Europe needs to reinvent its diversity

Many years ago, when my family wanted me to study abroad, I was given two choices: USA or Europe. Coming from an English-speaking country, the natural choice should have been USA. I asked my Dad to give me few days to think it through. There was no internet, Google or Facebook to help me make up my mind. But through my many pen pals in Europe, I knew that European continent was peaceful, diverse and a progressive place to study. In a cold December month, I arrived in Germany, got admission in “Goethe Schule” to learn German and started my studies to become “Bauingenieur”.

Nobody asked my religion, culture or what traditions I came with. People were rather interested to know how I was coping with climate, how my studies were going and if I was feeling welcome. Many strangers asked me if I would like to have dinner with their family. As a student, I travelled by rail and visited many countries, from Italy to Denmark, where I live now. Thinking of those days, my eyes usually get wet, even today.

Europe was indeed a continent of peace, human rights, democracy, rule of law and  protection of minorities. Unfortunately, the scene has changed for the worse. Today, out of 28 EU member countries, from Finland to Spain, 17 countries have far right political parties; some are even part of the government while others are waiting to take charge.  Many countries have very powerful and very visible racist parties, anti-Islam movements while numerous politicians openly advocate Islamophobia, causing many minorities to feel unsafe and afraid of what is happening.

According to Guardian of UK, dated 20 Nov 2018, the number of Europeans ruled by a government with at least one populist in cabinet has increased from 12.5 million to 170 million. From recession to migration, social media to globalization, all these has been underlined as the main causes of this phenomenon.

Of course, a genuine backlash against the political establishment is present, but the wave of discontent also taps into concerns about a dilution of national identity and the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries. As a human rights campaigner, I have experienced how mainstream media and populist politicians explain the “real” reasons for this negative trend, as a historical, cultural, religious and geopolitical tussle between Christian Europe and Islamic world.

Although, for over two decades, there have been many surveys conducted by reputed international and European organizations, like Runnymede, PEW, FRA, OSCE, ENAR, Tell Mama and others, that have documented the accelerating Islamophobia in Europe, with both verbal and physical manifestations. I would particularly mention three newly published books that highlight the Islamophobic narrative taking over the West. Arun Kundnani’s -The Muslims are coming, Arslan Iftikhar’s – Scapegoats and Fear of Muslims – International perspective on Islamophobia by Professor Pratt and Dr. Woodlock. Regrettably, there are many people in Europe – educated and knowledgeable – who still claim that Islamophobia is a figment of imagination of Muslims and a ploy to silence the critics.

Talking about anti-Muslim sentiments, the biggest milestone in forming such sentiment in Europe was 9/11. The whole debate on migration and minorities shifted from socio- economic issues to their cultures and religions, especially Islam. Media and politicians as well as academics don’t discuss the problem of the majority to integrate in the society (ghetto problems, lack of integration, radicalism and extremism among non-European minorities, a coded term for Muslims). Discussions are shaped around the cultural incompatibility, religious threat and how many Muslims would live in the European Continent in 2050.

Some experts make projections that put Muslims in the spotlight, making them a numerical threat to Western societies and their Christian values. Networks with the name “Stop Islamization of Europe” have sprung up in many European countries.

Interestingly, according to the 2016 figures from Pew Research Center’s analysis of Europe’s Muslim population, roughly 5 percent of Europe’s population of 500 million has Muslim affiliation.

So, this card of religion is played often to discredit Islam, as a religion and its followers ,as European citizens.

Coming to the solutions of Islamophobia discourse, I would like to suggest two remedies. Not as a pointed finger but as a heartfelt request.

First, the duty of the European authorities and institutions is to acknowledge that the hatred against Muslims has devastating effects, not only on the daily lives of members of Muslim communities, but also on society as a whole, leading to tensions and undermining our democratic values. Europe can overcome this challenge, only if we all work together, with a commitment to protect and promote human rights for everybody.

Secondly, the Muslim communities, even if they feel diverse, angry or disillusioned, they must make an effort to be part of the societies they live in. Europe is their home since 8th century. They are not going anywhere. Their security, wellbeing and progress is in their own common interest. They have the right to practice their religion and various cultural traditions but keep in mind that Islam teaches them to be good to your fellow human being. That teachings must be practiced. 

To sum it up, Europe needs to reinvent its diversity and humanism and Muslim communities need to be part of the present and future.

Secretary General of the European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion (EMISCO). Member of the Advisory Council of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) in Brussels.