Emerging Counter-Narratives to Islamophobia in Portugal: An Overview

Emerging counter-narratives to Islamophobia in Portugal: an overview

Dr Silvia Rodríguez Maeso


This post offers an overview of the main counter-narratives to Islamophobia that we have identified across a diverse range of individuals, organisations and public bodies in the Portuguese context. Our analysis engages with Sayyid’s theoretical understanding of Islamophobia (Sayyid, 2014) and dominant Islamophobic narratives that we have previously identified in the Portuguese context (Araújo, 2017). Sayyid states that ‘more than an expression of hatred or fear, Islamophobia needs to be understood as an undermining of the ability of Muslims as Muslims, to project themselves into the future’ (2014, p. 14, emphasis added). Sayyid identifies two different counter-narratives (and the specific counter-measures associated to them) to combat Islamophobia: conventional strategies that aim to correct prejudiced representations, to demystify or enlighten our views about Islam and Muslims; and political strategies that aim to counter Islamophobia as a relationship of domination (Ibid., p. 22).

Empirical research in the Portuguese context aimed to grasp discourses and political arrangements and initiatives developed in diverse spheres at both local and national level. We have conducted 21 interviews with 28 participants – from July to November 2017 – from five key spheres: political activism, State politics, Islamic organisations and mosques, academia, and journalism.

Although the absence of similar studies on Islamophobia in Portugal, and the limitations and scope of our fieldwork demand a cautious approach, we can point out two main issues that have more national significance for the configuration of counter-narratives:

– Education and history teaching: the need to critically reconstruct the narrative about the formation of the Portuguese nation-state and the Reconquista presented in textbooks and in-class teaching that constructs Muslims as the ‘historical enemy’. The views expressed are located in a spectrum that includes more conventional strategies towards reform and inclusion, and more critical strategies that demand also a broader critique of the relationship between Portuguese national identity and colonialism.

– State-religion relations and the Concordat: the privileges granted to the Catholic Church within a State defined as secular has always been an issue of controversy that gained momentum in specific periods – such as during the discussion of the Freedom of Religion Bill. The power of the Catholic Church, and the maintenance of a monocultural approach that shapes educational programmes and access to the job market make it difficult an adequate application of the law and the effective tackling of Islamophobic practices that remain silenced.

The impact of counter-narratives across local communities can be seen in relation to two key issues:

–  Islamophobia and racism in institutional settings: political activists have emphasized the need for increasing the political visibility of different Muslim communities and their experiences of Islamophobia and racism. The challenge to the official rhetoric of the good/moderate Muslims and a benign State administration, considers the existence of practices of control and assimilation that pass unnoticed, above all regarding women. The issue of racism is considered central and also ambivalent regarding Islamophobia: on the one hand, it is considered that Islamophobia is mostly expressed in Portugal through the reproduction of Eurocentrism and the identification with whiteness and European modernity (more explicitly in the problematisation of Muslim women); on the other hand, racism against Black Muslims, for instance, is seen either as more relevant than Islamophobia or with more political purchase. Racism and integration discourses differentiates Muslim communities hierarchically.

– Counter-terrorism policies and surveillance:  the discourse on the danger of ‘radicalisation’ of Muslims is perceived as encouraging racialisation of and differentiation within Muslim communities. The combat against terrorism needs to be analysed within imperialist geopolitics and the alignment of Portugal with the global, hegemonic rhetoric. The discourse on ‘radicalisation’ legitimises surveillance of Muslims (places of worship, bank accounts, clothing) and more explicit expressions of Islamophobia.

In the remainder of this post, we give a more detailed account of the two sets of counter-narratives identified.

Conventional strategies to countering Islamophobia

Dominant views have been shaped by two key discourses and political processes that reinforce each other and are mediated by the figure of the good/moderate Muslim, integrated into and faithful to the Portuguese/European identity: on the one hand, the view that Islamophobia is not a relevant issue in Portugal, and its interrelation to the presumed Portuguese pioneering ability for intercultural dialogue and leading best integration practices. The shared colonial history is usually seen as an asset, for instance regarding cultural ‘assimilability’ and language, for the integration of Muslims – it is common the comparison with France, as an example of an extreme secularist approach in politics. On the other, the view that Portugal is also inserted in the European and global combat against terrorism; although it has not been the target of any attack, there is a concern with and surveillance of processes of ‘radicalisation’ taking place within Muslim communities in the country and, in particular, in Metropolitan Lisbon.

‘Conventional strategies’ have more national significance – they are present in public commentary, academic discourse, prominent Islamic associations, journalistic work and official State rhetoric – than political strategies. Participants stressed the need of rigorous knowledge about Islam and Muslims, and the acknowledgment of the cultural and socio-economic heterogeneity od Muslims. Countering Islamophobia is framed in terms of countering prejudiced representations of a religious identity.

 ‘The media lacks knowledge; they have no intellectual background to talk about the subject [Islam]’ (Representative of Mosque and Islamic Community, metropolitan area).

‘We want to show a different idea of what it is to be Muslim and it is not what people think. (…) We want to break down a wall that exists between us and … well, not everybody (…) that fear… Some people see the Muslim in a way… it has nothing to do with reality’ (Representative of Mosque and Islamic Community, medium-size city). 

 ‘History teaching in our education system aggravates Islamophobia. (…) The overwhelming majority of history teachers did not study Islam as part of their degrees’. Teachers are not trained to teach about Islam’ (Academic, Historian).

Political strategies to countering Islamophobia

Participants expressed a critique of both historical narratives about state and nation formation, the legacies of colonialism and racism, and contemporary institutional arrangements concerning state-religion relations. They also engaged with the context of denying Islamophobia, and the differences/similarities between Portugal and other European contexts regarding the problematisation of Muslim presence and Islam in the public debate. We have identified three interrelated issues that were specifically tackled by political counter-narratives:

  1. National identity, colonialism and state-formation

Participants expressed the need for a radical critique of history teaching and history textbooks. They considered crucial to address colonialism and its legacies in the Portuguese context and, in particular, of the relationship between colonialism, religion and Islam.

‘When you study the history of the “Reconquista at school there is always a game of identity projection that constructs a “we, the Portuguese that heroically conquered Portugal against the Moors”. This narrative constructs the Muslims as an alterity’ (Political Activist and researcher; Muslim).

  1. State – religion relations, secularism and legal/policy arrangements

The Concordata – the convention between the Portuguese State and the Holy See-Vatican revised and ratified in 2004 (Law 74/2004) – is considered as a legal arrangement that creates unequal power relations and reproduces a culturalisation of religious beliefs that are read in national/territorial terms, and legitimise specific political projects and imaginaries of cultural national integrity (see Mamdani, 2005, p. 27; Sayyid, 2010, pp. 130-131).

‘There are structural aspects that show Islamophobia at the State level. We have the Concordat, this means that the State has a relationship with the Catholic Church where there is a shared management of the institutional, symbolic moments of the Catholic community in Portugal. This relationship does not exist regarding Muslims. (…) All the public initiatives that tried to join all the religions, sponsored by the authority of the President of the Republic … [State, Church] they have the privilege of saying that this is done for you [Muslims] to show that you behave well’ (Anti-racist political activist; Black Movement).

‘In practice, the law of Freedom of Religion in Portugal is not respected… nobody takes the risk of challenging employers to have the right to perform the prayers, and enforce the law’ (Representative of Mosque and Islamic Community, metropolitan area).

III. (Institutional) Islamophobia, racism and women

The interrelatedness between Islamophobia and racism has been highlighted throughout the interviews, and the need to analyse the legacies of post-colonial politics of integration, racialization and migration. Views expressed the need to critically engage with the dominant idea conveyed by decisions makers that ‘in Portugal, we have “good Muslims” (…) who are moderate people – ‘just like us’ (see Araújo, 2017, pp. 10-11). This idea is seen as connected to the increasing centrality of policies to combat terrorism and the discourse on ‘radicalisation’ that fuels differentiation and hierarchisation of Muslim communities. The moral panics over ‘the oppressed Muslim woman’ and the ‘radicalised Muslim man’ are considered by several participants as key issues to unravel how Islamophobia operates within institutional spheres – academia, the judiciary, social welfare services, local and national policy making.

The Muslim community in Portugal is invisible. It is (…) manipulated to show how to be an exemplary community and the media love to do this (…) and the [Muslim] leaders in Portugal – and I completely disagree with [this point of view] and I confront it – their speech is “we are like you”, they are always apologizing, while in the UK there is not such a discourse. There is also [in the UK] a certain class that is like that, they identify more with the establishment, with the elite, but there is … there is much pride: “I am what I am, I can be different, I can use completely different clothing, and this is not only with Muslims; an African can walk dressed in Nigerian clothes, for example, and [he] is accepted as a British Nigerian. In Portugal, you can be a third-generation immigrant, but if you do not wear the clothing that is predominant in Portugal, he will always be the foreigner. (…) The idea that there is no Islamophobia in Portugal, it is more about maintaining unequal power relations, keeping [the Muslim community] invisible and presenting it as an exemplary community (Pro-palestinian Activist Muslim)

‘(…) dominant discourses use, in a selective and hypocritical manner, the issue of women – that exists in the Islamicate world – as an argument to justify, at a discursive level, practices of control… of political, social and cultural governance, and even military, that were already there’ (Political Activist and researcher; Muslim).

‘[Since the early 2000s] there is a large number of immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and also from Afghanistan. There is a concern about places of worship: who attends to these places, who finances them, how they work, how they relate to other places in Europe that are potentially suspect. This rhetoric begins to appear in the press through the voice of experts who comment on international events, in the EU, and, in most cases, they are people with responsibilities in the definition of strategies to combat terrorism (Anti-racist political activist; Black Movement).


Araújo, Marta (2017) ‘Working Paper 5 – Workstream 1: Dominant Islamophobic Narratives – Portugal’, CIK Project (Counter Islamophobia Kit), Leeds: CERS, available online: https://cik.leeds.ac.uk/publications/workstream-1-dominant-islamophobic-narratives-portugal/ (accessed: 15 September 2017).

Mamdani, Mahmood (2005 [2004]) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Three Leaves Press/Doubleday-Random House.

Sayyid, S. (2010) “The Homelessness of Muslimness: The Muslim Umma as a Diaspora,” Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge,  8 (2), Article 12, Available online: http://scholarworks.umb.edu/humanarchitecture/vol8/iss2/12 (accessed: 8 September 2017).

Sayyid, S. (2014) ‘A Measure of Islamophobia’, Islamophobia Studies Journal, 2 (1), Spring, pp. 10-25.