Fighting discrimination on grounds of religion and ethnicity

Michael O'Flaherty
FRA’s Director addressed a conference on 18 June 2020 on Fighting discrimination on grounds of religion and ethnicity: vulnerabilities of Muslim communities and the effects of COVID-19 crisis. the vulnerabilities of Muslim communities in the EU. The conference was a joint initiative by the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European network of Equality bodies, Equinet. Tommaso Chiamparino, European Commission Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred chaired the event.

Thank you Tommaso and let me thank you personally for your own commitment and leadership on these very important issues. Let me begin also by warmly thanking the Croatian Presidency, the Commission more generally, as well as Equinet, for co-sponsoring today’s event. Thank you to Fatima for her powerful testimony, which I think framed our discussion very well this morning. And I would like to strongly endorse and associate myself also with the words of Silvan, echoing Commissioner Dalli’s positions into the meeting.

I am afraid that all we can do at the Fundamental Rights Agency is confirm what we’ve heard of this morning, the patterns of discrimination and hate directed against Muslims. We, as Tommaso said just now, have been following this issue very closely, since the beginning of the Agency. We do it for example through our repeated surveys of the experience of minorities, including Muslim minorities in the European Union. The next round of data gathering for that important multiannual survey will be already next year.

We also maintain a database, of instances of anti-Muslim hate, which we maintain on an ongoing basis in particular to support the work of the Commission but also to support all of us, as we map the phenomenon of hatred directed against Muslims across the EU.

And one of our newest outputs is our periodic monthly bulletin on fundamental rights and COVID-19, which also is taking account of the situation of people who are or are perceived to be Muslim. Let me start there.

I want to begin by acknowledging the extent to which COVID-19 and responses to COVID-19 have either shone a light on or made worse existing problems, and have thrown up new ones as well. Some examples: I want to acknowledge in the first place the strong presence of Muslims in the frontline services that we are all relying on to keep our societies going right now, including the health services.

And being in the frontlines, Muslims are disproportionately impacted in terms of exposure to the virus. It is all the more concerning because many of these frontline workers are in poorly paid jobs and, as has been mentioned already by Silvan, we have to acknowledge the intersectionality or the interplay of poverty and the economic collapse that so many people are experiencing right now, which is, and will continue to, to hit Muslims very hard, or Muslim communities.

A third recurrent concern that is COVID-related is that of the patterns of lies, of hate, of disinformation, regarding Muslims, blaming Muslims for the virus. There were some disgraceful, scurrilous lies, put around during Ramadan, regarding basically nonsense about Muslim religious practice and its impact regarding the spread of the virus.

Turning to just one community of newly-arrived migrants who are Muslims, there are obviously a wide range of issues there that are much too extensive for me to go into any detail. Indeed I will stop there, in terms of our current concerns, because I know that the many expert panels who will follow me, will address these in considerable detail.

Today, rather now let me turn to the action. I welcome the fact that this event is framed around actions, not just reflection but action. I see four main flagged dimensions of action to be discussed today and I want to endorse all four.

The first is the strong focus today on the need to work with civil society, with civil society representing Muslim communities as we engage the great issues, and I applaud that emphasis in today’s programme.

Secondly, I strongly endorse the emphasis of today’s programme on going local in our actions, of getting right down to the street and to the village, in order to have impact.

Third, I welcome the strong focus today on working with equality bodies. It has already been said but it needs to be reiterated constantly, the extent to which equality bodies already play, and can play an ever-greater role, in combating all manner of discrimination including directly against people of Muslim origin.

And then the fourth and the final focus of the event that you organised today, and that I particularly welcome, is the attention in the final section to media skills. It is important to work with media to upskill it, to tell responsible stories in this context. And it is relevant in many settings to improve levels of religious literacy within the media, so it can do a better job of telling the necessary stories.

They were the four dimensions I see strongly in the programme, and I think I see behind all of them a fifth dimension that I think is very important to acknowledge, and that is a recognition from this programme of the diversity of the Muslim community. It is not homogeneous. It is highly diverse, very richly, and wonderfully diverse. And that requires us to be sophisticated in our engagements.

Now, I would like to turn to the main focus of own my words to you this morning, to one dimension, one context which I would like to suggest should underline everything we do. And that is, that the problem of hatred against Muslims, of discrimination against Muslims, is not the problem OF Muslims, it is OUR problem. It is the problem of our society. We have deep stains of racism and of othering in our societies and that is our problem. We must name it, we must tackle it, and we will never resolve anything if we do not look to ourselves, name the racism that is strongly present in our societies, and find ways to root it out.

In other words, dealing with problems of discrimination, of hate, of racism, and all related matters is as much – even more – about the general population, than it is about the impacted communities. Now, in support of you, to the extent you agree with me, in this important dimension of focus of our work I am very pleased to put before you some new data from the Fundamental Rights Agency. It is not even launched yet, but it is some relevant findings of a new survey of ours called the Fundamental Rights Survey.

We asked 35,000 Europeans in 29 countries, EU27 plus two, their attitudes to human rights, their human rights and other people’s human rights. Three questions were specifically about Muslims. In other words, if the person we asked was not a Muslim, we then had three questions for that person. The first was: “would you be willing to have a Muslim as your neighbour?” Second, “would you be comfortable with a family member marrying a Muslim?” and third, “do you think it reasonable not to hire a woman because she is wearing a headscarf, because that might frighten away some customers?” Here is what we heard as answers.

Firstly, would you like to have a Muslim as a neighbour – 22%, nearly a quarter, said no. Would you be comfortable with a family member marrying a Muslim? One in three, 31%, no. And, is it ok not to hire a woman because she is wearing a headscarf? 21% said that is fine.

Now these are not good figures. But also, sadly, they are not surprising. What is very interesting and original, I would suggest, within these figures, is what we find when we drill down into the data as it was presented to us across the Member States. First, there was a very wide diversity in the responses depending on where you live. This must be relevant as we seek to respond.

 Secondly, and this is very encouraging, the younger the respondent was, the more open. And again this confirms something we hear time and again but it is evidence that we can work with young people to change societies.

And third, very importantly, we found a very strong link across all the questions between the socio-economic status of the person answering our questions and their levels of tolerance. The better-off they are, the more secure they are in their welfare and in their jobs, the more open and tolerant are their attitudes to society. And again, we would argue that this has something very important to say, in terms of how you strategically engage with the general population.

The last point I want to make, and I thank you for giving me the time this morning, very much echoes something we heard from Silvan just now, which is that promoting equality, including profound respect for Muslim communities, isn’t just about social projects. It is not just about a policy roll-out. It is also about the enforcement of law.

I want to reiterate Silvan’s remarks there, because we don’t do a great job of enforcing our laws against hate across our Member States. This has been a longstanding concern of the Fundamental Rights Agency and there are multiple dimensions that must get the attention they deserve.

In the first place, we need the laws in place. We do not have ideal anti-hate laws in some of our Member States, we still have a job to do in many places of effectively transposing the relevant EU legislation.

Second, even when we have the law in place, we know that up to 90% of those who experience an act of hate or discrimination do not report it. We cannot use the law if the incidents are not reported. And again here, this is not a problem of the people who are attacked, this says more about lack of confidence in the authorities.

And so we have to invest in building up confidence and trust in authorities, so that the reporting will happen. When the reporting does happen, we still have a long way to go in many EU Member States, to have effective investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators. All of these will be needed, so that people who do bad things will appreciate that they cannot get away with it.

I would like to leave it there. I acknowledge that the challenges are daunting, nevertheless I see opportunities. I see opportunities in the leadership of Commissioner Dalli, I see opportunities in the light that is shone on problems in the context of the pandemic, and we must grab these opportunities, we must seize the moment to make a difference.

I would like all of you to keep in mind that you can continue to count on the Fundamental Rights Agency to work with you in partnership to resolve these very serious issues.

Thank you.