By Dr. Nazila Isgandarova
Dr. Nicolas Berger, the head of Amnesty International’s (AI) European Institutions Office, told Deutsche Welle in July that the fundamentals regarding the problem of refugees and asylum-seekers have not changed. In recent years, AI has also issued several statements, which criticize the EU for failing to provide a better situation to handle North African refugees, who struggle to reach Europe by boat. The statements sounded as though the EU was losing its unquestioned and envied place among the defenders of human rights.
He expressed in his article Human Rights: The Basis of Harmony that anti-Semitism is increasing in the EU. Both European Jews and European Muslims are subject to discrimination and are often indiscriminately associated with extremist views and violent ideologies or the situation in Middle East. Roma people and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations are also among the discriminated groups. However, Islamophobia in Europe is becoming worse with “a more recent phenomenon coinciding with the large-scale arrival of Muslim immigrants in most western European countries over the last 50 years.”
It is true that Europe has experienced the flow of Muslim immigrants since WWII and since then, the number of Muslims increased due to family unifications and high birth rates. The first generation of Muslims who came from the rural areas of Muslim countries was not well educated. They worked in the labor market of the EU as cheap, unskilled or semi-skilled workers. In the 1970s, the economic recession forced the governments to bring restrictions to the admission of the cheap labor forces from Muslim countries. In 1980 and the 1990s, refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Somalia, the former Republic of Yugoslavia and Iraq arrived in northern Europe. From the 1990s to now, Malta, Spain, Italy and Greece were the main European countries receiving refugees from Muslim countries, especially from North Africa. The history and pattern of Muslim immigration into Europe is diverse and reflect a wide range of cultures and countries of origin.
The presence of the Muslim population in the EU increases fears of fundamentalist extremists, fears represented by right-wing parties and conservative governments. The fear is based on an assumption that Islamic values are against Western values. Many EU politicians strongly believe that Muslims are incompatible with a secular nation-state and with civil society since they identify themselves with Sharia (divinely ordained law}, rather than with the nation-state and its rule of law. The majority of the EU population, too, believes that Islam is often equal to extremism, fanaticism, terrorism, and anti-Western tendencies.
However, the unwanted attitude toward Muslims is not solely based on the recent terrorist acts in the world. The biggest fear in Europe is the fact that Islam is considered Europe’s fastest growing religion. This contributes to increasing factors of xenophobia in the EU. Anti-Semitism grows together with a slowing economy and high rates of unemployment, and political and demographic concerns. The fundamentalist right-wing parties manipulate the public concerns in this context and develop more anti-immigrant sentiment in society. For instance, in past elections, Germany’s Republikaner Party and France’s Front National’s use of the slogan, “Eliminate unemployment! Eliminate immigration!” and the popular right-wing French phrase, “France: love it or leave it!” This is especially problematic in small nations in Europe, like Flanders, where both the politicians and mainstream society attempt to protect their cultural heritage and language and hence became associated with a more defensive attitude toward other cultures, especially Muslims.
Despite the growing anti-Muslim attitude, the EU still remains one of the desired areas in which to live. Muslims and other minorities in Europe believe that most European countries are civic nations that celebrate the value of cultural diversity and allow citizens with different cultures to live together in harmony. Muslims also have a strong historical experience of peaceful existence with minorities in Muslim societies. Islamic civilization like today’s Europe was culturally friendly and reflected indigenous forms of cultures and harmonized them. As a functional global civilization and familiar at the local level, Islamic civilization fostered multiple indigenous identities of nations. The Quran and Sunnah (Prophet Muhammad’s practices) inspire dialogue and forbid extremism. The Prophet Muhammad specifically stated, “Do not go to the extreme in your religion.” Extreme ideas are not violent in themselves but they lead to violent acts. The Quran also encourages humans to live in harmony and diversity because it is a part of His creation of the differences in languages and colors (Sura Al-Rum, verse 22).
Muslims have not forgotten history or their religious tradition. They carry these features with themselves to Europe. They are protective in terms of their religious and ethnic identities, however, are engaging with mainstream society by fostering their European identity.
Although increasing mutual understanding among diverse groups in society seems like “a big litmus test for the EU,” as Dr. Berger mentions, many prominent political and religious figures attempted to eliminate the negative attitude toward Muslims before. World figures like Pope John Paul II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Prince Charles of Great Britain, and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, on one level, and many others have preached dialogue and contributed to the mutual understanding between Muslims and the West.
European governments and political parties are expected now as well to support the attempt of Muslims to eliminate xenophobia and differences, and encourage Muslims to claim their own place in Europe.