Does the European ruling on religious clothing suggest a move towards a more Islamophobic stance?

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“The normalisation of Europe’s Islamophobia is most concerning however when it can be shown to go against the liberal values upon which contemporary Europe is founded; fairness, equality and liberty among others.”  


Last month the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled two Muslim women, one in Belgium, the other in France, who were dismissed by their employers for wearing headscarves did not suffer direct discrimination. This was on the basis that employers are within their rights to ban visible political or religious clothing and symbols in the workplace as long as it is part of a requirement for all staff to dress ‘neutrally’. 

This is contrary to an earlier ruling by the European Court of Human Rights upholding the rights of employees to display religious symbols at work. The ECJ ruling has been interpreted by some as Islamophobic, given the ramifications will likely impact Muslim employees due to their Islamic clothing and symbols being seen as far more objectionable and less neutral than clothes and symbols associated with other religious traditions. 

The decision also prompts debates about the extent to which views that were formerly the preserve of the far-right about Muslims and Islam have begun to shape and inform the political and policy mainstream thereby having the potential for Islamophobia to become increasingly unquestioned and worryingly ‘normal’. 

For more than a decade now, Europe’s far-right milieu has been shifting their ideological focus away from the historical ‘threat’ posed by Jews and Judaism to the contemporary equivalent presented by Muslims and Islam. Citing the alleged ‘Islamification’ of certain European cities – of which the greater visibility of Muslim women has been a recurrent discourse - the argument goes that Muslims will eventually destroy the very nation states that in the words of the far-right had generously sought to afford them a new home. For the far-right, it’s all part of the ‘Islamic invasion’. 

At its most extreme, this line of argument was justification enough for Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik who, shortly before killing eight people with a bomb in Oslo and a further 69 at a summer camp on the island of Utøya, uploaded a manifesto to the internet that sought to justify his actions on the need to resist the Islamic invasion of Europe in order to protect the continent’s identity, culture and values. Germany’s Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (National Socialist Underground) and Sweden’s Peter Mangs have put forward something similar.

Islamophobic campaigns have also brought about unprecedented success for some from within the far-right also. For example, the British National Party achieved unprecedented electoral success in local, European and London mayoral elections on the back of campaigns such as ‘Islam Out of Britain’ and ‘Islam Referendum Day’. Elsewhere, those such as Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) in Belgium and the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) in Denmark have achieved similar. 

It is not uncommon in Europe for Islamophobic messages to feature in the discourse of those in the political mainstream either. Some examples include the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who stated that Milan would soon be an ‘Islamic city’ or the Sverigedemokraterna (Swedish Democrats) which called for measures to limit the ‘birth rate’ of Muslim migrants to the country. Most recently – and most resonant with the far-right -  the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban referred to the current refugee crisis being part of an Islamic ‘master-plan’ to take-over Europe.

The normalisation of Europe’s Islamophobia is most concerning however when it can be shown to go against the liberal values upon which contemporary Europe is founded; fairness, equality and liberty among others. For some, this is explicitly stated as with the self-declared ‘socialist’ Pim Fortuyn whose political ideology – and that of his political party Lijst Pim Fortuyn (Pim Fortuyn List) - was informed by the perceived incompatibility of Muslims and Islam with the liberal way of life he stated was definitive of the Netherlands. 

In France, left-wing movements such as Résistance Républicaine (Republican Resistance) have recently protested holding placards bearing slogans such as ‘Islam out of the Louvre’ and ‘No to the Islamisation of Alsace-Lorraine’.

In France too, its ban on the wearing of the niqab or full-face covering worn by a small number of Muslim women continues to be justified on the basis that such a garment has no place in a secular, liberal society. Similar bans also exist in Belgium, Switzerland and Bulgaria as also some parts of Germany and Italy.

Maybe the most shocking were the scenes that accompanied the forcible undressing of Muslim women on a number of French beaches last summer due to locally imposed bans on the wearing of ‘burkinis’. Most striking though was the lack of any concerted or vociferous protest against those women’s human rights from within either the social or political spaces. Instead, debates raged about why too much clothing on a beach could be seen to be a threat to ‘us’ and who ‘we’ are. The same could be said of last week’s ruling by the ECJ when the socio-political response failed to even constitute a whimper. 

An interesting comparison can be made to the United States and the response to Trump’s proposed ‘Muslim ban’.  Aside from legislators and politicians in various states seeking to overturn the ban, the response by thousands of ordinary Americans was to take to the streets and protest against what they saw was the undermining of American values. For ordinary Americans, Muslims were the victims rather than the cause. In Europe, rarely are Muslims seen to be the victims irrespective of what injustice they have to endure or what spurious allegations are made of them. Maybe Trump is providing ‘us’ with a timely distraction behind which we can hide just how normal ‘our’ Islamophobia might be.