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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 17   16-31 January 2010

Combating Racism and Islamophobia in Europe

Professor A R Momin

Ethnic and religious minorities face discrimination and exclusion in many different forms, from inadequate access to education and meager employment opportunities to poor housing and ghettoization and stigmatization. The 2008 annual report of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) pointed out that in many member states of the EU there was a general upward trend in recorded racist crimes in the period 2000-2008. According to a new study carried out by the FRA, racism and discrimination continue to remain deeply entrenched across Europe. The study, which covered such areas as employment, accommodation, healthcare and social services, schools and shops and opening a bank account or obtaining a loan, found that the Roma, sub-Saharan Africans and Muslims are the worst victims of racially-motivated discrimination and stigmatization. The study also noted that official figures on racist discrimination constitute just the tip of the iceberg.

The prevalence and intensity of racist sentiments vary from one European country to another. Thus anti-immigrant and anti-minorities feelings and outbursts are particularly strident in Italy, Switzerland, Spain and France, while the UK, Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg and the Netherlands appear to be far more accommodative of the rights and sensibilities of minority groups.

Since the publication of the report Islamophobia: A Challenge to Us All by the Runnymede Commission in 1997, the term Islamophobia has gained wide currency in academic discourse and in the media in Britain and other European countries. The report defined Islamophobia as “an outlook or worldview involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.” A report of the Council of Europe entitled Islamophobia and its Consequences for 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”. The report highlights many instances of discrimination faced by Muslims in Britain in various aspects of life and emphasizes that Islamophobia represents “a dramatic aspect of social exclusion and the vulnerability of Muslims to physical violence and harassment”. The former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, observed at a United Nations conference in 2004: “When the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia”.

Racism and xenophobia in European societies are manifested in the demonisation and stigmatisation of Muslims, in discrimination and acts of harassment and physical violence against them, in attacks on mosques and cemeteries, in the opposition to the construction of new mosques or minarets and in the deprecation of visible Islamic symbols like the headscarf. A report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia entitled Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) has documented the wide range of Islamophobic practices across the European Union’s 27 member-states. The report shows that Islamophobia, discrimination and socio-economic marginalization have a primary role in generating disaffection and alienation among Muslims in the EU. 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. Muslims, the report says, are often disproportionately represented in poor housing conditions, while their educational achievement falls below average and their unemployment rates are higher than average.

The stigmatization and demonization of Muslims in Europe, as well as in the US, has been aggravated after 9/11. The report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (2004) noted 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”. The horrendous acts of violence and wanton killing by a small group of crazed fanatics on the fringes of Muslim societies have evidently widened the gulf between Muslims and mainstream European societies.

Discriminatory and exclusionary practices in European societies are often sustained and reinforced through institutional structures. There is an anti-blasphemy law in the UK, Denmark and Greece, but it is applicable only to Christianity and not to other religions. Curiously, Denmark’s Liberal Party, which is against the blasphemy law, and the ruling Conservative Party have opposed a parliamentary move to overturn the blasphemy law. In Britain, the Race Relations Act 1976 outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, colour and ethnic or national origin, but not religion. Until a few years ago, discrimination against Muslims was not considered illegal because the courts did not accept that Muslims were an ethnic group, although, paradoxically, Jews and Sikhs are recognised as ethnic groups. Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right and morbidly anti-Muslim British National Party, said in a statement in January 2006 that Islam was “a wicked, vicious faith”. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred under the Race Relations Act 1976, but walked free at the rather swift end of the trial. In his defence Griffin argued that he attacked a religion (which is not an offence in Britain, except in the case of Anglican Christianity), not a race.

There is an avowedly colour-blind allocation of housing in the UK, which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. There are 22,000 state-funded schools in Britain, out of which nearly 7,000 are run by Anglican, Catholic and Jewish managements. About a quarter of all pupils in the country attend state-funded religious schools. After repeated requests and a long political battle, the government approved funding for five Muslim schools and one Sikh school.

The ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, endorsed by a majority of Swiss citizens in a nation-wide referendum on November 29, 2009, is ostensibly legitimated in terms of the provision in the Swiss constitution that, under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, a petition signed by at least 1,00,000 Swiss citizens can ask for a nation-wide referendum on a given issue and that the outcome of the referendum will be legally binding.

Laws and procedures relating to citizenship in many European countries betray an undercurrent of discrimination and exclusion. Some European countries, such as Spain and Italy, define citizenship and national identity in terms of descent and the religious and cultural traditions of the majority population, which systematically excludes immigrants and minorities. The procedure for acquiring Italian citizenship, for example, is so complex and cumbersome that it effectively excludes people of non-Italian descent. According to the citizenship laws and procedures laid down in 1985, which combine birth and descent, those born in Spain with at least one parent who was born in the country are automatically eligible for citizenship. Generally, foreigners can acquire Spanish citizenship after ten years of residence in the country. However, this period is reduced to only two years for those with a ‘preferred’ nationality or for those who have some historical links with Spain. These preferred groups include Latin Americans, Portuguese, Philippinos, Guineans and Sephardic Jews. Ironically, Muslims, who have ruled the country for nearly eight centuries, are not included among preferred groups.

Around 22 per cent of Switzerland’s population is of foreign origin. An estimated 400,000 Muslims are living in the country, making up about 5 per cent of Switzerland’s population of 7.5 million. More than 80 per cent of Muslims have no Swiss nationality. Switzerland has some of the toughest naturalisation laws and procedures in the world. Being born in the country does not automatically confer citizenship on a person. People wanting to be Swiss citizens are required to apply through the local community. In many cases the local residents in a town hall meeting reject the application on flimsy grounds. Candidates from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Africa are regularly rejected, despite having met all the requirements of naturalisation.

Samuel Huntington has remarked that Muslims in the West are an “indigestible minority”. In the past few years, Muslims living in Western countries have come under increasing pressure to assimilate into the culture of the dominant society and to abandon their distinctive identities. In many European nations citizenship is increasingly equated with assimilation into mainstream society. The report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia Muslims in the EU: Discrimination and Islamophobia (2006) notes that “Muslims feel that acceptance by society is increasingly premised on assimilation and the assumption that they should lose their Muslim identity”. In February 2006, the government of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany introduced a set of new “discussion guidelines—consisting of 30 questions—for applicants for German citizenship. The tenor of the questions weighs heavily against Muslim applicants. One of the questions in the “discussion guidelines” says: “Imagine that your son comes to you and declares that he is a homosexual and would like to live with another man. How would you react?” An opinion poll found that 76% of Germans agree on these questions.

There is a widespread feeling among Muslims in France that citizenship does not guarantee acceptance by mainstream society, that in order to be accepted they are expected to give up their traditions and identities and assimilate into French society. In 2005 a Moroccan woman’s application for French citizenship was turned down on grounds of “insufficient assimilation”; it was argued that her “radical” practice of Islam was incompatible with basic French values such as equality of the sexes. The said woman’s only fault was that she wore the Islamic veil, although she was married to a French national, had been living in Paris where her two children were born, and spoke good French. She appealed against the ruling, invoking the French constitutional right to religious freedom and saying that she had never sought to challenge the fundamental values of French society. But in July 2008 the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, rejected her appeal and upheld the earlier ruling.

II Racism and Islamophobia are fraught with paradoxes and contradictions, which are reflected in the gap between legal norms and social reality, the violation of human rights and international conventions, the connivance and complicity of the institutions of state in perpetuating discriminatory and exclusionary practices, and in the rhetoric surrounding the issues of immigration and freedom of expression.

In many European countries there is a wide gap between constitutional and legal norms (such as fundamental human rights, citizenship and secularism) and the reality of discrimination and exclusion experienced by minority groups. In Britain, anti-discrimination legislation on grounds of race was passed in the 1960s, but racial discrimination and exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities continues to be widely prevalent. A recent report of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain has pointed out that racial discrimination is still a reality in the country and that Britain continues to be racially divided. The report notes that Britain remains a place of “inequality, exclusion and isolation”. The report points an accusing finger at health, education, home and foreign offices of the government and says that they have failed to meet their own obligations in tackling discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The report warns that continuing discrimination and marginalization might lead some people from the minority communities to follow the path of religious and political extremism.

France swears by the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, but in reality French society is highly differentiated in terms of class, ethnicity and religion. France has the largest number of Muslims living in Europe—estimated at over five million—who constitute nearly 8-10 per cent of the country’s population. Islam is France’s second largest religion after Roman Catholicism. Mainstream jobs and positions are almost the exclusive preserve of the white majority. By and large, Muslims have to bear the brunt of widespread discrimination and stigmatisation and are excluded from mainstream society. Most of them live in working-class suburbs of immigrants—known as banlieues—which have become virtual ghettos, characterised by poverty, high unemployment rates, crime and drug addiction.

According to the Institut Montaigne, a French think-tank, the unemployment rate among French Muslims is three times the national average and in some housing colonies is as high as 40 per cent. Poverty, unemployment and exclusion are part of a vicious circle of deprivation and exclusion. Only 4 per cent of the beurs or French-born children of immigrant Muslim parents get to university compared with 25 per cent in the majority population. In 2004 the Monitoring Centre on Discrimination at the University of Paris sent out different standard curriculum vitae in response to 258 advertisements for a salesperson. It was found that a person of North African origin had five times less chance of getting a positive reply. Faced with this frustrating situation, many young Muslim men and women in the country are forced to change their names or to conceal their addresses for fear that this might jeopardise their chances of getting a job. The vandalism and rioting by discontented French youth of North African origin that erupted in Paris and scores of other cities in France in November 2005 exposed the fragility of the French system and the hollowness of the rhetoric of equality and fraternity. Gay J. McDougall, a United Nations independent expert on minority issues, said in October 2007 that “racism in France is alive, insidious and is clearly targeted at the “visible” minorities of immigrant heritage, the majority of whom are French citizens….The constitutional promise of equality is a vision, but not the reality of modern France”.

A key feature of liberal democracy is that the institutions of the state—government, parliament, courts, bureaucracy, army and the police—function in an impartial, just and transparent manner. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in many European countries. The 2004 annual report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia pointed out that the record of most European countries in combating racism and xenophobia is at best mixed. The report says that some European countries are either too slow to enact anti-racism legislation or take measures which in effect curtail the rights of immigrants. Courts in many European countries do not always function in a non-partisan manner. The Derby Project, commissioned by Britain’s Home Office to examine discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities, pointed out that “even when religious discrimination is identified, courts are unlikely to prescribe legal protection if it is seen to inconvenience the majority”. The McPherson Report, which examined the handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation in 1999, described London’s police force as “institutionally racist”. A recent study carried out by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, which sought to document and highlight the prevalence of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, found that some 82 per cent of those interviewed did not report their experiences to the authorities often because of doubts about the local police.

In many European countries, there is an evident disjunction between the constitutional recognition of the legal, political and cultural rights of Muslims (de jure rights) and the factual state of affairs (de facto rights). Local authorities often collude with far-right groups and parties in subverting the constitutionally mandated rights of Muslims and other minorities. This is reflected in the public opposition to the construction of new mosques and in the reluctance or unwillingness of local authorities to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Muslims are complied with. Public protests against the construction of new mosques have been widespread in Spain, Italy and Germany in recent years. When local authorities reluctantly grant permission for the construction of a mosque, it is generally at the outskirts of the town, away from the gaze of local residents. Faced with this situation, Muslims have no choice but to pray in prayer halls located in private garages, offices and apartments. A similar kind of reluctance on the part of local authorities is evident in respect of spaces for Islamic cemeteries, the demand for halal food and the wearing of headscarves in schools.

The issue of immigration in Europe is surrounded by a great deal of controversy and contestation and is often coloured by racist and xenophobic sentiments. The rhetoric about immigration is often politically motivated and has resulted in political polarisation in many European countries. Far-right political parties often stoke popular fears about immigrants, describing even the second and third generations of their descendants (born and raised in European countries) as foreigners to emphasise their Otherness. Elections in many European countries are often dominated by the issue of immigration and governments in many European countries are sometimes compelled to take anti-immigrant measures for fear of losing votes to far-right parties.

Freedom of expression is considered a sacrosanct and inalienable right in European societies. In reality, a great deal of hypocrisy, double-speak and contradiction surrounds the issue. No country, including those in Europe, allows complete, unfettered freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in nearly all countries is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, national security, incitement to hatred, and judicial and parliamentary privilege. A recently released survey of media freedom in 20 European countries entitled Goodbye to Freedom?, published by the independent Association of European Journalists, found that within the past year alone, journalists in 18 out of 20 European countries have faced criminal prosecution, or been jailed for breaking various laws involving libel or secrecy.

Denial of the Holocaust is a punishable offence in several European countries, including France, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Spain. The world’s best-known Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, who was deported from Canada in 2005, faces 14 charges in Germany. British historian David Irving, author of 30 books on World War II, was jailed for three years by an Austrian court in 2006 for denying the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz in a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. A German court fined British bishop Richard Williamson £12,000 in November 2009 for denying the Holocaust in an interview he gave to Swedish television last year that caused outrage around the world.

On the other hand, far-right politicians, writers and journalists are allowed to indulge in hate speech and to make derogatory statements about Islam and Muslims with impunity and with no fear of prosecution. Geert Wilders, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party in the Netherlands, makes no secret of his hatred for Islam and Muslims. He calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture”. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and telling Dutch Muslims that if they wish to stay on in the country, they should tear up half of their holy book. Wilders is allowed to continue with his venomous utterances and writings in the name of freedom of expression. The critics of the anti-hate legislation accuse the European Union of having double standards in that while it protects established Christian religions against blasphemy and outlaws anti-Semitism, it does nothing to protect Muslims against demonization and Islamophobia.

In 2005, Luxembourg tried to push through Europe-wide anti-racism legislation during its presidency of the European Union, but it was blocked by Italy’s centre-right government on the grounds that it threatened freedom of speech. The European Convention on Human Rights, while recognizing that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, allows European nations to impose restrictions “in interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.” A recent report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia points out that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. International law and the legal order of EU Member States lay down certain limits that democratic societies consider important and necessary in order to protect other fundamental rights. The report adds that freedom of expression and the protection against racist and xenophobic language can, and have to, go hand-in-hand.

III A wide range of initiatives have been taken in recent years by European governments, courts, civil society institutions, international organisations, business and industry and inter-faith groups to combat racism and Islamophobia and to build bridges of understanding, dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and mainstream European societies.

Islam is officially recognised as a religion in all European countries, including those which have state or established religions (such as the UK, Belgium and Denmark). Belgium passed a law in 1974 granting Islamic worship the same status as that accorded to established religions in the country, namely, Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. The Netherlands has developed the “pillorization system”, which grants the right to all religious communities in the country, including Muslims, to develop their educational, cultural and religious institutions with state subsidies. The experiences of Muslims in Western countries and the record of Western nations in accommodating them and in addressing their concerns present a reasonably positive picture. By and large, European societies offer Muslims a fairly good package, including better economic prospects, opportunities for higher education and professional advancement, excellent healthcare services, security, political and civil rights, personal autonomy and religious and cultural freedoms (which are scarce or non-existent in several Muslim countries). Muslims living in European countries are free to build mosques, to have their own cemeteries and Islamic schools (which are funded by the state in some European countries), and to establish religious and cultural organisations. Nearly all European countries allow Muslims to slaughter animals according to the Islamic ritual. Many European countries provide facilities for imparting instruction to the children of immigrants in their national languages. Countries like Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands support imams brought from Turkey, Morocco and other Muslim countries to provide Islamic instruction to Muslim children. Since 1975 Islam has been taught, along with Christianity and Judaism, in public schools in Belgium. There are about 700 Islamic teachers in the country, whose salaries are paid by the state. Many European countries allow tax deductions on donations to Muslim charitable organisations. In many European countries Islamic dietary rules are respected in prisons, hospitals, schools and army canteens on request from Muslims.

All European countries are committed to the goals of equality, justice and human rights and generally comply with the guidelines of the European Convention on Human Rights. Many European nations have created legal institutions or instruments to combat inequality and discrimination in respect of education, employment, housing and healthcare. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the UK, the Committee for Equal Treatment in the Netherlands and the Anti-Discrimination Law in Germany are designed to deal with inequality and discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity or religion. Most European nations have adopted wide-ranging policies and programmes aimed at helping Muslims in the labour market and providing affordable housing to immigrants through public funding. Some European nations, including Britain, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, have taken special measures to recruit Muslims and other minority groups in the police force and the army. In Sweden the police administration has included in its diversity plan the right for police officers to wear a headscarf, a turban and a Jewish kippah while on duty. In Austria, the Federal Ministry of Defence allows certain concessions to Muslim personnel in the armed forces, such as access to halal food, special space and time for prayer and observance of religious holidays. The Norwegian government announced on February 5, 2009 that it would have no objection if Muslim women police officers in the country chose to wear the Islamic headscarf with the uniform.

Though freedom of expression is considered an inalienable feature of liberal democracy in the West, it is sometimes abused by extremist groups who publicly demonise and slander Islam and Muslims with impunity. Several European countries, including Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, have taken measures to combat racist attacks on Muslims and other minority groups and have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Britain passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which makes it an offence to stir up hatred on religious or racial grounds. In May 2008, Germany banned two far-right organisations which are involved in disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda and in glorifying the Nazis. The Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende publicly condemned the anti-Islam film ‘Fitna’, made by the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, and said, “We believe the film serves no purpose but to cause offence (to Muslims). The Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of speech, religion and lifestyle, but it also has a tradition of respect, tolerance and responsibility. Offending certain groups does not belong here”. All mainstream TV channels in the Netherlands refused to screen the film. It was ultimately released in March 2006 on video sharing websites.

The proposal for the construction of a new mosque in Cologne stirred protests and demonstrations by the city’s far-right groups. However, Cologne’s city council approved the construction of the mosque in August 2008. Cologne’s mayor Fritz Schramma openly supported the mosque project A highly significant initiative taken by Germany’s interior ministry in the last couple of years is the organization of Islam conference. In September 2006, Germany’s interior minister, Wolfgang Schauble, organised a hugely successful conference on Islam (DIK) in Berlin, to which key state officials as well as representatives of Muslim organizations were invited. The minister began his opening address by declaring that Muslims are indeed a part of Germany, which sent out a highly significant signal to Muslims as well as to the wider society.

In European countries, courts have played a highly important role in safeguarding the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of Muslims and other minority groups and in redressing their legitimate grievances. In 2004, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court upheld a Muslim woman’s appeal against the refusal of a school to employ her as a teacher because she wore a headscarf. The court said that the right to wear a headscarf by a civil servant was part of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the German constitution. In France, a legal ruling in 2007 made it clear that the ban on the wearing of a headscarf only applied to public institutions and could be used by a private company in the provision of services. In some cases the dismissal of a Muslim employee for wearing a headscarf by private companies was declared unlawful by the courts in the country.

The Amsterdam Appeals Court on January 20, 2009 ordered prosecutors to put Geert Wilders on trial for making the anti-Islam film “Fitna”. The court described Wilders’ statements in his film, newspaper articles and media interviews as “one-sided generalisations….which can amount to inciting hatred”. The three judges of the Amsterdam Appeals Court said they had weighed Wilders’ anti-Islam rhetoric against his right to free speech and ruled he had even gone beyond the normal leeway given to politicians. “The Court considers this so insulting that it is in the public interest to prosecute Wilders”, a summary of the court’s decision said.

Nearly all European countries recognise the Jewish rabbinical courts (Beth Din) for the settlement of family disputes. . In recent years some European nations have formally or informally recognised the loosely constituted arbitration councils or Shariah Courts for the resolution of disputes related to family matters. In Britain, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal runs a number of Shariah courts to adjudicate on disputes related to inheritance, divorce and domestic violence. The rulings of these courts can be enforced by county and high courts under the Arbitration Act of 1996, which allows disputes to be resolved through recourse to alternative avenues such as tribunals.

Civil society institutions, including non-governmental organisations, business houses, churches and faith groups, academia and the media, play a highly important role in strengthening grass-roots democracy, in combating discrimination and exclusion and in reinforcing societal cohesion and integration. In recent years civil society institutions in European countries have endeavoured to heal the divide between Muslims and the West by combating racism and xenophobia, emphasising human rights, promoting inclusive policies, opening channels of communication, dialogue and negotiation and facilitating the integration of Muslims into mainstream society.

By and large, far-right political parties in Europe have been rejected by the electorate. In some countries, such as Switzerland and Austria, where they emerged as the largest single party in recent elections, their efforts at forming government have been thwarted by mainstream political parties that are opposed to their racist and xenophobic ideology.

On 20 September, 2008, about 200 far-right activists from different parts of Europe descended on the German city of Cologne to hold a rally against what they called “the Islamization of Europe”. The rally was organised by the local Pro Cologne group, set up to protest against the construction of a mosque in the city, and was joined by prominent members and leaders of Europe’s far-right political parties. An estimated 40,000 protesters turned up in Cologne’s downtown Heumarkt area to disrupt the rally. Police cancelled the rally after 45 minutes. The demonstrators comprised all sections of Cologne’s population, including Christian Democrats, trade unionists, Muslim groups, Left-Party members and students, writers and intellectuals, and Christian groups. The hugely successful demonstration in the heart of the city sent a clear message to the far-right groups in the country and across Europe that the people of Cologne would not tolerate racist ideologies and outbursts in their city. Interestingly, the plan of the proposed mosque in Cologne has been designed by a local Christian architect.

When there are attacks on Muslims in the streets of Britain, the Netherlands and other European countries, grass-roots organisations rise to defend the victims. Many European lawyers and human rights activists have protested against the illegal detention and torture of Muslim prisoners by American and British soldiers and have tried to get justice for them. Several thousand people in Amsterdam, mostly white, protested against the Internet release of Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam film ‘Fitna’. Some protesters in central Amsterdam carried placards that said “Stop the witch hunt against Muslims!” “We can no longer remain silent. There is a climate of hate and fear in the Netherlands”, said Rene Danen, a spokesman from the anti-racist organisation Nederland Bekent Kleur, which organised the protest. The ban on minarets in Switzerland was condemned by human rights organizations across Europe. Hundreds of local residents participated in protest rallies against the ban.

By and large, churches and Christian groups have supported Muslims in defending their legitimate rights. In Germany, Catholic churches have generally supported the construction of new mosques in the face of opposition by far-right groups. Cologne’s Catholic church has supported the construction of a new mosque in the city and St Theodore Catholic church has even offered to raise funds for the mosque project. There is a move to introduce Islamic instruction in Germany’s public schools, which has been supported by Robert Zollitsch, president of the German Bishops’ Conference. Germany’s Waltham Forest Faith Communities Forum took the initiative to implement a system of “health preachers”. The central concept of this programme was to identify and train local religious representatives from the borough’s Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities, and to draw on their positions as faith leaders to communicate important messages on health their congregations. Jewish groups and Catholic churches in Switzerland have expressed their opposition to the ban on minarets.

The Catholic Church in France is opposed to the ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools. Unlike public schools, Catholic schools in the country allow Muslim students to wear the headscarf. Many Catholic schools take Muslim feasts into consideration for fixing parent-teacher meetings. Some Catholic schools offer Arabic as an optional subject. Muslim students form more than 10 per cent of the two million students in Catholic schools. During the month of Ramadan, the school provides a special room for prayers to Muslim students. In Badalona, Barcelona (Spain), Catholic priests have supported the local Muslim community for the construction of a mosque. Jewish groups and Catholic churches in Switzerland have expressed their opposition to the ban on minarets.

In recent years, business houses and companies in Western countries have shown greater concern for the religious sensibilities and requirements of Muslims and other religious groups. Each year, Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest maker of soft drinks, runs a series of marketing initiatives focused on charity during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In some companies in Germany, such as Ford in Cologne and Fraport in Frankfurt, special spaces for prayer have been set up for Muslim employees and consideration is given to their dietary requirements in canteens. In Luxembourg, some firms have introduced positive measures relating to Muslim customs, such as suspension of meetings during Ramadan, breaks for prayer, cooking with respect to Islamic dietary requirements and easy access to holidays during the Eid festival.

In recent years there has been an upward swing in what has come to be known as diversity management or diversity charter in both private and public sector organisations in Western countries. The idea of diversity management emerged in the US in the early 1980s, where it has been associated with affirmative action and equal opportunity in the multicultural context. Under Diversity Charter, launched by the European Union in 2000, companies pledge themselves to creating a working environment free of prejudice and discrimination. Several German companies, including Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Telekom, Allianz, Dresdner Bank and DaimlerChrysler signed the Charta der Viefalt (Diversity Charter) in December 2006, which emphasised the need to promote diversity, equality and non-discrimination both within and outside the company. Some French companies, including LCL, Caylon, Capgemini, Sogeti and Credit Agricole S.A., have signed the Charte la Diversite dans l’Enterprise (Corporate Diversity Charter), thereby committing themselves to combating discrimination in all its forms and to ensure that their work force reflects the diverse make-up of French society. In Belgium, the public television network, VRT, has signed a diversity charter which states that as a public mass medium it should reflect the diversity of the country’s population. The network makes efforts to increase the visibility on television of young people from ethnic minorities. The Diversity Charter is now increasingly see as an integral part of social and corporate responsibility.

International organisations, especially the United Nations and the European Commission, have taken a wide range of measures in recent years to combat racism and Islamophobia and to heal the divide between Muslims and the West. Since the start of the 21st century the United Nations has focused on inter-civilizational dialogue as one of its major concerns. The idea of dialogue among civilizations or the alliance of civilizations was first proposed by the former Iranian president, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, as a response and alternative to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of clash of civilizations. The idea of alliance of civilizations was endorsed and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1998 and it was decided to proclaim the year 2001 as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.

The European Union, through its various institutions and bodies, has made wide-ranging and sustained efforts to combat racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia and to bridge the divide between Muslims and mainstream European societies. In 1991 the Council of Europe recommended that the contribution of Islamic civilization to European culture should be publicly acknowledged and highlighted in academic, cultural and other forums and in educational institutions. The European Union established the Commission on Racism and Xenophobia in 1994. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia was established in Vienna under the auspices of the European Commission in June 1998. The European Union sponsored a massive monitoring project on Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11. It published a report in May 2002 “Summary report on Islamophobia in EU after 11 September 2001”, which highlighted wide-ranging incidents of discrimination, demonisation and physical attacks on Muslims in the European Union. In December 2005, the European Union launched an initiative to deepen ties with Muslim countries and reach out to tens of millions of Muslims living in Europe. This was sought to be done by clarifying the discourse on Islam, by using the right vocabulary to steer clear of misunderstandings and misrepresentation, and by avoiding references to pejorative terms like Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. The emphasis is on “developing a non-emotive lexicon” for public communication related to Muslims.

IV It is interesting and useful to reflect as to how Muslims living in European societies respond to the challenges of racism and Islamophobia. It is note-worthy that their response is characterized not by isolationism or withdrawal or confrontation but by a spirit of positive engagement. Despite being victims of discrimination and stigmatization, they prefer to live in the midst of mainstream society and to identify with the city and country where they live. A recent study of Muslims in 11 European cities carried out by the Open Society Institute presents a much more positive picture of the integration of Muslims at the local level. The study found that Muslims want to live in mixed, not segregated, neighbourhoods and that the needs and concerns of Muslims and non-Muslims in European countries are largely the same. A majority of those interviewed said that they wanted to be involved in local politics.

Muslims in European countries often solicit the support and cooperation of the local people on voicing their resentment and protest at the violation of their human rights. Britain's Muslims took out a peaceful rally of over 10,000 protesters against the publication of the derogatory cartoons of the Prophet on February 11, 2007. The rally was organized by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain and backed by several Christian organizations as well as by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London.

Germany’s biggest mosque opened in the city of Duisburg on October 26, 2008. Unlike in the case of some other mosque projects in the country, there were no protests from the local community. In fact, politicians, church representatives and other public figures welcomed the opening of the mosque. Before the construction began, the group responsible for the mosque project arranged meetings and discussions with local residents, including Catholic priests, with a view to allay misgivings. The mosque has a conference centre in the basement, which caters to all the residents of the district of Maxloh. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia invested €3.2 million on the construction of the conference centre. In deference to the sensibilities of the local population, Duisburg’s Muslim community decided not to broadcast the call to prayer over loudspeakers.

There is a marked tendency among Muslims living in European societies to secure their legitimate rights from within the constitutional and legal framework, and not in the name of minority rights. The German constitution grants certain special rights and privileges to the minority Jewish and Orthodox communities. The right to slaughter animals according to Jewish ritual, constituting an exception to the Animal Protection Law, was granted to the Jewish community since the end of World War II. The Muslim community gained the same right in 2002 in a case in the Federal Constitutional Court. Similarly, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religious expression has been invoked by Muslims in Germany to demand the right to wear the headscarf by teachers and for exemption for Muslim girls from swimming lessons if these lessons are not sexually segregated.

The ban on minarets in Switzerland, endorsed by Swiss voters on 29 November 2009, constitutes a flagrant violation of human rights. An Algerian-born Muslim and a former spokesman for the Geneva Mosque, has submitted a petition to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, seeking a ruling from the court that the ban violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Dealing with complex and intractable issues and tricky situations invariably involves negotiations and compromises. In the UK, 80 to 90 per cent of students in quite a few inner-city schools are Muslim. In the 1970s a big controversy erupted in Bradford over school uniforms that required all girls to wear short skirts. Girls who did not comply with the requirement were expelled from school and in some cases Muslim parents took their daughters out of school over the issue. To grapple with the situation, a Muslim liaison committee was formed to negotiate with the local authorities. Compromises were eventually worked out, allowing Muslim girls to wear trousers so long as they matched the colour of the school uniform. Muslim girls were allowed to wear headscarves and they could wear tracksuits for physical education classes. Several schools in Bradford and other British cities allow separate swimming classes for Muslim girls.

In the 1980s a small group of Spanish converts decided to build a mosque in Granada. Unfortunately, opposition from local groups and far-right political parties held up the project for nearly 20 years. Ultimately, when the permission for the construction of the mosque was granted by the local authorities, the size of the mosque had to be scaled down to half its proposed size and the height of its minaret was cut down to satisfy local demands. The mosque opened, after nearly 500 years of the construction of the famed Cordoba Mosque, in the summer of 2003.


The wide prevalence of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and Islamophobia across large parts of Europe is symptomatic of some of the most formidable challenges faced by contemporary European societies. These include the recognition of cultural diversity, striking a balance between cultural diversity and societal cohesion, ensuring equal rights and opportunities to all individuals and groups, and the inclusion and accommodation of the legitimate rights and cultural sensibilities of minority groups. In order to surmount these challenges, it is necessary to adopt a multi-pronged strategy involving legislation, active state intervention, civil society initiatives and the participation of faith groups and local communities. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights can serve as a beacon in combating the challenges of racism and Islamophobia. The European Union, through its various agencies such as the European Commission, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency, needs to play a more active role in ensuring that all member-states of the EU comply with international and European conventions on human rights.

Nearly a fifth of the world’s Muslim population of 1.57 billion live as minorities across the world. Though Muslim minorities are faced with a multiplicity and variety of problems, some of them are essentially common. The important point is that Muslim minorities living in one country or region should draw lessons from the experiences of Muslim minorities in another region. Can Muslims in Europe and Those in India learn from each other’s experiences? Muslims in Europe can learn quite a few things from the experiences of Indian Muslims who have been living in the midst of a non-Islamic environment for nearly a thousand years. For one thing, they have safeguarded their religious and cultural identity and their cherished traditions in the face of trying circumstances. Second, they have not lived in isolation from the wider society but have been well integrated into the social fabric. Moreover, they have made a highly significant contribution to the enrichment of Indian civilization and to the freedom movement. Third, in spite of meager material resources, they have made an outstanding contribution to the advancement and promotion of Islamic learning.

In the same way, Indian Muslims can learn a few things from the example of Muslims living in Europe. For one thing, European Muslims have faced adverse circumstances with courage and fortitude and have not withdrawn or retreated. Secondly, as I have mentioned in the foregoing, they have sought to secure their legitimate rights from within the constitutional and legal framework of their respective countries. In securing their rights and in voicing their protest against injustice and discrimination, they have sought to reach out to the wider society and to draw on their goodwill and support. Third, by and large, they have responded to provocations with patience and forbearance. I would like to conclude by emphasizing that the test of the creative genius of a minority group lies in turning adversity into opportunity through sheer hard work, foresight and a rational harnessing of available resources.

This paper was presented at a seminar on “Minority Rights and Islamophobia: Limits on Freedoms” organized by Islamic Fiqh Academy and ISESCO at Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi on January 2-3, 2010.

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