Happy, Happy, Happy: Tolerant Portugal and the ‘Good Muslims’

Marta Araújo, CES

15 September 2017


In contemporary Portugal, Lusotropicalism – which constructs the country as particularly tolerant towards the formerly colonized and grounds this assumption on a historical discourse of miscegenation and benevolent colonialism – has permeated the public debate on the colonial legacies. Muslims have been key subjects in this trope, particularly those fitting the figure of the good Muslim. Despite the national narrative of pluri-religious harmony, research in Portugal revealed the deep-seated construction of the Muslim as antonym to what being Portuguese/European means – since the very historical formation of the nation. This is analyzed by Marta Araújo, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies – University of Coimbra.


The discursive field of Lusotropicalism became consolidated during the New State’s dictatorship [1926-1974], particularly in the context of international pressure to decolonize, both by national liberation movements in Africa and by major organizations such as the United Nations. Lusotropicalism helped to create a facade of amicable and hospital relations between the colonizers and colonized (Castelo, 1998). Muslims were key subjects in the construction of this trope: by the 1960s, their claim that they were a two-million population in colonial Portugal – in order to gain political legitimacy – was soon appropriated by Salazar’s regime to advertise a multi-continental, multiracial and pluri-religious nation (see Vakil, 2003b).


With the restoring of democracy in 1974, Left and Right-wing governments have failed to significantly disrupt the pervasiveness of Lusotropicalism and this imaginary has continued to shape the scenery of public discourse in politics, academia and the media. In politics, parliamentary debate and senior politicians have most often abstained from commenting on issues concerning Islam and Muslim populations in Portugal. Common explanations for this political invisibility have centred on two key aspects that need to be challenged: first, the small size of the Muslim population, currently estimated at about 50,000 people (about 0,6% of the national population). When this is compared to public discourse on the same-size Roma population (e.g. Araújo, 2016), it appears that political silence on Muslims/Islam is tactical, and it is coupled with a silence around the question of Islamophobia. Second, the specific characteristics of the Muslim population. Key state institutions, particularly the High Commission for Migrations (ACM – Alto Comissariado para as Migrações) which overviews the question of religious plurality in Portugal, have reified an imaginary of multicultural and inter-religious conviviality (see also ACM, 2017) in Portugal that deploys the figure of the Muslim as ‘well integrated’ and hence accepted by ’society at large’. Such depictions gloss over different experiences of what being a Muslim means in a supposedly secular, historically Christian Catholic country like Portugal. Official narratives can be encapsulated in the idea that Portugal has ‘good Muslims’, who are moderate and open-minded – just like ‘us’. The category good Muslim is bestowed on political, not religious, grounds. As Mahmood Mamdani (2004) suggests: ‘good Muslims are modern, secular, and Westernized, but bad Muslims are doctrinal, antimodern, and virulent’ (p. 24). The notion of the ‘good Muslim’ hence corresponds to the assimilated modern, liberal subject who does not complain of Islamophobia. Crucially, privileged interlocutors in this (political) conversation, such as the Islamic Community of Lisbon, have contributed to the idea of Portugal as a sort of paradise for Muslims – a land free of Islamophobia –, which has most likely hindered complaints by those who face Islamophobia and racism in everyday life. The lack of reliable data on discrimination on racial, ethnic or religious grounds further compounds this.


These two assumptions find a deep resonance at the level of academic knowledge production and hence shape what we know about Islamophobia. In Portugal, in the last two decades, Islamophobia per se has not been in the academic agenda – this does not mean, nonetheless, that there is no scholarly interest on Muslim populations. Four main research clusters seem particularly prominent since 2000: 1) Muslims within the wider research agenda of immigration (e.g. Abranches, 2007); 2) socio-demographic studies of the Muslim population in Portugal (e.g. Tiesler, 2000); 3) research on Islam, terrorism and security (e.g. Raposo, 2009); 4) studies on Islam and national identity (e.g. Vakil, 2004). Overall, studies within the first three clusters show an uneasy engagement with the notion of Islamophobia, often alluding to the political endorsement of the concept (e.g. Runnymede Trust, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, or the United Nations) as a justification for its deployment, rather than a conceptual discussion of its deployment and emergence. Similarly, although such work might make reference to situations which illustrate Islamophobia in the routine management of Muslim populations, it fails to systematically explore how Muslims are discriminated against because they are Muslims (Sayyid, 2014; see also Mapril, 2012). As a result, most research fails to challenge the perception of Portugal as not having a problem of Islamophobia.

Research on media content clearly shows the mismatch between the spheres of political and academic discourse vis-à-vis the widespread suspicion of, and hatred towards, Muslim populations in Portugal. In the analysis of over 100 web entries related to Islamophobia, Muslims and Islam since 2000, the following two clusters of interrelated narratives emerged as common: a) Muslims as having a propensity to violence and terrorism, theocratic ruling and irrationality – rather than democracy, science and the rule of law; b) Muslims as prone to bigotry, gender inequity and homophobia – and hence incapable of accepting freedom of speech, assimilating into ‘our’ ways and being tolerant with ‘our own’ – in the extreme, ‘they’ are invaders and seek ‘our’ conversion.

In a nutshell, the research work on the narratives on Islamophobia in Portugal illustrate: a) how in Europe, but not of Europe, Muslims are perceived as an ‘intrusive presence’ that disrupts a narrative of Europe which draws on homogenous space and linear time (Asad, 2003, p. 167). Accordingly, the construction of a binary opposition between the West/Europe/Portugal and Islam seems a way to settle this tension; b) implicitly, we can find a second binary construction with the splitting of the ‘good Muslim’ (aka the ‘moderate Muslim’) and the ‘bad Muslim’. Apparently antonymic, the two categories are nevertheless fundamentally intertwined, and ethnically marked: the Muslim will never be fully European (Sayyid, 2004). These narratives are not just about Muslims: they are narratives about the making of the nation against Islam/Muslims, conceptions of nationhood and ‘Europeaness’ (Hesse, 2007), and about the role that Muslims may play in a common destiny.




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