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Islamophobia in Europe

  • Last Update
  • May 2019
People walking past a mosque in France
Muslim residents walk past racial slurs painted on the walls of a mosque in the town of Saint-Étienne in central France.  © Laurent Cipriani/AP

Islamophobia is a term used to describe irrational hostility, fear, or hatred of Islam, Muslims, and Islamic culture, and active discrimination against these groups or individuals within them.

Today, Islamophobia in Europe manifests itself through individual attitudes and behaviors, and the policies and practices of organizations and institutions. Examples—which vary across countries and time—include the following:

  • physical or verbal attacks on property, places of worship, and people—especially those who display a visible manifestation of their religious identity such as women wearing the hijab or niqab
  • verbal or online threats of violence, vilification, and abuse.
  • policies or legislation that indirectly target or disproportionately affect Muslims, and unduly restrict their freedom of religion, such as bans on wearing visible religious and cultural symbols, laws against facial concealment, and bans on building mosques with minarets
  • discrimination in education, employment, housing, or access to goods and services
  • ethnic and religious profiling and police abuse, including some provisions of counterterrorism policing
  • public pronouncements by some journalists and politicians—across the whole political spectrum—that stigmatize Muslims as a group and disregard their positive contributions to the communities and countries in which they live

The use of the term Islamophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon and, despite signs that it exists, it remains contested as to what exactly defines anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic actions or behavior. 

Why is Islamophobia an issue in Europe now?

In recent years, Islamophobia has been fueled by public anxiety over immigration and the integration of Muslim minorities into majority cultures in Europe. These tensions have been exacerbated in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2007 and the rise of populist nationalist politicians. They have also been aggravated by high-profile terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim extremists. 

  • In a climate of rapidly expanding diversity in Europe, Muslim minorities have been portrayed as non-belonging and wanting to separate themselves from the rest of society. Government policies have failed to ensure equal rights for all, forcing significant sections of Muslim minorities to face unemployment, poverty, and limited civic and political participation, all of which aggravate discrimination.
  • Minorities often serve as scapegoats in times of economic and political crisis. Islam and the approximately 20 million Muslims who live in the European Union are depicted by some as inherent threats to the European way of life, even in countries where they have lived for generations. The myth of an ongoing European “Islamization” or invasion has been nurtured by xenophobic, populist parties that are on the rise across Europe. In fact, Europeans overestimate the proportion of their populations that are Muslim.
  • The 9/11 terrorist attacks drastically changed public opinion towards Muslims. Since then, terrorist acts such as the attacks by violent jihadists in London, Paris, Brussels, and Barcelona have increased fear and anxiety. The use of Islam by extremists to justify their terrorist acts has made many Europeans regard Islam as a threat and fear Muslims as the enemy. Since 2001, some media in Europe have succumbed to reporting based on stereotypes and used the actions of Islamists to stigmatize Muslim populations. There are concerns that stereotypes and generalizations about Muslims are informing counter-terrorism measures in Europe that restrict liberties for all and negatively impact Muslim communities.

What are the implications for open society?

Islamophobia is a “symptom of the disintegration of human values,” according to former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg—values such as nondiscrimination, tolerance, freedom of thought, justice, solidarity, and equality. These values are supposed to be inherent to European societies; they are values upon which the European Union and the Council of Europe were built.

The extent and nature of the discrimination and Islamophobic incidents perpetrated against European Muslims remain under-documented and underreported due to a lack of relevant data [PDF]. Many institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and NGOs, such as the Collective Against Islamophobia in Belgium, have acknowledged the rise in this worrying phenomenon and noted the increasingly aggravated nature of the incidents.

For instance, the 2017 EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that on average one in three Muslim respondents faced discrimination and prejudice in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent experienced a racist crime. Research also shows that Islamophobia can especially impact women—in the job market, for example, as is highlighted in recent research by the European Network Against Racism.

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to tackle Islamophobia in Europe?

The Open Society Foundations have worked for over a decade to combat discrimination against Muslims in Europe and to make sure that Muslim minorities coexist with equal rights in their national communities. For example:

  • We have published reports on Muslims in France, Italy, and the UK (2002); policy reports on British Muslims (2005); detailed city-level studies on the realities of integration experienced by Muslims in 11 cities across the European Union (2009), including a further seven reports on the specific experiences of Somalis in Europe (2014); and reports that give voice to the experiences of Muslim women wearing the full-face veil (niqab) in France and the UK.
  • We have supported groups that work on a broad range of issues affecting Muslims through various approaches, such as campaigns aimed at countering stereotypes, hate-crime monitoring, capacity building, and opposition research aimed at uncovering and monitoring the counter-jihad network.
  • We engage in advocacy at local, national, and European levels, either by directly calling, for instance, for equality data collection; advocating for improved integration policies based on Open Society research; or through support to NGOs like the European Network Against Racism.
  • We engage in strategic litigation to challenge discriminatory practices, public policies, and laws.

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