Syrian refugees protesting the bombing of Aleppo. Berlin, December 2016. (Credit: Joel Schalit/Flickr)
Syrian refugees protesting the bombing of Aleppo. Berlin, December 2016. (Credit: Joel Schalit/Flickr)

How many refugees should a country receive? The question of numbers cannot be addressed without looking at the narratives which shape public policies.

I would like to focus on the issue of discourse. But before that I will look at the numbers of migrants in Europe. This will show how the reality on the ground eventually gives us enough evidence to challenge the anti-refugee rhetoric now prevalent throughout Europe.

Overall, between mid-2010 and mid-2016, regardless of religion or immigration status, there were an estimated 7 million migrants to Europe (not including 1.7 million asylum seekers who are not expected to have their applications for asylum approved). Historically, a relatively small share of migrants to Europe are refugees from violence or persecution in their home countries.

This seems to have continued to be the case from mid-2010 to mid-2016 – roughly three-quarters of migrants to Europe in this period (5.4 million) were regular migrants (i.e., not refugees). About two-thirds of all Muslims who arrived in Europe during this period were regular migrants and not refugees. Altogether, a slim majority of all migrants to Europe – both refugees and regular migrants – between mid-2010 and mid-2016 (an estimated 53%) were Muslim. In total number, roughly 3.7 million Muslims and 3.3 million non-Muslims arrived in Europe during this period.

Non-Muslim migrants to Europe were mostly made up of Christians (an estimated 1.9 million), people with no religious affiliation (410,000), Buddhists (390,000), and Hindus (350,000). Christians made up 30% of regular migrants overall (1.6 million regular Christian migrants; 55% of all non-Muslim regular migrants) and 16% of all refugees (250,000 Christian refugees; 71% of all non-Muslim refugees). [1]

Despite the fact that only half of the migrants to Europe are of Muslim background, the migration debate in Europe today is mostly related to and contextualised by the presence and future of Muslims and Islam.

The combined effect of vilified political and media discourse on Islam has brought about a ‘banalisation’ of Islamophobia and led to many far-right ideas affecting the mainstream with inaccurate perceptions of the Muslim community. Unfortunately, Orientalism and elements of cultural essentialism persist.[2]

Essentialism, in its most stripped down meaning, refers to the belief that people and/or phenomena have an underlying and unchanging ‚essence‘. In other words, it is the closed-minded view that all people from a specific county, group, or religion are the same. Non-essentialism, on the other hand, is the open-minded belief that people from the same country, group, or religion have individual ways of living, acting, and thinking. For example: Not all Muslims and not all Jews are the same.

Cultural essentialism is a form of violence through which one constantly judges people without knowing anything about them. These views and stereotypes are often found to be untrue, and even dangerous. They develop in an environment of anxiety provoked by propaganda.

In view of the demographic reality on the ground, the title of my piece is centred around the idea of `desconstructing discourse` on migrants, especially Muslim migrants who comprise approximately no more than the half of the migrants to Europe. Deconstructing[3] discourse is useful for understanding the politics, policy, and language of civil society.

In relation to discussion of the migration `crisis`, the Trojan horse is not only a metaphor but has also now become a discourse. It is an `essentialist` discourse. This essentialism benefits from Western ‘human rights discourse’ which has traditionally been used to carve out a moral high ground in missionary zeal towards ‘the other’. Current ‘human rights’ ideology plays a structuring role in the Trojan horse discourse.

Deconstruction is a term which arose in the disciplines of contemporary philosophy and literary criticism and has now become a part of the social sciences as well. It denotes a process by which the texts and ideas of a particular worldview (especially the Western worldview) appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves.

Deconstruction involves discovering, recognising, and understanding the underlying – and unspoken and implicit – assumptions, ideas, and frameworks that form the basis for thought and belief. It is better to explain what deconstruction is not than what it is. Deconstructing an idea is like cracking a nutshell. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell – a secure axiom or a metaphor or discourse – the very idea is to crack it open and disturb its tranquillity.[4] Deconstructing a metaphor highlights the juxtapositions and dichotomies in the discourse behind that metaphor.

A central deconstructive argument is that, in all the classic dualities of Western thought, one idea or meaning is privileged or ‘central’ over the other. The privileged, central term is the one most associated with hegemony and essence. What is perceived as central (in this case Western `human rights discourse`) has been classically conceived as original, authentic, and superior, while the other (non-Western, migrant) is thought of as secondary, derivative, or even ‘parasitic’.

In this context, Trojan horse discourse operates as a homogeneous, culturally essentialist view of the Muslim faith as potentially dangerous. This creates binary oppositions and ‘violent hierarchies’.

The concept of discourse is based on language. Language is of ontological importance, as it is through the construction of language that things are given meaning and a particular identity. The migration debate in the West is partially and significantly constructed around a certain language that utilises the metaphor of the Trojan horse.

Language is not an unambiguous carrier of a reality that already exists; it is inscriptive and constructive in itself. Its social character entails that individuals are discursively socialised into a series of collective codes and social conventions.[5] Subjectivity – an individual’s sense of self – is socially constructed through language, rather than language being a mere expression of subjectivity.[6] Thus, discourses are complex systems of language which articulate our thoughts and actions.

Because discourses are historically and culturally specific, social meaning is in constant flux. Despite their fluid character, particular discourses can become hegemonic and temporary fixtures of discourses can make them fairly stable in a certain time and place.[7] As such, hegemonic discourses often derive power by appealing to ‘common-sense’ knowledge and ‘human nature’. The conceptualisation of power and its functioning through discourse is also central.[8] My perspective on deconstruction has this background but also recognises the popular understanding of deconstruction with its intention of laying underlying assumptions bare.

The Trojan horse is the kind of metaphor that is the product of binary oppositions. As a metaphor, of course, it goes back a few thousand years to the end of the Trojan War in Greek mythology, a war between the Greeks and the people of Troy.

According to Anatoly V. Belyakov, the Trojan horse `tale` is about Eurocentrism. The feeling that Europe always defeats Asia and is historically above it was fixed forever in the minds of the Hellenes, and was later inherited by Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and Christian Europe, remaining until the modern era.

This phenomenon was called ‘Eurocentrism’, and it was based on the idea that European history was predominant in the history of the world, whereas the history of other countries and peoples was secondary and relatively meaningless in terms of the destiny of global history. It is easy to see a faults in this, including a kind of European chauvinism, but after their victories over the Persians, the Greeks managed to construct a civilisation that arguably determined the course and development of the global history. The ideas of Homer shaped the entire Western world.[9]

While discourses can be contested, challenged, and modified, mass conformity with so-called `normal` ideas (i.e., ‘the Trojan horse destroying national identity`) often leads to an acceptance of dominant discourses.

One of the key issues facing the West is its increasing inability to agree on how it should be defined as a civilisation. The migration crisis is the most revealing example of this. The problem stems not from a shortage of power, but rather from the inability to build consensus on the shared goals and interests for which that power ought to be applied.

The growing instability in the international system is not, as some argue, due to the rise of China as an aspiring global power, the resurgence of Russia as a systemic power, the increasing geostrategic power of Turkey in its region, the aspirations of Iran for regional hegemony, or the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The rise and relative decline of states is nothing new, and it doesn’t necessarily entail instability.

The West’s problem today is also not mainly the result of the economic decline of the United States or the European Union. Although both have had to deal with serious economic issues since the 2008 meltdown, they remain the two largest economies in the world, with unmatched combined wealth and technological prowess.

Nor is increasing global instability due to a surge in Islamic jihadism across the globe, for despite the horrors the jihadists have wrought upon the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, and the attendant anxiety now pervading Europe and America, they have nowhere near the capabilities needed to confront great powers.

At the core of the deepening dysfunction in the West is the self-induced deconstruction of Western culture and, with it, the glue that for two centuries kept Europe and the United States at the centre of the international system. Some say that the increasing political uncertainty in Europe has been triggered less by the phenomenon of migration than it has by the inability of European governments to set baselines for what they will and will not accept.

In terms of decision-making, the Mediterranean corridor is especially problematic. Since the so-called Arab Spring, different ‘crises’ related to border crossings by refugees and migrants around the Mediterranean (Lesbos and other Greek islands; the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily; Spain’s Melilla, etc.) have further increased the issue’s political relevance. The arrival of refugees, mainly Syrians, in Europe since 2015, has raised further concerns in European capitals and also in Brussels. Critical voices in Europe and elsewhere have underlined that the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 was, in reality, a European political crisis, especially comparing the limited number of arrivals with refugee figures in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and also if considered in relation to the EU population. Therefore, it is important to note that the management of migration in the Mediterranean is being constantly developed and upgraded under the pressure of a specific border ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’.[10] This fact has serious consequences both for the policies being developed, and for peoples on the move.[11]

Despite the fact that only half the migrants to Europe are of Muslim background, the migration debate in Europe today is mostly related to and contextualised by the presence and future of Muslims and Islam. But Muslims are a relatively small minority in Europe, making up roughly 5% of the population (approximately 20 million in total across the whole of Europe). However, in some countries, such as France and Sweden, the Muslim share of the population is higher. In the coming decades, the Muslim share of the continent’s population is expected to grow and could more than double, according to Pew Research Center projections.[12]

These demographic shifts have already led to political and social upheavals in many European countries, especially in the wake of the recent arrival of millions of asylum seekers, many of whom are Muslims. In recent national elections in France and Germany, for instance, immigration – and particularly Muslim immigration – were top issues.[13] Muslims could make up 14% of Europe’s population by 2050 – nearly triple the current share, but still considerably smaller than the populations of both Christians and Atheists.

Nearly half of all recent migrants to Europe (47%) were not Muslim, with Christians in fact making up the next-largest group. Taken as a whole, Europe’s population (including both Muslims and non-Muslims) would be expected to decline considerably (from about 521 million to an estimated 482 million) without any future migration. In a ‘medium’ migration scenario, the European population would remain roughly stable, while in the high migration scenario it would be projected to grow modestly. Europe’s Muslim population is diverse. It encompasses Muslims born in Europe and in a wide variety of non-European countries. It includes Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis. Levels of religious commitment and belief vary among Europe’s Muslim populations. Some of the Muslims accounted for by Pew data would not describe Muslim identity as a major factor in their daily lives.[14]

Representations of migrants and refugees in Western media and political discourse, for example, in relation to Germany, contribute to an almost Gramscian ‘war of position’[15] over symbols, policies, and, ultimately, social and material resources, with potentially fatal consequences.

One of the most important components of Antonio Gramsci’s social theory is his discussion of political strategy, particularly his distinction between ‘wars of manoeuvre’ and ‘wars of position’. Ultimately, it was his view that „one should refrain from facile rhetoric about direct attacks against the State and concentrate instead on the difficult and immensely complicated tasks that a ‚war of position‘ within civil society entails“.[16] Described by Gramsci as „the only viable possibility in the West,“ a ‚war of position‘ is resistance to domination with culture, rather than physical might, as its foundation.[17]

It is in this battle of positions that representations of refugees and migrants shift blame from historical, political-economic structures to the displaced people themselves. They distinguish ‘deserving’ refugees from ‘undeserving’ migrants and play into fears of cultural, religious, and ethnic difference in the midst of increasing anxiety and precarity for many in Europe.

This is strengthened by widespread approaches to Muslims and Islam through a ‘Crusades lens’ with immigrants and refugees posited in terms of grand political strategy as an Islamic demographic Trojan horse invading the West. Thus, Muslims and Islam are used as the trans-historical threat that necessitates an internal unification around a singular Christian identity or, more correctly, a white Western Christian identity.

Furthermore, despite inclusion and accommodation of Israel, Zionism and – by inference – Jews in Western political vision, the conspiratorial worldview driving the far-right train is deeply anti-Semitic and hostile to Jews at its core. Despite interesting affinity between some Zionist organisations and European far-right (anti-Semitic) networks, it is striking to see that the Trojan horse rhetoric and politics against migrants is used selectively and directed specifically against Muslims.

Behind this Trojan horse discourse is a geopolitics of emotions to which we need to pay attention. At the turn of the 21st Century, a number of significant emotions define our global urban life. These emotions are uncertainty, fear, extremism, fundamentalism, conflict, and risk. The 21st Century has begun by plunging us into a much more uncertain world, one that promises to be with us for some time.[18]

Societies go through changes. Many societies have become more multicultural over recent decades. Nowadays we find a diversity of identities and conflicting interests. The presence of citizens with different religious affiliations and different understandings of the role religions are to play in society poses new questions for societies and their citizens to respond to. Within the academic community, issues like these are increasingly discussed.

In the midst of diverse identities and conflicting interests of groups, cultures, and religions, 21st Century citizens are also trying to deal with emotions defined by uncertainty and risk.[19] This sense of uncertainty triggers the emotion of fear, which is central to reactions in daily situations. Fear, humiliation, and hope play an important role in the shaping of global and local geopolitics.[20] Emotions are important for the development and fate of a given society, because „they reflect the degree of confidence that this society has in itself. This confidence in turn determines the ability of said society to recover after crises, to meet challenges, and to change itself and adapt to the changing circumstances“.

Emotions can and do drive world politics in a similar way to culture, religion, nationalism, and ‘civilisations’. We need to promote `change`, and change is only possible if we turn fear and intolerance into acceptance and understanding. This should also include a policy revision in the West on the foreign policies which have significantly influenced the migration and refugee crisis.

This is an ongoing struggle of deconstruction at all levels. To develop a new proactive, evidence and ethics-based policy framework for migration and mobility in Europe and Eurasia, we need to go beyond the ‘crisis’ and `security` frameworks and acknowledge the necessity of developing common sense policy that works together with, not against, already existing communities with migrant histories.

I feel compelled to note a positive development too. The otherisation of Muslims and Islam through the migrant and refugee Trojan horse discourse has awakened a sleeping civil society giant as well, a human decency guided by universal ethics, critical civility, and common sense morality that will soon, I hope, bring a counter narrative forward.

It is this part of society that will have the last word on the difference between facts and bigotry! We should support a culture of civility through education. Education should focus on what one can call `intercultural citizenship education` which addresses the ultimate question of how we deal with our differences.

Public space is where we essentially deal first and foremost with the borders of difference. Migrants, with all their differences, are a test of our spiritual and intellectual borders. If we generally agree that it is better to venture beyond the thresholds of our own intellectual borders, then we might acknowledge that we also need to venture beyond the thresholds of our spiritual borders. To that end, we need `practical wisdom`, something more than rational politics.

What is needed at times of crisis is not just rationality but rather an overlapping consensus based on reflexive reasonability towards justice as fairness, as John Rawls articulated in his Theory of Justice. Reflexive reasonability requires, for example, a careful review of so-called counter-radicalisation programmes so that any security issue is addressed with the support of any given community, not at their expense. Reflexive reasonability is the ability to reflect upon, and determine that end. It is about looking at practice before discourse, to study cases and contexts, to interpret the phenomena examined, to write narratives, to join agency and structure, and to dialogue.

Reflexivity begins with individuals and institutions reflecting upon their own circumstances and referring to ‚direct feedback from knowledge to action‘. The idea is that differences should not turn into conflict. The unpleasant job of criticism must be done, but with reflexivity and practical wisdom (phronesis from Aristotle, or `al-hikmah al amaliyyah` from Farâbî[21]). There is no other way.

What we need to do is ‘listen to the other’. This is the only way forward against `essentialist` cultural discourses.

At the end of the day, as the Sufi master Rumi says, “every horse has its stable, every beast its pen, every bird its nest”. But we should never forget that, together with migrants and refugees, we share the same journey of human life from birth to death. As in the story of the Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-Tayr), the classic by Farid ud-Din, the famous Persian Sufi master and poet. Today and tomorrow, we will always be aware of the fact we are on a journey and perhaps what we will find at the end is nothing but Simorgh – thirty birds; that is, nothing but ourselves.


Bülent Şenay

Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims; Professor of History of Religion and Culture, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey.




[2] For a recent discussion of cultural essentialism in the context of the literature on multiculturalism, see Alan Patten, Equal Recognition: The Moral Foundations of Minority Rights (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014)

[3] Although the term „deconstruction“ was coined by Derrida (déconstruction in French), it had significant ties with much of fairly recent Western philosophy; even considering only Derrida’s work can show that deconstruction is related to the works of many important philosophers. It emerged from a clearly delineated philosophical context: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) coined the term in the 1960s, and proved more forthcoming with negative, rather than pined-for positive, analyses of the school. Derrida’s deconstruction was drawn mainly from the work of Heidegger and his notion of Destruktion but also from Husserl and his method of Abbau (dismantling or unbuilding).

[4] John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996), p.32.

[5] Hansen, Lene (2006)” Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War” Rutledge: London & New York, p.18.

[6] Weedon, Chris (1987)” Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory” Basil Blackwell Ltd., pp.20-21.

[7] Jørgensen, Marianne W. and Philips, Louise (2002)” Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method” Sage Publications, p.29.

[8] Frida Steen, Deconstructing Discourse: Gender and Operational Effectiveness in the Swedish Armed Forces, Lund University. SIMV07. Graduate School. Supervisor: Catarina Kinnvall, Thesis – Master of Science in Global Studies, Spring 2015, pp.14-15

[9] Anatoly V. Belyakov, Trojan Horse of Western History published in St. Petersburg in 2015, pp.167-168.

[10] Gabrielli, L. “Ethics and the Securitization of Migration: reversing the current policy framework,” in Bourbeau, Ph. (ed), Handbook on Migration and Security,Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Press, pp. 125-143, 2017.

[11] Lorenzo Gabrielli, Researcher at GRITIM-UPF, Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, IEMed Associate Fellow, Barcelona, `Deconstructing Migration and Refugee “Crises” in the Mediterranean. The Need for a Broader Temporal and Geographical View for a Policy Reorientation in Europe`


[13] France and Germany have the largest Muslim populations in Europe (defined as the 28 current European Union member countries plus Norway and Switzerland). As of mid-2016, there were 5.7 million Muslims in France (8.8% of the country’s population) and 5 million Muslims in Germany (6.1%). The EU country in which Muslims make up the largest share of the population is Cyprus: The island nation’s 300,000 Muslims make up about one-quarter (25.4%) of its population, and are mostly Turkish Cypriots with deep roots in Cyprus (and not recent migrants).


[15] The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), used the terms ‘War of Position’ and ‘War of Manoeuvre’ to indicate two different phases in the class struggle, and thus the appropriate strategies for revolutionaries to take. The War of Manoeuvre is, for Gramsci, the phase of open conflict between classes, where the outcome is decided by direct clashes between revolutionaries and the State. War of position, on the other hand, is the slow, hidden conflict, where forces seek to gain influence and power. Gramsci theorized on domination, hegemony and counter-hegemony, especially on dominant groups which maintain their position through a mix of sheer force (coercion through political society) and, more importantly, with the active participation of the subordinate groups (consent through hegemony in civil society). Quote: “In the East the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The State was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements”.  (Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Volume 3. trans. J.A. Buttigieg. Columbia University Press, 2007:169) Gramsci, writing during his imprisonment by Mussolini, sought to understand how it was that the Russian Revolution had succeeded and yet the European revolutionary movements had failed. He saw this as a result of a fundamental difference between Russia and the Central and Western European societies.

[16] Buttigieg, J.A., “The Contemporary Discourse on Civil Society: A Gramscian Critique“ Boundary 2, 2005, 32(1), 33-52, p.41.

[17] Gramsci, 2007:168

[18] Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Liquid times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Cambridge: Polity Press, 26.

[19] For an analytical discussion on `risk society`, see Ulrich Beck (1992) Risk Society towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.

[20] The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World, Doubleday, 2009.

[21] See Farabi`s classic discussion on the relationship between practical wisdom and urban citizenship in Abu Nas’r al-Farabi. On the Perfect State of Al-Farabi. Trans. Richard Walzer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.