‘Counter-Islamophobia Kit’ launched at European Parliament to tackle increasing Islamophobia in Europe

The end of September 2018 saw European academics and policy makers launch a “toolkit” to tackle Islamophobia in Europe at the European Parliament in Brussels. The “Counter Islamophobia Kit” briefing paper, which represents the largest study of its kind, identified a “worsening environment of Islamophobia … with respect to media content, political discourse and experiences of discrimination indicating the new and increasingly acceptable hostility against Muslims in many spheres of everyday life”. It also highlighted how Islamophobia in Europe has increased in the last decade, which is in part due to the “War on Terror” (both within and outside Europe), the rise of the far-right and anti-immigration movements in European countries, and the ongoing refugee crisis.

The report was based on research in eight countries, including France, Germany, and the UK, and looked at the various drivers of Islamophobia and efforts to foster counter-narratives to it. Included in the report as examples of this increasing Islamophobia were Boris Johnson’s recent comments comparing those who wear the niqab to “letter boxes”, and the numerous “burqa bans” which have been implemented throughout Europe. France was identified as a “barometer” and trailblazer of Islamophobia in Europe, as demonstrated by its burqa ban being adopted by other countries.

While in the countries examined, Islamophobia was generally strongly associated with the perception of Muslims as a security threat and “a threat to local, national and European identity”, the research also demonstrated that local history and culture did affect the formulation of Islamophobia in a specific area. For example, Portugal’s history of the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors in the Middle Ages has fuelled fears of a Muslim “invasion” and local narratives of a civilizational struggle. Meanwhile, in Greece, Islamophobic discourses were linked to the idea of Turkey using refugees to expand its control in the Aegean, demonstrating how refugees and Muslims have become conflated identities. Hungary’s status as a transit point for many asylum seekers heading for Western Europe has contributed to the narrative of Muslims as potential terrorists.

Some local influences on formulations of Islamophobia are well-documented, such as France’s instrumentalisation of its national conception of laïcité to target Muslims for being ‘unsecular’, but the report reveals instances that are less so. In the UK for example, which has a long history of diversity, the Muslim community finds itself the target of hatred in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks. Head researcher for the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) in the UK, Arzu Merali, said, “The UK used to pride itself in its diversity, but that discourse is no longer there”. Merali also spoke at the conference about how a generalised discourse which targets Muslims in UK schools and the streets has led to “targeted legislation” which solidifies “the idea of Muslims as non-citizens”.

Amina Easat-Daas, the project officer for the Counter Islamophobia Kit, said, “The project has revealed the vast expansiveness of Islamophobia, the fact that it permeates so many elements of our lives and of society. We want to challenge the narratives that exist, to contextualise them and emphasise their normalcy, their everyday nature, and also highlight the brilliant contributions many Muslims are making in society”. IHRC researcher in Germany, Luis Manuel Hernandez Aguilar, called for the “urgent need” to recognise Islamophobia as a form of racism, pointing to “how easily Islamophobia moves between everyday life and politics” when Islamophobia “is not officially recognised as a form of discrimination”.

The briefing paper also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the reactive condemnations of Islamist attacks, and efforts to distance such attacks from the broader Muslim community, as still falling within a “securitisation” narrative that affects Muslims in all aspects of their lives. This was also identified as fostering an expectation that all Muslims must condemn any negative acts committed by another Muslim. Instead, the report identifies the “normalisation” of Muslims, meaning showing them to have the same lives and aspirations as others, as being key to combating Islamophobia. Islamophobia must not also only be viewed as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon; it must be understood that it exists across the political spectrum and in everyday life if it is to be tackled.

Shortfalls in the European legal system were identified as increasing Islamophobia. The report states, “There is limited engagement of European human rights law with the best legal practices to counter Islamophobia in individual EU member states. As a result, the forms that both judicial intervention and legal measures, including positive measures, could take in order to effectively counter Islamophobia remain unclear”. The European Court of Human Rights was criticised for its “rigidity” in ruling on cases of alleged Islamophobia. The report stated that the Court had shifted “the burden of proof away from the state and onto the applicants who should then prove that the restrictions against their right to freedom of religion are disproportionate”. However, efforts by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which saw a number of non-binding resolutions analysing and defining Islamophobia passed, were praised as a necessary step towards tackling the problem.

Salman Sayyid, professor of social theory and decolonial thought at the University of Leeds, said at the conference, “Islamophobia is a challenge to the continuation of a particular type of European democratic project, and that’s why I think it should be taken seriously, and not just in relation to the defence of Muslim communities, but in defence of the kind of world we want to live in”. In other words, tackling Islamophobia has a larger mandate than the protection of only the Muslim community.

The project was received positively among academics and associated organisations on social media, and workshops and discussions related to the Counter-Islamophobia Kit are taking place throughout individual European countries.

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Benoist, C. (2018) ‘Muslims in Europe facing ‘hostility in everyday life’, Islamophobia study finds’. [online] https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/islamophobia-europe-uk-france-belgium-toolkit-islam-muslims-racism-670535899. [Accessed 24 October 2018].