While Muslims in Europe want to interact with other Europeans and participate as full and equal members of society, various forms of prejudice, discrimination and violence reinforce their social exclusion, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has said.
In his latest Human Rights Comment, Mr. Muižnieks notes that Muslims have become the primary “other” in right-wing populist discourse in Europe. Political parties in Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland have employed anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain.
He criticises the mainstream parties in Europe that have exploited anti-Muslim sentiment by supporting restrictive legislative measures that target Muslims.
Mr. Muižnieks notes that since 2011 Belgium and France have enacted laws subjecting women who wear full face veils to fines or “citizenship training”.
In Italy, some local authorities have resorted to an old anti-terrorist law against concealing the face for security reasons to punish women with full-face veils. Similar initiatives have been discussed in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.
After a campaign marked by anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Swiss electorate voted in late 2009 to ban the construction of minarets. This prompted the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) to issue a rare statement condemning discrimination against Muslims and their freedom of religion in Switzerland.
Local authorities in many European cities, Mr. Muižnieks says, regularly find reasons to delay building permits for mosques, but not for other houses of worship.
A recent study by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) found that 1 in 3 Muslims in the EU had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months, with youth being the most frequent victims. According to a report just published by Amnesty International, many Muslim women feel discouraged from seeking employment because of policies restricting the wearing of religious and cultural symbols and dress.
A particularly pernicious form of discrimination is when police, customs or border guards engage in ethnic or religious profiling against Muslims by stopping them only because of their appearance.
The aforementioned FRA study found that 1 in 4 Muslim respondents were stopped by the police in the previous year, while more than a third had been stopped by customs or border control.
Ethnic or religious profiling is not only discriminatory, it is counterproductive, as it misdirects attention from suspicious behaviour to appearance and alienates the communities with whom law enforcement agencies need to cooperate, Mr. Muižnieks says.
He asks governments to stop targeting Muslims through legislation or policy, and instead enshrine the ground of religion or belief as a prohibited ground of discrimination in all realms.
Mr. Muižnieks also asks the governments to empower independent equality bodies or ombudsmen to review complaints, provide legal assistance and representation in court, provide policy advice, and conduct research on discrimination against Muslims and other religious groups.
He suggests that monitoring discrimination against Muslims should involve collecting data disaggregated by ethnicity, religion and gender.
The governments should also combat popular prejudice and intolerance against Muslims, he says.
“It is time to accept Muslims as an integral part of European societies, entitled to equality and dignity. Prejudice, discrimination and violence only hinder integration,” Mr. Muižnieks says.