Syed Arif Ahmad
Understanding of Islam
Most of the respondents in the survey suggested that there is limited recognition of the contribution that Islamic civilization has made to the world civilization and to Europe. Furthermore, they also feel that there is no recognition of the contribution Muslims have made to the communities in which they live.
Many interviewees felt that there was a lack of understanding in public and policy discussions about the diversity between and within Muslim communities and the changes that are taking place. They suggested that the public sees and hears more about those with extreme views than about those for whom their faith identity provides a set of values which supports integration and is compatible with European values. Young women who were interviewed in the survey reported that they feel upset and offended when people automatically assume that all Muslim women wearing a headscarf are forced to do so by their family members.
The role of media
Respondents consider that the media present a negative image of Muslims. They get frustrated over what they consider as negative portrayal resulting from distortions through selective reporting. They claim that often Islam is presented as monolithic, authoritarian and oppressive towards women, which is often the consequence of the treatment of women in some Muslim communities, but this is reinforced by a constant focus in media and public discussion on issues such as forced marriages and female circumcision.
The controversy over headscarves
Official policies such as the ban on women wearing the headscarf are perceived by a majority of respondents to militate against integration. Although the ban can be framed by the authorities in terms of a general ban on religious symbols, many Muslims feel that such a ban is targeted at them. Respondents in the survey also mentioned that the headscarf debate in education has had a wider Ã¢â‚¬Ëœknock-onÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ effect by legitimising discrimination in other areas such as employment, as well as stimulating more aggressive anti-headscarf reactions in both discourse and incidents on the street.
In the survey a majority of respondents suggested that attacks suffered by Muslims are mostly verbal rather than physical violence. Nevertheless, respondents state that they are Ã¢â‚¬Ëœworn downÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ by such daily experiences, which are far more likely to happen when a person is visibly Muslim, such as when wearing a headscarf. Respondents also reported facing discrimination in access to housing, education and employment. Many felt that Islamophobia is also expressed in the small details of everyday encounters, in passing comments, in jokes, in the way Muslims are observed and looked by others. In matters of housing, the discrimination can be detected in questioning about language ability, headscarves, or the size of a tenantÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s family. In matters of education, it can come from the denigration by teachers of a Muslim pupilÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ethnic culture or the reinforcement of stereotypical views about Muslim communities and Islam. In matters relating to employment, interviewees were aware of instances of employment agencies receiving requests from employers not to send Muslim workers as also respondents mentioned the difficulty in finding a job or accommodation when wearing a headscarf.
The provision of services
Respondents in the survey agreed that public organisations do not always take the needs of Muslims into account in devising service delivery. The interviews show that EU Member States have varied in their responsiveness to requests by Muslims for changes to accommodate their needs. Campaigns for the needs of Muslims to be addressed have often centred on the same issues: access to and provision of halal food, religious education in schools, planning permission for mosques, and so on. In the experience of respondents, the response ranges from support and willingness to make adjustments and changes to policies, through to indifference and resistance.
It is reported that in may instances Muslims rely on the good will of officials working at the local level. Examples given in interviews reveal that even when the law is on the side of those making the request, they face resistance in the form of extra bureaucratic hurdles or refusal by local officials to apply the rules.
The difficulties of anti-discrimination
Respondents suggested that often Muslims do not feel confident enough to be able to challenge discrimination. In the experience of respondents, most cases of discrimination or Islamophobia are likely to go unchallenged. In some instances it has been due to the absence of legislation to protect against religious discrimination. But even where legislation has been introduced those interviewed reported the need for campaigns to inform people of their rights.
Support for victims of discrimination varies across Europe. In some Member States interviews show that there are anti-discrimination bodies and human rights organizations that have the confidence of Muslims and are able to bring cases that complaints are unlikely to lead to action. Despite many respondents in the survey confirmed that most of the Muslims continue to see the law as an important tool with which to challenge discrimination.
Police and other law enforcement agencies
A vast majority of respondents agreed that there are positive attempts by law enforcement agencies to engage with communities and develop relationships through liaison groups and community forums. They indicate that Muslims want to be seen as partners, who have as much at stake in ensuring community safety as the rest of the society.
However, some respondents indicated that they are more often than not treated as suspects by law enforcement agencies. The actions of police are felt to particularly alienate young people from the mainstream. Respondents in the survey are also frustrated at the disparity between the attention given to initial police action, where Muslims are concerned, compared to the silence when those arrested are found innocent or released without charge.
Changes in Muslim communities themselves
The interviewees show that many Muslims acknowledge that they themselves also need to do more to engage with wider society, to overcome the obstacles and difficulties that they face and to take greater responsibility for integration. In particular respondents noted the need to move away from being inward looking and in this regard several interviewees place particular importance on the developments of an Islamic discourse that places emphasis on integration, engagement and participation with wider society. They see the development of an outward looking community as crucial in developing integration further and deeper.
Several interviewees acknowledge that a key challenge for mosques today is for them to become more inclusive and accessible for women and to be more relevant to the experiences of second and third generation European Muslims. Respondents recognise the need for Muslim organisations to improve the quality of their contribution to policy making discussions. Muslims are stated to be increasingly involved in politics, standing in local and national elections.
The Future- Looking for optimism and pessimism
In the survey respondents could identify reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of Muslims in the European Union. In countries where Muslims are forming the second and third generations, respondents could see a new generation of articulate, progressive young people, increasingly well educated, gaining positions in society, motivated to be actively addressing everyday social problems, and committed to the development of a cohesive and just multicultural society.
On the other hand, the pessimism of many respondents came from seeing the vision of such a society being eroded by what they see as media distortion and hostile government acts, from increasingly unreasonable pressures and inconsistent demands put on them, from their treatment in daily life, and the impact of anti-terrorist measures.
Syed Arif Ahmad is a graduate student at an European university.