'Racist laws, policies and practices have no place here': Islamophobia in Europe is a challenge to us all
Andrew Leak, the man who recently firebombed the migrant processing centre in the UK, publicly stated that he wanted to harm Muslims.
In his final tweet, before the attack, he wrote “We will obliterate them Muslim children.”
While certain sections of the media predictably alleged that the perpetrator had mental health problems - police investigating the incident conceded that he was motivated by extreme right-wing terrorist ideology.
"The creeping institutionalisation of anti-Muslim attitudes across the continent has been linked to the growth of Islamophobic street movements and political parties that have gained significant levels of support"
We appear to have reached a tipping point in Europe. The normalisation of Islamophobia in political and media discourse has helped create a dangerous climate of intolerance.
Anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes have spiked across the continent so much that politicians from 46 countries have been compelled to draft a resolution at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month.
The resolution accused authorities in European states of normalising discrimination against Muslims and called for action to address Islamophobia as a form of racism.
Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Europe, Nils Muižnieks said: “This resolution should be a wake-up call. Racist laws, policies and practices have no place in Europe.”
This grim warning comes at a time when incendiary language about Muslims, Islam and immigration has increased hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived as being of the faith.
These acts of violence are often not officially documented or properly investigated. Worse still, many states are surveilling Muslims with a range of counter-terrorism measures that operate outside criminal justice systems and adequate safeguards.
Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe continue to grow and have become mainstream through the election of politicians such as Georgia Meloni, leader of a coalition of far-right parties in Italy and Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, who gained the largest share of votes in the national elections.
According to the latest annual European Islamophobia Report, Islamophobia is a pressing problem across the continent.
The report examined anti-Muslim discrimination in 27 European countries and noted that Islamophobia had become normalised and institutionalised in liberal democracies.
This is evident in the rise of Islamophobic incidents and systemic discrimination of Muslims in various areas of life, ranging from the banning of religiously symbolic clothing, employment, health care, education and the justice system.
In France, anti-Muslim incidents are most often related to vandalism of Muslim places of worship, cultural centres, cemeteries, and physical attacks on people.
The anti-Muslim sentiment is implicitly encouraged by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, who has adopted Islamophobia as part of his government’s policy and electoral strategy.
Both Germany and Spain have seen a surge in Islamophobic hate crimes over the past five years and similar cases were identified in Sweden this year when far-right party Stram Kurs threatened to publicly burn the Quran, and lead to violent clashes between supporters and protesters.
In Belgium, women have been at receiving end of most Islamophobic and racist attacks, while in Finland, most hate crimes were due to national-ethnic origin and religion.
"The converging dynamics of increasing anti-migrant sentiment and Islamophobia have become transnational"
The creeping institutionalisation of anti-Muslim attitudes across the continent has been linked to the growth of Islamophobic street movements and political parties that have gained significant levels of support.
Alarmingly, the narratives of the far-right have been appropriated by some European states creating a feedback loop that is reinforced in many media outlets.
This rationalises increasingly draconian social, and securitisation policies which sustain the idea of Muslims being the ‘enemy within.’
This drift towards institutionalised Islamophobia has been also been identified by the EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) Directive (EU) 2017/541 on Combating Terrorism – Impact on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, and confirms that counter-terrorism strategies especially affect the human rights of Muslims in the European Union.
The converging dynamics of increasing anti-migrant sentiment and Islamophobia have become transnational.
In the US, many Islamophobes embrace evangelical Christianity and white supremacist nationalism.
The Rohingya Muslims are repressed by the state in Myanmar, Uyghur Muslims are oppressed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang and Muslims in India and Kashmir have been marginalised and attacked in several states governed by the ruling Islamophobic BJP party.
The Hindutva ideology that inspires the BJP has travelled to Britain and is continually increasing tensions between some Muslim and Hindu communities in cities such as Leicester. Supporters of Hindutva supremacism believe that Muslims are an inferior people that constitute a threat to Hindus in India.
One of the claims of Hindutva organisations is that “Hinduphobia”, rather than Islamophobia, is the real threat. The recent tensions in Leicester between Hindu and Muslim young men were simmering for months and peaked after the cricket match between India and Pakistan in Dubai at the end of August 2022.
The victory of the Indian team emboldened some Hindutva supporters to march through the streets of Leicester, shouting "death to Pakistan" and intimidating residents in predominately Muslim areas. This led to rival groups of Muslim young men confronting them.
Fake news stories on social media further incited people on both sides and threatened to spread tensions to other cities such as Birmingham.
According to a BBC investigation, more than half of the 200,000 inflammatory tweets came from accounts that originated in India, with hashtags #Leicester, #HindusUnderAttack and #HindusUnderattackinUK.
The British state is also implicated in the creation of these tensions as Boris Johnson had invited Prime Minister Modi to Britain for a state visit, even though Modi had until 2012, been banned for his role in the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The former Home Secretary Priti Patel and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have also shown support for the BJP government.
In the UK, the anti-fascist charity Hope Not Hate recorded 165 incidents carried out by the far-right and anti-refugee activists at immigration facilities so far this year.
It said the government’s demonisation of asylum seekers and refugees was mainstreaming anti-migrant rhetoric and encouraging far-right groups to target these people.
Andrew Leak was also known to be an admirer of Robinson. Between 2021-22, in the UK, 42% of religious hate crime offences were against Muslims but the true figure is likely to be higher as some victims do not report them to the police.
The increase of Islamophobia over the last two decades can be seen as one of the main legacies of the “War on Terror,” which set off a chain reaction that has fuelled the growth of terrorism, instability and wars against Muslim countries.
This in turn has produced a rise in refugees and migrants travelling to Europe. November marks Islamophobia Awareness Month, and while it is an important initiative – pushing back against Islamophobia is not the sole responsibility of Muslims. This is a challenge for all of society.
Efforts to combat Islamophobia by community advocacy groups and alliance-building across social boundaries is necessary. Research indicates that positive interaction with Muslims is more likely to cause a favourable change in attitudes and behaviour.
However, politicians must cease using discriminatory rhetoric against Muslims and ensure that all citizens can live their lives free of prejudice. Media institutions promoting divisive narratives need to be challenged and alternative progressive platforms should be supported.
As the forces of the far-right grow stronger across the world, people of all faith backgrounds and none must continue to challenge racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Inaction is not an option.
Dr Sadek Hamid is an academic who has written widely about British Muslims. He is the author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism.
Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid