New EU coordinator against anti-Muslim hatred will focus on countries with large minorities

New EU coordinator against anti-Muslim hatred will focus on countries with large minorities
The Great Mosque of Brussels is located in Cinquantenaire Park, credit: Wikimedia Commons (Demeester)

The newly appointed Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred in the EU briefed journalists last week on her tasks and priorities.

The post as coordinator against islamophobia or anti-Muslim hatred was established already in 2015 but has been vacant for over a year. The European Commission announced on 1 February 2023 that is has appointed Marion Lalisse, an EU official with a background in oriental studies and experience of different posts in Muslim countries, including working with the Turkish-Cypriot community.

According to her mandate, she will work with Member States, European institutions, civil society and academia to strengthen policy responses in the field of anti-Muslim hatred.  In her new role, she will be the main point of contact for organisations working in this field in the EU.

Expectations are already high. “Her work will ensure responses to hatred, as well as structural and individual discrimination against Muslims,” said Helena Dali, the Commissioner for equality. “We must fight anti-Muslim hatred in all areas of life including education, employment and social policy. We must also gather data about, monitor and tackle all instances of anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination.”

Muslims represent the second largest religious group in the EU, belonging to different ethnicities and religious affiliations. Figures seem to be uncertain and their number was estimated in 2016 to ca 25 million in the EU or 5 % of the total population, with most Muslims living in France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain, with percentages varying between ca 2,5 and 9 %.

While the majority of Muslims have migrated to Europe after WWII, and especially in recent decades fleeing wars and poverty in their home countries, some local communities have been living in Europe for centuries. “I want to focus on EU countries with large Muslim minorities,” Marion Lalisse said at the press briefing (16 March).

Prejudices and intolerance

Muslims face discrimination in a broad range of settings and particularly when looking for work, at work, and when trying to access public or private services, according to the latest EU Minorities and Discrimination Survey by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA, 2017).

Nearly 1 in 3 Muslim respondents indicated that they suffer discrimination when looking for a job. A majority (over 90 %) did not report the most recent incident of bias-motivated harassment to the police or other organisations, often because they believed that nothing would happen or change by reporting it.

Prejudices are common. Marion Lalisse referred to a speech in June 2020 by FRA’s director Michael O'Flaherty who quoted another FRA survey in 2019. “The problem of hatred against Muslims, of discrimination against Muslims, is not the problem OF Muslims, it is OUR problem. It is the problem of our society,” the FRA Director said.

The figures in that survey showed that 22 % among non-Muslim respondents did not want Muslims as neighbors and 31 % would not be comfortable with a family member marrying a Muslim. 21 % said it would be ok not to hire a woman because she is wearing a headscarf.

In Sweden, which is facing a backlash against Muslim migration, a small village in the south protested recently against the setting up of a Muslim cemetery on its ground.

On the positive side, the study found a very strong link across all the questions between the socio-economic status of the person answering the questions and their levels of tolerance. The better-off they are, the more secure they are in their welfare and in their jobs, the more open and tolerant are their attitudes to society.

EU statement in the UN

She has plans for diversity events in Brussels and raising the issue in cooperation with the member states in charge of the EU presidency but told The Brussels Times that she thinks that it is too late to plan any event in Stockholm during the current Swedish EU-presidency.

Sweden has allowed public burnings of the Koran, a holy book for Muslims, as in line with its legislation on freedoms of expression and demonstration. Only recently did a prosecutor start an investigation as to whether the burning of the Koran a year ago violated its legislation against incitement against minority groups.

The EU has denounced it as incompatible with European values but not called for an outright ban. In his statement at a session of the United Nations Assembly on the International Day to Combat Islamophobia (10 March), a EU official did not refer to the incidents and stressed that freedom of religion does it prohibit the criticism of religions or beliefs.

“Furthermore, in EU’s view, the UN should be impartial and have a universal and comprehensive approach, rather than singling out one specific religion. We believe that the focus should be the protection of the human rights of individuals. Our common objective must be to address all forms of violence and hatred, against victims from all religions and beliefs in an inclusive way.”

While referring to the statement, the new coordinator said she wanted to avoid a discussion about terminology and the use of the word ‘islamophobia’. She has been appointed to combat hatred against Muslims but, except employment, the EU has limited competences in the areas where Muslims are discriminated.

In October 2021, the EU presented the first-ever comprehensive EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. A similar strategy against anti-Muslim hatred is not yet in the pipeline, according to Marion Lalisse. For the time being, a “soft” document is being prepared and is expected to be ready by mid next year with possible actions and recommendations.

Marion Lalisse also reminded that there are two other coordinators with related tasks, combating antisemitism and racism, and a special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the EU. She intends to work closely with the coordinator combatting antisemitism, Katarina von Schnurbein.

The Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe differ in size and history but share also common challenges in fighting prejudices and hate speech and tackling legislation against ritual slaughter. The new coordinator to combat anti-Muslim hatred wants to benefit of the experiences of the Jewish communities on integration in society while preserving identity and traditions.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

Update: A previous version of the article stated mistakenly that the figures on the attitudes of non-Muslims to Muslims were taken from a Eurobarometer.

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