A project at the Brookings Institution examines how the growth of Muslim minority communities and fears around Islam’s public role are shaping new populist identities in Western democracies. Focusing on nine European countries and the United States, the published reports discuss how party systems are shifting further away from economic divisions and more toward cultural identity differences.
Despite Muslims comprising only one to eight percent of the population in various Western countries, their very presence has become one of the defining issues of the populist era, dividing left and right in stark fashion. Right-wing populist parties differ considerably on economic and social policy. But nearly every major right-wing populist party emphasizes cultural and religious objections to specifically Muslim immigration as well as to demographic increases in the proportion of Muslim citizens more generally.
It would be a mistake, however, to view the debate over Islam and Muslims as only that. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment signals a deeper shift in the party system away from economic cleavages toward “cultural” ones. With this in mind, attitudes toward Muslims and Islam become a proxy of sorts through which Western democracies work out questions around culture, religion, identity, and nationalism.