Religious Discrimination: A Common Denominator for Muslims in Western Europe

By: Engy Abdelkader

The murder of innocent French civilians—Jews and Muslims, men and women, cartoonists and law enforcement officials—by terrorists in Paris earlier this year rocked much of Europe. Observers frequently view manifestations of anti-Muslim bias through the lens of that attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In truth, the attack exasperated an existing anti-Muslim sentiment that helps contribute to the minority faith group’s inability to integrate, feelings of alienation, and perhaps, vulnerability to violent extremist recruiting. According to a 2013 public opinion poll, for instance, many Europeans view the Islamic faith as more threatening to their culture and values than any other faith tradition.

To better grasp the social, political, and economic realities confronting Muslims in Western Europe, this article briefly surveys religious discrimination in Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It identifies three significant trends: 1) increased bias attacks on mosques, 2) violent hate crimes against those perceived as Muslim (for example, women practicing hijab), and 3) pervasive employment discrimination.


Swedish Muslims comprise about 1.8 to 4.4 percent of the country’s population, and the minority faith community is religiously, linguistically, ethnically, and culturally diverse.

Many Swedes view Muslims negatively. They believe Islamic and European values are incompatible, a sentiment prominent in other parts of Europe.

In 2013, there were approximately 300 reported anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (NCCP) predicts an increased incidence of such violence.[1] Women observing the hijab are frequent hate crime targets because they are conspicuously Muslim. Violent attacks also target easily identifiable community property such as mosques.

Late last year, for instance, a number of Swedish mosques were targeted in a series of highly publicized attacks. The violence resulted in more than half a dozen Swedish Muslims sustaining injuries. And, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, another Swedish mosque received a bomb threat with the caller stating, “the mosque is soon going to blow.”

Significantly, Swedish Muslim leaders characterize such violence as a culmination of anti-Muslim bias that has spanned years, including incidents where women’s headscarves have been violently removed and dozens of cases involving mosque property damage.

Such violence chills the free exercise of religion—worshipping at the mosque or observing Muslim religious attire should not entail a life or death decision or risk assessments to one’s personal security.

Further, anti-Muslim prejudice translates into economic violence, too. Research evidences difficulties in securing employment due to religious identity, ethnicity, and/or race, which are often conflated.

On the job, Muslims experience discrimination. Those who attempt to practice sincerely held religious beliefs—practicing hijab, growing a beard, or praying—are particularly vulnerable. Most employers disregard related requests for religious accommodation without legal sanction.

Indeed, current EU laws require workplace accommodations only on account of disability.


German Muslims comprise approximately 4 to 5 percent of the total population. Evidence suggests many native Germans hold negative perceptions of Muslims. A recent study found anti-Muslim sentiment pervasive among the German public, with prejudice transcending income, education, and political affiliation. Similar to Swedes, 57 percent of Germans regard Islam as a threat, and 61 percent believe the world’s second largest faith tradition is incompatible with Western values.

Negative opinions and perceptions often translate into harmful outcomes. Representative are German Muslim complaints about increasing hate crimes. In fact, from 2012 to 2014, there were more than 70 attacks on mosques.

Further, since October 2014, xenophobic and anti-Muslim marches led by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) have attracted as many as 25,000 supporters. About 30 percent of Germans view the rallies as "justifiable" due to the Islamic faith’s perceived influence, and 52 percent “Islam doesn’t belong to Germany.” [2]

Such prejudice has culminated in economic violence, too. Similar to their Swedish counterparts, German Muslims experience difficulty securing employment. Those who manage to successfully enter the labor market confront discrimination often related to employer denial of religious accommodation requests, such as observing Friday congregational prayer or hijab.

United Kingdom

British Muslims comprise about 4.8 percent of the total population. While the country has long favored multiculturalism, fewer than one in four people view the Islamic faith as compatible with British values.

According to research from the Association of Chief Police Officers, 50 to 60 percent of all reported hate crimes in Great Britain are perpetrated against the minority Muslim community.

Since 2013, Muslim women have become increasingly vulnerable to hate crimes. 

According to one British Muslim spokesperson, “The head scarf essentially symbolizes that this person is a Muslim. If there was a person not wearing a scarf or [if it was] even a male, [they] have got a less chance of being targeted or even spoken to disrespectfully.”

Similar to their counterparts in Sweden and Germany, British Muslims are also beleaguered by unemployment with rates two to three times higher than the national average.

According to recent research from the University of Bristol Muslim women are 71 percent more likely to be unemployed than white Christian female counterparts with identical educational levels and language skills.

Notably, employed British Muslims are frequently concentrated in the low skill labor market—in occupations such as taxi drivers, waiting staff, security guards, machine operatives, etc.—thereby undermining socio-economic advancement and integration. Significantly, three factors facilitate a minority group’s ability to integrate, including learning the indigenous language, attaining an education, and employment.

These are just some of the daily difficulties that European Muslims experience. To be sure, they confront many other challenges as well, such as the overrepresentation of the “terrorist other” in media; bias-based bullying by students and teachers in schools; and counter-terrorism laws that stigmatize their faith and community.

[1] Note, hate crimes remain vastly underreported for a variety of reasons including distrust of law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system.  

[2] To her credit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is attempting to counter such sentiments. Borrowing a page from the US playbook, she hosted her first Ramadan iftar at the German Foreign Ministry and stated, “It is obvious that Islam is a part of Germany.”

Engy Abdelkader is faculty at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security. 

This piece was originally authored on July 15, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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