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Anti-Muslim racism: “Cities have many opportunities to act.”

Anti-Muslim racism: the European Coalition of Cities against Racism acts on the ground.

ISLAMIC TIMES – All over the world, more and more people are living in urban areas or leaving their rural areas. In Europe, too, most life issues take place in our cities, which are sometimes hotly debated in the abstract on a national meta-level.

In order for them to be or become attractive living environments, municipalities must not only offer the appropriate framework conditions. They must also take action against all forms of discrimination and hatred.

To this end, we spoke with Dr. Linda Hyökko and Danijel from the EU-wide project European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR). In September, the network will present its guide on how to deal with anti-Muslim racism in practice.

Photos: ECCAR

Anti-Muslim racism: Cities are places for change

Question: Not many of our readers might know about the Europe-wide project ECCAR (European Coalition of Cities Against Racism). Could you introduce yourself and your work and also talk about your guide on local action against anti-Muslim racism?

Danijel Cubelic: My name is Danijel Cubelic. I am on the board of ECCAR. It was founded in the early 2000s at the suggestion of UNESCO. It is a network of European cities that wants to actively fight racism. Initially, this had a symbolic component: Mayors gather, sign a declaration.

The nice thing is that we have not only grown, but the work has become concrete. We are over 140 cities at the moment. They sign a ten-point plan against racism. That is our basis.

There is a self-commitment of municipal bodies to continuously develop programmes against racism. That actually also means taking stronger structural action against it. At the moment, our focus is still on Western Europe.

Whereas we are growing in Spain or Italy – interestingly enough, precisely where there are governments that are right-wing at the national level. Sometimes they decide to network with other cities. We see this in Italy, for example. The municipalities are determined to become active here.

In the ECCAR plan there is a basis on which we are gradually beginning to formulate this issue in more detail. What exactly do we have to do to fight racist discrimination and formulate recommendations for it here?

Not on an abstract scientific level, but with strong practical relevance. This means that there are people who know what it means to develop local policies or strategies for anti-discrimination, anti-racism, and diversity, to advise others and then to formulate recommendations for action together. What works and what doesn’t? We bring together researchers and practitioners from cities and NGOs.

Dr Linda Hyökki: We started working on anti-Muslim racism in 2020. To do this, we first conducted an online survey with member cities. We first wanted to know what they are doing about it and we found that there are projects, but the work depends a lot on which department of the administration it is placed in; also what resources municipalities have.

For many it became clear that they do not have a specific person to deal with it. Often anti-Muslim racism is integrated into more general projects on racism or anti-discrimination.

We found projects from participating cities where a specific focus exists. Then we investigated them in more detail. Subsequently, I worked intensively with the cities and identified good practices or procedures. These experiences fed into our guide, which we have been compiling for the past two years.

As Danijel mentioned, our approach involved researchers and activists. We were interested in a holistic view, looking not only at administrations but at the work of the whole community and promoting a bottom-up approach where possible.

Question: As a society, we tend to put a lot of things on meta-levels. This also applies to anti-Muslim racism. In the process, it is often lost that they are concretely very often located at the communal level – from discrimination to climate change. Wouldn’t it be important here to put things back on their feet and look at cities first?

Danijel Cubelic: Absolutely. That is also one of ECCAR’s starting points. You can see from the election results alone that cities are the most diverse places in Europe, where the most diverse lifestyles meet. At the same time, they are areas where diversity succeeds and the proportion of voters for right-wing extremist parties tends to be lower than in rural areas.

This means that in principle, where people live together in diversity, there is no feeling that something is not working or that there are major conflicts. They are the ones who shape diversity in Europe and, to a certain extent, cope well with it.

We want to make our cities inclusive spaces for all and have signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We see the fight against racism and discrimination as a central element because parts of the population are excluded – from public services and, for example, the housing and labour market. Cities can do a lot here.

A look at our guide shows the whole range from a symbolic level to very concrete measures such as complaint offices through schools to municipal invitations to break fast for the Muslim community. If many municipalities organise a Christmas market, why not an iftar?

At the moment, many cities are open to this because they have become more pragmatic. I see examples in terms of dealing with and discussing mosques and so on. I work for a municipality myself. We are much more pragmatic and in contact with everybody. On a local level, there is constant exchange when we get calls about discrimination complaints, for example.

In this respect, I would say: Municipally, democracy works much more on a personal and direct level. You approach a mayor or a city councillor, or they know the person who is responsible for anti-discrimination in the city.

It’s not just about cities with millions of inhabitants like Berlin and Barcelona. Most of our members are in the range of 100,000 to 500,00 inhabitants and are exactly those places that want to tackle the issue. We see at the moment a growing interest in anti-discrimination in general and in the specific issue of anti-Muslim racism.

In creating the guide, mutual learning was important in order to make certain forms visible. That is, we formulated a working definition on the question: What do we mean by anti-Muslim racism? Where does it appear everywhere? We asked them about monitoring systems and how this racism arrives in counselling centres.

Some reported that they already dealt with it but did not name it in this way. In this way, actors in administrations can develop together and learn from each other.

Photo: Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

European commonalities and local differences

Question: Every European country has its own conditions. Every municipality is a specific space. Are there nevertheless recurring phenomena that appear very often?

Dr. Linda Hyökki: Everyday racism, that is, what happens on the streets, microaggressions and so on. That is what most Muslim citizens have to deal with. This is mixed with xenophobia and immigration.

That’s why in the guide we tried to take other perspectives, like the East German one. We mention good practices or procedures that address the intertwining of refugee rejection with anti-Muslim racism, which also serves as inspiration for how a city can act. This is something very many cities struggle with.

It is important to talk about how administrations deal with racism in general and take into account the intersectionality of this with other forms of discrimination in their work.

When we talk about identity and rootedness, municipalities are important. Having moved more often, I know how important this question is. You try to find your way in the neighbourhood.

If we have citizens who have no connection at all to their neighbourhood or the city in general, a piece of identity is missing. It is important to build this in cooperation between communities and cities so that citizens do not have to live without identity.

Question: Also in the sense of a positive narrative?

Dr. Linda Hyökki: That’s right. It is about people needing to feel they belong. If you feel part of a city, if you are respected, if there are great projects or events in the neighbourhood where you feel welcome and you are thus integrated, that contributes to how society develops more collective cohesion.

It has to start in the neighbourhood and then spread to the city and wider circles.

Foto: Sushil Nash, Unsplash

How to deal with existing problems?

Question: In Germany, we have a situation where concrete problems are addressed only hesitantly for fear of serving racist narratives – issues such as crime or the lack of reception capacities of municipalities. What does it mean, for example, to emphasise the need for immigration on the one hand, but not have an answer to the lack of housing on the other?

Danijel Cubelic: There we are at the point where the main problem of anti-Muslim racism lies. First, its invisibility in certain contexts persists. That is, it is not made visible and recognised.

That is why the reports like the one by a group of experts (UEM) on Muslim hostility, commissioned by the German government, are so important. That’s why we talk about anti-Muslim racism, because it’s about people.

Secondly, there is the question of how we deal with problems. It is important for us that there are social challenges in Europe. But that we can and must manage them as social challenges. These are important conversations.

The problem is that in all the integration debates, if we now stay in Germany, we have not discussed these difficulties as social or educational. There are young people, citizens in our city, who have needs and problems. We have to act here.

In contrast, in Germany – and this is part of anti-Muslim racism – problems in education and social issues have been culturalized and interpreted in religious terms. This leads to this perspective: this is not our problem as a city, but of “those people.” This is how othering and culturalization is practised.

As municipalities, we know that not all cities have the same resources. If you invest money, there are endless exciting and innovative projects that can concretely solve this challenge. But then it is no longer about culture or religion, but about completely different things.

To speak from a local perspective: For example, we have projects that place refugees as apprentices with employers who themselves have migration histories. Interestingly, the dropout rate is lower when employers, including those who lead the training, have migration histories themselves.

Cities have many options. But there are financial limits. Often cities face many problems alone and receive too little support from the national level or the states or regions. It is important not to take easy populist paths. We can shape and have all the tools to develop our societies well.


How important is good neighbourliness

Question: To return briefly to Linda’s point about identity. How important is it for Muslims themselves to be well connected in neighbourhoods, for example, with their buildings and institutions like mosques. Does that help to prevent Muslim hostility?

Dr Linda Hyökki: We haven’t talked about buildings and this space itself in a focused way yet. I would definitely agree with that. One example is spaces like neighbourhood cafés. Something was done about this in Chemnitz in eastern Germany.

It is important that there are places where everyone can go and find something in common. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious building marked as Muslim, but something where everyone feels safe. That is very important because neighbourhoods are sometimes fragmented.

Danijel Cubelic: I would like to go back to that. I think there are different possibilities here. It’s important that cities send the signal that they are consistent in taking action against all forms of discrimination.

And that it is important that citizens report experiences of discrimination and that the city is prepared not to sweep them under the carpet or trivialise them, but to make them visible.

We have Malmö, for example: because hate already starts at the digital level, this city has created the possibility at the local level to report it directly to the city. This also includes the dedicated promotion of anti-discrimination offices where things like graffiti can be reported.

We now see cities doing this. Then the police can be sensitised to register such discrimination as a form of hate crime. Then it goes into the police reports.

Equally important for cities is to normalise Muslim life and treat it as something taken for granted, as part of the cityscape and urban culture. That way, people understand more easily that anti-Muslim racism is a danger to us all.

Because it destroys our democracy, we have to work together against it. This makes it all the more difficult to exercise anti-Muslim racism. It is about outlawing it in the city. Cities have many possibilities in this respect.

Photo: ZouZou, Shutterstock

Diversity as a real locational advantage

Question: Cities and municipalities are economically and financially dependent on good competitive and locational conditions, for example to generate business taxes. How important will it be for them in the future to offer an environment that is as free of discrimination as possible?

Danijel Cubelic: The more international a city is, the better it is for it as a university, research and business location. If there are cases of discrimination like the one against female researchers wearing headscarves, their institutions can report it to these municipalities.

For many, this is part of the motivation for further development and opening processes in administrations. Because it is about being attractive. It is an issue for cities in an international environment that the experience of discrimination is one of the reasons why people leave them again if they do not feel comfortable there.

What is also increasingly coming under the heading of demographic change and a shortage of skilled workers is the activation of employees for the administration. A rethink is taking place there.

The young population that is now coming out of school is much more diverse than the generation that is now retiring. That you actively advertise there to recruit people from whose immediate environment no people have worked in the city administration before.

Here, too, it is important that a city sends a clear signal as an employer. In this respect, I would say: anti-discrimination policy is a location factor. Many cities have recognised that.

Dr Linda Hyökki: There are many cities that have made action against racism part of their action plans. There, anti-Muslim racism can also be explicitly included.

As far as workplaces are concerned, it is important that there are people in the administration who ensure that working environments are free of discrimination.

 In the case of private companies, municipalities can approach them and offer to support them in this. It would be a nice sign if municipal as well as private companies sign corresponding commitments and action plans.

From my point of view, this would be something that can be done in a very concrete way; also as far as the city as a space is concerned. It makes a difference if a person knows that it is easier for me to practise my religion there, for example, because there are several mosques or prayer rooms.

I lived in Mainz and there was a prayer room close to the city centre, which was very convenient at the time. The same applies to communal swimming pools where Muslims can dress how they want. Such factors make a difference when people make a decision about where they want to live.

Dear Ms Hyökky, dear Mr Cubelic, thank you.

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