CAIR Op-Ed: Europe’s Obsession with Islamophobia Empowers the Far-Right and Endangers Society

By Huzaifa Shahbaz, CAIR National

Muslims across Europe are facing severe attacks on their religious freedom. France has targeted Muslim women, mosques, and civil society organizations under the guise of combatting “separatism.” Austria is attempting to strip citizenship from Muslims under the veneer of fighting “political Islam.” Switzerland just approved a proposition that banned niqabs in the name of “national security.”

These and other governments have one thing in common: they are using Islamophobia as a political tool to appease the far-right.

Amid a deadly pandemic, modern far-right groups in Europe have secured more votes and support than ever before. Marie Le Pen, for instance, made a record surge in popularity, signaling a potential win in the country’s upcoming presidential vote in 2022. The far-right Swiss People’s Party obtained 51% of the vote to allow the burqa ban to go forward. And Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria garnered enough support to implement an Imam registry.

In recent years, numerous European governments that claim to be beacons of freedom and democracy have institutionalized anti-Muslim bigotry, limiting basic religious freedoms under the guise of fighting “political Islam.” By doing so, they have endangered the human rights of Muslims and empowered right-wing activists and white nationalists.

Take, for example, Europe’s fastest-growing and most prominent far-right and white nationalist movement — Generation Identity (GI). It advocates for the defense from what it calls the “great replacement” — a racist conspiracy theory that argues there is a white genocide happening due to increasing demographic shifts — and the “Islamisation” of Europe. They have been responsible for a number of hate crime attacks against young Arabs and immigrants and even had ties to Marie Le Pen’s national front.

Although GI was created in France in 2012, the French government announced only this month that they would ban the organization after it operated freely for nine years. Why did GI get a free pass for nine years while French Muslims suffered the brutality by white nationalists?

Another instance is Austria’s crackdown on what it calls “political Islam,” a misguided term used by far-right politicians in Europe to impose collective punishment on Muslims (and by Middle Eastern dictators to target Muslim activists). Austria’s anti-Muslim campaign recently led to the brutal house raid of prominent academic Farid Hafez, who faced baseless accusations of “supporting terrorism.”

Hafez is an internationally renowned scholar on Islamophobia and founder of the European Islamophobia Report — a yearly study that analyzes 32 European countries. Months after having his house barged into, Hafez and his family are being treated for PTSD. It is yet another instance of Europe’s obsession with appeasing the far-right and stripping away the rights of Muslims.

Islamophobia is a growing epidemic in Europe. In 2019, the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF) received 789 report forms referring to 1,043 Islamophobic incidents in France. In Austria, the NGO Dokusetlle documented 1,051 cases of anti-Muslim hate crimes, nearly twice as many compared to 2018. And in Switzerland, one in two Muslims stated that they had been discriminated against based on their religious identity.

Where is Europe’s crackdown on anti-Muslim bigotry? Why haven’t they taken any substantial measures to confront far-right extremists? Why do they get a free pass?

The answer is clear. Too many European leaders are more concerned with limiting the peaceful practice of Islam than with confronting the threat of far-right extremism. Even when faced with the consequences of a resurgent far-right, governments have shown no remorse for violating the basic tenets of democracy. In fact, politicians like Emmanuel Macron are trying to maintain power by competing to outdo each other in Islamophobia.

Unless European leaders stop empowering anti-Muslim bigotry, their governments may soon fall completely into the grip of far-right extremists who have as much regard for democracy as they do for Islam. If that happens, the clock in Europe may turn back to dark and dangerous times that the region must never revisit.

Huzaifa Shahbaz serves as the Research & Advocacy Coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States.

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