by Marie Shuqha

Vocal Europe: Mr Friggieri, in December 2015 the European Commission appointed you as the Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred in Europe. Why did the Commission create this post and what does your work consist in?

 David Friggieri: Over the past years, reports from international and civil society organisations have pointed to an increase in fear and insecurity among Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe, as well as discrimination in various areas of life directed largely against Muslims.

This climate was sadly and tragically exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of May 2014 in Brussels, January 2015 in Paris and February 2015 in Copenhagen in which young, EU citizens, with a Muslim background targeted the Jewish museum in Brussels, the offices of Charlie Hebdo, police officers and a kosher supermarket in Paris and a seminar and a synagogue in Copenhagen.

David Friggieri, European Commission Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred.

These events – as well as the subsequent attacks in Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016 – have had a marked effect on Europeans in general while the identities of the perpetrators and several of the victims of the attacks have had an impact on Muslim and Jewish communities in Belgium, France, Denmark and elsewhere, with community leaders expressing serious security concerns. Mosques began to receive police protection in several Member States while the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) recorded a 110% increase in reported anti-Muslim incidents between January 2014 and January 2015. In the UK, between 10-12 January 2015, eight Muslim-owned businesses were attacked in Birmingham. Other incidents included a bomb threat against Gothenburg’s main mosque, Muslim women reporting headscarves being torn off in several Member States and a steep increase in complaints concerning hate speech, insults and discrimination recorded by several NGOs such as the UK’s TellMAMA and Muslim Rights Belgium. In several European countries, Jewish community leaders asked the police to provide increased security detail around schools, synagogues and other buildings.

This led to the Commission dedicating its First Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights – held in October 2015 and hosted by First-Vice President Frans Timmermans and Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová – to preventing and combating anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred and to my appointment as Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred in December 2015, alongside my colleague Katharina Von Schnurbein who was appointed Coordinator on combating anti-Semitism.

Our key task is to bring to the attention of the First Vice-President and the Commissioner the specific concerns of the respective communities and organisations working in the field. We act as contact points for these communities and organisations while contributing to the development of the European Commission’s overarching strategy to prevent and combat racism, intolerance and discrimination. We liaise with the Member States, the European Parliament, other institutions, relevant civil society organisations and academia with a view to strengthening policy responses designed to address these forms of racism and xenophobia while also ensuring coherence with other policies such as migration, employment and education policy.

VE: Referring to combating anti-Muslim hatred, does the EU have a toolbox to really fight such growing tendency? If yes, what are these tools and means?

DF: While every form of racism presents its own specificities and it is my role to bring Muslim concerns to the policy table, both coordinators operate within a framework established following the October 2015 Colloquium on Fundamental Rights which lists a number of key actions and tools geared at combating racism and xenophobia, structured around 4 strands, namely: 1) education 2) addressing on-line hate speech 3) addressing hate crime and 4) implementing anti-discrimination legislation.

What this means in practice is that we are working with Member States, to ensure they effectively enforce their legislation criminalising incitement to hatred/violence (commonly known as “hate speech”) and hate crime in line with the EU’s Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. As a result, in the past two years six Member States made amendments to their criminal laws to bring their laws in line with this legislation and more are expected to do so in the coming year.

National law enforcement authorities and courts remain competent to investigate, prosecute and sentence individual cases of hate speech and hate crime so we work together with national authorities and other key actors, including Muslim, Jewish and other civil society representatives to make a concrete impact on the ground by supporting national efforts in setting up effective policies to prevent and combat these phenomena. The aim is to build up commitment, capacity and to make available resources and tools.

Our High-Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance – which we established in June this year – is a unique platform for best practice exchange, guidance and strengthened cooperation, bringing together civil society and community representatives, EU agencies, in particular the Fundamental Rights Agency, and relevant international organisations, including the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe.

A specific priority for the High Level Group is to help all Member States develop sound methodologies for the recording and data collection of hate crimes, which often go unreported or registered as normal offences.

We have also taken important steps to counter on-line incitement to hatred and violence by agreeing to a Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online with Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and YouTube in May 2016. With regard to this initiative I should take this opportunity to dispel some common misconceptions about the type of hate speech we are addressing. This is not about closing down absolutely legitimate discussion about ideologies, belief systems, organisations, religions or states but about addressing intentional incitement to violence or hatred directed against groups of people or individual members of those groups on the basis of characteristics such as their race, nationality of ethnicity.

In terms of funding, we support concrete projects to prevent racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of intolerance under our Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme. Through the new call for proposals which is currently open, we are making available 6 million euros, for projects in this area.

In 2017, we will be looking to ensure that EU and national educational programmes take account of these forms of xenophobia in line with the Paris Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education, a French initiative signed by the EU’s Education Commissioner Navracsics and all EU Education Ministers in March 2015.

VE: We know the fact that anti-Muslim hatred is not the only challenge that the EU is facing within the domain of intolerance and discrimination. The EU has also the issue of extremism to solve. What is your take on the root-causes of Islamic-extremism in Europe and how can we solve such a massive problem?

DF: With regard specifically to the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, the Commission’s June 2016 Communication on supporting the prevention of radicalisation leading to violent radicalisation notes that the majority of the terrorist suspects implicated in these attacks in Belgium, France and Denmark between 2014 and 2016 were European citizens, born and raised in Member States who were radicalised to commit atrocities on European soil.

Around 4000 EU nationals are estimated to have joined terrorist organisations in countries such as Syria and Iraq and the Communication acknowledges that recent terrorist attacks have put Islamist extremism in the spotlight. It points out that ideological and religious factors are two of many possible drivers of radicalisation while recruiters and extremist preachers have become adept at exploiting grievances abusing religious narratives and symbols providing justification for acts of violence. At the same time, the Communication emphasises that religion can play a vital role in preventing or countering radicalisation by binding communities, strengthening a sense of belonging and guiding people in a positive direction.

The prevention of radicalisation is a key part of the fight against terrorism, as highlighted in the European Agenda on Security adopted in April 2015. While the design and implementation of measures countering radicalisation takes place mainly at national, regional and local level, the EU has been supporting Member States’ work in this area for over a decade.

The Commission believes that policy makers in Europe need to become more conversant in understanding the ideological streams which feed the anti-Western, anti-democracy, militant narrative. It is for this reason that the Commission is, and will be increasingly engaging academic researchers – such as Islam and Arab world specialists Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy whom I invited to address Commission staff this year. Academia has a crucial role to play in clarifying the underlying political, ideological and social currents at play in Europe as well as in the wider world.

VE: Many experts and opinion makers who work on the field of extremism suggest that there are a number of large, moderate and peaceful Muslim communities in Europe with whom the EU should consider to work together to fight extremism. These are the communities that have massive networks of education, social work, charity and etc. Could such a potential collaboration between the EU and these peaceful Muslim communities produce positive outcomes?

DF: Following the events of the past few years, a number of conferences organised by Muslim organisations in Brussels and elsewhere addressed the commonly-held perception that “Muslims are not doing enough” to counter radicalisation within their communities. It is clear that several Muslim organisations and religious leaders do, in fact, clearly and consistently speak out on these matters while some are at the very forefront of combating radicalisation. The media should perhaps give these organisations far more credit for doing so.

It should be emphasized that stigmatisation of individual Muslims and entire Muslim communities following every terrorist attack is becoming more and more commonplace, as shown, for instance, by statistics compiled by Teesside University based on data provided by UK organisation TellMAMA. And let us not ignore the fact that neo-Nazi extremism is a growing threat in Europe.

I am mandated to engage with a variety of community representatives and organisations but given that my main task is to combat anti-Muslim hate speech, hate crime and discrimination, the key stakeholders I work with are Muslim, and other, organisations which deal with anti-racism and non-discrimination policy both at European as well as at national level. The Commission’s engagement with religious leaders on other relevant EU issues – such as integration and migration – normally occurs within the framework of the Commission’s separate dialogue with churches and non-confessional organisations. The last High-Level religious dialogue held in November engaged with a number of the issues you refer to in your question and we will be ensuring follow-up to several of the practical proposals raised on that occasion.

Finally, I should mention the Radicalisation Awareness Network’s Centre of Excellence (the European hub for exchanging experiences and pooling knowledge on radicalisation) which is mandated to coordinate an EU-wide Civil Society Empowerment Programme platform for religious leaders, community leaders and other interested parties to provide alternative and counter narratives.

VE: How do you see the tremendous rise of far-right and populist parties across Europe and the impact of their anti-Islam rhetoric on Muslim communities who live in our European societies? It seems that the more we see the growing trend of far-right and populist sentiments, the more we observe that extremism finds further support in Europe. What would be your advice to break this vicious circle?

DF: In the past few years we have witnessed an increase in anti-Muslim political rhetoric, an upswing in anti-Muslim hate crime in several Member States as well as serious, large-scale terrorist attacks perpetrated on European soil which have placed Islamist extremism in the spotlight.

The Commission Communication on supporting the prevention of radicalisation leading to violent extremism adopted last June lists a number of drivers conducive to radicalisation (among which social marginalisation, perceived humiliation and xenophobia as well as political and ideological factors). It recognises that the drivers of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe are more complex and have different root causes and that this form of extremism is marked by globalised and moving targets inside and outside Europe.

The Commission believes that the solution does not lie in exclusionary nationalism. It certainly does not lie in stigmatising individuals, entire communities and religions. As the Fundamental Rights Agency’s November 2016 Report on the Current migration situation in the EU puts it: “Muslims in the EU experience increased hostility, as they are often perceived as perpetrators or sympathisers of terrorist attacks, or for being part of a refugee movement seen as threatening safety and security”. Faced with these significant tangible challenges, the EU’s approach has been to simultaneously step up its work to address incitement to hatred/violence and hate crime; discrimination; radicalisation; violent extremism and terrorism.

All these phenomena pose a serious challenge to our security and our way of life. The very foundations of European societies are at stake. While terrorism and violent extremism [whether of the neo-Nazi or Islamist variety] pose a serious security challenge, they cannot be addressed solely through repressive or invasive security measures. The Commission believes that prevention is crucial and that we need to address the root causes of violent radicalisation, which may be triggered by a combination of factors. This is the spirit of the Communication on supporting the prevention of radicalisation, which proposes a national, European and international approach to the phenomenon. It proposes – besides the security angle elaborated in the European Agenda on Security – measures countering terrorist propaganda and incitement to hatred on-line; addressing radicalisation in prisons; community and youth engagement; promoting inclusive education and supporting research on new forms of radicalisation.


*David Friggieri is European Commission Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred.


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