Europeans are falling for far right's false claims of Muslims 'taking over'
Over the last year in France, I have been struck by the number of conversations I have had with French people who believe their Muslim compatriots are "taking over" the country. While some of those making this claim have been supporters of the increasingly popular far-right Front National, a party that uses anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, often conflating the two, others have been staunch critics of the Front National and its fellow travellers.
Their arguments bear little resemblance to reality. France does not collect census data on the religion of its citizens, but demographers estimate Muslims make up less than 8pc of the population. When I put those figures to the French who talk of a supposed 'Muslim take over', they were shocked.
It came as no surprise to me then to read an Ipsos Mori survey published last month which found that out of 40 countries, French respondents were by far the most likely to overstate their country's current and projected Muslim population.
While Ipsos Mori said that nearly all countries overestimate their Muslim population, and many are "extraordinarily wrong", the French findings stood out, not least because France is home to Europe's largest number of Muslims.
The average French estimate held that 31pc of the current population was Muslim - around one-in-three residents - compared with the reality of less than 8pc.
French respondents were also widest off the mark when it came to the projected Muslim population in 2020. The average prediction held that Muslims would make up 40pc of the population of France four years from now, almost five times the 8.3pc forecast by demographers.
Sociologist Raphaël Liogier told a French newspaper that the survey findings showed how too many are "trying to find scapegoats for our problems instead of trying to solve them" as France heads towards a presidential election in late April which will see Front National leader Marine Le Pen as one of the main contenders.
Some commentators in France have argued that the 'burkini' controversy last summer - where several towns banned the all-over swimsuit worn by some Muslim women - was orchestrated for political reasons as the country's mainstream right-wing tries to counter Le Pen and her cohort.
"We need to have responsible politicians who tell people what the real situation is and not feed their fear," Mr Liogier said.
"For the last four years, we have fed the fear and prejudices … People used to say that Muslims are not adapting to our culture and values, but now they're saying Muslims intend to take over - to steal our jobs, our lives, our identity."
And it's not just France. The Ipsos Mori survey recorded similar gaps between public perception of Muslim populations and reality in other European countries where, like France, far-right parties and movements have encouraged anti-Muslim sentiment to fuel their expansion.
In Germany where Angela Merkel, facing elections later this year, recently called for a burka ban - though few Muslim women in the country wear the full-face veil - people also greatly overestimated the size of the Muslim population, by as much as 16 percentage points.
British respondents put the current Muslim population at 15pc, three times the actual figure, while they overestimated the projected 2020 population by an even greater margin (22pc against an actual projection of 6pc).
Italian and Belgian respondents believed Muslims comprise a fifth of their countries' populations, when the actual figure is less than 7pc. Similar results were recorded in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. In Poland, where Muslims make up just 0.1pc of the population, respondents believed it was 5pc, and predicted it would more than double by 2020.
These are dangerous days for Europe, not least due to the rise of ultra-nationalist movements peddling bigotry and racism to citizens uncertain about what the future holds. Attacks claimed by Isil in several European countries have stirred anxieties subsequently exploited by such groups for political capital.
A key narrative pushed by the far-right across Europe is the idea of Muslims 'taking over' even though it is not rooted in reality.
Some of this dates back a decade or so, when ultra-conservative American pundits - some of whom are now close to the incoming Trump administration - coined the term 'Eurabia' to fear-monger about demographic changes in Europe. These ideas greatly inspired Anders Breivik who killed over 70 people in Norway in 2011. Much has changed in the last five years, not least the explosion of social media which has been used to great effect by populist movements across Europe.
Perception has become 'truth' for a growing number of people and the result is a fuelling of xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim sentiment that plays to the hand of the far-right.