The continent’s politicians are reluctant to introduce protective legislation for minorities for fear of hindering freedom of speech.
Five mosques have been attacked in Birmingham, UK, in the space of two weeks. One of them was reportedly vandalised with a sledgehammer. A fire broke out at a mosque in California on March 24, which police suspected was an act of arson. Graffiti on the driveway apparently referred to the recent New Zealand attack, in which 50 Muslim worshippers were killed. The head of a pig and its blood recently marred the entrance of an up-and-coming mosque in France.
Many blame the outright racism on the advent of the far-right, which has wielded more power in recent years as the number of immigrants on European soil increased.
In the weeks that have followed the Christchurch attack, anti-Muslim attacks have become an almost daily occurrence, especially across Europe.
In fact, the political far-right, which has been marginalised and excluded from much of the political arena since the end of World War II, has enjoyed an unprecedented level of success over the past few years as politicians play on the fears of citizens who felt state welfare would dwindle under the influx. Far-right groups in Germany, Austria, Holland and other parts of Europe have made considerable gains in national polls, winning supporters from the more central base as disillusionment with the political mainstream grows.
And yet, European institutions remain uncomfortable with the outright labelling or categorising of the rise of the far-right as a symptom or byproduct of Islamophobia or racism, let alone acknowledging that such phenomena are in need of remedies befitting the growing size and scope of the problem. But as racist attacks become a daily occurrence across the schools, streets and organisations of Europe, such glaring questions have nevertheless resurfaced.
Some now say that had legislation been introduced in the aftermath of the 2011 attack in Norway, in which an anti-Muslim terrorist killed 90 young socialists whom he had branded ‘traitors’ for their pro-integration views, attacks such as the one that befell New Zealand may not have happened at all.
“Politicians seem to be very reluctant to proceed to a recognition of a legal definition of Islamophobia,” says Aristotle Kallis, a British historian who specialises in European history, while speaking with TRT World.
Many European politicians, he says, are unwilling to accept a legal definition for Islamophobia based on the violation of freedom of speech since it touches upon the founding principles of the European nation-state, something that he sees as a pretext for their reluctance to take necessary steps against it.
"They think Islamophobia cannot be considered on par with anti-Semitism," says Kallis. "There is always this comparison between these two prejudices. The argument goes that if we start implementing laws about every single group that is made to feel offended, we may end up with severe restrictions in freedom of speech. This, of course, is an excuse. We know that very well.”
Kallis, nevertheless, believes racism against Islam should be approached with the same legal and ethical urgency as anti-Semitism.
Like the perpetrator of the 2011 terror attack against Muslims, who called pro-Muslim socialists traitors, the perpetrator of the Christchurch mosque attack also said that he not only deplores Muslims ‘occupying’ European lands, but also abhors white people (he names German Chancellor Angela Merkel) who are ‘Muslim sympathisers’.
Critics like Kallis have echoed this view, saying that as long as ultra-nationalism is considered an expression of free speech, extremists will continue to up their game of violence. Indeed, ultranationalist agendas not only target Muslims, but mar the unity and inclusive fabric that characterises the continent.
French Senator Nathalie Goulet, said Europe needs to come up with ‘strict rules of law’ to address the growing problem of discrimination.
“Populism and xenophobia is globally on the rise and we are going through difficult times,” Goulet tells TRT World. “People do not want to acknowledge that discrimination against Muslims is real. We must keep in mind that discrimination against Muslims is one cause of radicalism. So I think politicians have to bring back peace among populations by using strict rules of law.”
Still, many politicians have exhibited indifference to this type of contempt, viewing it instead as a domestic ‘Muslim’ issue, not least because they may well harbour the sentiment themselves.
Given the increasing population of Muslim communities in Europe (Muslims now account for an eighth of the population in France, for instance), as well as the immigration influx as conflict in the Middle East and Africa rages on, the issue of racism has become even more contentious.
“The New Zealand attack did not come out of blue,” says Enes Bayrakli, Director of European Studies at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) in Turkey.
Europe-based non-governmental organisations have released reports showing just how prevalent the problem has become, with Muslims frequently harassed, intimidated and bullied, while the world looks the other way.
Bayrakli says that a change in language is needed to quell extremist violence.
“Politicians should abandon hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric,” he says. “Without that issue being resolved [at the root], every other means to combat Islamophobia will remain insufficient.”
The issue goes way beyond 2011, and has crept into national agendas year after year since the September 11 2001 attacks in the US. The ban on the veil in France paved the way for other European countries such as Denmark, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands to follow suit. Limitations were even put in place on meat slaughter in conformity with religious standards.
Leonard Faytre, a research assistant at SETA, believes the key to fighting racism against Muslims is avoiding “recycling far-right rhetoric in order to win elections”.
Faytre states politicians “should be brave and not fall into ‘easy’ populist discourse against ‘the other’.”
“The most important point is that European politicians should adapt their political stances to the sociological reality of their societies instead of insisting on integration and assimilation insofar as they don’t touch on values pertaining to the majority,” he said.