22nd Mar 2023


Muslims missing in Swedish presidency's EU equality talks

  • Mosque in Botkyrka, on the outskirts of Stockholm (Photo: Viktor_K79)
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Sweden has launched new EU talks on combatting racism and antisemitism, but not Islamophobia, prompting accusations of a rightwing approach.

"The alarming rise in racist and antisemitic incidents in EU member states is deplorable," the Swedish EU presidency told EU ambassadors in an internal memo on 24 February, seen by EUobserver.

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  • Far-right Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson (Photo: News Oresund)

"Hate speech, Holocaust denial and distortion, and conspiracy myths both online and offline, are clear challenges that must be dealt with," including by more prosecutions, it added.

"Steps also need to be taken to improve physical security and to prevent threats against sites and gatherings of people, such as around religious institutions, meeting venues and schools, and during cultural or religious events," it said.

The Swedish memo set the agenda for EU justice and home affairs ministers in Brussels on Thursday (9 March), who discussed progress on "national action plans".

Ministers are to hold the anti-hatred consultations on a regular basis in future.

The Swedish briefing note mentioned antisemitism and "fostering Jewish life" several times, but made no mention of Islamophobia or Muslim life.

For member states, they are free to discuss anti-Muslim hatred under the "racism" bracket.

"The approach does not preclude Islamophobia, rather it allows for addressing the multitude of different ways to combat hatred," an EU diplomat said.

But in practice, discussions of racism in EU circles tend to focus on the 15 million or so black Europeans and Europeans of African descent.

The 1.3 million Jewish people estimated to be living in Europe are also protected by tailor-made EU "strategies" and other policies, along with LGBTQI people, Roma people, and disabled EU citizens.

But Europe's 25 million Muslims have next to nothing, despite likewise suffering spiralling levels of hate crime.

Europe had the world's highest numbers of anti-Muslim hate speech and anti-mosque incidents in the latest survey by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, an intergovernmental body based in Riyadh.

And unlike the Swedish model, the European Commission does have three dedicated co-ordinators — on racism, antisemitism, and on anti-Muslim hatred.

On one hand, this recognises the reality of the problem.

But on the other hand, it's the only EU action on this front.

The commission anti-Muslim hatred coordinator also has fewer staff than her colleague on antisemitism and the anti-Muslim hatred post had, until recently, stayed vacant for 18 months, giving the impression there was little interest in the subject.

But despite its shortcomings, for some scholars of European politics, Sweden would have done better to follow the EU Commission's protocol.

Given the "European architecture" in place of three EU special co-ordinators, "the EU Council approach looks selective," Farid Hafez, an international relations professor at Williams College university in the US, told EUobserver.

When asked if it agreed, the EU Commission said: "We work closely with the [EU] Council and our member states to fight all forms of hatred, discrimination, or racism".

"They are contrary to our values and what the European Union stands for," a spokesman added.

But for Hafez, Sweden's commitment to EU values was not as pure as the Nordic country liked to claim.

Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson's ruling coalition relies on a deal with the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which itself hates Muslims, Hafez noted.

"I am not surprised that the EU presidency of Sweden is not pushing this [EU protection for Muslims] given the already mainstream institutionalised Islamophobia in Sweden even before the centrist-right-right wing quasi coalition came to power," Hafez said.

And if that is the case, then the roots of EU "selective" equality also go back to France and Poland.

French priorities

The then French EU presidency first drew up the EU priorities focusing on help for black and Jewish Europeans, while leaving out Muslims, in March 2022.

It did so while discussing Islam as a terrorist threat in EU security talks instead and while French president Emmanuel Macron cracked down on mosques for spreading "Islamist separatism" in France.

More liberal EU countries did propose a more prominent role for anti-Muslim hatred coordination in internal negotiations, according to diplomatic sources.

But Poland, which is ruled by the Islamophobic Law and Justice party, said if Muslims were to get more of a special mention, then it wanted EU action against "Christianophobia" to be added to the March 2022 list.

Christianophobia was not added either in the end.

But there is little to celebrate in that for Hafez, given that it would have been absurd.

"This argument makes no sense, as Christians represent by and large the powerful rather than the marginalised and weak," he said.

"If we understand racism and hence Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism as something structural and not only individual prejudice, then this argument is basically whitewashing the problem of power within racist structures," Hafez said.


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