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Continuing the Fight: Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims

By Mischa Thompson, PhD, Staff Advisor

The Cordoba conference was the first OSCE event to solely focus on the experiences of intolerance and discrimination against Muslim communities within the OSCE. Despite concerns that the conference took place during Ramadan and was primarily planned by the Spanish Chair-in-Office (CiO), the event offered an important forum for highlighting and addressing a range of concerns from both OSCE Participating States and the Muslim community. While questions of what form OSCE follow-up efforts will take remain, the need for such a conference was underscored by the multitude of concerns raised at the conference as well as current events highlighting existing tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities within and between OSCE Participating States.

With estimates of 20 million Muslims in Western Europe and 14-23 million Muslims in Russia, Muslims are often cited as the largest religious minority in Europe and Islam as the fastest growing religion. Spain, in particular is experiencing an unprecedented growth in its immigrant population with the majority being Muslims. While Muslim communities’ experiences of prejudice and discrimination within many parts of the OSCE are not new, following the terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, and the United States, many participating States have increased their focus on the Muslim community amidst security and immigration concerns.

In this context, the conference was planned by the Spanish CiO to address the historical and contemporary causes and consequences of intolerance against Muslims and the use of media, education, and other strategies to address the problem. In particular, five themes dominated the discussions:

“Islamophobia”: Participants were concerned by the use of the term Islamophobia, which currently describes attitudes and behaviours ranging from hate crimes to housing discrimination and has led to unclear and inconsistent use. Several participants noted that the term leads all problems experienced by Muslims to be viewed as religious based, when race, culture, and socio-economic factors have also been cited as reasons for tensions and problems. Notably, the Holy See cautioned against only religious approaches and argued for increased attention on migration and culture.

Gender equality: Participants raised concerns that gender equality issues were often confined to discussions about forced marriages, honor killings, and head scarves and other dress, while ignoring everyday experiences of discrimination, for example in employment. It was suggested that Muslim women were often politicized to exacerbate differences between Muslims and others, but often did not actually address the realities of Muslim women or serve to benefit them.

Integration: Many Participating States highlighted changes to or the creation of integration policies and programs to address concerns voiced by Muslim communities. Several civil society groups noted that some of these efforts did not address: 1) the issues of xenophobia and racism exhibited by hate crimes and employment and housing discrimination that target even ‘integrated’ immigrants – i.e., those who are citizens, speak the language, hold college degrees, etc. and 2) that some of these policies were inherently discriminatory in that they only applied to Muslims and not other migrant populations. It was stressed that integration and discrimination policies be discussed together and that Muslim populations be able to participate in the decision-making process of the development of these policies in some capacity.

Stereotypes: Concerns surrounding monolithic image of Muslims, such as all women wearing head scarves and all men being terrorist were highlighted. Mechanisms for addressing these stereotypes included ensuring that school textbooks accurately reflect the history of migration and Islam and Muslims in the world, especially in cases where religion is taught in schools. ‘Cultural competence’ and other diversity or sensitivity training for teachers and media was suggested. Several speakers suggested that aims to utilize “moderate Muslims” for public platforms had the potential to backfire by not being seen by Muslims as ‘true representatives’ and also serving to reinforce a non-existent, yet stereotypical dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Islam.

Hate Speech: The need to strike a balance between protecting freedom of speech and the protection of vulnerable groups and individuals was discussed. Despite calls for defamation of religion laws, it was generally recommended that publicly speaking out and unequivocally condemning intolerant speech, not legislating against it, was the best response. Self-regulation, codes of conduct, internet monitoring and training for the media and other sectors of society, including the positive involvement of political leaders, was discussed as a means to best counter hate speech.

The Conference ended with a declaration drafted by the Spanish CiO, which:

  • reaffirmed that racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, discrimination against Christians, and discrimination against Muslims, are against the core OSCE commitments,
  • offered support for the three Personal Representatives, and,
  • called upon the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to strengthen the work of its Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Program on intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.

The conference was preceded by a one-day Civil Society Preparatory Meeting hosted by the Spanish CiO with the goal of providing NGOs with an opportunity to prepare recommendations to be presented to the Cordoba conference. Of great concern were allegations that the Spanish CiO attempted to restrict the participation of NGOs in the preparatory meeting and at the Cordoba conference at a time when human rights defenders have increasingly been under attack within the OSCE.

Generally, because there was such interest by participating States to speak during the opening sessions of the conference, there was little time to adequately discuss solutions to many of the issues on the Cordoba Conference agenda. While this suggests the need for a follow-up OSCE conference as proposed by the OSCE Mediterranean Partner, Algeria, few participating States explicitly outlined whether and how the OSCE should implement efforts discussed at the conference. Further consideration should therefore be given for ways to ensure the expeditious implementation of mechanisms that combat intolerance towards Muslims within the OSCE. This assertion was underscored one week later at a University of Michigan conference entitled, “Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend” where Muslim and non-Muslim scholars from around the world addressed the global security implications and human rights concerns associated with not successfully combating prejudice and discrimination against Muslims and mischaracterizations of Islam.

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