Political courage required to tackle Islamophobia in the EU

Islamophobia has been largely dismissed in the European Union because of its contentious nature. But why has it become so contentious, and what effect is its dismissal having on Muslims in Europe?

By Natasha Pearce and Rachel Jackson

The entrance to the European Parliament Altiero Spinelli building. Photo: Rachel Jackson

Islamophobia in the Commission 

Commentator on European affairs, Shada Islam, described Islamophobia as “Europe’s blind spot”. 

The latest European Islamophobia Report indicated that Islamophobia is getting worse, but the Commission has left the role of Anti-Muslim Hatred Coordinator vacant since Tomasso Chiamparino finished his last assignment as coordinator in July 2021. There is uncertainty as to whether the post was effective. Shada Islam said the position was a  “limited role” with a “low profile”.

“Tomasso had very little power, his job was very limited in its content with no one helping him,” she said.

In response to a Freedom of Information Request made in February this year by euobserver journalist, Andrew Rettman, the Department of Justice and Consumers released information last week on staffing allocation to Commission coordinators. They detailed that the coordinator on combating ant-Semitism is supported by the three members, the coordinator on combating racism is supported by two additional staff members, but the “anti-Muslim hatred coordinator carried out the tasks without additional staff”.

“What’s the point in having one if it’s just for the sake of having someone do it, if he or she doesn’t have the capacity to deal or the mandate to deal with problems of discrimination and Islamophobia,” Shada said. “What we really need is a more effective job, somebody who can use some authority rather than just attend conferences and talk.”

Like any other multinational organisation, the EU contains bureaucracy. The EU depends on the agreement of politicians from member states, which means contentious issues such as Islamophobia are often dismissed.

The Commission is selective with what it chooses to highlight as breaches of its human rights agenda, according to Islam. They are more inclined to speak on issues such as regulation of media and corruption, but racist stigmas are overlooked.

Civil Organisations are pushing for change

Despite this hostile environment, civil organisations and advocates are continuing to campaign against Islamophobia in Europe, and are working to change the discourse surrounding Muslims in Europe. 

Imane Benchaou is project coordinator for KARAMAH EU, a civil organisation that raises awareness about gendered Islamophobia, and works to embed it into the general discourse on Islamophobia. Benchaou agrees that the Parliament is dismissive when Muslim civil society organisations try to put Islamophobia to the forefront as a specific form of racism. 

“We are met with silence or a pat on the back, then dismissal,” she said.

Imane Benchaou, project coordinator for KARAMAH EU. (Photo: KARAMAH EU)

Karamah is the Arabic word for dignity. The organisation aims to enshrine dignity for all Muslims, in particular Muslim women. KARAMAH is responsible for providing a safe space for Muslim women to present their diverging views. As Muslim women often feel isolated by society, KARAMAH creates social opportunities for them through social activities such as book clubs. The organisation has developed multiple workshops for people who want to learn about gendered Islamophobia in legal, political, and daily contexts.

As a Muslim woman, Benchaou will not let misogynistic men talk badly about women, or let racists talk badly about her community. 

“What does it mean for a woman if the state tells them they cannot wear a hijab to work but her husband tells her she can’t work because she’s a woman?” 

But she said that does not mean she needs “saving”.

Layla Azzouzi, co- founder of the Center for Islamophobia in Belgium, chose to wear a headscarf when she was 28 years-old. Azzouzi chooses to wear a headscarf, just as Benchaou chooses not to wear one. Azzouzi grew up in  a multicultural region with open-minded parents. She attended a Catholic school. Experiencing Islamophobia made her question her identity. 

“I was deeply convinced I was Belgian,” she said. “I realised I’m not only a Belgian like I thought I was but a Belgian from minorities.”

Layla Azzouzi, co-founder of Collective Against Islamophobia. (Photo: Layla Azzouzi)

Azzouzi co-founded the Collective Against Islamophobia in 2014, motivated by the discrimination she faced and the realisation that there were no organisations to support victims of Islamophobia. Azzouzi said the organisation picked what they felt were key areas to be worked on, such as access to education and employment.

“We have fixed our priorities,” she said.  “In an ideal world we have to tackle this in all areas, especially areas which enable women to have an active part in society.” 

In order to make an impact, the organisation needs support from other civil organisations and from broader society. 

“We cannot do it alone,” she said. “We are a small organisation with limited funds.” 

Islamophobia is a small part of a larger issue related to inclusion and equality in the EU, said Azzouzi.

“Islamophobia is not only an issue for Muslims but an issue for the whole of society,” she said. “This is a topic related to inclusion which is related to tolerance which is related to a better way of living altogether.”

The Collective Against Islamophobia is recording data that can be presented at a political level as evidence of Islamophobia in Europe. 

“Discrimination which isn’t reported is discrimination which doesn’t exist, at a political level,” she said. “We started by creating a frontline service to help victims but also to collect data and monitor all Islamophobic acts.”

This data acts as proof for civil organisations to present to EU politicians and decision makers, according to Azzouzi.

“It’s important for us to objectify this phenomenon and to make it real, not only for people but also for decision makers,” she said. “It’s time to go beyond words, it’s time to act against this phenomenon if you want to have a more inclusive Europe.”

Yusuf Hassan is the Head of Campaigning at the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Students Organisation (FEMSYO), an organisation focused on giving Muslim youth a voice through networking, training, and campaigning.  

Hassan said that national agreement plays a major role in the EU’s dismissal of Islamophobia.

“There is a large electorate in every country that actively promotes Islamophobia,” he said.

“What we require is politicians, progressive parties to actively seek to educate themselves on these topics, to actively engage with the constituents and citizens they represent,” Hassan said. “I’m a firm believer in education above alienation but I recognise that in some parts of the world there are people that you are unable to convince.”

Perceptions and Narratives Have Led to Hostility towards Muslims in Europe

The perception that Muslim women are suffering from patriarchy and need to be liberated inside European borders contributes to gendered Islamophobia.

Christine Andersen is a member of the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament, and a member of the Alternative für Deutschland, a far right party in Germany. Ms Andersen said Muslim women are “once again trapped when moving to Europe, because Europe embraces Islam”. 

“To make Muslim women more inclusive in our society to me would be to not condone Islam because it’s the Islamic ideology that excludes them, keeps them in their homes, that sticks them under huge fabric tents which render them faceless with no identity and keep them stripped of any rights,” she said.

Post-nine eleven narratives and colonial history have contributed to Muslims being presented in a negative light in Europe.

Anderson cited the 2015–16 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany as one of the reasons she is opposed to Islam. She said Islamophobia is an undefined term.

“I don’t think it exists,” she said. “It’s an attempt to stigmatise and discredit people who are opposed to Islam.” 

She labelled Islam as a “misogynistic, dehumanising and totalitarian ideology which poses as religion”, and said that does not believe it should be condoned in Europe.

Post-nine eleven narratives and colonial history have contributed to Muslims being presented in a negative light in Europe.

Anderson cited the 2015–16 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany as one of the reasons she is opposed to Islam. She said Islamophobia is an undefined term.

“I don’t think it exists,” she said. “It’s an attempt to stigmatise and discredit people who are opposed to Islam.” 

She labelled Islam as a “misogynistic, dehumanising and totalitarian ideology which poses as religion”, and said that does not believe it should be condoned in Europe.

Nicolaus Fest is a member of the Identity and Democracy group, alongside Christine Anderson. He said the EU finances “radical Islamic organisations with taxpayers’ money” , and that FEMYSO have received funding from the EU Commission “despite having clear links with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The accusation of the Muslim-led organisation having Muslim Brotherhood affiliations was made in France last year. The French Government launched administrative procedures to shut down organisations, mosques, schools, and even Muslim-owned “snack bars” with limited evidence or judicial process. 

The Commission has not provided FEMYSO with funding since 2017.

What Now?

Increasing Muslim voices in Parliament could help to tackle the issue and increase diversity, but individual representation is not sufficient to incite change, according to Yusuf Hassan. He said that groups inside Parliament who do not currently  hold a strong view on Islamophobia for fear of alienation need to take a stance against the issue in order for change to occur. 

“It’s about the left actively choosing to have the courage to tackle these issues versus choosing to exist in an uncommitted position to ensure they don’t alienate people,” he said. 

Clare Daly is a member of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee in the European Parliament and the left-leaning Independents 4 Change Party. The Irish politician has expressed concern over the implementation of this form of racism and prejudice into mainstream politics.

“The degree to which this kind of open prejudice is acceptable in Western European countries is not properly understood in Ireland, where openly Islamophobic politics is confined to the fringes, and mainstream Islamophobia would normally have to be more circumspect,” she said.

The LIBE committee challenges the EU’s border policy, however, the role of Islamophobic narratives in legitimising the treatment of refugees by the EU is rarely examined.

“It is difficult for the Left to put it on the institutional agenda because we are in a minority,” she said.

“Ultimately, the thing that can force the majority groups in the Parliament to put this on the agenda is the mobilisation of a mass popular campaign or social movement, based on solidarity, justice, and equality,” she said.

While there are people who are pushing for change, Shada Islam said it is difficult to find hope in the current political climate.

“There’s always this understanding that Muslims are foreign and will be foreign forever,” she said.

Layla Azzouzi was not blind to the reality we are facing, but she was determined to take a more optimistic outlook on the future.

“We are the fighters for the next generation,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are not getting what we want right now but in the end we will thanks to the lasting generation.”

Activists in these civil organisations are adamant that we must press on this issue to ensure those in power work towards a more inclusive and accepting European Union.

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