Racist and xenophobic ideologies and practices often reflect an evident gap between legal norms and social reality, the violation of human rights and international conventions, and the connivance and complicity of the institutions of state in perpetuating discriminatory and exclusionary practices. In Britain, anti-discrimination legislation on grounds of race was passed in the 1960s, but racial discrimination and the exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities continue to be widespread in the country. A report of the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain 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 warns that continuing discrimination and marginalization might lead some people from the minority communities to follow the path of religious and political extremism.
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.
Racism and xenophobia are widespread in Switzerland, which is reflected in the country’s naturalization laws and procedures—the toughest in Europe—the wide prevalence of discrimination against immigrants and minority groups and the growing popularity of the far-right, anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party. In November 2010, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights criticized ‘increasing intolerance and xenophobia’ in Switzerland and expressed concern over widespread discrimination against immigrants in the country.
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 as well as in the United States. 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 Runnymede Commission’s 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, 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 the West 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. The 2008 annual report of the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights 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. Certain events at the turn of the century, including the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Bali night club bombings in 2002, the Madrid train bombing in March 2004 and the terrorist attack on London’s public transport system in July 2005, have intensified anti-immigrant sentiments and prompted many European governments to take anti-immigration measures.
In many cases, the victims of racist attacks are Muslims. In the Netherlands, Germany, France and Britain, there have scores of incidents in recent years of arson attacks on mosques, prayer halls, Islamic schools and cemeteries. In April 2008 the graves of Muslim soldiers who had fought on the side of the French during World War I were desecrated by neo-Nazi youth groups. In San Francisco more than 700 hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims were reported in the aftermath of 9/11. On August 10, 2007, Brian Donegan launched a vicious physical attack on Sheikh Salamouni, an imam at Regent’s Park mosque in London, leaving him with grievous injuries and blind for life. Donegan was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In June 2008, Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathizer in East Yorkshire, was jailed for 16 years. Police found four nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat. The police revealed that Gilleard was plotting for a war against Muslims. He had written in a note found in the flat, “I am sick and tired of hearing nationalists talking of killing Muslims, blowing up mosques and fighting back only to see these acts of resistance fail. The time has come to stop the talking and start to act.”
A protest rally against the proposed Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero, in June 2010 (AP/PR/Newswire)
Far-right, anti-immigrant political parties have been steadily gathering strength across large parts of Europe, especially in Switzerland, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Italy, in recent years. Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian refugee, won France’s presidential election in 2007 largely on the plank of his anti-immigrant rhetoric. During his presidential campaign Sarkozy said that “people who slaughter sheep in their bathtubs are unwelcome in France.” France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front (FN) is enjoying a resurgence under its new leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, the daughter of France’s most famous far-right leader, Jean-Marie Me Pen. Current polls suggest that Marine Le Pen is ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy. In Denmark and Norway, populist, anti-immigrant parties continue to be successful. The far-right Swiss People’s party (SVP) emerged as the largest group in the Swiss parliament in the October 2007 elections, scooping nearly 29% of the vote. The party’s campaign had focused almost entirely on the issue of immigration. A video, prepared by the SVP, showed, on the one side, Swiss families enjoying a holiday in the Alps—which was portrayed as “heaven”—and, on the other side, veiled Muslim women, immigrant teenagers attacking Swiss girls, and black men standing idly in the street—which was depicted as “hell”. The party also displayed a controversial poster during the campaign, which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland, which drew sharp criticism from the United Nations special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diene.
Belgium’s anti-immigrant party, Vlaams Belang, which took 20.5% of the votes in the Belgian city elections in September 2010, remains strong in Flanders. In Italy the unabashedly anti-immigrant Northern League is a partner in prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition. The far-right Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, did quite well in the 2008 elections, securing 17.5% of the popular vote. Hungary’s far-right, anti-immigrant Jobbik party, which campaigned on anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments, entered parliament for the first time in the April 2010 elections. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant Freedom party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, secured 24 out of 150 seats in the Dutch parliament in the June 2010 elections and emerged as the country’s third largest party. It supports the minority coalition government from the outside in return for tougher measures against immigration. Wilders has set up an “International Freedom Alliance” in July 2010, with the twin objectives of “defending freedom and stopping Islam.” In Sweden, which has consistently followed a generous and accommodating policy towards immigrants over the past few decades, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats exceeded the 4% threshold needed to enter parliament in the September 2010 elections. The campaign launched by the Sweden Democrats screened a video, which showed a dramatic race where a Swedish pensioner is being overtaken by veiled Muslim women competing for welfare payments. After the national TV channel TV4 refused to air the video, it was shown on YouTube, where it was viewed more than 600,000 times. Jimmie Akesson, chairman of the Sweden Democrats, described Islam as “our biggest foreign threat since World War II”.
The backdrop to the growing popularity of far-right parties across large parts of Europe is provided by the economic downturn, public spending cuts, and austerity packages which make voters anxious about their jobs and living standards. The number of people without a job in the European Union rose to 23.15 million in October 2010, the highest since 1998. The economic crisis faced by the industrialized countries has led to the slashing of millions of jobs. The unemployment rate in Spain has reached 20.7%. Britain has imposed a “migration gap” for immigrants from outside the European Union. Immigrants, most of them Muslim, are used as an easy scapegoat, who are blamed for dwindling jobs, soaring welfare bills and rising crime rates. Non-European immigrants and ethnic minorities, including their descendants born and raised in European societies, are generally perceived and portrayed as the Other. The dynamics of this process of othering involves two interrelated dimensions. For one thing, it indirectly affirms and reinforces the unity and superiority of mainstream society and strengthens an ethnocentric, exclusionary view of national identity. Second, it ascribes a monolithic, essentialising and largely distorted identity to the immigrants, which serves to legitimize their exclusion.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) was founded by two former Nazi officers, Anton Reinthaller and Herbert Schweiger, who were involved in terrorist activities. The party, led by the late Jorg Haider, came second in the 1999 general elections on an anti-immigrant plank and was part of the country’s coalition government. In 2006, when he was governor of the province of Carinthia, Haider had declared that no mosques or minarets should be built in the province. Susanne Winter, a far-right leader of FPO, while campaigning for the Graz city council elections in January 2008, said that the Prophet Muhammad wrote the Quran in “epileptic fits”. In a speech on January 15, 2008 she said Austria faced an “Islamic tsunami” that would halve the country’s population within two decades. In Austria’s general elections held in September 28, 2008, the far-right parties consisting of the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria romped home with a record 29% of the national vote, the Austrian far-right’s best performance since World War II. Mr Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, who is known to have neo-Nazi leanings, has carried on a relentless campaign against the “Islamization” of Europe and has often said that “Islam is the fascism of the 21st century”. In the 2008 election, Strache ran a highly racist and xenophobic election campaign, describing Muslim women in Islamic dress as “female ninjas.” He says he would like to see protests over the construction of mosques in Austria similar to those in New York over the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque close to the site of the World Trade Centre.
The Freedom Party recently launched a controversial online video game called “Moschee Baba” (Bye Bye Mosque), which gives players 60 seconds to collect points by placing a target over cartoon mosques, minarets and muezzins. The game allows players to shoot down minarets and muezzins by clicking a ‘stop’ sign. The game, which has a link on the Freedom Party’s website, is aimed at persuading voters to elect Gerhard Kruzmann, the party’s candidate in the region of Styria on September 26, 2011. The website invites viewers to take part in a survey which elicits their opinion about the ban on the construction of minarets. Interestingly, there are only four mosques with minarets in the whole country. Austria’s Muslim community has condemned the game, saying that it is likely to fuel religious hatred and xenophobia. The Social Democrats and the Green Party have also condemned the video. The Muslim community and the Green party have filed a complaint for incitement to religious hatred and the demonization of religion, which is punishable with a prison sentence of up to two years.
The game allows players to shoot down minarets and muezzins with a ‘stop’ button
The far-right political parties in Britain, especially the British National Party, thrive on fanning people’s primordial sentiments and Islamophobic passions. The BNP often takes advantage of sensitive issues and fans racist and xenophobic sentiments in the majority population in order to draw political advantage. The far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands has persistently demanded a halt to all immigration and a ban on the building of mosques and Islamic schools and on veils worn by Muslim women. Geert Wilders, a leader of the Freedom Party, has called Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture” and the “enemy of freedom”. He has carried out a vicious campaign against the Quran and said in an article in a Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, “I’ve had enough of the Quran in the Netherlands: forbid that fascist book”. Wilders argues that the Quran is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror” and that the “Islamic ideology has as its ultimate goal the destruction of what is most dear to us, our freedom”. Wilders has said that if Dutch Muslims wished to stay on in the country they should tear up half of their holy book and warns that Europe is in danger of being “Islamized” and that there would soon be more mosques than churches in the country.
In Denmark the far-right Danish Peoples’ Party, which has spearheaded a campaign against immigrants, especially Muslims, emerged as the third largest party in the 2001 elections. Norway’s right-wing, anti-immigrant Kristiansand Progress Party declares that Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Quran are one and the same and wants Islam banned in the country. The party garnered 23% of the vote in the 2009 election. A recent poll found that nearly half of all Norwegians are in favour of restricting the entry of immigrants. The horrifying and barbarous atrocities committed by an extremist Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, in Oslo on 22 July 2011 highlights the sinister threat from far-right groups from within European societies. Breivik posted his views on the Internet, arguing that European governments must forcibly deport Muslims. He shared his extremist views with like-minded people from across the Western world through online forums. He wrote a 1,500-page document, which is suffused with hatred and venom for immigrants and Muslims, before executing his murderous plot. Shortly before detonating the bomb that resulted in the death of eight people and the mass shooting at a camp of the ruling Labour Party which killed 69 people, Breivik sent this document to 1003 people from amongst his contacts from around the world.
The scene of devastation after a bomb expolded at the government offices in Oslo on July 22, 2011 (AP)
In Belgium the far-right Vlaams Belang thrives on Flemish-nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments. Filip Dewinter, a leader of the party, proclaimed some years ago that “Islam is the number one enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world”. The party solicited the support of Jews against Muslims, who were described as “the main enemy of the moment.”
Of late there has come about a resurgence of sentiments and outbursts against Islam and Muslims in Germany. The context is provided by the growing popular resentment against immigration and the increasing visibility of Germany’s 4 million Muslims. According to a recent survey conducted for the tabloid Bid, nearly 66% of Germans believe that Islam does not belong to Germany. In March 2011, Germany’s interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said that Islam does not belong in Germany. The foreign minister Guido Westerwelle recently declared that children of immigrants should learn German before learning the language of their parents and grandparents. Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s finance minister, has recently said it had been a mistake to bring so many Gasterbeiter (guest workers) from Turkey during the economic boom of the 1960s. He said when Turkish workers were invited to work in German factories a half century ago, it was believed that their children would integrate into German society automatically, but this did not happen.
A recently published book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Does Away with Itself) by Thilo Sarrazin, a German economist who was until recently on the board of Germany’s Bundesbank, has become highly popular in Germany. In his controversial book, which has sold more than a million copies since its publication in August 2010, Sarrazin says that German women are having far too few babies, while Muslims and other immigrant minorities are producing too many. The result, according to him, is that Germany’s population is shrinking and is getting dumber. Sarrazin has been thoroughly denounced by Germany’s political establishment, and Chancellor Angela Merkel accused him of “dividing society”. The Bundesbank has sacked him. However, Sarrazin’s book continues to remain on the best seller list. A study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in October 2010 found that more than 30 per cent people questioned agreed that Germany was “overrun by foreigners.”
A new study, carried out in five European countries by the University of Munster in Germany, revealed that Germans agitate against new mosques and minarets much more than the French, the Dutch, the Danes and the Portuguese. “They are also less willing to concede equal rights to other religions,” said Professor Detlef Pollack, director of the study. “Compared to other Europeans, their image of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews is more negative.” According to the study, while 62% of the Dutch, 56% of the French and 55% of the Danes have a generally positive perception of Muslims, the majority of Germans (66% in the West and 74% in the East) have a negative image of Muslims.
The study, based on interviews with 10,000 people each in East and West Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal, noted that the frequency of contact or interaction with Muslims (and other religious groups) in the country has a highly significant bearing on the overall perception of Muslims. “The more often you meet Muslims, the more you view them as generally positive,” Pollack said. Contact between Germans and Muslims in the eastern part of the country was found to be as low as 16%, while it was 40% in the western part. Some three-quarters of West Germans and two-thirds of East Germans reported that that their encounters with Muslims were pleasant. According to the survey, only 49% of respondents in West Germany and 53% in East Germany think that all religious groups should have equal rights--in contrast with 72% in Denmark, 82% in the Netherlands, 86% in France and 89% in Portugal. In West Germany, more than 70% and in the East more than 80% of respondents were opposed to the building of new mosques.
Pollack says that the prevalence of the generally negative perception of Muslims in Germany is due to four factors: the infrequency of contact and interaction between ethnic Germans and Muslims; the lack of a serious and honest about Muslims and about integration in Germany; the growing strength of far-right political parties; certain events at the turn of the century, including the cartoon controversy in Denmark, violence and vandalism by French youth of North African origin in 2005, the headscarf ban in France, and the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh.
The writings and statements of some influential intellectuals and writers in Europe and the US, such as Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Francis Fukuyama, V. S. Naipaul and Oriana Fallaci, have served to legitimise and reinforce racist and Islamophobic views and sentiments. The prominent Princeton historian Bernard Lewis has said that Europe would be Islamic by the end of this century “at the very latest.” The Egyptian-born writer Bat Yeor has popularised the term “Eurabia” to characterise a Muslim-infiltrated Europe. Oriana Fallaci, the popular Italian writer known for her rabidly anti-Islamic views, has said that Europe “has sold itself and sells itself to the enemy like a prostitute”. Europe, according to her, has turned into Eurabia, a colony of Islam. Fallaci’s book The Rage and the Pride, an extremist tirade against Islam and Muslims, was on the best-selling list in France for several months.
Samuel Huntington (d. 2008) had a virulent dislike of Islam and Muslims. He argued that “the fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power”. He maintained that the conflict along the fault lines between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years and added: “Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders”. Shortly after the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, Huntington wrote an article “The Age of Muslim Wars” in the Newsweek, in which he described contemporary global scenario as “the age of Muslim wars,” adding that Muslim wars have replaced the cold war as the principal form of international conflict. He argued that “Muslim violence could congeal into one major clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or between Islam and the Rest.”
The Western media often portrays a negative, distorted picture of Muslims, which reinforces prejudices and stereotypes about Islam and Muslims. By and large, the portrayal of Muslims in the Western media is coloured by demeaning stereotypes, sweeping and unfounded generalisations and half truths. In the US, under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines have the unfettered freedom to write derogatory or hateful things about any community or religion without any fear of persecution. In September 2005, a minor Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries reproduced the cartoons, which generated an enormous amount of resentment among Muslims around the world. At the height of the controversy, Roberto Calderoli, who is now a member of Italy’s centre-right government, wore on television a T-shirt depicting the cartoons. This sparked riots against Italy’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which 11 people died. There were massive protests in Muslim countries in which scores of people were killed. Danish embassies in Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Syria were attacked and vandalised. Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya recalled their envoys to Denmark. Large numbers of Muslim consumers across the world boycotted Danish products on a massive scale. Trade between Denmark and the Persian Gulf, which amounted to billions of dollars each year, came to a halt.
Modern information and communication technologies, including the Internet, videos and films, are being increasingly used to disseminate hate against Islam and Muslims. A Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh made a derogatory film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The script of the film was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a self-styled Somalian-born rebel who sought asylum in the Netherlands. The film opens with a prayer and then presents, through Ali’s voice-over, the stories of four Muslim women telling God about the abuse (including incestuous rape) they have suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam denigrates and enslaves women and that the abuse and humiliation of women is sanctioned by the Quran. The film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004 a Muslim youth of Moroccan origin stabbed Gogh to death.
A survey of 900 Hollywood film appearances of Arab characters found that the vast majority of them were racist caricatures. Images of ordinary Muslims and of Muslim societies are almost non-existent or distorted in Western media. Islam: What the West Needs to Know is a documentary film premiered at the American Film Renaissance Festival in Hollywood on January 15, 2006 and was also distributed on the web. The film argues that Islam is a violent religion and that Islamic violence is enshrined in the teachings of the Prophet and that the Quran sanctions and prescribes violence against non-Muslims.
A controversial hate film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West was made by the New York-based Clarion Fund in 2006. An unnamed Canadian Jewish businessman provided nearly 80 per cent of the film’s $400,000 budget. The film portrays Islam as posing a threat to Western civilization and compares the Islamic threat with that of Nazism before World War II. The film features scenes of Muslim children being urged to become suicide bombers, interspersed with incendiary and demonising commentary on Islam. The film was initially promoted via the Internet and later through screenings at various university campuses in the US. It was also distributed at Jewish synagogues and Christian churches across the country. Parts of the movie were shown on CNN and Fox News. Some newspapers, including the New York Times, distributed nearly 145,000 DVDs of the film. About 28 million DVDs of the film were freely distributed by direct mail and through more than 70 American newspapers in 10 key electoral swing states just before the 2008 presidential elections.
Geert Wilders made a short film “Fitna” in March 2008, which shows certain verses from the Quran, interspersed with media clips and newspaper clippings showing acts of violence and terrorism by Muslims. The film also reproduces a caricature of the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban (published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006) and footage of the September 11 attacks on the US, the Madrid train bombing and the terrorist attack on London. The film conveys the message that Islam encourages acts of violence and terrorism, anti-Semitism and violence against women. Wilders described the film as “a call to shake off the creeping tyranny of Islamisation”. As Robert Fisk has observed, “the film is crass in its presentation, crude and vulgar in its message”. All mainstream television channels in the Netherlands refused to air the film. On March 27 Fitna was released on the video-sharing website Liveleak in Dutch and English versions. The next day, Liveleak removed the film from their servers, citing serious threats to their staff. It can be seen on the Internet on the sister channel to Wikipedia, Wikileak.
Unfortunately, modern information and communication technologies are being increasingly used to spread a message of hate and demonisation. These technologies, especially web 2.0 features such as blogs, social networks, websites and instant messaging, are being used by racist and neo-Nazis groups in Western countries to spread anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia. Social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook and the video-sharing site YouTube are being used by extremist groups to spread a message of hate against minorities and immigrants. On YouTube there are thousands of hate videos that are uploaded with messages of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and intolerance towards minority groups. In a sense, the abuse of modern information and communication technologies is creating a virtual community of hate.
On June 17, 2011 the Dutch parliament passed a bill banning the slaughter of animals without first stunning them. Until now, Jews and Muslims were exempted from this rule. The bill has to be approved by the Senate before it can be enacted and enforced. The legislation was proposed by an animal rights party with two MPs, which argued that killing animals without stunning them causes them unnecessary pain. Opinion polls show that the majority of Dutch voters support the ban.
Three aspects of the ban on halal slaughter in the Netherlands are particularly note-worthy. For one thing, the ban should be seen against the backdrop of the rising wave of Islamophobia and the changing political scenario in the country. For more than two decades, the Netherlands has followed multicultural policies, which have been fairly accommodative of the rights and sensibilities of the Muslim minority. However, certain events in the West and in the Netherlands, such as the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 and the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004, have triggered anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments across the country. In the Dutch parliamentary elections held in June 2010 the anti-immigrant Freedom party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, secured 24 out of 150 seats and emerged as the country’s third largest party. It supports the minority coalition government from the outside in return for tougher measures against immigration and against Muslims. Tourage Atabaki, a Dutch-Iranian professor at the University of Amsterdam says: “Many Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands believe that the ban on the ritual slaughter of animals targets Muslims, and in fact it reflects the rising anti-Muslim sentiments here.” Second, the ban on religious slaughter is at variance with the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. During the past few years, certain laws enacted by some European nations—such as the ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland and on the wearing of the face-covering veil in France—are clearly in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. Third, the move to ban halal slaughter will further alienate the Muslims from mainstream Dutch society.
The issue of the Islamic veil, especially the face-covering burqa or niqab, has become extremely contentious and controversial across large parts of Europe. France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy created a huge controversy by stating in his first state of the nation address on January 22, 2009 that Islamic veils were a sign of women’s subservience and debasement and therefore not welcome on French soil. A cross-party commission of French MPs appointed by Sarkozy to consider a ban on face-covering veils recommended a ban on face-covering veils or burqas in schools, hospitals, post offices and other state-owned premises and while using public services. On September 14, 2010, the French Senate unanimously passed a bill banning the face-covering veil or niqab in public places. France is the first European country to pass such a law. The bill sets a fine of 150 euros for women who would violate the ban, and a fine of 30,000 euros and a year in prison for husbands or other relatives who are convicted of forcing the veil on a woman. So far, more than 90 Muslim women have been fined for wearing the face-covering veil. A number of them have been verbally abused and even physically assaulted by members of the public.
On April 30, 2010, 136 of Belgium’s 138 lower house legislators voted to ban the burqa in the country. According to the law, which came into force on 22 July, 2011, offenders face a fine of 137.5 euros and up to seven days in jail. Nearly four months after its general elections held in June 2010, a new coalition government, consisting of the liberal VVD party and the Christian Democracts (CDA), has been formed in the Netherlands. But the minority government has to depend on the parliamentary support of the far-right, anti-immigration Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, known for his fiery anti-Islamic rhetoric. Bowing to the pressures of the Freedom Party, the minority government agreed on 30 September, 2010 to ban the wearing of the face-covering niqab across the country. In Spain, nine cities in Catalonia, including Barcelona, have banned the burqa. Switzerland and Austria are considering outlawing face-covering veils. In the Canadian province of Quebec, the government has proposed a law aimed at banning face-covering veils in all public institutions. According to a survey carried out by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, a clear majority of Germans, French, Spanish and British support a ban on the burqa and the niqab. Most Americans, on the other hand, disapprove the ban.
A parliamentary committee in Italy passed a bill aimed at banning women from face-covering veils in public on August 1, 2011. The bill, which is backed by the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, will go to a parliamentary vote after the summer recess. If passed, those who defy the ban would have to pay a fine of 150-300 euros and to render some kind of community service. Those forcing someone to wear the face-covering veil would have to face a penalty of 30,000 euros and up to 12 months in jail.
It is interesting to note that only a tiny minority of Muslim women in European countries wear the full-face veil or niqab. In France, for example, the number of women who wear the face-covering veil does not exceed 2,000. Nearly one-quarter of them are French women who have converted to Islam. The full-face burqa is a rare feature on the streets and boulevards of the country. In Belgium, where the population of Muslims is estimated to be around 8, 50,000, only a few dozen women wear the niqab.
Muslim women protesting against the ban on wearing face-covering veils in the Netherlands (AP)
The ban on face-covering veils has not gone unchallenged. On March 7, 2010, Thomsas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, said that banning the burqa and the niqab would be “an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy”. He added that the prohibition of the burqa would not liberate oppressed women but might instead lead to their further alienation. He also said that a ban might also breach the European Convention on Human Rights. On June 24, 2010 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which advises the council on issues of human rights, passed a resolution urging European Union member states not to issue a ban on burqas and to focus instead on protecting women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing”. The Parliamentary Assembly emphasised the priority of “working towards ensuring freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination”. Amnesty International has strongly criticised the ban, saying it is violative of international law, human rights conventions and rights of freedom of expression and religion guaranteed by the constitutions of European countries. The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, has questioned the legal basis for the ban. The ban could be challenged before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. Catholic churches in France and Belgium have also criticised the ban. The ban is likely to further stigmatise and alienate Muslim minorities and add to their isolation from mainstream society.
Two Muslim women in France defied the ban on face-covering veils and held a protest against the law in Meaux, east of Paris on May 5, 2011. One of them was banned from entering the courthouse because she was wearing the veil and refused to remove it when a police officer asked her to do so. They were charged to pay a fine of €150. They have filed a petition against the law in a local court. In Belgium, two Muslim women have challenged the law on the ban on wearing the face-covering veil on grounds of discrimination. “We consider the law a disproportionate intrusion into fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion and expression,” Ines Wouters, the lawyer representing the two women, told the media. She has taken the case to Belgium’s constitutional court for the suspension of the law.
On September 16, 2011, France banned prayers on streets, evidently aimed at Muslim worshippers who are forced to offer the Friday prayers on the streets because the existing mosques do not sufficient spaces. Now they offer the Friday prayers in disused barracks or other temporary buildings. The French interior minister, Calude Gueant, has said, “Prayers in the street are unacceptable, a direct attack on the principle of secularism.”
Muslims praying at an old fire brigade barracks in Paris on September 16, 2011, following the ban on praying on streets (Charles Platias/Reuters)