In light of Europe’s current security and social crises tied to immigration and terrorism, this article serves as a cautionary reminder of the damage done when we resort to using stereotypes or generalisations. Although some readers may consider my observations to be obvious, I believe it is still an issue worth underscoring at this time. While Europe is becoming increasingly politically fragmented, divisions are also being fuelled by xenophobia and fear. I fear the ongoing increase of exclusion and discrimination, which is why I believe it is important to act against it by paying more attention to the language we use. The problem I wish to emphasise here is one of stereotyping Europe’s Muslim population. However, the reasoning used in this article can apply to almost any instance when categorisation is used indiscriminately.

Photo: Mick Baker (rooster) (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

Generalisation and stereotyping

Although there tends to be a shared consensus about condemning stereotypes and generalisations, it would be hypocritical to claim that none of us resort to them in daily conversation. For example, I think most Europeans who hear a friend say, “Oh, he was so French!” would picture a stylish pretentious young man making sarcastic jokes in a heavy French accent (which, for some reason, can be considered a somewhat charming combination). Obviously it does not take much to realise that this description is over simplified. In spite of this, none of us can help instinctively associating images with words, or words with images. All individuals’ thoughts are limited by generalisations, not only because of the constraints of language, but also because we have been taught to think in terms of concepts and theories. Generalising comes as natural to most individuals and many would argue that it is not a problem. Indeed, some may believe that being able to ascribe distinctive characteristics to the word “French” is only indicative of cultural distinctions, which all Europeans are subject to. However, stereotyping becomes a serious problem when the subjects being stereotyped perceive it as offensive or discriminating. I am not talking about racism – although racism is an extreme version of stereotyping. The issue worth addressing here is the broader implications of using common terminology to unconsciously stereotype.

By using general and vague statements, politicians and journalists reinforce stereotypes, which gradually become standardised and acceptable. 

Although this reasoning may not be limited to current events, it is worth addressing the problem of stereotyping in light of the rhetoric currently used by politicians and journalists concerning Europe’s ongoing crises; namely migration and the threat of terrorism. As soon as controversial issues are debated by politicians or in the media, certain stereotypical expressions are used indiscriminately to refer to groups of individuals. These words categorise a set of individuals by assimilating them as a whole to distinctive characteristics. Of course, it is understandable that when addressing the public, politicians and journalists use simple words in order to infer a general message, which can be widely understood. However, this is dangerous in that it fails to consider the complexity the issues addressed. Most importantly, creating categories is an incorrect reflection of social reality. This is problematic on two levels. First, using generalised terms to refer to a group of people feeds the impression that this given group is homogenous, when it is usually immensely diverse. Second, it encourages people to put anyone who may share those characteristics into that same category. Most importantly, these two issues highlight the failure to consider the subjects’ individual characteristics. By using general and vague statements, politicians and journalists reinforce stereotypes, which gradually become standardized and acceptable.

Stereotyping in the European context

A good way to understand the problem exacerbated by politicians’ rhetoric and stereotyping is through paying close attention to how Muslims have been referred to across Europe this past year.  With the growing threat of terrorism and flow of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, politicians across Europe have repeatedly entered into a debate about Islam and Muslims in general. The problem I am addressing here extends beyond xenophobic comments made by certain politicians or the wide range of amalgams linking Muslims to horrific ideas.

The problem I am addressing here extends beyond xenophobic comments made by certain politicians or wide range of amalgams linking Muslims to horrific ideas.

A perfect example of the type of stereotyping I am alluding to is when politicians refer to people of Muslim faith as being part of the “Muslim community”. Many European politicians use this expression, regardless of their political affiliation. Although it may be convenient because it refers to wide group of individuals, it is a misrepresentation of the social reality. Using such an expression fails to acknowledge the heterogeneity of the Muslim population in a given country. Indeed, a cohesive ‘Muslim community’ does not exist either in Europe, or in any European nation. On the contrary, Europe’s Muslim population is immensely heterogeneous. In fact, there is neither a sense of shared identity, nor any binding institutions, which regroup all Europeans of Muslim faith. It would be more accurate to talk about Muslim communities, which may regroup people of Muslim faith in given areas. 

The French intellectual Olivier Roy focused on this issue in powerful articles that appeared in Le Monde and Libération following the January attacks in France. Although the latter focus on France, the author’s reasoning can apply in any other European countries. Often, when implying that people are part of a “Muslim community” it is making a statement about their faith, which is almost impossible to measure. Thus, the “Muslim community” becomes an imaginary group comprising anyone who may have the physical attributes of  ‘being a Muslim’ – whatever those are. This only serves to reinforce the stigmatisation of individuals and creates an insider/outsider dialectic which should not be evoked. Therefore, by referring to a ‘Muslim community,’ politicians and journalists not only create a fictitious group, but encourage the general public to associate anyone who may ‘look Muslim’ with this “community”, regardless of that individual’s faith.

Photo: European Union 2015- European Parliament (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 |
European Parliament President Martin Schulz at a UCNRWA event to raise awareness for the personal stories of individuals behind news headlines in Palestine

The issue raised here is not limited to the stereotyping of Muslims in Europe but can apply to a range of other rhetoric used to create imaginary categories. For example, talking about ‘migrants’ in general terms fails to consider the complexity and diversity of different groups of individuals arriving from a variety of places. The same can be said about arbitrarily using the word “terrorist”, an immensely abstract term, which also serves to create a distinctive ‘other’.  The issue of stereotyping greatly revolves around language, which is why we must all pay more attention to the words we use when talking about groups of individuals. For example, a simple starting point would be to add “some of” before referring to a group of individuals. In sum, always remember to consider people’s individual characteristics before viewing them through the lens of a group you think they may be part of. By obliging ourselves to value the diversity of Europe’s population, we can collectively combat growing insider/outsider tension, which is largely fuelled by stereotypes.


Cover photo: Surreal Name Given (Flickr) Licence: CC BY 2.0

  • retro

    Emma O'Brien Blondes was raised in France by American parents. She graduated from King's College London with a BA in European Studies. Over the course of her studies, Emma has become increasingly interested in War studies, and particularly drawn to research. She now works in the Center for Security Studies at IFRI, a French think tank.

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