Does Europe have an inquisition problem?

Today’s Europe is in the middle of an identity crisis, and questions who belongs to it and who should be kept out.

Spanish Inquisition
Engraving depicting the Spanish Inquisition [Getty]

Switzerland banned the construction of minarets, Spain and Italy have placed heavy restrictions on permits for building new mosques, and Austria adopted a law to redefine the status of Islam and Muslims in the country.

France has layered bans on the hijab, niqab and now the burkini, and the continent-wide massive surveillance of Muslims raises an important question: Will Europe for ever have an inquisition problem when dealing with its Muslim subjects?

The current stream of policies targeting Muslims across Europe harks back to an earlier and darker period in the continent’s long history, the Spanish Inquisition.

Reminiscent of the past

Certainly the Inquisition involved forced conversion to Christianity for Muslims, Jews and some Christians whom the Catholic Church saw as heretics, and expulsion for those who either refused or secretly continued to practise.

The Inquisition was a repressive regulatory structure that governed Muslim and Jewish bodies and spaces, with limits imposed on clothing, food, hygiene and movement.

Regulation included forced public consumption of pork to demonstrate a breakaway from keeping Kosher and Halal requirements.

Requirement to keep windows and doors to homes open on Fridays and Saturdays so Inquisition monitors could ascertain that no religious activities or ritual washing for prayers were taking place.

At the height of the it, both Jews and Muslims were subject to state-organised violence, torture and a reign of terror, which concluded with mass expulsions in 1492 from Spain.

The restrictions today are imposed in the name or in the defence of European secularism, but the target remains the Muslim subject, just as a mere 60 years ago it was the Jewish subject. Instituting a secular fundamentalist inquisition differs little if the outcome is the same for the victims.


The Moriscos, the Muslims who went through forceful Catholic conversion but remained in Spain, were expelled in 1609 and ended up in North Africa.

The Islamophobia industry’s expected response to drawing similarities between the Inquisition and what is occurring today would be rejection, and possibly to consider it faulty because Europe is facing Muslim terrorist and security threats.

While I concur that Europe is facing terrorist attacks, focusing solely on Muslims when other terrorists are an equal threat is problematic. It shows a clear selective bias on the basis of supposed European identity.

Regulating bodies

Repressive policies and regulatory structures adopted by European countries were also enforced during the long colonial period (PDF).

How a Muslim man or woman should dress, act, eat and “be civilised” has been written down in the blood of many Muslim subjects in North Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Sub-Saharan Africa and the contemporary heartland of the Arab world.

Regulating the Muslim subject’s body and space is epistemically woven into past and present European discourses.

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Europe’s assertion that regulating and governing their bodies and spaces is being undertaken in defence of secularism and democracy is faulty when measured against the principle of individual freedom and choice.

Here, historical stereotypes of Muslims surface once again, allowing Europeans to legitimise regulation in defence of a Muslim woman’s right to choose, and freeing her from the oppression of the evil and uncivilised Muslim man.

This outdated and overused European argument is again asserting the trope of white men saving brown women from the evil and violence of brown men. The arguments around Muslim women’s hijab in Europe is the recent chapter of a well-documented racist book that denies women freedom of choice in their normal daily life.

Social change

Here, just as at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Europe is in the midst of massive demographic, political, social, economic and religious contestation, which is being projected on to the Muslims as the distinctive other.

For a long time in Europe, the Jews were targeted as the scapegoats for internal or external challenges and failures, and now Muslims are blamed in the hope of silencing all opposing views as to what type of society Europe will have in the future.

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The restrictions today are imposed in the name or in the defence of European secularism, but the target remains the Muslim subject, as a mere 60 years ago it was the Jewish subject. Instituting a secular fundamentalist inquisition differs little if the outcome is the same for the victims.

The end of the Crusades, the death of one third of Europe’s population during the Great Plague, political instability and religious conflicts were key driving factors for the different waves of inquisition across Europe.

At present, the stimuli include immigration, Iraq intervention, Syrian civil war, economic instability and differing ideas on the European project. The inquisition of the Muslim subject is an easy way to question Europe’s identity in the midst of social, political and economic crises.

A European identity?

The Inquisition witnessed the construction of a distinct European identity centring on whiteness and coupled with Christianity, which meant casting out the other – the Jew and Muslim – to arrive at “purity of race” or “pure to the source” epistemic.

Then, Europe went through major religious, political and economic wars between Protestantism and Catholicism as to whose vision of society would dominate. The Inquisition was a tool to defend the existing order and to shore up Catholic orthodoxy.


Today’s Europe is in the middle of an identity crisis centring around the European Union project and questions on who should belong to it and who should be kept out.

Secular and economic orthodoxy are being used to define membership and belonging in the European project.

The real question that must be asked is whether Europe is able to live with and include a different internal other.

So far, Europe’s history is evidence of an inability to do so for any sustainable period. The Muslims of today are Europe’s Jews of the not-so-distant past, and time will tell if the same outcome is the prescribed course for the future. I hope it’s not the case.

Hatem Bazian is co-editor and founder of the Islamophobia Studies Journal and director of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project, and a senior lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.