In Europe, including here in the Netherlands, Islam and Muslims are increasingly problematised in a manner reminiscent of the historical emergence of the ‘Jewish Question’. Beyond the ‘us/them’ mentality, this process also involves systematic exclusion from that which is deemed to be European or Dutch. Professor Sarah Bracke is researching how gender and sexuality shape such processes of racialisation.
Photo: picture of newspaper report about policemen at the beach in Nice who ordered a muslim woman to take off some of her clothing.
Sarah Bracke was appointed professor of Sociology of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Amsterdam's (UvA) Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences in late February. We talked to her about the research she will be pursuing in her new appointment.
A sentiment often voiced in public conversations is that Islam and Muslims are fundamentally different from what is defined as Dutch or European. It is on this juxtaposition that notions of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ get fixed, often in ways that engender political exclusion and, ultimately, dehumanisation. How do such representations come into being? Where do they come from? How can we understand these processes better? These questions are central to the research that Sarah Bracke will be doing in her professorship.
By dissecting the contemporary discourse, Prof. Bracke seeks to uncover underlying patterns. Besides delving into the archives and examining the public debate, she will be talking to people who create or perpetuate such frames, including policymakers and journalists, as well as people who strive to dispel them.
One of these archives is the European ‘Jewish Question’, constituting the negative images and narratives propagated about Jewish people from the eighteenth century onwards. The content of news reporting, humour, laws, and medical and scientific discussions all conspired to make Jews into a ‘question’ or ‘problem’. Patterns of racialisation and dehumanisation familiar to us from scholarship on the Jewish question are also discernible in how Muslims and Islam are approached in Europe today.
The colonial past provides another archive. Because of the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia, Islam has long been a part of Dutch history. By unravelling these influential histories, Prof. Bracke aims to map out the current constitution of Islam and of Muslims as a ‘question’.
According to Prof. Bracke, gender and sexuality provide prominent discursive terrains upon which this ‘question’ is developed. Consider for instance debates on sartorial practices (the head scarf and the niqab), homosexuality, male circumcision, violence against women, and the ‘demographic threat’. In such debates, Muslims are systematically negatively described as deviating – being ‘other’ and ‘irreconcilable’ – from European and Dutch norms and values of gender and sexuality.
‘History has taught us that racialisation and dehumanisation lead to violence’
‘But violence against women is not any less prevalent among white Dutch men, nor do all Dutch people take a positive stance on homosexuality and transgender people. Just look at the recent Nashville Statement. Here and elsewhere in Europe, issues of gender and sexuality have been strategically appropriated to define part of the population as “other”’, explains Prof. Bracke. ‘It's important that we do our best to understand and expose these processes and their impact. After all’, she concludes, ‘history has taught us that racialisation and dehumanisation lead to violence’.
As well as scholarly output for fellow academics, Prof. Bracke intends the project to result in a film for a wider audience. In it, she wants to present an accessible picture of how these ‘us/them’ narratives and processes of racialisation come about, which mechanisms are involved and what their impact is. Also, how harmful are they? And could new knowledge be used to rewrite these narratives
The research is part of the project: 'EnGendering Europe’s Muslim Question' (funded by NWO Vici and Aspasia grants).