Vol. 2    Issue 12     16-31 October 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family

Professor A. R. Momin

Disaffection and alienation of Muslims in Europe

Click here to big viewA progressive and healthy feature of European societies is that they have many watch-dog institutions which assiduously and self-critically strive for the protection of human rights, including the rights of ethnic and religious minorities and other disadvantaged sections of society. One such institution is the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). EUMC was initially established in Brussels in 1998. The primary objective of EUMC is to collect reliable, objective and comparable data and information on the varied manifestations of racism and xenophobia in the Member States of the European Union, analyse this information and suggest practical and effective policy proposals for the EU and the Member States. EUMC’s latest report Muslims in the EU: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) has documented a wide range of anti-Muslim or Islamophobic practices across the European Union’s 25—now 27—Member States.

Profile of Muslims in the European Union

Muslims have lived in the Baltic and Balkan regions, in the Iberian Peninsula, in Cyprus and in Sicily for centuries. However, most Muslims living in Europe began arriving during the economic boom of the 1960s. The first stream of migrant workers was later joined by their families during the 1970s and 1980s and later other groups such as asylum seekers in the 1990s. Former colonial ties between some of the sending countries—such as in North Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia—and some of the European societies also played a significant role. In France, for example, migration was largely from the former colonies and protectorates of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). In the Netherlands, large numbers of Muslims arrived from the former colonies in Indonesia. In Britain, Muslim immigrants came mainly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

According to conservative estimates, the population of Muslims in the European Union is around 13 million (about 3.5 percent of EU’s total population). In reality, the population of Muslims in Europe exceeds 25 million. The largest concentrations of Muslims are to be found in France (over 5 million), Germany (3,400,000) and Britain (nearly 3 million). Sizeable Muslim populations are to be found in Italy (723,000), the Netherlands (945,000), Sweden (400,000), Greece (360,000), Belgium (360,000), Austria (338,000), and Denmark (150,000).

EUMC’s report Muslims in the EU: Discrimination and Islamophobia is divided into three parts. The first part provides contextual information on the situation of Muslims in the European Union in the key areas of social life, such as employment, education and housing. The second part contains a comprehensive overview of the available information and data on manifestations of Islamophobia in the EU. In the third part, the report takes stock of existing government and civil society initiatives targeting Muslim communities. The report is complemented by a qualitative study into Perceptions of discrimination and Islamophobia, based on in-depth interviews with members of Muslim communities in ten Member States of the EU. The interviews indicate that Islamophobia, discrimination and socio-economic marginalisation have a primary role in generating disaffection and alienation among Muslims in the EU.

Stigmatization, exclusion and discrimination

The report notes that there is an absence of adequate official data in the EU—except in Britain—related to racist violence and crime directed against Muslims or the extent of discrimination and exclusion experienced by Muslim communities. Official criminal justice data collection mechanisms dot not generally provide information on the identity of victims of racist violence. This hampers an adequate understanding of the problem as well as the development of informed policy responses. The report relies on NGO reports, research reports and surveys and media reports.

The report notes that Muslims living in the EU are often victims of multiple discrimination on the basis of their religion, race , national or ethnic background, language, colour and gender. They are often victims of negative stereotyping, at times reinforced through negative or selective reporting in the media. There is a growing perception in Europe that “Muslims are making politically exceptional, culturally unreasonable and theologically alien demands upon European states” (p. 32). Muslims are becoming increasingly vulnerable to manifestations of prejudice and hatred ranging from verbal threats to physical attacks on people, property and religious places. The 2004 report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance recognizes that Muslim communities living in the EU are subject to prejudice which “may manifest itself in different guises, in particular through negative general attitudes, but also to varying degrees, through discriminatory acts and through violence and harassment.”

The report points out that many Muslims, particularly young people, have limited opportunities for professional or career advancement. To make matters worse, they often experience social exclusion and discrimination which produces hopelessness and alienation. Muslims are often disproportionately represented in areas with poor housing conditions, while their educational achievement falls below average and their unemployment rates are higher than average.

How am I supposed to feel French when people always describe me as a Frenchman of Algerian origin? I was born here. I am French. How many generations does it take to stop mentioning my origin?
Nadir Dendoune, French writer

In Germany, the unemployment rate for foreigners in 2004 (around 20 percent) was almost twice as high as the general average (around 10 percent). In France, the unemployment rate among Muslims of North African descent is as high as 20-30 percent, compared with the national average of about 10 percent. Migrants in the country are more likely to be found in over-crowded conditions, with less access to amenities and paying comparatively higher rents. They have greater insecurity of rental contracts, live in poorer quality residential environments, and are less likely to be home owners. In Spain, migrants in both rural and urban areas face serious housing problems, including homelessness, overcrowding and illegal boarding houses. In Denmark, ‘ethnic markers’—such as accent, religious clothing or non-Danish names—may result in individuals experiencing discrimination in housing (p. 56).

Despite signs of increasing diversity, national labour markets in the EU are still highly segmented along ethnic lines, and migrants are disproportionately employed in low-skilled and low-paid jobs, which tend to be more precarious. There is a large body of evidence that demonstrates the persistent scale and dimension of discrimination in employment.

In France in 2004 the Monitoring Centre on Discrimination at the University of Paris sent out different curricula vitae in response to 258 job advertisements for a sales person. It was found that a person from the Maghreb had five times less chance of getting a positive reply (pp. 44-45).

Studies and surveys carried out under the auspices of EUMC indicate that migrants throughout Europe experience discriminatory practices to a significant extent, particularly with regard to employment and in the sphere of commercial transactions. Nearly one-third of respondents stated that they experienced discrimination through being refused access to jobs, missing promotions, or being harassed at work (p. 32). The report points out that Muslim migrants generally appear to suffer higher levels of homelessness, poor quality housing conditions, poorer residential neighbourhoods and comparatively greater vulnerability and insecurity in their housing status.

The situation in regard to the stigmatization and exclusion of Muslims in the EU has been aggravated following the events that unfolded after the attack on the United States on 11 September 2001. Thus the report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2004) notes that “As a result of the fight against terrorism engaged since the events of 11 September 2001, certain groups of persons, notably Arabs, Jews, Muslims, certain asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, certain visible minorities and persons perceived as belonging to such groups, have become particularly vulnerable to racism and/or to racial discrimination across many fields of public life including education, employment, housing, access to goods and services, access to public spaces and freedom of movement” (p.14).


A publication of the Council of Europe entitled Islamophobia and its consequences on Young People (2005) described Islamophobia as “the fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social cohesion.”

EUMC’s report notes that Islamophobia has intensified particularly after 11 September 2001. It points out that Islamophobic incidents are underreported in the EU for three main reasons: firstly, because people are not encouraged to report such incidents; secondly, because there is no mechanism in place for recording such incidents in the majority of Member States; and thirdly, because victims in general lack confidence in the police (p. 110). The report emphasizes that racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia are mutually reinforcing phenomena and hostility against Muslims should thus be seen in the context of a more general climate of hostility towards migrants and ethnic minorities.

As France celebrates the centenary of laicite (the French model of secularism), Islam is increasingly seen as the biggest challenge to the country’s secular creed.

The report notes that opinion polls—although they are no substitute for scientific research—show a rather negative picture of public opinion towards Muslims and Islam in the EU. Thus according to one poll, over 50 percent of Western Europeans agreed that Muslims living in Europe today are viewed with suspicion. This was particularly true of Sweden (75 percent) and the Netherlands (72 percent).

Islamophobia is manifested at multiple levels, including stigmatization and humiliation, discrimination and exclusion, threats and violent acts against individuals, mosques and prayer houses, graveyards and establishments. In France, for example, there was a total of 352 violent acts and threats against Muslims of North African descent, including arson against mosques, attacks on persons, desecration of graves and attacks on Halal butcher shops. In June 2004, three graves in a Muslim cemetery in Strasbourg were desecrated and Swastikas and neo-Nazi signs were painted on about 50 graves and on the cemetery wall.

Stigmatization and humiliation of Muslim women

The report notes that Muslim women living in the EU are often singled out as victims of oppression and discrimination, which is attributed to Islam. Muslim women face a ‘double’ discrimination on account of both their gender and their ethnicity/religion (p. 46). The most visible symbol of Muslim women’s identity is the headscarf, which is often interpreted solely as a sign of gender inequality and used on occasion as justification for their social exclusion. Policies related to the headscarf in the Member States range from nationwide prohibition of displaying any religious symbol in public schools (as in France) to complete freedom of pupils and teachers to wearing any religious symbol (as in the UK). Some EU countries (such as Germany) leave the decision to federal states or individual schools. The report notes that legislation banning the wearing of headscarves by teachers has been introduced in Saarland and Lower Saxony in Germany, but Christian and Jewish symbols are excluded from the ban (p. 42).

An important issue affecting some Muslim women in a number of Member States is that of forced marriages. The report mentions that such practices have been publicly condemned by the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights.

Remedial measures

An awareness of discrimination against migrants and ethnic and religious minorities and the need to take remedial measures is growing in the European Union. The Race Equality Directive of the European Commission requires the setting up of bodies for the promotion of equal treatment. The Employment Equality Directive provides a general framework for combating discrimination in employment and for improving the opportunities for minorities to realise their potential in the labour market. In Britain, the recently passed legislation, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, applies to intentional acts of threatening words or behaviour and the display, publication, broadcast or distribution of threatening material that is likely to stir up religious or racial hatred (p. 43).

The publication of derogatory cartoons of Prophet Muhammad by some newspapers in Europe in 2006 created intense resentment and anger among Muslims across the world and led to large-scale protests and demonstrations. Against this backdrop, a meeting of media professionals hosted by the International Federation of Journalists on 15 February 2006 agreed upon the following statement: All media, on all sides, must act professionally in dealing with religious and cultural issues and rights of minorities, should not do anything that would create unnecessary tension by promoting hatred or inciting violence (p. 43).

Some human rights activists in France have proposed a “diversity charter,” which encourages companies to “reflect the diversity of French society” by hiring qualified non-whites. They point out that the head of Vodaphone, one of Europe’s largest companies, is an Indian, Arun Sarin. “When this kind of thing happens here, we will know France has changed,” they say.

The EUMC report suggests a number of measures to combat racism and discrimination against Muslims in the European Union. It emphasizes that there is a need for more dialogue, social inclusion and non-discrimination policies in support of minority groups, which will ultimately have benefits for the entire society. There can be no disagreement about the need for the integration of Muslim communities in mainstream society. However, it is important to stress that integration should not be a one-way process and that it need not be achieved at the expense of the ethnic and religious identity of Muslims. The EUMC report rightly points out that integration is “ a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States.” This view was endorsed by the European Council in June 2003.

The report points out that the experience of discrimination and exclusion has a significant bearing on the integration of ethnic and religious minorities into mainstream society. In the Netherlands, for example, the groups that feel most discriminated against (Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese) are also the groups that seem to be least integrated and/or most isolated in Dutch society. The report says that “Muslims feel that acceptance by society is increasingly perceived on ‘assimilation’ and the assumption that they should lose their Muslim identity. Muslims feel that since 9/11 they have been put under a general suspicion of terrorism.”

The report emphasizes that measures and practices which tackle discrimination, address the issue of marginalisation and promote inclusiveness should be integrated policy priorities. Accessibility to quality education as well as equal and greater opportunities in employment needs special consideration (p. 109). It points out that community representation, through civil society organizations, is an established route through which Muslims in the EU can become more directly involved in mainstream society’s social and political life. The European Commission and the European Parliament have stressed the importance of inter-cultural dialogue for community cohesion. In October 2005 the European Commission adopted a proposal to declare 2008 as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. The report recognizes the value and effectiveness of inter-faith and inter-cultural initiatives by governments and NGOs.

Role and responsibility of Muslims

By and large, Muslims living in the EU enjoy religious and cultural freedom. Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed in all Member States of the EU. Muslim communities living in Europe are allowed to build mosques and prayer halls, religious schools (which are funded by the state in some Member States) and cemeteries. Most European states allow them to butcher animals according to their religious prescription and to have Halal meat shops. In Austria, the wearing of religious headgear and beards are permitted for Muslims in the defence service. There is also provision for granting religious holidays. In a few companies in Germany (such as Ford in Cologne and Fraport in Frankfurt), special spaces for prayers have been set up for Muslim employees and consideration is given to their dietary requirements in canteens (p. 48).

Independent Islamic schools, which provided religious education together with the conventional curriculum, are being increasingly established in a number of EU states, including Denmark, France, Sweden and Britain. Most of them are funded by the Muslim communities, but some are either partly or wholly funded by the state (p. 54).

The report notes that many Muslims acknowledge that they themselves need to do more to engage with the wider society, to overcome the obstacles and difficulties that they face and to take greater responsibility for integration. However, engagement and participation need also encouragement and support from mainstream society that needs to do more to accommodate diversity and to remove barriers to integration.

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