Study Finds Rising Religious Hostilities in Europe

According to a newly released Pew Research Center study, religious hostilities around the world have reached an unfortunate six-year high. In fact, every major region of the world, with the exception of North and South America, has experienced increased religious tensions. The report makes a number of significant findings, several of which are explored in this post.

First, government restrictions on religion have increased more in Europe than any other region in the world. This includes official laws, policies and actions interfering with religious belief and practice, such as banning headscarves in schools or at work.

Next, the Pew study finds that particular religious groups -- specifically, Muslims and Jews -- face increased levels of harassment or intimidation. In addition to official restrictions, this encompasses both individual and group acts and may include physical and verbal assaults, arrests, attacks against places of worship and denial of equal opportunity in employment, education and housing.

The study shows that Muslims experienced such religious hostilities in 109 countries, up from 101 the previous year. And Jews faced intimidation in 71 countries, up from 69 countries.

Third, and perhaps related, in almost a third of countries (32 percent) women are harassed because of their religious attire. Interestingly, the study finds such intimidation and violence as increasingly common in Europe.

In fact, Muslim women and girls donning headscarves have been physically and verbally assaulted in a number of European countries, including Germany, France, United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, among others.

Unfortunately, Pew finds religious hostilities increasing in Europe more generally, not merely vis-a-vis faith conscious women. For instance, while characterizing Russia as experiencing "very high" social hostilities involving religion, Pew also identified "high" levels of religious hostility in Greece, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sweden, Ukraine, Moldova and Netherlands.

We should take note of these findings and allow them to inform related policy-making decisions in the region.

First, the report highlights that some European Muslims and Jews are grappling with formidable barriers to integration, discrimination in employment and education and/or physical insecurity.

On the topic of security, for instance, one official 2013 report documenting hate crimes in Europe shows that mosques have been vandalized in Bosnia-Herzigovina, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Russian Federation and the United Kingdom. Attacks against Islamic places of worship have not been limited to acts of vandalism alone.

In France, for example, a mosque arson attack was attempted and pig's head left outside a mosque. In Germany, pigs' heads have been left at a number of mosques.

Mosque arson attacks have also occurred in the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Ukraine.
Such incidents may have a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion as some Muslim families may opt to stay away from the mosque for fear of endangering the lives of loved ones, or their own. They leave citizens feeling insecure and potentially alienated from their home countries.

Not only do we have to improve data collection mechanisms and accountability for such crimes, but we must also explore ways to build bridges between communities within our societies to help foster greater mutual understanding among diverse groups. We must also make sure that our laws, policies and actions are not helping foment a culture where intolerance, bias and hatred can take root.

Second, the study also highlights a common struggle shared by some European Muslim and Jewish faith communities. With this comes a valuable opportunity for collaboration to help counter official expressions of religious bias, such as legislative initiatives targeting ritual slaughter practices or those surrounding male circumcision or bans against religious and cultural symbols. Community leaders should continue to take advantage of such opportunities.

Third, Pew reminds us that women may experience discrimination in ways that are both neutral and specific to their gender. For instance, legislation banning ritual slaughter or official opposition to a mosque construction project arguably impacts men and women.

But, laws and policies that ban religious garb at work or in school have a disproportionate, discriminatory impact on women and girls. A veiled Muslim woman or girl is more vulnerable to physical and verbal assaults because she is readily identifiable as 'the other.'

There are those that argue that banning the headscarf is not discriminatory but rather designed to protect girls and women from coercive veiling inflicted by ultra-conservative male relatives (ignoring the fact that many embrace the veil voluntarily due to religious conviction).

Assuming for the sake of argument that a girl is under such coercion, the ban in schools and employment remains a peculiar and perverse response to her predicament of alleged oppression.

This is because we risk worsening marginalization by depriving her of an education or income -- arguably, tools of empowerment that may facilitate her escape from the oppressive circumstances we fear afflicts her.

Arguably, male relatives that would force a girl to take up a headscarf against her will may also insist on keeping her at home (veiled) rather than risk a potential 'scandal' at school or work. Indeed, the rights restrictive stance on hijab is illogical from a female empowerment standpoint. Ultimately, so long as she does not endanger the health or safety of others, the dress a girl or woman adopts should represent her choice. Our laws and policies should reflect respect for individual choice, not state-sponsored coercion (for or against any particular mode of dress). It is interesting to note that notwithstanding the multitude of advances we have collectively made in the realm of gender rights, we remain overly focused on women's dress and outward appearance.

Finally, Pew's findings also have regional security implications.

According to research evidence from Georgetown University, government restrictions on religious freedom may in fact contribute to violent extremism. Such repression may help radicalize targeted religious communities, whereas enhanced religious freedom may help "moderate, contain, counteract, or prevent the origin or spread" of violent religious extremism. This represents a security argument in favor of enhanced religious freedom in all societies for all faith groups.

Indeed, Pew gives us much to contemplate.