1980s only exacerbated this negative image of Iran. Salman Rushdie, a British Indian, author of the book The Satanic Verses, has committed blasphemy according to many Muslims. The Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, commanded that Rushdie be killed. This event has had a particular effect on the perception of Muslims in the UK specifically. Before the Satanic Verses controversy, migrants were not treated as Muslims in general. They were seen as nationals of the country they come from, for example Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. However, the Rushdie affair put an end to such a differentiated perception of non-white citizens, putting all the Muslims regardless of their nationality into one box.

Neoliberalism and Anti-Muslim Racism

While the anti-Arab/Muslim rhetoric was being gradually shaped by international events, the 1980s constituted a new era in the Western socioeconomic sphere. Since the 1970s the socioeconomic system’s neoliberal vision has been gradually introduced in the US, Western Europe and, after the end of the Cold War, in Central Eastern Europe. The neoliberal ideology has been slowly encompassing people’s minds all over the Western hemisphere, often to such an extent that people do not realize anymore that they function within a neoliberal paradigm, which is conducive to anti-Muslim racism in two ways. First, it is color-blind. Second, in times of neoliberal crisis, there is a need to find a scapegoat in order to deflect people’s attention away from the actual problems society faces. The latter argument will be preceded by a reference to anti-Semitism.

Color-blind Racism

The concept of neoliberalism, originally envisioned by Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman, is based on the idea of a self-regulating free market. Since it is a broad concept, it is helpful to look at it from three different perspectives. First, as an ideology, neoliberalism “puts the production and exchange of material goods at the heart of the human experience”. Second, as a mode of governance, it prioritizes such values as competitiveness, self-interest, and decentralization. Third, neoliberalism, as a policy package, aims to introduce deregulation, liberalization, and privatization (DLP). In other words, neoliberalism consists of four crucial elements such as free market, free trade, strong private property, and minimized role of the state, which should be reduced to the army, police, and legal system.

What does it mean in practice? How does neoliberal ideology affect Western mentality and what does it have to do with anti-Muslim racism? First of all, according to the neoliberal paradigm, the free market gives each person what he or she deserves. How far someone will manage to climb the socioeconomic ladder depends merely on his or her efforts. The neoliberal paradigm does not take into account the role of social class, inheritance, and race with respect to access to opportunities, achieving success in professional career, and financial well-being.

The neoliberal order implies that if a Muslim with the same level of expertise does not achieve equally high success as a non-Muslim, it is most probably his or her own fault. Similarly, if Muslims tend to do work below their qualifications, it is their own fault, and definitely not racist recruitment strategies. The neoliberal state does not acknowledge the existence of racism since everyone acting within the free market is supposed to have equal chances of success or failure at the outset. Individuals are believed to be fully responsible for their own fate. Neoliberalism is color-blind and that is why it justifies some of the discriminatory or racist attitudes against Muslims.

Anti-Muslim Racism – A New Anti-Semitism?

The anti-Muslim racism phenomenon is based on the construction of a single ‘Muslim’ identity, which has negative connotations and mostly operates “by means of defining a scapegoat – real or invented – and excluding this scapegoat from the resources/rights/definition of a constructed ‘we.’” Like any other type of discrimination perpetrated on the basis of race, gender, age etc., the mechanism leading to anti-Muslim racism is based on the classic ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. The creation of the collective category of ‘other’ described in a negative way plays a substantial role in building strong opposition between the two groups. Once the division is made, scapegoating is only a matter of time.

The very same mechanism, which has played out in the case of anti-Semitism, does work in the case of anti-Muslim racism. Similarly to Jews, Muslims are referred to as ‘masses,’ ‘hordes’ or ‘invaders’ – outsiders or even conspiracy agents – who jeopardize the existence of the local community. For centuries, Jews were believed to kidnap Christian children and sacrifice them in order to get their blood for the production of the Jewish holy bread matzah, whereas Muslims are often identified as terrorists who could unexpectedly blow themselves up in the name of Allah in order to kill non-Muslims in suicide attacks. Indeed, many people are convinced that “not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim.” In other words, Muslims are often considered to be unpredictable, violent and dangerous, and many see Islam as a religion of violence.

Although only about 6 percent of Muslims (excluding Turkey) live in Europe, some people claim that the continent is facing a Muslim invasion and it may turn into Eurabia in the near future. Conspiracy theories, along with the mechanism of ‘othering,’ pave the way for scapegoating a particular group, which is usually supposed to deflect attention from actual problems a given society struggles with. Such mechanism is very often reinforced during economic crises.

For instance, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Jews often played the scapegoat role, being blamed for economic slowdowns in the region. In some parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jews were blamed for economic difficulties occurring at the local market, whereas in poverty-stricken rural areas in Germany Jewish livestock merchants were blamed for economic instability in the area. The very same logic has often been applied to the perception of the Muslim community in Western Europe and the US, where neoliberal ideology prepared a fertile ground for anti-Muslim racism.

Economic Breakdown and Scapegoating of Muslims

Nobody can deny that in times of crisis there has always been a need to find a scapegoat to deflect society’s attention from the existing inequalities driven by the economic system. People voice their discontent with reality when they lose their jobs, but also when they feel that the neoliberal state no longer provides them with services like public healthcare or free education. This is a kind of economic and social reality neoliberal elites – economists and politicians – have been pushing forward since the 1970s.

Although anti-Muslim racism had existed before 9/11, it increased substantially after the World Trade Center (WTC) attack. Nevertheless, for the next eight years anti-Muslim racism remained on the same level and did not rise until late 2009. Surprisingly, the terrorist attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005) did not result in higher rates of anti-Muslim racism in the US or in the European Union. Experts pinpoint anti-immigrant rhetoric, economic breakdown, and Barack Obama’s victory as reinforcing factors of anti-Muslim racism in the US. The Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of Americans with a favorable view of Islam dropped from 40 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in August 2010. While in the US the economic breakdown had some influence on the rise of anti-Muslim mood, in the EU the statistics do not show such a trend, which could have coincided with the consequences of the global financial crisis.

Nevertheless, events such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections in 2016 show how the neoliberal economic crisis plays into the rising tide of anti-immigrant mood, particularly anti-Muslim racism. In the UK, many people had not yet recovered from the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis by 2016. They suffered from unemployment, reduction of social benefits, and rising child poverty. Extreme right-wing politicians took advantage of people’s frustrations and directed their anger at immigrants. By using racist rhetoric against immigrants, either Muslims or Poles, politicians managed to attract a working-class electorate. However, it would be a large oversimplification to claim that Brexit had been driven mostly by racist mood and xenophobic rhetoric. Increasing job insecurity, deepening inequalities in income and wealth, unavailability of affordable higher education, shortage of reasonably priced accommodation, lack of regulations, and taxes for big banks and corporations led to the rise of anti-immigrant attitude and resulted in Brexit. In short, xenophobia, racism, and hate speech easily developed in the atmosphere of a precarious labor market.

Furthermore, the Conservative Party as well as the Labour Party had for many years applied neoliberal policies aiming to privatize the public sphere, get rid of the regulations, and limit investment in public sectors. These policies limited the role of the state and paved the way for the empowerment of big corporations. Experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) claim that neoliberal policies have deepened inequalities in the UK. What is more, the IMF, itself in cooperation with the EU, had been imposing neoliberal rules on countries like Greece. Needless to say, Greeks are still suffering from the consequences of the financial meltdown. Similarly in the US, Donald Trump had used racist prejudices and conspiracy theories in order to deflect attention from economic sorrows of the American working class and, instead, blame minorities, Muslims or Latinos for the current state of affairs.

The consequences of the global financial breakdown still felt by many Americans and Europeans even in 2016 showed that the absolute rule of the free market can lead to a harsh crisis. Many politicians, instead of pointing out the neoliberal system’s faults, deliberately choose to blame the ‘other’ for the economic breakdown. Thus, they argue that ‘others,’ either immigrants overall, Muslims, Poles, or any other minority, take away local people’s jobs or live off pensions paid by local taxpayers. In consequence, the scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims included, is naturally conducive to the rise of anti-Muslim racism.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

The discussion aiming to disclose the connection between neoliberalism and anti-Muslim racism is far from being black and white. The neoliberal economics undoubtedly leads to economic crisis by deepening economic inequalities between different social groups. Politicians can easily manipulate people by turning their anger at the flawed economic system against minorities, who are then blamed for the ongoing economic distress. While it is true that Muslims are often treated as scapegoats, it is necessary to admit that immigrants overall, like blacks or Poles in the UK, are also blamed for some misfortunes occurring in a given country. Additionally, color-blind neoliberalism does reinforce racism by ignoring race, and thus fails to treat everyone equally within the self-regulating free market. Nonetheless, these two arguments can equally refer to racism in general as to anti-Muslim racism specifically. There is no doubt that in order to further explore the correlation between neoliberalism and anti-Muslim racism it is necessary to gather more data on anti-Muslim racism specifically. Moreover, despite the existence of qualitative and quantitative material collected mostly by academic institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there is an urgent need to collect systematic data on how states respond to anti-Muslim racism, a step that would help to design counter policies.

Last but not least, the most effective way to fight anti-Muslim racism (like with any other racism or form of discrimination) is, not surprisingly, to educate people. It is important to educate the youth about diversity at every stage of their formation starting from kindergarten, primary school, through high school, university, and even their professional career. Some global corporations oblige their employees to undergo online training, which promote, among other topics, cultural and racial diversity, clearly signaling that racism and xenophobia go against the core values of the company. To conclude, diversity education is possible and necessary at any stage of life, since people are not born racists but are raised in racist communities.&nbsp

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About the Author 

Nina Łazarczyk is the National Coordinator at Centre for Antitrust and Regulatory Studies (University of Warsaw) and a research assistant at Queen’s University Belfast. She received her MSc in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University in 2015. She completed internships at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics, Nordic Africa Institute and Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nina is one of the HIA Grant Winners (2017). She writes for “Feminist Daily” (“Codziennik Feministyczny”), a Polish online magazine, where she is one of editors.



The author and editor thank Ernestine Roeters van Lennep for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


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3. Ibid.

4. When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections, Bridge Initiative Team, May 2, 2016, accessed Jan. 8, 2017, http://bridge.georgetown.edu/when-islamophobia-turns-violent-the-2016-u-s-presidential-elections/; Adam Taylor, Anti-Muslim views rise across Europe, The Washington Post, Jul. 11, 2016, accessed Jan. 8, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/11/anti-muslim-views-rise-across-europe/?utm_term=.9107f900841b.

5. Henry Giroux, Silva-Bonilla, James Carr, Servaas Storm.

6. While the author of this article uses the term ‘anti-Muslim racism’ throughout the whole paper, it is important to note that the very same phenomenon is often referred to as Islamophobia, Muslimophobia, anti-Islamism or Arabophobia. Nevertheless, the terminological nuances do not matter substantially for this article.

7. OPEC member states are Iran, Iraq, Kuweit, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Quatar, Indonesia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Nigeria.

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9. Interview conducted in person on Nov. 5, 2016 with Prof. Agata Nalborczyk, expert in Islamic Studies at University of Warsaw.

10. Manfred B. Steger, Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford Inveristy Press, 2010), p. 12.

11. Ibid.

12. This paper discusses the neoliberalism in the countries of the Western hemisphere (the US, Canada and EU member states except Scandinavia where the model of social democracy applies). The author does not go into detail and does not point out differences between neoliberal orders in various Western countries. The goal of the paper is to capture a bigger picture in order to show how neoliberal ideology and policy can play into people’s minds, and thus, result in some form of racist attitudes.

13. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001); George Monbiot, Neoliberalism – the ideology at the roof ot all our problems, The Guardian, April 15, 2016, accessed Jan. 8, 2017, http://evonomics.com/rise-of-neoliberalism-inequality/ accessed Nov. 13, 2016.

14. Enes Bayrakli, Farid Hafez, European Islamophobia Report 2015, SETA, Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, 2016, accessed Nov. 2, 2016, http://www.islamophobiaeurope.com/reports/2015/en/EIR_2015.pdf.

15. Bible disguised as Quran Shocking Experiment + Reactions 2015, Dec. 2015, accessed Dec. 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jErLx1L1CWs; Holy Quran Experiment in New York City, Dec. 2015, accessed Dec. 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riDlxCvFZWw.

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17. Steven Beller, Anti-Semitism: A Very Short Introduction to (GB: Oxford University Press, 2007).

18. James Carr, Experiences of Islamophobia: Living with racism in the Neoliberal Era (Routledge, 2015); Servaas Storm, How the Brexit Tragedy Challenges Economics, Institute for New Economic Thinking, Jun. 26, 2016, accessed Dec. 13, 2016, https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/how-the-brexit-tragedy-challenges-economics accessed Nov. 13.

19. Same Hate, New Target, Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States, University of Berkeley, California, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Jan. 2009 – Dec. 2010, p. 22, accessed Jan.8, 2017, http://www.cair.com/images/pdf/2010-Islamophobia-Report.pdf.

20. Ibid.

21. Aysegul Kayaoglu, Ayhan Kaya, A Quantitative Analysis of Islamophobia in EU-15, Catholic University of Louvain, London School of Economics and Political Science, Istanbul Bilgi University, Dec. 16, 2012, accessed Jan. 8, 2017, https://cream.conference-services.net/resources/952/3365/pdf/MGDNF2013_0440.pdf.

22. Ben Norton, How neoliberalism fuels the racist xenophobia behind Brexit and Donald Trump (Salon, Jul. 1, 2016), accessed Jan. 8, 2017, http://www.salon.com/2016/07/01/how_neoliberalism_fuels_the_racist_xenophobia_behind_brexit_and_donald_trump/.

23. Ibid.

24. James Carr; Experiences of Islamophobia: Living with racism in the Neoliberal Era (Routledge 2015).

25. Ibid.

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