Rarely does the EU act so swiftly. Less than four months since the killing of George Floyd in police custody and the Black Lives Matter campaign that spilled into Europe and galvanised continent-wide protests, the EU is appointing its first ever anti-racism coordinator. This brilliant idea will make little sense, however, if anti-Muslim hatred is not part of their portfolio. Because instead of building a “truly anti-racist union”, as the president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, would wish, we have so far built an anti-Muslim one.
Prejudice against Muslims exists in every corner of Europe. Not only do we collectively devalue and discriminate against Europeans who follow Islam, but the incidence of violence against Muslims is increasing.
We have known since the refugee and migration crisis of 2015 and the jihadist terrorist attacks in France, Spain and Germany that Muslims suffer from an exceptionally bad reputation in our societies. In 2019, research conducted for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor yet again confirmed widespread mistrust towards Muslims across Europe. In Germany and Switzerland, every second respondent said they perceived Islam as a threat. In the UK, two in five share this perception. In Spain and France, about 60% think Islam is incompatible with the “west”. In Austria, one in three doesn’t want to have Muslim neighbours.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) confirms these findings in its most recent paper on the rise and meaning of hate crimes against Muslims. So does Europe’s police coordinating body Europol: in 2019, far-right terrorism soared.
What is more surprising is how quickly anti-Muslim racism has turned violent.
In its most recent report the Council of Europe warns that “Europe is facing a shocking reality: antisemitic, anti-Muslim and other racist hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate”. The OSCE also corroborates these findings in its own paper on hate crimes against Muslims.
If it were not so distressing it would be fascinating. From Spain to Bulgaria and from Finland to France, people feel prejudice against Muslims no matter the size of the country’s economy, its Muslim community, the religious, racial or ethnic social makeup, the kind of historical relations with the south and the Muslim world, or even the refugee policy after 2015.
Take two very different European countries: Germany and Poland. The German Muslim community (4.7 million people or 5.7% of the population) is more than 200 times larger than Poland’s (about 20,000 or 0.01%). German GDP is seven times larger, and the country is much more religiously diverse. Perhaps the best indicator to showcase differences is the policy towards Syrian refugees that the two countries adopted in 2015. Germany’s Willkommenskultur stood in stark contrast to Poland’s staunch refusal to take any.
And yet roughly the same percentage of Germans and Poles think unfavourably about Muslims.
Racism in Germany occurs particularly frequently under the guise of anti-Muslim prejudice. Some 52% of those surveyed in early 2019 said they perceived Islam as a threat. This perception has remained stable at a high level for around 10 years. In Poland, with only a handful of Muslims, Arabs (usually identified as Muslims) have been the most disliked ethnicity for more than a decade. In the 2020 poll, 55% of Polish respondents said they disliked them.
In both countries, anti-Muslim prejudice prepared fertile ground for racist violence. According to German police statistics, the number of crimes classified as Islamophobia rose by 4.4% to 950 offences in 2019. Repeated or foiled attacks on refugee centres and mosques are becoming a serious danger to Germany’s national security, with the killing of nine people in Hanau in February as the most blatant example. Although smaller and less frequent in Poland, hate crimes since 2016 also have been perpetrated mostly against Muslims or “persons thought to be Muslims”.
The anti-Muslim bias is omnipresent not only geographically but also across the political spectrum. The right, the centre and the left – everyone seems to hold a grudge, although for different reasons.
In Germany, far-right racism focuses on the question of whether Muslims or other minorities can be “real Germans”. A whole generation of German Muslims have grown up in this social climate – constantly questioned and forced to justify their religion. The Alternative für Deutschland party, which claims it is defending Judeo-Christian values against so-called Islamisation, is now the biggest opposition party in the national parliament. Its ideas have spread into the mainstream.
Among liberals and on the left there is often prejudice against Islam from a position of “humanist universalism, human rights, gender equality and democracy”, as one Polish liberal commentator put it while warning about the creeping Islamisation of Europe. Even the strongest critics of the current PiS government in Poland will quite openly talk of Muslims as religious fanatics: “Not that I am against Islam,” you hear people say, “it’s just that they have not had their reformation yet – they’re like Christians in the Middle Ages.”
This is not to say that criticism of religion is inadmissible, or that all Europeans are racist. But xenophobia grows in crises, and we currently live in crisis – the pandemic, looming recession and global uncertainty may exacerbate what is already an existential danger for the European Union and democracy. The European scapegoat of choice will most likely be Muslim. Far-right or populist parties will openly vilify Islam, with the tacit support of many mainstream politicians.
The good news is that, thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests, the ground is now fertile in Europe for anti-xenophobic activism and policies. Across the continent – Poland and Germany included – thousands of people gathered this summer in anti-racist and antifascist demonstrations. In Germany, as a direct result of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Bundestag recently asked the DeZIM-Institut to set up a Racism Monitor, with funding of €10m.
The creation of an EU anti-racism coordinator could reinvigorate a pan-European approach to anti-Muslim racism. But it should incorporate the existing office for coordinating Europe’s efforts to combat anti-Muslim hatred – which was created in 2015 but has achieved little – with an enhanced budget and a clear, strong mandate.
An energetic and devoted coordinator should not only coordinate between EU institutions but also monitor and record anti-Muslim hatred in all member states: only 15 of 27 have strategies to fight racism.
But none of us should give anti-Muslim racism a free pass. Many communities across Europe are uniformly white and Christian, particularly in smaller towns and villages. But we all live in our own social bubbles, none of which are free from prejudice, and it is there that we need to act.
We need to keep a nose for what Frantz Fanon called the “stench of racism” – those seemingly rational opinions that hide a bias uttered at friendly dinners or drinks parties. Take up the issue and talk loudly about anti-Muslim racism.
Call a spade a spade. We have become accustomed to the word Islamophobia, but the “phobia” part softens the meaning as if it was a medical condition deserving of tolerance. EU legislation classifies anti-Muslim racism as racism – once we take it as such, its ominous character becomes clear. Racism is not a temporary or transitional phenomenon. It is a social pandemic that burrows into the structures of society, infiltrating and disintegrating all areas of life.
• Patrycja Sasnal is a political scientist and head of research at the Polish Institute of International Affairs; Yasemin El Menouar is a social scientist, head of the Religion Monitor project at the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany and a member of the independent expert group on hostility against Muslims at the German interior ministry