For instance, thousands of Swedish women from various backgrounds recently posted pictures of themselves with headscarves to show solidarity with a female victim of Islamophobic violence in Stockholm. The initiative inspired similar actions in other places such as Brussels. Lately, acts of public resistance against intolerance have also occurred in Germany and the Czech Republic.
On August 21st in Berlin, neo-Nazi protests against an asylum centre were silenced by hundreds of people expressing their support for the centre and its residents. Moreover, anti-Roma neo-Nazi protesters in the Czech Republic on August 24th faced stiff opposition from both Roma and non-Roma groups.
Further protests against neo-Nazis are planned for September 3rd in front of Czech embassies worldwide.
Such cross-communal actions are encouraging, and prove that many are willing to stand up for the rights of others, regardless of ethnicity and religion. They therefore reflect a sense of unity in diversity.
As Martin Luther King famously said: “If we are to make peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective” (Georgia, 1967).
Public actions like the “hijab outcry” in Sweden also communicate the need for more political determination to tackle hate crime. So far, politicians in Sweden and Europe have failed to develop effective responses, and there is often an unwillingness to recognize the severity of the problem.
A cause for concern is that Beatrice Ask, the Swedish Minister of Justice, only stressed individual responsibility in the racist attack against the Muslim woman, and ignored the demand of the Swedish campaigners that she tackles structural discrimination in Swedish society.
Equally distressing is that German investigators of the NSU murders did not seriously consider a racist motivation of the crimes, despite the fact that the victims were of a non-German background.
Today more than ever, such shortcomings highlight the widening gap between political leaders living disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the people and the civil society which has developed an understanding of the difficult challenges that lie ahead of us.
Indeed, we should be alarmed by the escalation of hate speech and hate crime. Reports from non-governmental organizations such as European Network Against Racism (ENAR) confirm a dramatic increase of racist violence in recent years.
More than 5,000 hate crimes were reported in Sweden in 2012 of which 7 percent were related to racism and xenophobia. Muslims, Roma, and asylum seekers are some of the most vulnerable groups throughout Europe, especially Muslim women who wear the headscarf.
In France, 86 percent of Islamophobic attacks targeted women in 2012. On August 26th this year, a young Muslim woman in France committed suicide after she was assaulted due to her faith.
The economic distress in Europe has played into the hands of right-wing populists, who spread myths and raise unwarranted fears about immigration and multiculturalism.
What is worse, some politicians actively promote violence towards certain groups, as has frequently been the case in both eastern and western Europe regarding the Roma. In France, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, including the socialist Minister of Interior Manuel Valls, have attacked the Roma to bolster their visibility and score cheap political points.
When politics and media pander to populism, civil society has a crucial role in defending equality and dignity and reminding politicians of their duty to protect basic human rights. Successful community practices and solutions should also serve as models for politicians when forming inclusion strategies.
Integrated European societies with minimum levels of hate crime cannot be achieved by politicians and lawmakers alone. Civil society initiatives ‘on the ground’ are sometimes the best ways to tap into public sentiment on an issue, communicate and challenge opinions, implement inclusion programmes, and, most important, change public attitudes. They can also stimulate others to act. Consequently, they are indispensable bridges between communities and politicians, and give individuals the chance to have an impact on political decisions beyond their vote.
In a Europe increasingly afflicted by hate speech and racist violence, it is more important than ever to highlight popular commitments to respect and tolerance. Beyond debates and quarrels about the symbol of the hijab, “the hijab outcry” deserves full recognition as an important public and spontaneous initiative against racist violence that managed to cut across ethnic and religious lines.
This is a great sign of hope and resilience of European societies. Hopefully, it will inspire further acts of solidarity in Sweden and the rest of Europe. More public outcries will not automatically lead to respect and tolerance, but may be the most effective way to convince politicians that they have a democratic responsibility to fight exclusion and violence and to protect all members of society.
Director, European Network Against Racism