OPINION - Structures matter: The vicious cycle of Islamophobia

OPINION - Structures matter: The vicious cycle of Islamophobia

‘We have barely reached the second month of the year, and European countries have already witnessed several events that prove to us the importance of structures in the constitution of anti-Muslim racism’

By Linda Hyökki

- The author is a researcher and a consultant on anti-Muslim racism and Muslim minorities in Europe.

ISTANBUL (AA) - The European Commission announced on Feb. 1 the appointment of Marion Lalisse as its new coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred, a position that has been waiting to be filled since 2021.

While the Commission’s terminological choice to describe the hostility, hate crimes, harassment, violence and discrimination experienced by European Muslims remains humble, the Council of Europe’s expert body on racism and intolerance (ECRI) has called the phenomenon in its policy documents by its name; it is anti-Muslim racism. As a dear child has many names, by acknowledging that we are talking about a form of racism, we can highlight the structural aspects and power dynamics underlining it.

- Anti-Muslim racism in Europe

We have barely reached the second month of the year, and European countries have already witnessed several events that prove to us the importance of structures in the constitution of anti-Muslim racism. The Islamophobic provocateur Rasmus Paludan orchestrated the public burning of the Quran both in the Swedish and Danish capitals. Questions were raised about the limits of free speech, as the act was not deemed unlawful by neither countries’ authorities, although even the Swedish prime minister himself condemned it as “deeply disrespectful.”

On the other side of the Gulf of Bothnia, however, organizers of an anti-NATO demonstration had also plotted a similar act before the Finnish police stopped them. The burning of the Quran would have been considered a violation of the sanctity of religion. Finland is the only Nordic country to have a separate section in its Criminal Law criminalizing public blasphemy against God or, as an act for the purpose of offending, public defamation or desecration of what is otherwise considered sacred by a church or a religious community referred to in the Act on the Freedom of Religion.

Nevertheless, earlier polls have shown that some Finnish MPs would be ready to change this. Finns Party representative Jenna Simula, for instance, has argued that religions should be allowed to be criticized as a form of freedom of speech.

- Challenges faced by positive steps

Furthermore, as one of the issues concerning structural anti-Muslim racism is typically laws and regulations restricting the freedom of religious practice, Germany witnessed in January a positive development in the safeguarding of Muslim women’s rights. The blanket bans on religious and ideological signs such as the headscarf worn by teachers, judges or policewomen, backed by the infamous “Neutrality Act” of the State of Berlin, were deemed unconstitutional. While the Act itself stays, Muslim women who strive for a career within these professions cannot be anymore forced to take off their hijab during their working hours. This development is significant not only in terms of safeguarding Muslim women’s basic human right in practicing their faith, but it also contributes to the social integration and economic independence of Muslim women, something that should be self-explanatory in European democratic societies.

Unfortunately, though, the fight for Muslim women’s rights in Europe is going to face difficulties in the future, especially at the level of civil society. In October 2022, the European Parliament passed a resolution regarding the EU budget for 2023 which explicitly calls for the Union not to finance any future projects that “may promote the hijab.” The background to this decision, which was also mentioned in the resolution, was a previous anti-hate speech campaign led by the inclusion and anti-discrimination department of the Council of Europe. One of the campaign posters, which was part of human rights training for civil society actors, stated that “Beauty is in diversity as freedom is in the hijab,” depicting two girls both with and without the headscarf on.

The problem is however within the resolution’s vague wording; it remains in the hands of each grant application evaluation team to decide whether proposals ranging from using art as a form of empowerment, the combatting of hate speech in the media, or anti-discrimination initiatives “may promote the hijab.” While the French far-right politician Marine Le Pen reacted on Twitter to the campaign by arguing that “it is when women remove the veil that they become free, not the other way around!,” the campaign with all its materials was cancelled by the Council of Europe under the pressure of the EU-presidency holder France. Very little space was again given to the Muslim women themselves to express their views, especially those who were involved in creating the campaign materials during the training.

As the European Parliament’s budget resolution shows, Muslim women will be left again at the mercy of those holding the power of definitions. Notwithstanding the importance of monitoring, reporting and combating forms of anti-Muslim racism that take form on an individual level, we must remember that the power of individuals is connected to the structures that enable their actions. But it is to be kept in mind that those structures do not come out of a vacuum but are created through the visions of the people who construct those institutions in the first place.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.​​​​​​​

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