Islamophobia has been on the upswing throughout Europe recently, with the rise of anti-immigrant political parties and the implementation of discriminatory laws that directly target Muslims. The EU has long struggled with questions of identity that have only become more pronounced in recent years; the question “what defines Europe?” continues to pester EU leadership, its citizens, and citizens of hopeful member states alike. While this debate has been somewhat intangibly existential in the past, it is rapidly becoming a viable concern with the worsening Syrian refugee crisis. Under this pretext, EU citizens and leadership will be forced to reevaluate their notions of what constitutes being ‘European’ and consider the realities stemming from their citizenry’s changing demographic. If they fail to address these troubling prejudices, a sociopolitical divide between tradition and progression will spark unrest and violence that may be difficult to contain.
While Islamophobia is not unique to Europe, the passing of recent laws targeting Muslims exemplifies the growing prevalence of European governments legitimizing discrimination. However, in order to accommodate an increasing Muslim population and uphold the humanitarianism for which they are renowned, EU member states must take action to reverse this trend by passing protective laws and cracking down on religion-based hate crimes.
The refugee crisis has put an enormous amount of pressure on the EU, with hundreds of thousands streaming in from Syria and neighboring countries. Not last on EU citizens’ list of concerns is the prospect of a depleted sense of “Europeanism;” as the majority of refugees entering the Union are Muslim, many seem to fear challenges to the traditional notion of a “European” (read: white, Christian) identity. While this exclusive categorization has long been obsolete thanks to extensive immigration, particularly from former European colonies, countries still continue to glorify white narratives and uphold a narrow sense of identity with discriminatory laws. One such law is France’s hotly contested strict secularist policy, known as ‘laïcité, which fails to protect minorities and has become a go to reference in condoning Islamophobic practices.
Thus, as the EU moves to accommodate refugees, it will inevitably come head to head with ingrained, complex forms of prejudice thinly masked as the protection of member state “culture.” This has included, notably, a ban on wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in French primary and secondary schools, and more recently, a motion brought forth by French mayor Gilles Platret to eliminate a pork-free option in school lunches, which he views as special treatment and a form of “discrimination.”
While these laws allege to protect the secular nature of France against interference from any religion, they clearly target the freedoms of Muslims most poignantly. It is more challenging for Muslim women to inconspicuously don a head covering in accordance with Islam, than for Christians or Jews to wear easily hidden pendants, and failure to provide pork-free school lunch options directly antagonizes a major facet of the Islamic faith. Troubling instances of intolerance have also been exemplified in the UK, where a Muslim woman riding the metro was accused of hiding a bomb under her headscarf, splashed with alcohol, and taunted by men chanting, “‘We are racist, we are racist and we love it.’”
The fact that this incident and so many others that have gone unreported have not been met with the passing of protective laws highlights the extent to which hatred and prejudice are being legitimized throughout Europe. The flippant dehumanization of Syrian refugees, especially with the knowledge that they are fleeing for their lives, seems shocking coming from one of the West’s shining beacons of moral righteousness. But upon closer inspection, the events are reminiscent of the intolerance exhibited during Europe’s heinous past of anti-Semitism preceding the Holocaust. Once again, the concept of a “European” identity is one of elitism, a deadly “us versus them” mentality. The EU has wished to distance itself from its unspeakable past, hoping instead to create the picture of Europe as a global symbol of humanitarianism and human rights. However, contrary to its upstanding rhetoric, the EU’s lack of action to protect the basic integrity of people within its borders demonstrates otherwise.
Notably, for those perpetrating racist, Islamophobic acts there are others demonstrating support for the opposite sentiment. In my personal experience at Sciences Po, there has been graffiti on university property in opposition to the school’s recognition of the Front National as an on campus student group. Demonstrations against the extremist anti-immigrant party have been widespread, although its recognition was voted on by the students themselves.
This divide foreshadows the prospect of increasing violence over the highly debated issue of identity, a concept that EU leaders should work actively to redefine through the protection of religious minorities and condemnation of prejudiced acts. The EU’s dynamic makeup poses an issue to this process, as member states have different individual policies with respect to religious freedom of expression. However, Merkel and other EU leaders should remain firmly in support of tolerant policies if only for the self-interested purpose of gaining the good graces of an increasingly prevalent demographic. The identity of the Union and even of “Europe” itself is changing, and its leadership must look beyond arbitrary classifications such as race and religion to preserve the most paramount European identity: that of a liberalized, democratic, tireless purveyor of human rights.