The rise in Islamophobia is an issue we must all take seriously and one that concerns me greatly. Along with anti-Semitism and racism, it poses a grave threat to Europe’s future. It is a direct violation of the principles upon which the European Union was founded - democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Islamophobia can manifest itself in many forms and can be perpetrated by states, non-state actors or, in some cases, both. Muslims are often unfairly targeted by policies or legislation in relation to freedom of religion or belief and are often subjected to ethnic and religious profiling by police and security forces.
However, the most concerning form remains the verbal and physical violence many Muslims are subjected to. In Belgium alone, Islamophobic incidents have increased by 94 per cent since 2011.
In 2013, a pregnant Muslim woman was attacked in Paris for wearing a head scarf, miscarrying as a result of the attack. This example highlights the problem we face across the continent.
In terms of Islamophobia, 2015 was a turning point in Europe. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and the rise of Daesh in the Middle East and north Africa have led to increased levels of anti-Muslim hatred.
We only have to look to the ongoing refugee crisis to see the increase in Islamophobia, with public anxiety over the number of Muslim refugees and their integration into European society.
At the same time, reformed extremists must never be portrayed as representative of Muslims. Former jihadists have been promoted as spokesmen for European Muslims by member states and the Commission alike. This is wrong and must stop.
In my role as Vice-President of the European Parliament’s anti-racism and diversity intergroup (ARDI) and Chair of ARDI’s Islamophobia working group, I will call on the European Commission to prioritise actions to combat Islamophobia.
A decisive response led by the EU would send a strong signal that Europe is committed to fighting Islamophobia and is an open and tolerant continent that welcomes religious, ethnic and cultural diversity.
I welcome the Commission’s initiative to focus on anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred at the first annual colloquium on fundamental rights, which looked at concrete recommendations for projects, policies and legislation designed to combat hate crime, hate speech and discrimination against Jews and Muslims.
Regarding policies and legislation, I believe the Commission should adopt a national strategy on Islamophobia similar to the existing national Roma integration strategy, as well as strengthening EU and national legal bases to tackle hate speech crimes and to ensure investigation and prosecution of offenders.
I also want to stress the important role that political leaders and media can play in combating Islamophobia. In the UK, the Leveson inquiry established evidence of media manipulation that presented Muslims in a certain light.
In 20 years of public life, I have lost count of the number of times the media have not used mainstream, Muslim opinion provided to them, using minority extremist expression of hate instead.
It is vital for them to be careful how they speak about Muslims and the possible repercussions of their actions if we are to see any change in attitudes, and it is attitudes that we must change. Without this transformation, we risk losing sight of the principles on which the European Union was built.