‘Don’t let extremists hijack the debate about anti-Semitism & Islamophobia’

On 29 June the LIBE Committee held a hearing on anti-Semitism, islamophobia and hate speech in Europe. It was both timely and topical. As MEP Cecilia Wikstrom (ALDE/SE) wisely said, it is important that we dare to speak about these sensitive issues and don’t let extremist groups hijack the debate. Especially considering the far-right has increased its power in the European Parliament, with the newly formed political group ‘Europe of Nations and Freedom’.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) research shows that anti-Semitism is increasing in Europe and islamophobia is a serious concern. Recent violent attacks in Europe confirms this trend (such as the attack against editor and cartoonist Charlie Hebdo in France in January and the Copenhagen shooting against a synagogue in February). Frisco Roscam Abbing from FRA illustrated the many similarities between islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. Nowadays bullying, harassment and hatred takes place also online, which must be tackled in cooperation with Internet and social media providers.

The European Parliament is planning a resolution following the hearing, and the Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights on 1-2 October is dedicated to “Tolerance and respect: preventing and combating anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe”. Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the Commission welcomed the contributions from the hearing and called for more places to meet with people different from one and to whom we disagree with as a way to build tolerance and respect. He emphasized the need for exchange of good practices among Member States and the need to adopt the Equal Treatment Directive as a way forward.

The first panel discussed anti-Semitism. Violence against Jews in Europe today is often perpetrated by Muslims, it is therefore even more important to also deal with islamophobia, said Robin Sclafani, Director for A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe. Sclafani emphasised the need to educate young people in critical thinking, empathy, working together, gender roles, positive self-esteem etc. Such diversity tools will lead to openness and counter biases and phobias. Jonathan Biermann, Deputy Major of Uccle, of Jewish decent shared his personal story of how he takes his child to a kindergarten guarded by military in Belgium. The shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May last year has led to fear and Jewish students leaving public schools for Jewish schools, which contributes to segregation, instead of diversity. MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE-NGL/FR) pointed out that one also has to speak about islamophobia among the Jewish community and how one type of racism feed another one.

The second panel was about islamophobia. A representative from the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations outlined that it is one of the most violent forms of racism in Europe. In Belgium a Muslim is attacked every three days and most of them are women. Women are the main targets of violence and discriminated in access to education and employment. MEP Wikstrom (ALDE/SE) asked how the Committee can follow up on issues of shady organisations that are funded by Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood. MEP Ana Gomes (S&D/PT) asked how to disassociate Islam from terrorist attacks that are not Islamic. MEP Birgit Sippel (S&D/DE) made the point that it is not the extremist violence we should focus on but everyday discrimination. MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE-NGL/FR) questions why some questions are not asked for other religions. When radicalisation increases, islamophobia grows: We do not ask Christians to justify themselves in the same way Muslims has to do when an attack happens.

Last panel examined hate speech, blasphemy and freedom of expression. Katalin Adamis-Császár from Milieu Ltd together with Paul Iganski from Lancaster University presented preliminary findings from a study on the effectiveness of national legislation to strengthen EU framework. Some of the concerns were the incomplete and/or incorrect transposition of the Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia in national legislation, insufficient data collection and underreporting. The study recommends infringement proceedings and revision of the Framework Decision to enlarge the scope to grounds currently not covered, in line with the practice in some member states (also in line with Social Platform position on bias violence).

Additional recommendations to decision makers from the panellists were the need to develop specific national strategies to tackle anti-Semitism and islamophobia (as well as Anti-gypsyism and Afrophobia, as called for by the European Network Against Racism); Gather equality data collection; Create a legal definitions of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.