Sunday, October 31, 2010

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner: Islamophobia a Crisis

The Europen Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg , in his latest Human Rights Comment for the Council of Europe published yesterday cautioned that the growing intolerance towards Muslims is the symptom of a problem that could bring European society to the brink of moral degradation.

He further argues that the increasing demands that Muslims do more to assimilate in Europe are worsening ethnic tensions and aggravating the problems they are meant to solve. His comments are regarded by some analysts as a veiled warning to Germany and the Netherlands.

The Council of Europe, which has 47 members, is Europe's top body on human rights and democracy. It is based in Strasbourg, France, and is not linked to the European Union.

In his report covering political treatment of Muslims across Europe, Hammarberg draws attention to a widespread "increasing expression of intolerance towards Muslims" in political discourse.

The Swiss referendum banning the building of minarets was not an exception: opinion polls in several European countries reflect fear, suspicion and negative opinions of Muslims and Islamic culture.

These Islamophobic prejudices are combined with racist attitudes – directed not least against people originating from Turkey, Arab countries and South Asia. Muslims with this background face discrimination in the labour market and the education system in a number of European countries. There are reports showing that they tend to be targeted by police in repeated identity controls and intrusive searches. This is a serious human rights problem.

Recent elections have seen extremist political parties gaining ground after aggressively Islamophobic campaigns. Even more worrying is the inertia or confusion which seems to have befallen the established democratic parties in this situation. Compromises are made which tend to give an air of legitimacy to crude prejudices and open xenophobia.

When the German President Christian Wulff in a recent speech confirmed the obvious, that Islam – like Christianity and Judaism - is part of the national context, this was seen as controversial. One newspaper reported that two thirds of the population disagreed with him.

A more ambitious survey initiated by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung showed that 58 per cent agreed that "religious practices for Muslims in Germany should be seriously limited". Though not totally clear, this statement appears to reject freedom of religion for one group – Muslims. The broad support for this opinion is a bad sign.

Interestingly, there were huge regional differences in the responses to the survey. In the eastern part of the country – with a much smaller Muslim population - support for the statement was as high as 76 per cent. Distance and ignorance tend to increase suspicions.

This appears to be a general phenomenon: lack of knowledge feeds prejudices. Political leaders have on the whole failed to counter Islamophobic stereotypes.

Of course, this became more difficult after the terrorist attacks in New York, Madrid, London, Amsterdam and also Beslan and Moscow. However, the emotions caused by these horrible crimes called for systematic efforts to establish a distinction between the evildoers and the overwhelming majority of Muslims. These efforts were rarely made.

Neither has sufficient priority been given to analysing what makes some people listen to hateful propaganda against Muslims. Part of the explanation appears to be the same ignorance, fear and frustration which have caused bigotry against Roma and immigrants in general. Minorities are sometimes turned into scapegoats by people who feel alienated and ignored by those in power. It is important to seek full explanations.

President Wulff was of course right: Islam is already part of Europe – including the approximately 1.6 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, 3.8 million in Germany, 5 million in France and 15-20 million in Russia, most of whom are born in these countries. Very few can be characterised as Islamists.

This diverse groups of Muslims are now blamed by politicians in some countries for not "assimilating". However, integration is a two-way process based on mutual understanding. Anti-Muslim bigotry has in fact become a major obstacle to respectful relationships. Indeed, the Islamophobic atmosphere has probably been a factor enabling extremists in some cases to recruit young and embittered individuals who lack a sense of belonging.IslamToday

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