The Politicisation of Islam in Britain and France

The Politicisation of Islam in Britain and France


Across Europe the Euro-skeptic, anti-immigrant, right wing populist political parties made sweeping gains in European Parliament elections. Front National (FN) in France topped the polls by winning the backing of just over one in four voters. UK Independence Party (UKIP), which calls for Britain to leave the European Union, won 4.3 million votes and topped the vote. The Anti-Islamic sentiment has once again been one of the basic themes of the European radical right, with the idea that “Islam presents a threat to our freedom and the Islamization of Europe must be stopped immediately”.

This article in order to understand the actual political context analyzes the conditions and outcomes of the politicisation of Islam in France and Great Britain where anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideas have spread beyond established strongholds by the rise of far right and populist right parties. I would like to emphasize the historical periods through which religion has been politicized and how Muslim groups have been considered as a threat in France and Great Britain.

With focusing on how transnational events have raised the religious difference into the center of public debates with the introduction of new policy dilemmas by French and British governments, first I look at the British case presenting increased salience of Islam after the Rushdie Affair in Britain and its intensification and persistency after July 7, 2005 with the London bombings. Then I will sort out the French case to set forth how the Islamic headscarf debates in the 1990s have provided support in creation of a reinforced far-right party and a disunited political left to adopt restrictive measures to ban headscarves in France and establish a more aggressive definition of laïcité”.


In the “post 9/11” era, the ongoing debate about the integration of Muslim communities and their compatibility with “Western” societies gained new prominence. The declaration of the “global war on terrorism” after the attacks of September 11, 2001 placed the integration of these communities in a more unknown and extraordinary context that links community cohesion to the securitization. The association of Islam by Western states with the al-Qaeda movement, the Palestinian issue and Iran (Cesari, 2009) triggered the way that western states consider the Islamic religion as a singular, homogenous ideology from Europe to the Middle East despite the diversity within Muslim communities.

Nowadays, across Europe as all 28 EU member states hold elections, besides the economic crisis that continues to promote nationalism alongside the need for a common enemy, a fear of Islam is being developed. The Anti-Islamic sentiment has once again been one of the basic themes of the European radical right, with the idea that Islam presents a threat to our freedom.  This sentiment at the same time seems to have a potential to create an ideological shift. Previously the focus was on the nation now there is also a reference to a wider source of cultural identity; defending Europe against Islamisation. This new point of cultural reference functions as complementary to the reference to the nation while right wing extremists and populist parties do not have a coherent ideology but rather propose a mixed bag of beliefs, stereotypes, attitudes and related programmatic agendas which aim to address and mobilize a range of contradictory segments of the electorate (Wodak, 2012).

This article in order to understand the actual political context analyzes the conditions and outcomes of the politicization of Islam in France and Great Britain where anti-immigrant and Islamophobic ideas have spread beyond established strongholds by the rise of far right (Front National) and populist right parties (UK Independence Party (UKIP). I would like to emphasize the historical periods through which religion has been politicized and how Muslim groups have been considered as a threat in France and Great Britain. France and Great Britain have been chosen as case studies due to their historical experience as colonizers in majority Muslim regions, struggles with “terrorist” activities within and outside of their particular state boundaries and categorization as oldest Western European democracies.

With focusing on how transnational events have raised the religious difference into the center of public debates with the introduction of new policy dilemmas by Western states, the article will try to understand the securitization of Islam, which proclaimed Muslims as an existential threat to European secular and political norms and thus took extraordinary security precautions against it (Cesari, 2009).

I argue that some international events are fundamental in my two cases that affected British and French governments’ opinion on Islam. First I look at the British case presenting increased salience of Islam after the Rushdie Affair in Britain and its intensification and persistency after July 7, 2005 with the London bombings. Then I will sort out the French case to set forth how the Islamic headscarf debates in the 1990s have provided support in creation of a reinforced far-right party and a disunited political left to adopt restrictive measures to ban headscarves in France and establish a more aggressive definition of laïcité”.

Basically, my arguments especially regard the contribution of the political process to the construction of a specific type of threat is based on the constrictions and opportunities presented by national and international factors. I argue that this process of problem construction elucidate the precise answers to my two cases to the integration of Muslims and national security, including wide-ranging areas of policy that have been employed. As such, I turn to national political processes that deconstructed in my two cases after two major international events in order to understand the outlines of the political consequences defined by the atmosphere within which the problem is constructed. I seek to discover and illuminate the conditions under which religion became the primary concern of the states and how transnational events have affected the perception of French and British governments on religion, specifically that of Islam, which became the central issue in politics, and to explain the time chosen for the political change and its construction as a “religious problem”. It’s worth reminding that although the British and French cases have similarities regarding the politicization of religion, the differences emerged because of their diverse historical models and the political and social outcomes they cause cannot be ignored.

Anti-Muslimism as a Semi-Ideology

Despite significant weaknesses and a propensity to be conceived as dominant discourses that seem quite circumscribed, the studies on the process of constructing the Muslim otherness through the creation of identification between religion and violence -sometimes mistakenly, sometimes clearly intentional- with the use of terms such as ‘Islamic/Islamist/Arab/Muslim terrorism’, the identification of Al Qaeda with the Muslim World, the lack of a deeper analysis of the context when informing about terrorism (Vicente, Otero, Lopez, & Pardo, 2008) allow us to understand the modalities that seem to be a particular configuration of the stigmatization of Islam and Muslims. Without considering this form either a priori or even predominant, which remains significant today, the study requires us to focus briefly on the forms of stigmatization such as creation of a negative and quite stereotyped image of the Muslims and their representation in the social sciences. The brief summary of the conclusions reached by the remarkable literature on this subject has in fact allowed us to accurately portray the established ways of stigmatization of Islam by public institutions in France and Britain after significant national and international events.

According to various authors such as Michel Wieviorka, Jocelyne Cesari, Gilles Kepel, Sara Ahmed and Tariq Madood, who show in their various studies, Islam and the individuals or groups who practice this religion in its various forms, are seen frequently stigmatized negatively in the media, political and academic discourse. In light of these studies, the stigmatization of Islam seems to proceed in France and Great Britain in an identical manner: Muslims seen in the figure of otherness started to be considered in the context of enmity. British Marxist analyst, Fred Hallidaydefines that anti-Muslimism is a semi-ideology… It involves not so much hostility to Islam as a religion – indeed, few contemporary anti-Muslimists take issue with the claim of Muhammad to be a prophet, or with other theological beliefs – but hostility to Muslims, to communities of peoples whose sole or main religion is Islam and whose Islamic character, real or invented, forms one of the objects of prejudice. In this sense anti-Muslimism often overlaps with forms of ethnic prejudice…” (Halliday, 1996, p. 166).  To understand the way from otherness to the ‘enemy within’ paved with ‘Anti-Muslimism in contemporary politics’ Halliday sought to shift analysis from the making essential discourse of ‘Islamophobia’ to an explanation of those ‘of ethnicity, and intra-communal conflict’ (Halliday, 1996, p. 196) In short ‘Islam as an object of study must be dissolved in order to be made concrete in the study of particular events, times and places’. (Halliday, 1996, p. 2).

The international power relationship between what is called the “West” and the “Muslim World”, made to happen during the colonization, the Cold War and that seems to maintain since the early 1990s, in fact increases the strength of the construction of the enmity. In relation to that, the stigmatization of Islam and Muslims appears intensely during the moments of crisis and international events like the war in Algeria, the Lebanon War, the Iranian Revolution, waves of attacks in 1986 and 1995 in France, the Palestinian intifada, the Gulf War in 1990-1991, the same with the war in Algeria and finally the events of 11 September 2001, 7 July 2007 and Madrid bombings and the anti-terrorism policies, seem to stimulate total and immediate stigmatization of Islam and Muslims. Over all, the attacks on New York and Washington not only triggered the stigmatization of Islam and Muslims but also launched a new “era of suspicion”.

This stigmatization goes precisely through lack of reference to political, historical, economic and social context; it affects all Muslims, especially those living in Europe (Anwar, 2003). Stigmatization is more common to the extent that Islam is perceived as a homogenous ideology, where no distinction is made between different religious thoughts and practices. All Muslims thereafter experience the stigmatization and particularly the Muslim identity that has been constructed as problematic, which at the same time led to the construction of a Muslim community as a ‘suspect community’ considered entirely different from any other identities, including an individual identity. As it’s shown by Edward W. Said in Orientalism (1979), total stigmatization of Islam and Muslims is the work of long processes that have occurred in academic movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and through certain public policies conducted by the colonial states, it turns out that it now alternates with different vectors, which vary according to crises and societies given.

The Satanic Verses Affair

When we take a longer view of the history of Muslims in Great Britain race rather than religion was the important concern and a political issue for the British governments up through the 1980s in Great Britain. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the problem was framed in terms of controlling unacceptable immigration, increasingly defined along racial dimensions. British government responded to societal pressure to adopt restrictive immigration and citizenship regimes combining these with integration measures. Linking immigration and integration had the consequence in which social problems were blamed on the cultural differences of minorities. Before 1989, the concern of “religious differences” and the role of religion in all aspects are of little societal interest and a lot fewer in degree for public policy. That changed in one decade. Religion more frequently what the government of Tony Blair called “the faith” has become a noticeable concern of public policy depending upon parallel developments in Europe in regarding the integration of Muslim communities, the functioning of religion and its interaction with other non-Muslim groups in public life.

Strategies followed, particularly developing restrictive immigration measures by the Conservative and Labour parties in the 1960s and 1970s to depoliticize race were adapted widely with regard to religion in the 1990s and 2000s.

The British government’s response to the national and international security events paved the way that religion became a public concern in the 90s and particularly linking religion to security started with the Rushdie Affair. Even the construction of Muslims as “threats” and “enemy within”, the growing concerns about their fidelity and further compatibility to British values and as a result of all, the discussion about putting the national British identity in peril all commenced with the Rushdie Affair.

On September 26, 1988, “The Satanic Verses”, a novel written about the diaspora experience in a postmodern satirical style, was published in Great Britain by Penguin Press. In 1989, when many Muslims worldwide protested against the publication of the Salman Rushdie’s book, it was the first time that the response given by Muslims was not based on the ethnicity but religiosity. The book burnings, demonstrations and generally the anger expressed was strikingly important for the Muslim community, which felt that “as citizens they [were no less]entitled to equality of treatment and respect for their customs and religion” (Anwar, 2003, p. 9)than either the Christian majority denominations or other religious minorities. Muslims who accused Rushdie with ‘blasphemy’ started to become more visible as a distinct political group. The Rushdie Affair also had noteworthy outcomes on the perception of Muslims and Islam within Europe among the public and the governments. The event had significant international consequences, too. Then, in February, violence broke out in Pakistan and India followed closely upon by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie. The Ayatollah’s death fatwa marked a further turning point in the Rushdie Affair and for Western Muslim communities imposing an international dimension to the issue. Piscatori argued that the Rushdie Affair had wider implications on Islam’s place in international affairs:

“the Rushdie affair challenges assumptions about how to think of Islam’s place in the international order whether or not Islam is inherently anti-Western; what is the nature of an ‘Islamic issue’; whether or not it is an ‘international phenomenon’; and what is the ‘desecularising’ of international relations (Piscatori, 1990, p. 769).

For Western societies, Muslims emerged as a more distinct social group, a visible minority and the perception of Muslim as the “Other” gained considerable ground during the Rushdie affair.

The vast media coverage of book burnings, demonstrations and death threats to the author of the book triggered the questioning of the religion in public life and started the discussion about the connection of Islam with violence and its compatibility with liberal western values and freedom of expression. Philip Lewis expressed that with the Rushdie Affair, the Muslim communities in Britain suddenly became a visible focal point for politicians and British society with respect to controversies such as the headscarf controversy in France to broader connections with violence and political Islam in the Muslim world (Lewis, 1994).

The Riots of 2001, 11 September 2001 and 7/7 London Bombings

A decade later, a series of events once again pushed religion to the center of public policy concern. In the summer of 2001 with a series of riots between the Pakistani and white youth in Oldham, Burnley, and Bradford a national discussion on British Muslims and their religion emerged. Due to the increased concern on community relations among the society, the government established an initiative to explore the reasons and the outcomes of the disorder and at the same time to offer policy solutions to overcome the tension.  This governmental initiative resulted in a national debate on citizenship, Muslim’s (lack of) integration and immigration issues. After the riots, home secretary David Blunkett set up a commission, which wrote a final report called ‘The Cantle Report’ that suggests the promotion of community cohesion with new approaches to race and ethnicity including religion as an object of public policy concern. The report triggered the national debate on British multiculturalism. Well-known critics on the government’s multicultural policies that allegedly ‘legitimize segregating the communities along ethnic lines and preventing minorities particularly youth from fully integrating into society’ reemerged. After it became clear that the 7 July 2005 bombers were born and educated in Britain once again the questioning of British multiculturalism became a current issue (Abbas, 2007). The community cohesion agenda took public attention to the integration problems of a particular community; the Muslims. When society categorizes individuals into certain groups the labeled group is subjected to status loss and discrimination (Jacoby, Snape , & Baker , 2005). The governmental focus on Muslim’s integration made them to be constructed as a ‘problem’ to the rest of the nation and paved the way of discrimination.

“Securitization” or rendering an issue as a security problem in the sense that Ole Waever (1995) use is a certain way to achieve social and political mobilization and a sense of urgency to set priorities through unprecedented responses. When a phenomenon is securitized suggests Bajc the response takes shape in relation to threat, defense, and state-centered solutions rather than solving the problem at hand (Bajc, 2007) Starting with the Rushdie Affair and the 2001 riots, followed closely by the 9/11 attacks and then the London bombings, the Muslim communities in Great-Britain have been securitized and when it’s successfully securitized, then it became possible to legitimize extraordinary means to solve perceived problems.

On July 7, 2005 the world witnessed the deadliest attacks against London since World War II, which killed 52 people and injured more than 700. After the London bombings, new and extreme security precautions were adopted and a new public debate on ‘homegrown terrorism’ emerged. 7/7 attacks gave evidence to politicians that there is a problem with the integration of Muslim communities. The role of the “difference” left its place once again to the discussion started with the Rushdie Affair, that of the compatibility of the Muslims-without any exception-with the western values.

Since September 11 “Islamic terrorism” has affected the legislators in Britain. In its aftermath, Britain has adopted three main anti-terrorism laws, thus changing significantly their own legislation on this issue; ‘Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001’, ‘The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005’, et ‘The Terrorism Act 2006’ “Measures implemented after 9/11 in the United Kingdom include detention without trial, removal of the right to silence and legal representation, eavesdropping on lawyer-client communications, use of torture and drugs to force confessions, increased surveillance and reduced privacy protections, and vastly expanded resources to those sections of the military and paramilitary police involved in ‘homeland’ security” (McCullogh, 2002, p. 55). 4 years after the 9/11 attacks, the London bombings in 2005 and the car on fire led to Glasgow Airport on June 30, 2007 seem to have confirmed their concerns. These attacks have triggered the passage of new laws to respond to the increased level of danger. As McCulloch mentioned, events like 9/11 provide a political opportunity “to announce changes that might be rejected as too draconian (McCullogh, 2002, p. 55).

Democratic countries around the world like Britain began to introduce anti-terrorism laws with the explicit aim to prevent similar potential events that might occur on their own territories. At the same time, as Cesari argued, European states defined terrorism as transnational, “which can no longer be characterized as foreign or domestic” (Cesari, 2009, p. 10).

While governments justified these security measures as an obligatory process to improve their antiterrorism and security capabilities, particularly the integration of counter-terrorism policies, the community cohesion agenda in Great-Britain singled out Muslims living in the country as a distinct group that have intrinsically propensity to violence and support or encouraging terrorism. Consequently the ‘outsider’ position of Muslims within British society has been once again highlighted.

French Monoculturalism, the Headscarf Ban and 9/11

“French monoculturalism” (Khosrokhavar, 1996 ) and the “British multiculturalism”, in other words the communitarian tradition of the British model that recognizes the otherness and the assimilationist French tradition that only recognizes the national community as legitimate (Khosrokhavar, 1996 ) have always been regarded as two opposing models or the “anti-model” in terms of diversity management.

In the 1990s like in Britain, as a result of a similar process in response to particular security events, France also experienced a situation in which the religion has increasingly been the subject of public policy and a matter of concern. The role and the place of religion in the public life were mostly discussed throughout the Islamic headscarf in the Republican school system. Girls wearing a headscarf in recognition of their cultural and/or religious belonging in public schools are seen as at odds with the principles of laïcité and modernity in France. As we have mentioned elsewhere (Baràt & Sungun, 2012)“girls wearing the headscarves come from families that are seen as “immigrants”, “Arabs” or “Africans” from former colonies, the ban on the headscarf appears questionable not only in terms of the equality principle in a democracy, but also as a covert act of racism played out in the name of political progress at the expense of young women” (Baràt & Sungun, 2012, p. 112). Laïcité promulgated by the law of 1905 is a concept rooted in the notion of the separation of Catholic Church and French state has a very particular history of church and state relations in France, which has resulted in the exclusion of religion from the public sphere by the state.

In the 1990s and 2000s, religion has been linked to illiberalism and intolerance and became a public and governmental concern and perceived as a peril to the national identity. The far-right party “Front National” under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen especially intensified this process. The Front National was capable to lead the discussion of issues like immigration, Islam as a ‘major’ problem and a threat to national identity, which has traditionally been based on the values of secularism, republicanism, and universalism. The far-right party by doing so ultimately succeeded in the creation of a climate of fear and a societal anxiety on immigration and the rising of religion to the political and societal sphere, which became concrete in the formulation of “Islamization of France”. In the meantime when Islam became politicized, the Left was defending firstly the respect for individual rights in the form of religious freedom and then the respect for gender equality, but throughout the debates their respect for human rights did not prevent them from getting disunited on the ‘sensible’ issue.  Regarding the headscarf affair feminists were also divided into two groups: for or against the headscarf. Christine Delphy who was against the headscarf ban (their slogan was “Une École pour Tous et pour Toutes” (School for Everyone) argues that “the young girls who wear headscarves have suddenly become a sign of the arrival of an “Islamic” society and with it the “clash of civilizations”: a misogynistic, anti-democratic, repressive, warlike and cruel Islam (Baràt & Sungun, 2012).

With the banning of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools in 2004 the shift to the “Islamic Other” in the secular narratives reached its peak (Baràt & Sungun, 2012). At the time of the headscarf ban in 2004 gender equality became the constant preoccupation and priority of the republic during the debates and the headscarves of Muslim teenage girls turned out to be “the” obstacle to so-called equality in France. “France cannot allow Muslims to undermine its core values, which include a strict separation of religion and state, equality between the sexes and freedom for all (McGoldrick, 2006, p. 86).

The dominance of negative images of “difference” linked with Islam and Muslims in France and thus negative stereotypes of Muslims have become part of the dominant discourse in current narratives of cultural/religious difference.

As was the case in Great Britain, in France the public concerns focused on the Muslim communities also increased intolerant sentiment toward Muslims. Consequently, the headscarf debate mainly became a symbol of stigmatization of ethnic or religious others in contemporary French political discourse and resulted in great politicization of religion in the public life.

The fight against terrorism has played a crucial role in national debates about Islam in France. Politicians in their daily discourses often connected domestic policies with fears and anxiety of international Islamic terrorism. 9/11 gave a new configuration of anti-immigration policies in France. The victory of Jean Marie le Pen after the presidential elections of 2002 was a turning point and beginning of an era of radicalization of discourses on immigration and Muslims. In October and November of 2005 a group of youth riot in French banlieues. Although some scholars consider and analyze this riot in a social-economic context, the Front National and the government linked the violence to Islam and immigration problems. One of the main consequences of the riots in France was the noteworthy increase in Islamophobia. The construction of Islam as a problem in the political discourse resulted in islamophobic acts. The large media coverage of Islam and mentioned islamophobic acts triggered the construction of Islam as a source of anxiety and insecurity within the community. The question of Islam seen as “almost existential” (Roy, 2005, p. 8) has become one of the crucibles of contemporary French identity.

In the post-September 11 era the debate on Islam as a threat to modernity and the West has been reintroduced into the public sphere with more racist tones of Orientalism and a new additional hysteria. Islam is no longer identified with the barbarian troops outside the gates of civilization, but rather considered an “enemy within” or potential bomb waiting to explode. The events of 11 September 2001 and the anti-terrorism policies promoted the full and immediate stigmatization of Islam and Muslims (Bonnefoy, 2003) and Islam has emerged to fill the place left by communism and became the new enemy. In many western European countries, it has become acceptable to associate Muslims which today account for 6% of Europe’s population with the potential for terrorism (Cesari, 2009).


As the article sought to show the historical roots of how religion came to be politicized within the Britain and France the roles of the international events provided a higher profile to the Muslim community to citizens that were unaware or indifferent, thus increasing the salience of the issue among the general public is significant. While the place of religion in the public life of liberal democratic societies has become more prominent and more controversial in the past two decades, religion, connected to larger international events and trends, became a target of societal anxiety and negative perceptions among the society regarding the rise of religion as a source of problem.  In French and British cases, the politicians successfully associated the security threats and the problem of terrorism to the existence of the domestic Muslim community raising the ‘problem’ on both national and supranational agendas. The construction of religion as a problematic issue on the national level resulted in having crucial conflicts within both France and Great Britain. According to Cesari Islam is seen as an alien and dangerous religion (Cesari, 2009). The religious identity of the Muslims perceived as an obstacle to the integration as it is supposedly in compatible with European values and national identities. As a result the Muslim communities are isolated from the society and this externalization of Muslims even today produces frustration among the new generations born or educated in Europe. With regard to the contemporary political consequences the discourse hardened against the Muslim communities fed the rightwing parties. The salience of immigration -connected intimately with the Muslim population- issues in Europe resulted in radical right’s success in elections and more restrictive policies. In fact, the appearance and political advance of right-wing parties has affected the political context in which Muslim minorities have been integrated into British and French society. The xenophobic rhetoric like “the enemy within” against the Muslims in the public sphere triggered the Islamophobia and anti-Islamic prejudice within the society.

By linking the “Muslim problem” with security concerns in a successful manner both in Britain and France, provided the necessary political argument and political opportunity to the state’s security goals which to a large extend became a zero-sum game with regard to integrating the domestic Muslim community.

Ebru Sungun, Ph.D. Candidate, CADIS, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris

Please cite this publication as follows:

Sungun E. (August, 2014), “The Politicisation of Islam in Britain and France”, Vol. III, Issue 8, pp.6-19, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


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