As September 21 is marked as the European Action Day against Islamophobia, we are confronted with an unsettling reality: Europe has become a breeding ground for anti-Islam hatred.
From the beginning of the school year to the peak of summer, during election campaigns, or even international sports events like the FIFA World Cup, Islamophobia consistently infiltrates public discourse across Europe.
Year after year, the realms of politics and media entertain notions about the intentions of European Muslims, speculate about their practices, delve into their beliefs, and scrutinise their interactions with others. These depictions, sometimes absurd and often deeply troubling, carry significant consequences.
They narrow the expression of Islamic faith to a myopic lens of nationalism or security, where every aspect of Islam is at risk of being misconstrued as inherently threatening to the national order.
In recent years the surge in influence of far-right ideologies reverberated across Europe. Within this context, Muslim communities often became the focal point of the rhetoric of this political current, which regarded them as unwelcome in Europe, leading to increasingly extreme forms of dehumanisation.
As we observe the European Action Day Against Islamophobia today, let’s briefly examine some European governments that have garnered notoriety for their implementation of Islamophobic measures, bans, and policies.
Islamophobia in the UK: Statistics and PREVENT
In the UK, 8,730 cases of religiously aggravated hate crimes were reported in 2022, representing a 37 percent increase compared to the year before. Among these incidents, 3,459, accounting for 42 percent of all cases categorised as hate crimes, targeted individuals of Muslim faith and background.
Research also reveals that Muslims rank as the second least-liked group in the UK, following only Roma and Irish Travellers.
Approximately 26 percent of the population holds negative sentiments toward Muslims, with over 18 percent supporting a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the UK.
Beyond the concerning statistics that highlight a distressing increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the UK, the government’s tactics appear to not only downplay Islamophobia’s significance but also contribute to its persistence within state institutions, particularly through the UK’s contentious counter-terrorism strategy.
For example, while previous British PM Liz Truss promised to adopt a “zero-tolerance” approach to Islamophobia, Rishi Sunak, in contrast, largely overlooked the matter, choosing instead to defend one of the government’s most controversial counter-terrorism strategies, Prevent. Sunak emphasised a shift in focus toward countering the threat of “Islamist extremism.”
Counter-extremism strategy, PREVENT
Prevent, as part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, claims to operate in a pre-crime space and intervenes before any criminal intent, often affecting individuals who have never contemplated criminal actions.
However, it has faced criticism for scapegoating British Muslims, and targeting vulnerable individuals, including children as young as 3-4 years old: “The current counter-extremism strategy, we argue, divides the population; it scapegoats British Muslims, encourages suspicion, and it damages community cohesion.”
“Most importantly, it targets our most vulnerable and important members of society – our children – placing their education and self-development under a security lens,” says Prevent Watch, which is a community-led initiative supporting people impacted by Prevent Duty.
Despite the limited available data provided by the government , a consistent and concerning pattern emerges, clearly indicating an undue focus on Muslims.
The majority of individuals referred to Prevent are Muslim, with over 65 percent of referrals being Muslims in 2016. This includes nearly 2,000 Muslim children. This stark disproportionality stands in stark contrast to the fact that the Muslim population in the UK comprises less than 5 percent. Alarmingly, this disproportionate targeting of Muslims lacks accountability.
Further exacerbating the issue, a substantial portion of Prevent funding has been channelled into ‘Muslim areas,’ often referred to as ‘priority areas.’ This approach means that all Muslims in a given area are viewed through the narrow lens of counter-terrorism, inadvertently leading to the creation of what can be termed as ‘suspect communities.’
In sum, Islamophobia remains a pressing issue in the UK, impacting society at large, and challenging the government to address its multifaceted nature.
France: Lack of statistics and the systemic obstruction policy
While the French government’s recent ban on wearing long modest dress, the abaya, in schools has garnered widespread attention as a glaring example of Islamophobia, it is merely a single facet of France’s broader problematic stance towards Muslims and Islam.
France not only fails to combat Islamophobia but actively sponsors it through various laws and policies. Among these is the Systemic Obstruction Policy, initiated by the French government in 2018, aimed at countering so-called ‘radical Islam,’ and the Anti-Separatism Law, adopted in 2021 to reinforce France’s secular system, which has faced criticism from the UN for its marginalisation of Muslims.
Under the Systemic Obstruction Policy, the French Interior Minister, Darmanin, openly stated that its purpose was to intimidate the Muslim community, resulting in a sustained assault on civil society and a curtailing of civil liberties.
To illustrate the extent of the state’s targeting of Muslim communities, French government data reveals that in less than four years, approximately 24,000 Muslim-owned associations, charities, and businesses faced unjustified investigations. Of these, 718 were compelled to close, with 46 million euros confiscated from the Muslim community.
While the Ministry of Interior has yet to release official data, the Collective Against Islamophobia in Europe (CCIE, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en Europe) reported a staggering 501 incidents in France in 2022 alone, further highlighting the pressing issue of Islamophobia within the country.
Germany: Rise in racist attacks and under-reporting
Germany, a nation with a population exceeding 84 million, boasts the second-largest Muslim community in Western Europe, trailing only behind France. Official figures suggest that over 5 million Muslims call Germany home.
However, for many Muslims in Germany, racism is an unfortunate aspect of their daily lives, with women frequently bearing the brunt of recorded cases.
The Collective for Countering Islamophobia in Europe (CCIE), a NGO based in Belgium founded in 2020 stresses that a significant number of Islamophobic incidents remain under-reported, resulting in a substantial gap in statistical reporting due to a lack of trust in institutions.
The issue of under-reporting, coupled with certain countries strategically choosing not to collect or publish relevant statistics, exacerbates the trivialisation of anti-Muslim racism, as highlighted in the CCIE’s annual report on Islamophobia in Europe.
In 2022, a total of 898 documented anti-Muslim incidents occurred in Germany, with a high number of unreported cases, as indicated in a June situation report by the Berlin-based non-governmental organization, the Alliance Against Islamophobia and Muslim Hostility.
Among these documented incidents, 500 involved verbal attacks, ranging from inflammatory statements and insults to threats and coercion. Eleven threatening letters were sent to mosques, containing “often excessive threats of violence and death” and featuring Nazi symbols or references to the Nazi era.
Furthermore, racially motivated attacks on young people and children are on the rise, with instances of women being assaulted in front of their children and pregnant women subjected to kicks or blows to the stomach.
According to the same report, the actual number of unreported cases is substantial due to limited media coverage. Therefore, there is a pressing need for the expansion of reporting structures and increased awareness of the issue among authorities, schools, and the healthcare sector.
Urgent action required against Islamophobia
The European Action Day against Islamophobia on September 21 serves as a vital reminder of the enduring challenges confronted by Muslim communities throughout Europe.
The establishment of this day as a means to draw attention to this pervasive issue, initiated in 2014 by the Council of Europe, marks a promising start.
However, it’s imperative for European countries and EU institutions to build upon this foundation and take more proactive steps towards holding member states accountable for their efforts in combating Islamophobia.