Muslims in Europe want to interact with other Europeans and participate as full and equal members of society, but regularly face various forms of prejudice, discrimination and violence that reinforce their social exclusion. This is the conclusion of recent research by various international organisations and NGOs. Unfortunately, commentators on the Arab Spring missed the historic opportunity to deconstruct harmful stereotypes about the alleged incompatibility of Islam and democracy, instead exaggerating the risk of migration to Europe.
Muslims as the primary “other” in European political discourse
Muslims have become the primary “other” in right-wing populist discourse in Europe. Political parties in Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland have employed anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain. Politicians frequently refer to Muslims when discussing the alleged “failure of multiculturalism”. However, multiculturalism as a strategy of promoting intercultural dialogue while at the same time preserving cultural identities has hardly been tried in most countries.
Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and thereafter, Muslims have become inextricably linked in the public mind with terrorism. However, some of the most horrific attacks in Europe of recent years – the string of racist murders in Germany and the ruthless, premeditated murder of scores of innocent people by an extremist in Norway – serve as a wake-up call to the dangers of the far-right and as a reminder that terrorists have various ideological persuasions.
Muslims targeted by restrictive legislation and policy
Some mainstream parties have exploited anti-Muslim sentiment by supporting restrictive legislative measures that target Muslims. Since 2011 Belgium and France have enacted laws subjecting women who wear full face veils to fines or “citizenship training”. In Italy, some local authorities have resorted to an old anti-terrorist law against concealing the face for security reasons to punish women with full-face veils. Similar initiatives have been discussed in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.
After a campaign marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Swiss electorate voted in late 2009 to ban the construction of minarets. This prompted the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) to issue a rare statement condemning discrimination against Muslims and their freedom of religion in Switzerland. Local authorities in many European cities regularly find reasons to delay building permits for mosques, but not for other houses of worship.
Muslims subjected to discrimination and abusive stops
A recent study by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) found that 1 in 3 Muslims in the EU had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months, with youth being the most frequent victims. According to a report just published by Amnesty International, many Muslim women feel discouraged from seeking employment because of policies restricting the wearing of religious and cultural symbols and dress.
A particularly pernicious form of discrimination is when police, customs or border guards engage in ethnic or religious profiling against Muslims by stopping them only because of their appearance. The aforementioned FRA study found that 1 in 4 Muslim respondents were stopped by the police in the previous year, while more than a third had been stopped by customs or border control. Ethnic or religious profiling is not only discriminatory, it is counterproductive, as it misdirects attention from suspicious behaviour to appearance and alienates the communities with whom law enforcement agencies need to cooperate.
What governments should do
Governments should stop targetting Muslims through legislation or policy, and instead enshrine the ground of religion or belief as a prohibited ground of discrimination in all realms. They should also empower independent equality bodies or ombudsmen to review complaints, provide legal assistance and representation in court, provide policy advice, and conduct research on discrimination against Muslims and other religious groups. Monitoring discrimination against Muslims should involve collecting data disaggregated by ethnicity, religion and gender.
In parallel, governments should combat popular prejudice and intolerance against Muslims. Here, useful guidance is provided by ECRI’s general policy recommendation No. 5 “Combatting intolerance and discrimination against Muslims”. In 2011 the OSCE, UNESCO and the Council of Europe issued helpful “Guidelines for Educators on Countering Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims”.
It is time to accept Muslims as an integral part of European societies, entitled to equality and dignity. Prejudice, discrimination and violence only hinder integration. We need our own “European Spring” to overcome old and emerging forms of racism and intolerance.