Mapping a Path to Tolerance During a Time of Fear

Muslim residents walk past racial slurs painted on the walls of a mosque in the town of Saint-Étienne in central France.  Photo credit: © Laurent Cipriani/AP

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the risk of a surge in hate crimes against minorities in Europe is all too real. Youssef Himmat, president of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO), and Robin Sclafani, director of CEJI—A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, talk about the importance of building coalitions that can work together for more inclusive and tolerant societies in Europe.

Indiscriminate violence doesn’t just harm the communities that it targets directly—it affects society as a whole. At the European Network against Racism (ENAR), we believe that unity and respect for the rule of law is the only way forward for Europe. How can such a message prevail in a climate of fear?

Youssef Himmat: At FEMYSO, we joined our voices with many other Muslim organizations to condemn the heinous attacks in Paris and send a clear message of solidarity with the victims. Governments, media outlets, and civil society organizations need to act with responsibility in the aftermath of this tragic event. There is a real danger in assigning blame and vilifying certain groups as we have seen some media doing. Muslims—or other groups like the refugees reaching Europe—should not become scapegoats. Robin Sclafani: Even as we grieve for the victims of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the fear and the subsequent domino effect are in full swing. It is so easy to fall back on stereotypes and prejudices, to search for generalizations that can help make sense of the violence. Conditions are ripe for the far-right to take control. This year we saw a number of serious incidents targeting Jewish and Muslim communities alike. For instance, anti-Semitic attacks rose to a five-year high in Germany this year, while France saw a steep surge in Islamophobic incidents in the months following the Charlie Hebdo attack. Now is more important than ever for Europe to show political will in addressing hate crime.

In October the European Commission organized the EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights, the first-ever policy discussion at the EU level focused on ways to prevent and combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe. How useful was this meeting?

Sclafani: The meeting expanded the network of people fighting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. There were of course Jewish and Muslim organizations, but the majority came from other fields working to create more inclusive environments, like local authorities, organizations dealing with education, hate speech, and other issues. Himmat: The colloquium gave us an opening to look at the issue of hate crime and tolerance from a more holistic perspective. Even though the colloquium specifically focused on ways to prevent and combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe, it set the first learning step towards how to combat other forms of discrimination that prevail in Europe, such as against the Roma community or people of African descent. It is important to keep in mind that there are similarities with other forms of racism as well, and future actions undertaken by the European Commission as an outcome of this colloquium should include all affected communities and not only a few.

First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans underlined the importance of collaboration among organizations that fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. What are your thoughts on that?

Sclafani: It’s certainly very important, but the task should not be left to Jews and Muslims alone. It should not be defined as an issue in Jewish–Muslim relations either, but rather we need to generate solidarity among all communities in fighting discrimination and creating inclusive environments. There are some specific discrimination issues which affect both Jewish and Muslim communities, such as those relating to religious freedom (circumcision, ritual slaughter, holiday observance, dress and symbols), which provide opportunities for collaboration, as well as broader issues that affect many minority communities, such as the rise of extremism, hate speech, and hate crime. We should really see these issues in the bigger picture and define the mechanisms necessary for human rights to be a reality within Europe.

During the colloquium, the European Commission announced the appointment of the first coordinators to work exclusively on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia—a clear display of political will. How do you see these roles?

Himmat: I personally see the coordinators’ role to be the ones who will translate the political leadership’s words and statements into concrete actions. This would require them to improve substantially the communication with civil society and grassroots organizations, in order to ensure that they have a say and an impact in how to combat hate crime and discrimination. As announced during the colloquium, the coordinators are going to ensure a better enforcement of existing EU legislation against discrimination and hate crime. Therefore we need them to be that watchful eye ensuring that policies are evaluated for impact and policymakers are held to account.

There are a lot of gaps in the data and implementation of hate crime legislation across EU member states. How can member states take concrete action?

Sclafani: I would like to see every member state have good cooperation between law enforcement and civil society organizations, and a proper recording and reporting of hate crimes. This information helps generate adequate support services for victims as well as prevention programs. There is still a long way to go in terms of seeing these kinds of procedures and working relationships in place in each country. With hate crime proliferation, we need to develop new legislation to cover all its different manifestations. Himmat: Ultimately we need to see less hate crime, less hate speech, and more tolerant societies. Member states should provide adequate support to people who work to tackle anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of racism and discrimination. We should not lose sight of how hate crimes can divide our societies. In the face of different threats and pressures—ranging from terrorism to the rise of the extreme right—we need to show a united front against hate crimes. CEJI—A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, the European Network against Racism, and the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations are grantees of the Open Society Foundations. © 2015 Open Society Foundations, some rights reserved.

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