Terror attacks in France and Austria have put Europe’s 25 million Muslims back in the spotlight. The unwanted attention is familiar. Discussing Muslims as a security risk invariably reaches fever pitch after an Islamist-inspired terrorist act. This time the attackers came from Chechnya, Tunisia and one had roots in North Macedonia. But never mind: anxiety over the Muslim “enemy within” goes deep.
Anxious debates on the place of Islam in Europe and claims that European Muslims are footsoldiers in an existential confrontation between Europe and Islam and represent an impossible-to-integrate “other” have dogged Muslims across the continent for decades.
There is a dangerous new shrillness to the conversation this time, however.
The rhetoric over the alleged “Islamisation” of Europe is fired up by xenophobic and populist parties including such figures as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, but it has been embraced by too many mainstream European politicians.
EU home affairs ministers are this week discussing measures to block online Islamist propaganda, provide imams with training in “European” values and pay more attention to the integration of Muslims. And given the fears of increased Islamist-related terrorism, some of these steps are justified. But governments must ensure such actions do not fuel an increase in violence, discrimination and hate against their own Muslim citizens.
Amnesty International has warned French authorities not to contribute to a “portrayal of all Muslims as suspects” and to stop “stereotypical, stigmatising and discriminatory comments targeting Muslims and refugees”, although the French president, Emmanuel Macron, denies allegations of fostering racism against Muslims.
The reality is that the relationship between European governments and their Muslim citizens is in dire need of a reset. The climate of mutual suspicion is both a rebuke to the values of inclusion and tolerance that the EU claims to uphold and it lends support to the extremist claim that there can be no coexistence between Islam and the west.
Crafting a new social contract into a constructive conversation requires the transformation of outdated thinking and the acknowledgement of past errors and misperceptions.
As an important first step, the myth of European Muslims as eternal outsiders, with a culture and customs that make them forever “untrue” Europeans, must be challenged.
This means not conflating the actions of a tiny minority of Islamist extremists with the beliefs and conduct of the majority, which abhors such views. It means accepting not only Islam’s historical role and influence in Europe, as Macron has done, but also recognising, as Angela Merkel did in 2018, that Islam is a part of modern Europe.
Crucially, it demands an end to the outsourcing of Europe-Muslim relations to foreign leaders. The war of words between EU leaders and Recip Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and even Macron’s interview with the Arab news channel Al Jazeera in which he explained his respect for Islam as well as his plans to appoint an envoy for the Muslim world, are beside the point.
Worse, they are counterproductive. EU leaders talking to their foreign counterparts over the heads of their own Muslim citizens is insulting and meaningless. All it does is reinforce perceptions of European Muslims as exotic, alien and forever non-citizens.
Neither Erdoğan nor Pakistan’s Imran Khan have any real interest in improving lives of European Muslims. Nor do they share their concerns, priorities and values. Truth be told many European Muslims fled these very countries to find shelter here. The last thing they need is counsel from foreign powers.
Anti-Muslim racism and hate must be tackled head on. Discrimination against so-called “third generation migrants”, mainly young men, often results in marginalistion and disaffection, which in turn can lead to radicalisation. European Muslim women who wear the headscarf should not have to fight the perception that they are victims in need of help or a public menace.
The lived reality of many Muslims points in another direction. The large majority of Europeans who follow Islam live fulfilling and productive lives as law-abiding and taxpaying European citizens. Many are in politics (although not at EU level). Across Europe, Muslim entrepreneurs are revitalising impoverished urban neighborhoods, creating jobs and prompting innovation in business. They excel in medicine, sports, art and culture. Their stories need to be told.
As the Open Society Institute has noted, European Muslims and non-Muslims share the same concerns, needs and experiences including “better quality of education, improved housing, cleaner streets and [the tackling of ] antisocial behaviour and crime”.
“There is no evidence supporting the common contention that Muslims are living in a separate, parallel society,” according to Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation.
Finally, it’s important to shift the focus from religion to Europe’s broader equality agenda as articulated in the EU’s anti-racism action plan, adopted in September following the Black Lives Matter protests.
An overwhelming majority of Muslims in France and Germany describe themselves as loyal to their country and see no contradiction between French/German and Muslim values. “There is no evidence supporting the common contention that Muslims are living in a separate, parallel society,” says the Bertelsmann Foundation.
The ambitious blueprint recognises the deep roots of structural racism across Europe and that anti-Muslim hatred is a form of racism. It should be systematically used to tackle the marginalisation of European Muslims.
Empowering national equality bodies in EU states to include anti-Muslim hatred in their anti-racism work is one important step. Changing police culture and conduct another.
The good news is that even as some national politicians step up their anti-Muslim rhetoric, local politicians have adopted a different, more inclusive approach. Additionally, Covid-19 has highlighted the strong presence of Muslims in frontline services across the continent.
Anti-Muslim hatred and prejudice can be seen as a Muslim problem. In truth, it is much more than that. It is a stain on European values, Europe’s internal cohesion and its global reputation. In addition, rebuilding the post-pandemic European economy demands all hands on deck and the contribution of all citizens.
In the end it is very simple: Europe’s Muslims are not going anywhere. They are here to stay because Europe is home.
• Shada Islam is a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs
• This article was amended on 13 November 2020 to clarify that one of the recent terror attackers had roots in North Macedonia, rather than being from there as an earlier version said.