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The 10 counter-narratives needed to beat Islamophobia in Europe

The launch of a 'Counter-Islamophobia Toolkit' offers reason for hope at a time when racism is on the rise in many parts of Europe

I am on the train to Brussels, to take part in the launch of the Counter-Islamophobia Toolkit (CIK) report at the European Parliament.

The culmination of nearly two years of intensive research and analysis in eight EU member states, led by the University of Leeds, the toolkit presents an outline of what’s going wrong and what’s being done already to put things right. Most importantly, it addresses what needs to be done and understood by all involved, especially governments.

Under discussion are the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The report looks at the role of the state and the presence or otherwise of laws intended to stop discrimination and violence. Relatedly, it examines laws that fuel exclusion or violence. 

The toolkit doesn’t leave it there but looks at the role of the media, both as news and entertainment, and its links to well-established problematic tropes and mores.

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It looks at the good, the bad and the ugly in civil society, education and political movements. It is based on research that began by analysing the 10 most prevalent narratives of Islamophobia and then the 10 most significant counter-narratives in each country.

It is based on fieldwork with 272 politicians and policy-makers, NGOs and activists, and media, arts and academic professionals, as well as textual data from political, policy, media and NGO discourse, and digital data from social media platforms.


The toolkit’s authors, Ian Law, Salman Sayyid and Amina Easat-Daas from the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies at the University of Leeds, highlight the top 10 narratives across Europe and summarise the 10 in each state.

Mosque attacks to micro aggressions

The impact of particular narratives is detailed as:

“…strongly affect[ing] everyday life of Muslims… and this has been shown through some concrete examples, ranging from proven accounts of discrimination in the work domain, within the schooling system and in the housing market (leading to progressive ghettoisation and alleged auto-segregation in the three domains), to repeated attacks to mosques, micro aggressions, insults, threats, acts of intimidation and direct verbal or physical violence in public space...”

Despite national variations, there are many overlapping tropes and themes. Some of them hail from old stereotypes. Others are more recent and some are created or re-created by current political policies and in the way that Muslims are commonly depicted in the media. In tackling this the project concludes that these 10 counter-narratives in Europe must be prioritised:

  • Challenging and contextualising constructions of Muslim ‘threat’

  • Building inclusive nations: challenging exclusive and discriminatory national projects

  • Cultural compatibility and conviviality: challenging the narrative separation of cultural and ethnic groups

  • Elaborating plurality: challenging narratives of Muslim singularity

  • Challenging narratives of sexism

  • Building inclusive futures

  • Deracialising the state: challenging institutional narratives

  • Emphasising humanity and Muslim normalisation: challenging narratives of division

  • Creating Muslim space(s)

  • Challenging distorted representation: verity and voice

The launch of the toolkit is a moment of hope at a time when for many it feels like the state and the wider continent have turned their back on critical thinking and action on issues of racism.

Various actors from the European Commission and its institutions, national delegations, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and NGOs are attending the launch, and the aim of the toolkit is to provide an overview and avenues for change at a systemic level.

What the background research showed in many countries was that exclusionary tropes and discursive practices at the level of state, media and educational institutions result in Muslims and the "idea of Muslims" being excluded.

Anti-discrimination laws and double standards

In this context even laws that do tackle discrimination or hate crimes and hate speech, have at best little impact or at worst posit Muslims as perpetrators of said acts. 

Examples of this have been seen when Muslim politicians are accused of supporting entryism rather than seen to be purveyors of whatever political idea they nominally hold, as has happened in the UK.

Or, they are denied access to anti-discrimination measures because their claims to be discriminated against - Muslim women wearing the hijab in France or Belgium come to mind - are seen to in fact violate laws or ordinances in the same countries.

Put simply, a Muslim woman wearing a veil and banned from school or work is not seen as a victim of racism but a perpetrator of discrimination against the wider population and must therefore be banned in her practice.

Importantly, the toolkit highlights how a lack of information regarding this at the level of the European Court of Human Rights has led to some strange decisions that by any other name would undermine rather than protect human rights.

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This idea of a recalcitrant and endlessly mutable inimical Muslimness permeates countries and regions where there are few if any Muslims, as some of the findings in countries in this study attest.

This is where the undertones (or overt stereotypes) of a popular drama, an anti-terrorism law or the grotesque commentary of politicians and pundits travel.

Alongside the toolkit, Key National Messages (KNM) for each country in their national language are being launched.

Both the toolkit and the KNMs are short documents and essential reading for anyone with a genuine desire to tackle the environment of hate against Muslims in Europe.

They will be published on 26 September, on the project website

In any event, it’s time for the direction of travel on racism in Europe to change.

- Arzu Merali is a writer and researcher based in London. She is one of the co-founders of Islamic Human Rights Commission (http://www.ihrc.org.uk) and co-authored its recent study "Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK" with Saied Reza Ameli.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: People hold posters as they protest against 'hate and islamophobia' in Brussels on September 9, 2018 (AFP)