By AMANDA PAUL
The recent tragic events in Norway have acted as a powerful reminder that no country may claim to be safe from terror and will hopefully prompt an urgent debate on our common challenge: countering xenophobia, intolerance and violent extremism.
All corners of Europe -- from Moscow to Paris -- need to face up to the fact that we have a serious problem on our hands and begin to take serious steps to tackle it. In many parts of Europe, including my own country, the UK, it has unfortunately become almost socially acceptable to be anti-Muslim, with Muslims usually being put into two categories: moderate or extremist. Of course, Muslims are not the only group to suffer: Another appalling example is the treatment of the Roma. Today the Roma are the most discriminated-against group in Europe, with country after country violating European values on a daily basis.
Rather than making piecemeal, often half-hearted efforts to appease this growing climate of dislike for those who apparently do not meet our European mold, European leaders need to start tackling the challenge of building and sustaining societies that are able to embrace diversity instead of rejecting it. One slogan of the EU is “Strength in diversity,” but it somehow seems to have gotten lost along the way.
The Council of Europe recently released a report on diversity in Europe titled “Living together: combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe.” The report focuses on the challenges arising from the resurgence of intolerance and discrimination in Europe and describes several factors that have contributed to the current climate of intolerance and discrimination. These include insecurity stemming from Europe's economic decline, for which many people blame immigrants, the phenomenon of large-scale immigration, distorted images and harmful stereotyping of minorities in the media and uneasiness toward the entire Muslim community as a result of the actions of a few. This last has resulted in Muslims frequently being subject to collective blame for the violence committed by a handful of extremists.
Another factor contributing to discrimination is an acute shortage of leaders who can inspire confidence by articulating a clear vision for Europe's future and selling diversity as a source of strength rather than a weakness. Our so-called leaders have a lot to answer for. They have manipulated societies into believing, for example, that the EU's economic woes are the fault of immigrants, when actually the EU needs immigrants to overcome its labour shortages.
Unfortunately Islam is extremely misunderstood in Europe. Because extremists have distorted the whole notion of peaceful and tolerant Islam, people more often than not make an incorrect link between Islam and terrorism. Actually Islam has no link to terrorism whatsoever, as is clearly outlined in Dr. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri's fatwa on terrorism. Islam is a peaceful and tolerant faith and there is an urgent need to educate people about this, promoting the truth about Islam. Unfortunately this is not being done. Rather the noxious vocabulary of political parties on the far right is becoming more and more socially acceptable, and this has begun to be felt in Europe's mainstream politics, with increasingly numbers of such politicians represented in government. Over the last few years there has been a steady trend of European leaders, particularly in countries with large Muslim populations, claiming that multiculturalism has failed, which has only exacerbated the problem.
The extreme right's rhetoric against immigrants and multiculturalism has become part of Europe's political discourse. Unfortunately the majority of Europe's far-right parties, while clearly trying to distance themselves from what happened in Norway, have not uttered a word about making any effort to change their ways. It is important that mainstream political parties challenge far-right groups rather than beginning to play the exact same tune.
The response of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to the dreadful events that occurred in his country should be borne in mind by other European leaders, particularly those who have almost gone out of their way to discriminate against their minority populations. He said Norway would respond by embracing more democracy and more openness. Spain's Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, has been one of the first European leaders to speak out, demanding a common EU response to fight xenophobia. Spain, of course, went through its own terrorist trauma in 2004. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was identified as a target in Breivik's killing manual, has also spoken out, warning that “this hatred of foreigners is our common enemy.”
It is really the responsibility of all the EU's leaders to develop a counter-narrative against that of the far-right parties as well as giving the integration of minorities far more attention on their agendas. Essentially, we need a more mature debate. It is time for Europe to show that there really is strength in diversity, rather than portraying it as some sort of weakness.