If we do not confront the scourge of racial and religious hatred today, then the Europe of tomorrow may well become more like the place we all hoped had been left behind in the pages of history - warns academic
Today's seminal Amnesty International report on systematic and intensifying discrimination against Muslims in Europe makes sobering reading. Based on extensive field research focusing on five countries – Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland – the 100-page plus report documents an alarming increase in public fear and suspicion toward Muslims; as well as a disturbing acceleration of state practices that marginalise Muslims because of their faith, ethnic origin, gender or a combination of these things. The report focuses on the impact of new legislation and policies restricting the wearing of religious and cultural symbols. It finds that far from contributing to social integration, this pattern has had the opposite effect - blighting individuals' "prospects, opportunities and self-esteem". It, therefore, results in "isolation, exclusion and stigmatisation".
Ironically, the biggest victims of these trends are the most vulnerable. They are Muslim women and young people – the same people that European states often claim they are defending. "Muslims, and especially Muslim women, can be discriminated against in access to employment and at work simply because they wear specific forms of dress," notes the report. This is "detrimental to women's equality and autonomy". Similarly, various types of bans on religious symbols or dress in schools mean that Muslim pupils or students have been excluded from mainstream educational institutions. More broadly, the report notes that anti-Muslim stereotypes and prejudices against religious and cultural practices have curtailed or prevented the establishment of places of worship, further excluding communities from public life.
All in all, despite its narrower approach, the report demonstrates that these trends are part a deepening pattern of discriminatory state practices across Europe. Worse, these trends coincide with the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim public discourse, though a dramatic rise in popularity of political parties which are openly hostile to Islam as a faith, and to Muslims in general. The simple problem with such discourses is that they "fail to take into account basic demographic and sociological factors such as the diversity of Muslim groups as well as their cultural and religious practices across the region". The Amnesty report confirms the paradoxical fact that in the very name of promoting freedom, Europe is in fact sliding dangerously back into the exclusionary politics of the 1930s. European states are, with increasing impunity, riding roughshod over the fundamental freedoms protected by most domestic state legislatures - upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights and enshrined in international human rights law.
Although the report's case studies do not include Britain, other studies of recent years confirm that the country is very much part of this trend. Successive reports over the last decade by a range of agencies – from the Runnymede Trust's Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia in 2004, to the Open Society Institute in 2005 as well as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2009, and the European Muslim Research Centre in 2010 – prove clearly that discrimination against British Muslims across education, employment, criminal justice and media discourses. They also show hate crimes are at record levels.
More worrying, is that open hostility toward Muslims is increasingly normalised in the context of the opportunistic appropriation of specific tenets of extreme-right ideology into mainstream political discourse. As journalist Sarah Wildman pointed out in The Guardian
, the horrifying Oslo massacre by Anders Behring Breivik revealed a curious overlap between "a murderous vendetta against multiculturalism" and a "penchant for United States Islamophobic blogs". Breivik, she noted, was an avid reader of well-known ultra-conservative bloggers in the US such as Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, Pam Geller of Atlas Shrugged in addition to Bruce Bawer - author of a book warning about the Arabisation of Europe. This points to a deeper, entrenched problem. Islamophobia is fast-becoming a transatlantic phenomenon whereby the "panic of European Islamophobia", in Wildman's words, is being re-imaged and repackaged into a "successful, almost mainstream" public discourse. This, in turn, feeds back across the Atlantic.
Moreover, the Breivik case illustrates that even though the mainstream promoters of this transatlantic discourse disavow violence - its legitimisation not only fuels anti-Muslim hate crimes and discriminatory practices across the western world, but also increases the possibility of extreme right terrorist violence. British policy-makers would, therefore, do well to take note of Amnesty International's wide-ranging recommendations. In particular, the human rights group urges that governments establish national equality bodies that could monitor and police the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation relating to employment, education, and other areas; as well as measure the nature and impact of discrimination affecting religious groups, especially Muslim women and girls. The British government has certainly taken a positive step forward in establishing the Cross Party Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes. But the focus needs to be much broader, and further action needs to have teeth. If we do not confront the scourge of racial and religious hatred today, then the Europe of tomorrow may well become more like a Europe we all hoped had been left behind in the pages of history.Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development, in the United Kingdom. This article was first published on PublicServiceEurope.com's sister site publicservice.co.uk