Europe’s increasing intolerance to Islam should be a genuine concern for Muslims

Anti-Islam protesters in Ghent, Belgium. [Source: Al Jazeera]

The increasing number of Islamophobic laws being introduced across Europe is a frightening indication of how supposedly “liberal” and “tolerant” governments actually perceive its Muslim minorities, writes Tamim Mobayed.

Much attention has recently been given to China’s brutal ideological crackdown on its Uyghur and Turkic minority Muslims. South of China, Myanmar’s oppression against the Rohingya Muslims have led to cries of ethnic cleansing and genocide, while India’s recent endeavours in occupied Kashmir, as well as its removal of citizenship for 1.9 million (mostly Muslim) residents of Assam, have ratcheted up a global climate of Islamophobia.

Turning westward to Europe, have its lofty Enlightenment values rendered it immune from this wave of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim hate? Much of the protection of religious rights in Europe, and conversely, the recent infringements on them, stem from Article 9 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which simultaneously guarantees freedom of religion, while limiting these only “for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights…of others”. Reflecting on this lucid clause, the potential issues swiftly become apparent; what are the parameters for protecting public order, morals or the rights of others?

A range of laws have been enacted over the course of the last two decades that bring into question the level of tolerance Europe holds for its Muslims. In several areas of daily life, it is becoming markedly harder for Muslims (and to some degree Jews) to abide by their religious beliefs. Often framed as moving to correct dated practices among the faithful, the words of Iddo Porat should be considered; “When the majority in a society suddenly gets an overwhelming paternalistic urge to protect its minorities from their own practices, one should be suspicious”.

Perhaps the most pressing question for Muslims residing in Europe is whether these new measures are the fruits of a maturing and increasingly muscular secularism, or is this the legislative embodiment of institutional Islamophobia.

Circumcision, halal slaughter, swimming and shaking hands

Both Muslims and Jews have seen restrictions placed upon their right to slaughter animals without stunning for it to qualify as halal or kosher. Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland have all banned non-stun ritual slaughter, while France, Spain, Greece, Poland, Germany, Finland and Slovakia have highly regulated ritual slaughter. Pertinent to the discussion at hand, Germany relegalised ritual slaughter in 2002, seven years after outlawing it in 1995. While a strong case has been made regarding lightening the suffering of animals (CITE), experts (STRONGER) such as Temple Grandin challenge simple treatments of this topic.

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With regards to male circumcision, another shared ritual under normative Islamic and Jewish law, Iceland and Denmark are both toying with bans to end the legality of this practice, while a German court ruled the practice as bodily harm, paving the way for a possible ban in future. Despite legislative protection for parents seeking to circumcise boys, two Norwegian hospitals ceased assisting in this procedure in 2018.

More controversially, as of January 1st 2019, all new citizens of Denmark would be compelled to shake hands at their naturalisation ceremony, a move that evidently targets Muslims, as many hold a position that non-relative members of the opposite sex should not be touched. In the same vein as this law, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) backed a Swiss court’s ruling that primary school girls could not be withdrawn from mixed swimming lessons, and parents who resist this move could face a fine of 1,400 francs (£1,100).

Garb and ghettos

Perhaps most infamously, France’s 2004 ban on religious symbols has prevented hijab wearing Muslim women and girls, and yarmulke wearing Jews, from entering a range of public jobs and schools. This ban found another francophone home in the French-Canadian state of Quebec this year.

While an overwhelming majority of Muslims do not ascribe to a belief in wearing the face veil, the pointed nature of these bans, enacted in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium and France, drive home the suspicions of a Europe growing markedly more hostile to anything perceived as Islamic.

A raft of other European countries might follow suit, including Germany, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway. Much of the suspicions regarding the spirit behind the face veil ban lie in the fact so few Muslim women wear them, and yet they are deemed worthy of precious parliamentary time and energy.

Going further still, Denmark’s government passed a series of laws in 2018 targeting “non-Western” migrants living in “ghettos”. One enacted law allowed police to confiscate money and jewellery from asylum seekers, while another controversial proposal worked to double the punishment of certain crimes within designated ghettoised areas; this law was applied in April this year. While these laws are not explicitly anti-Islamic, certain Danish voices see them as evidence of growing institutional Islamophobia.

Another law requires that children from these communities be separated from their families for 25 hours per week, wherein they would be taught “Danish values”, including celebrating Christmas and Easter. Such moves fly in the face of claims of religious tolerance and secularism. Perhaps more disconcerting is the situation of these laws, straddling the intersection of Islamophobia and classism, with only poor non-Western migrant families being targeted by them.


The laws that have been enacted mostly target more than one religious community, challenging the idea they are inherently anti-Muslim or Islamophobic. However, a strong case can be made that Muslims are seen as a unique threat, with Islam being especially worthy of targeting. Indeed, that is precisely what is said by voices who seek to legislate against Islam and Muslims.

The liberal anti-hate monitoring group ‘Hope Not Hate’ (which has faced its own accusations of Islamophobia) reported that while attitudes towards multiculturalism were softening in Britain, they were hardening against Islam.

Job candidates from the Middle East and North Africa were less likely to be called for an interview, and individuals with Muslim names were also less likely to get a positive response when seeking flat-sharing. Rather than leading to increased empathy, anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after terrorist incidents committed by Muslims.

Alarms on the normalisation of Islamophobia have been sounded by many, most famously, by the former Conservative party chairman, Baroness Syeeda Warsi. Occurring within this context, it becomes more difficult to see new legislation that makes it more difficult to be a practising Muslim, as being the fruits of a religiously neutral European, rather than a strengthening Islamophobic Europe.

A crucial question comes by way of asking, how will the Muslims of Europe respond to this intensifying environment? Looking to the example of Catholics in Northern Ireland, we are already seeing third generation Muslims immersing themselves in the fields of law, politics and advocacy, determined to change the system from within. Catholics were largely denied paths to employment leading to Northern Ireland’s traditional industries, and so instead looked towards alternate avenues, including education.

There is an added irony in that what might give European Muslims further drive in the fight to protect their religious rights, are the European values they were socialised with, such as the right to self-determination and personal religious freedoms. Where first and second generation Muslims might have looked at themselves as guests in Europe, their children and their grandchildren are increasingly beset with a sense of ownership and responsibility.

In other domains, European Muslims might opt to go around sticky issues, such as opting for vegetarianism in a country that does not allow halal slaughter. This might coincide with growing movements from within the Islamic tradition arguing for more ethical and sustainable meat-eating practices. This is not quite as straightforward when it comes to practices such as Male circumcision.

A more rebellious approach may result in the development of backstreet practices, as Muslims determined to practice their rituals develop ways to do that illegally. Of relevance here is the legacy of the Moriscos, Muslims who were forced to convert to Catholicism after the fall of Muslim Spain, yet who resolved to practice their religion in secret.

Moriscos were Muslims who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain

There will also be many Muslims who abandon any outlawed rituals. This would occur regardless of religious edicts, but contrary to popular imaginations of the Shariah, Islamic law and lawmakers can prove to be resiliently pragmatic. The very notion of a fatwa reflects the reality that certain contexts and actors require specific applications of the law. For example, while interest (usury) is explicitly forbidden within Islam, some scholars have deemed it permissible to purchase a house by way of an interest-bearing mortgage. Similarly, women who fear for their safety due to their identifiability as Muslims while wearing the hijab or niqab have been issued rulings allowing them to remove it.

Proponents of the position that Islam needs reform in accordance with secular liberalism, especially those spurred on by a sense of European superiority coupled with progressivism, are likely to argue that Europe will do Muslims a great service by helping them through the neuroses that inflicts their religion, much like it has done with Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism.

A Freudian reflection on Europe’s anti-Islamic laws might suggest an Islamophobia sublimated by a cerebral Europe; rather than physically purging itself from its Muslim citizens, Europe is instead making it increasingly difficult for them to practice. A greater concern for Europe as a whole might come by way of the question, to be asked once Islam has been rendered palatable to new European notions of secularity; whose turn comes next?

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