European Muslims feel part of Europe but when will European society reciprocate?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Muslim women in the Czech Republic. Muslims often face barriers to inclusion in European society. [Olga Iutina/Shutterstocl]

New data released this week show that Muslims in Europe face discrimination in all areas of life. We need to start shifting our perspective and promote inclusive narratives and practices with regard to Muslims’ presence in Europe. Too often, they are seen as a ‘problem to manage’, writes Julie Pascoët.

Julie Pascoët is senior advocacy officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

The findings of the latest survey on Muslims’ experiences of discrimination by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency put the finger on a very real problem in Europe that requires a European response.

They highlight that inclusion is still a distant reality for Muslims in Europe – whether it is in employment, education, housing, or when using services. Nearly one in three Muslim respondents indicate that they suffer discrimination when looking for a job. This is particularly worrying given that having a job is the main gateway to inclusion and participation in society. It is also a waste of the many talents and skills that Muslims are not able to contribute because of discrimination.

Muslims also have to face significant risks to their safety. One in four Muslims were victims of hate crime in the past year, and almost half of them experienced six or more incidents. In the words of one Muslim woman: “I’ve become this person who constantly evaluates risks and potential dangers. I feel like I have to look around when I’m on the go. I’m busy making sure that I know what to do, just in case something were to happen. It’s exhausting.”

And if you thought that police forces were there to protect them, unfortunately the figures tell a different story. Almost half of the survey respondents who were stopped by the police over the last year said this happened because of their migrant or ethnic minority background. The most targeted were Muslim men from North and Sub-Saharan Africa. This might also explain why hate crime victims are often reluctant to report incidents to the police.

The stigmatisation of Muslims – or those perceived as such – in the context of counter-terrorism policies is particularly acute and has a tangible impact on their lives. As one mother targeted under the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism initiative ‘Prevent’ puts it: “I’ve never felt not British. And this [Prevent experience] made me feel very, very, like they tried to make me feel like an outsider. We live here. I am born and bred here, not from anywhere else”.

Islamophobia is also a form of racism that specifically targets women. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency’s survey corroborates other report findings, including by ENAR, that show that Muslim women are disproportionately affected by discrimination, especially in education, employment and access to goods and services, vital areas where inclusion and emancipation happen. In some countries, women also amount to nearly 80% of victims of hate crime. Evidence shows that sexism and racism both play a role in their experiences of discrimination and that these compounded forms of discrimination increase levels of marginalisation and violence.

Islamophobia is a European society issue but it is currently not being sufficiently addressed as such. As we marked the European Day Against Islamophobia on Thursday (21 September), we called for a strong commitment from the European Union institutions and from EU member states that they will take this issue seriously. Some important steps have been taken at European Union level to recognise this issue, but more needs to be done. In practice, this means:

  • ensuring existing legislation is actually implemented and applying effective sanctions in cases of discrimination and hate crime;
  • putting in place safeguards against discriminatory practices targeting Muslim communities in counterterrorism and policing measures (for instance search forms to be filled in by police after a stop and search);
  • actively encouraging employers to become inclusive and ensure their workplaces reflect a diverse society;
  • adopting targeted measures specifically to address Islamophobia, for example a national action plan to combat Islamophobia (the city of Barcelona has for instance adopted an action plan against Islamophobia).

We need to ensure that Muslims are entitled to feel part and parcel of European societies. Many Muslims – both EU citizens and residents – have been actively contributing to European society for several generations. The current representation of Muslims as a threat in many public and media discourses is distorted and only serves to fuel both discrimination and alienation of a whole population group.

Dehumanisation and generalised suspicion are at the core of the growing Islamophobia in Europe today. EU member states have the opportunity to reverse the trend and should do so before levels of exclusion reach tipping point.

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