Muslims in Europe are facing growing discrimination for their religious beliefs by governments and politicians, not just by ordinary Europeans. That is the assessment of rights group Amnesty International in a new report released Tuesday.
The Amnesty report focuses on France – home to Europe’s largest Muslim community – as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland.
In some parts of Europe, Muslim women and girls who wear headscarves are having a hard time finding jobs or going to school. Men can be fired from work because they wear beards. And Muslim communities sometimes have little say in key issues that affect their faith – like building a mosque or prayer hall. These are among a series of findings in Amnesty International’s first comprehensive report on religious discrimination against European Muslims, entitled: “Choice and Prejudice: Discrimination Against Muslims in Europe,”
Marco Perolini, Amnesty’s expert on discrimination in Europe, said, “In recent years, we observed a rising of stereotypes and prejudices on Islam and Muslims in Europe, and in particular put forward only only by part of civil society but also by governments and politicians.”
Anti-Muslim sentiment has helped fuel far right parties and leaders in recent years. A case in point: Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, who placed third in presidential elections on Sunday.
The report looks at the impact of particular laws, like French legislation barring women from wearing the full-face veil, or niqab, in public or girls from wearing headscarves in public schools. Amnesty argues these bans and others violate basic European rights.
“We should not forget that some rights – like the right not to be discriminated against, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of religion, are fundamental rights and governments have the duty to respect and fulfill them,” said Perolini.
Amnesty points to other examples where religious rights are being compromised. Switzerland bans mosques from having minarets. And in Catalonia, Spain, Muslims are forced to pray in streets because of a lack of prayer hall space and local resistance to building new houses of worship.
Action Needed to Fight Discrimination
Amnesty called on European institutions and governments to curb prejudice against Muslims through the effective implementation of anti-discrimination laws which have so far not been properly enforced.
“There can be no doubt – and it‘s certainly not a novelty – that many Muslims are being discriminated against,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty‘s director for Europe and Central Asia.
Dalhuisen says that more often than not this happens because existing legislation “is largely toothless” and “because the practice [of discrimination] is broadly tolerated.”
A failure to properly implement anti-discrimination laws only “trample on human rights that European societies hold dear”, says Dalhuisen. This way forward, he says, “is niether a wise one or a just one.”
What is most troubling, the group charged, is that authorities are not doing enough to stop it even when strong anti-discrimination laws are on the books.
Hajare Boujitat, a young Belgian mother, told reporters in Brussels at the invitation of Amnesty, that anti-Muslim discrimination is part and parcel in many European countries.
“At some job interviews, I have been told: ‘You can turn around, we don‘t want you to waste your time,‘ as soon as they saw my headscarf,” Boujitat said.
“I have had to listen to people saying that for a cleaning job it’s not a problem to wear a headscarf, but a veiled social worker – no way. It‘s terrible to have to hear things like that,” she added. “I am scared for the future of my little boy.”
The report lists numerous other individual cases of alleged discrimination, especially in the five countries cited.
It says that anti-discrimination laws are not “appropriately implemented in Belgium, France and the Netherlands,” where employers have been “allowed to discriminate on the grounds that religious or cultural symbols will jar with clients or colleagues.”
Such conduct violates European Union anti-discrimination legislation that allows variations of treatment in employment “only if specifically required by the nature of the occupation,” Amnesty said.
The context was altogether different in Switzerland, where the report deplored a “lack of adequate anti-discrimination legislation” and a failure to set up “effective preventive mechanisms.”
The report concluded that Switzerland had not implemented recommendations from human rights treaty bodies relating to legislation, including those of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2010.
While the Swiss constitution does enshrine the principle of equality and the prohibition of discrimination on several grounds – including race and religious beliefs – this does not translate into adequate protection within society, the report argued.
Swiss civil legislation does not recognise the sharing of the burden of the proof in cases of discrimination, except on the grounds of gender. This has proved to be a significant hurdle to initiating legal proceedings, the report said.