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Religious Persecution in Europe: Focus on Muslims

Muslim Women's League
November 1996

In Islam, the significance and valuation for human rights and dignity can be found throughout the Qur’an, the holy scripture for Muslims, and throughout other religious texts. In matters of faith, the language is explicit and unequivocal: "There is no compulsion in religion; Truth stands out clear from Error." (2:256). Thus, the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in expressions of faith is guaranteed, not only in theory but in practice as the Qur’an states: "O you who believe! Be ever Steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let the hatred of others lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: This is the closest to being conscious of God." (5:81) Yet it is hatred and rage that is at the root of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence plaguing Europe today.

The status of Muslims in Europe is precarious, for they represent a group that is viewed as alien, unacknowledged, or threatening throughout the region. Racist tendencies fueled by paranoia regarding Islamic extremism have rendered Europe hostile, unreponsive to, and in violation of the human rights of Muslims. In an interfaith meeting in Rome last summer with Father General Kastalneck of the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church, it was made clear that "Europe has a problem with Islam." Indeed, the problem is the historical baggage carried by Europe with respect to the Middle East, dating back to the Crusades and the Inquisition. At that time, Muslims were uniformly stereotyped as infidels and violent barbarians. Unfortunately, time has not significantly altered these misperceptions.

The human rights violations suffered by Muslims in Europe range from police brutality and right-wing extremist attacks that often result in murder to confinement to the role of second-class citizen. When expedient, the card of fears of Islamic fundamentalism is used to justify persecution and discrimination as Europe and her allies do not question such a characterization. Indeed, since Muslims themselves are erroneously portrayed has intolerant and uncivilized, they do not deserve the rights of a free people. While other religious groups are measured by the mainstream and not the extremists, Muslims are defined by the most extreme elements in their midst.

The hatred of Muslims throughout Europe is well summarized in an article highlighting the findings of the Runnymede Commission in the United Kingdom which examined the "growing phenomenon of islamophobia-dread or hatred of Muslims-…" While focusing on Great Britain, the findings can be applied anywhere anti-muslim prejudice is expressed. The key features of Islamophobia include "the portrayal of muslim cultures as monolithic, intolerant of pluralism and dispute, patriarchal and misogynistic, fundamentalist and potentially threatening to other cultures. A further, and particularly disturbing feature of islamophobia is its apparent acceptability as…’the expression of anti Muslim ideas and sentiments is increasingly respectable.’"

The acceptability and tolerance for anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred is allowing gross human rights violations to occur unchecked. Other groups who have been similarly suppressed in the past accept that Islam is largely a negative force and therefore condone, through their own silence, these atrocities.

Reports regarding the persecution of Muslims are mainly gathered from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission on Human Rights and others. No broad based Muslim organizations exist which are dedicated to the documentation of persecution of and discrimination against Muslims. Because of the nature of the ethnic groups discussed below, many are unaware of the availablity of human rights groups to advocate on their behalf and are unlikely to seek them out to report abuse. Similarly, in view of the facts that much of the suppression is carried out or ignored by the authorities, many Muslims have a lack of trust of any system that claims to protect them. As a result, we can only assume that the extent of the persecution of Muslims in Europe, and elsewhere, is not fully reflected in the reports currently available.

Genocide, mass killings, forced migration, torture, and rape

Clearly, the most significant tragedy in Europe since the Holocaust was the war in the former Yugoslavia where Bosnian Muslims were the victims of a widespread, government sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serbian armed forces and civilians. Neighboring European nations as well as the US justified their inaction and lack of involvement by claiming that the conflict was motivated along ethnic lines: yet Serbian leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic used anti-Islamic rhetoric to fan the flames of hatred that allowed 200,000 Bosnian Muslims to be slaughtered, over 1 million expelled from their homes and communities, 20,000 women raped and countless more civilians, men, women and children to endure physical and psychological trauma. At the time when the international community chose not to act, many felt that if the victims had been Christian or Jewish then intervention would not have been delayed. Current focus on the persecution of Christians, receiving support in Congress for severe response to similar crimes lends credence to this view of a double standard for the protection of some religious minorities to the exclusion of others. This hypocrisy is further manifested by the lack of will on the part of the global community to take definitive action in bringing the indicted war criminals to justice.

Further traumatization of Bosnian Muslims continues, particularly among refugees, who are being forcibly repatriated from countries like Germany even when conditions in Bosnia-Hercegovina are not favorable for resettlement.

In the war in Chechnya, while both sides committed atrocities, Russian troops carried out a disproportionate amount of violence against non-combatants including indiscriminate killings, extrajudicial executions of civilians, torture, rape and hostage-taking.

Police Brutality

Reports of police brutality against Muslim minorities including assault, verbal abuse, murder and other degrading treatment that qualifies as torture are clearly documented in Europe, particularly in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. The depth and severity of police brutality is only slightly outdone by the atrocities committed by right-wing extremists.

In Germany, the overwhelming majority of victims are Turks and Kurds, usually refugees or asylum seekers. A clear pattern, not isolated incidents, has emerged of ill-treatment of foreigners and ethnic minorities. On some occasions, police officers have continued the assault on individuals who called for police assistance as they were being attacked by right-wing extremists. In other instances, the victims are not informed of the basis for their arrests; are accused of being combative, meaning the officer only acted in self-defense; and are not given due process once detained.

When police officers are prosecuted for the use of excessive force, the degree of punishment is inadequate according to the crimes committed. The victims’ families do not receive compensation and there is good evidence that the problem of police brutality is ignored by the German authorities. The Minister of Internal Affairs last year denied that any anti-immigrant sentiment existed among German police officers. The participation of the police force in racist attacks has resulted in under-reporting of the extent of the problem and in seeing the perpetrators brought to justice. Victims keep silent in fear of repercussions and they are unable to call on law enforcement to protect them against hate crimes committed by neo-Nazis.

In France, similar reports of the use of excess force by police officers against Muslim minorities, particularly from North Africa (e.g. Algeria and Morocco) further exemplify racist tendencies. In addition to beatings, mass arrests of immigrants, and other forms of verbal and physical abuse, several detainees have been shot and killed while in police custody. ( In two cases, the victims were shot in the back or the head while trying to escape.) In 1993, Rachid Ardjouni, a 17 year old Algerian immigrant, was shot in the back of the head when he was face down on the ground. The officer, who was drunk at the time of the killing, was given a reduced sentence by the Court of Appeal which also reduced the financial compensation to the victim’s family. In addition, the court ruled that his conviction would not be entered on his criminal record, thus allowing him to continue to serve as a police officer and carry arms.

Similar reports of police brutality, deaths occuring while the victims were in custody and inadequate punishment of the perpetrators have emerged from Great Britain where the targets are primarily of Indo-Pakistani origin. Isolated incidents have also been documented against Swiss police officers.

Torture and ill-treatment by police is widespread in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in the province of Kosovo where the victims are Albanian Muslims. Acts of brutality include murder, torture, abductions and mass arrests. Chechens living in Moscow are also victims of police brutality. In all of the cases mentioned above, medical care for injuries sustained while in custody was either delayed considerably or withheld altogether.

Hate Crimes

The incidence of hate crimes against immigrants and ethnic minorities is reaching an alarming rate throughout Europe. These acts are mainly carried out by right-wing extremists, commonly referred to as skinheads. In some countries, official government response to the violence is inadequate allowing the problem to continue. Although racially motivated crimes are apparently on the decline in Germany, over 1000 incidents occurred in a two year period. As mentioned earlier, many victims of assault and abuse do not report the incidents because of fear of repercussions such as retailiation or deportation. Additionally, if the police force is also known to be participating in similar acts of brutality, the victims would not call on the authorities for assistance. Therefore the actual occurrence of hate crimes is under-reported and can be assumed to be more widespread.

Some of the most heinous acts in Germany include arson attacks on residences resulting in the deaths of children and the elderly. Similarly, arson and vandalism have been reported against mosques and businesses owned by immigrants or ethnic minorities.

In France, over 500 hate crimes were reported in 1996. Similar incidents have been reported, although not as widespread, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom. In Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, the victims of hate crimes which often includes murder, are members of the Romani population, many of whom are Muslim. Discrimination by government institutions against these minorities can be interpreted as a form of endorsement of similarly motivated prejudice, only expressed in a more extreme fashion.



In many countries throughout Europe, Muslims encounter difficulties in obtaining citizenship. This is especially problematic in Germany, the United Kingdom and


In Greece, members of the Muslim minority from Thrace are commonly discriminated against as they are confined to low level, low paying jobs. They encounter difficulties obtaining licenses to operate businesses.

In Serbia and Montenegro, Muslims and ethnic Albanians are frequently fired from their jobs based on religion and ethnicity. Similar difficulties are encountered by Chechens and other Muslim minorities in Russia.


In Bulgaria, Mulims are not allowed to participate in regular military units; rather, they are assigned to maintenance and construction. In Greece, Muslims are prevented from advancing in rank in the military.

Repression due to fears of Islamic extremism or political Islam

In France, mass arrests and deportation of thousands of illegal immigrants from Northern Africa are justified based on fears of terrorist attacks, similar to those which have already occurred in Paris over the past several years.

In the Czech Republic, a town council denied the permit for the building of a mosque, arguing that it would become a center for terrorism.

In Uzbekistan, where the majority of inhabitants are Muslim, the government suppresses groups that oppose state appointed religious authorities. Muslim leaders have been detained and harassed for acts perceived as insubordination. As a result of such allegations, three mosques have been closed and the "disappearance" of several Muslim leaders has been reported.

Recent political events in Turkey highlight the conflict between popular support for the political involvement of Islamic political parties (namely Refah) and the military’s fanatic commitment to maintaining the secular nature of the state. The government, in addition to having a known record of human rights violations against dissidents of all types, interferes with proselytizing and activism if there are political overtones. The crackdown on Islamic education in secondary schools further reflects government control over the ability of individuals to study their religion; the hope is that by reducing the amount of time students spend learning about Islam, they will decrease the popularity of and enthusiasm for religious activism.
The Ministry of Defense forced a Turkish judge into retirement due to his relgious convictions, claiming that he demonstrated "unlawful fundamentalist opinions."

Women as specific targets

Muslim women who choose to wear a head-covering (referred to as hijab) in addition to overall modest attire are frequently subject to attacks, discrimination and other forms of abuse and harassment. They become an easy target for right-wing extremists, government officials and even feminist groups. Hijab seems to provoke reactions in many people who feel it is symbolic of other issues. To the Muslim women, it is an expression of modesty and for some it reflects a particular devotion to the faith. To others, it represents oppression and foreign-ness. For others, it simply serves as a useful way to target the "other" and to use women as a means to carry out suppression, discrimination and violence against Muslims.

Lack of understanding regarding the purpose of hijab led the French government to claim that the "ostentatious" wearing of the headscarf violated laws in place prohibiting proselytizing in schools. Due to negative public attention, the Administrative Court, in 1995, modified the law, instead prohibiting the wearing of "ostentatious political and religious symbols" in school, thus leaving the decision to the discretion of school officials. As a reaction to such hostility, families chose to keep their daughters home instead of subjecting them to harassment by school authorities.

Women who wear hijab in Turkey are prevented from obtaining post-graduate degrees and from advancing in the workplace. Similar forms of discrimination exist throughout Europe and are mainly reported anecdotally. Frequently, Muslim women are singled out at airports as they are treated as suspects. Human rights groups have not focused specifically on the problems faced by Muslim women who, compared to their male counterparts, may be even less likely to report harassment and discrimination.

The persecution of Muslims is the result of deep-seated hatred and prejudice that must be addressed. While it may be expressed most violently by extremist elements, the participation of governments to lesser degrees confirms that the racism permeates all levels of society. Recognition of this fact is the key to addressing the grievances and resolving conflict. Conflict that is generated elsewhere with repercussions on European soil, reinforce stereotyping and paranoia that is used to justify widespread acts of intolerance and repression.

The media also contributes negatively by perpetuating stereotypical negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims. This is clearly evident in the American entertainment industry which continues to produce movies, such as Executive Decision and True Lies, that are broadcast around the world, further solidifying the publics perception of Muslims and Middle Easterners as terrorist and uncivilized. No positive images are offered to counter the effect, thus adding to the public’s general ignorance about Islam and intolerance for those who are different.


bullet Deep seated racism must be dealt with on all levels of society.
bullet Obtain commitment from member states of OSCE to upholding the principles expressed in the international human rights documents which they have signed.
bullet Discuss religious and ethnic discrimination with high-ranking officials to acknowledge the problem and develop a strategy for dealing with it on all levels.
bullet Focus on training of police and military units, eliminating officers who have a history of abuse, racist attitudes and membership in right-wing groups
bullet Develop sensitization techniques by encouraging participation of ethnic minorities to increase understanding and decrease incidents of police brutality.
bullet Demonstrate commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice, swiftly and fairly.

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