It seems readily apparent that anti-muslim bigotry is a legitimate concern. Attacks on people and on mosques are the clearest symptoms, and discrimination is (arguably) also reflected in some recent legislation and in some sections of the media. Sometimes, however, a charge of Islamophobia may function to shut down debate or freedom of expression. In this report (pdf) Amnesty explains that it has not used the term Islamophobia for this reason (p.8).
There are of course fifty shades of grey between these two poles – unambiguous bigotry and completely fair comment. A law, such as a ban on religious dress, may not be targeted at Muslims but may affect them disproportionately. Whether or not it’s deliberately or just constructively anti-Muslim, such laws are most illiberal and I agree with this point in the report:
Muslims should be able to make these choices free from any pressure or coercion from family or community and any form of stereotype and prejudice from other private citizens or state institutions. (p. 5)
This passage also seems to get the balance about right:
Although the right to freedom of expression includes the right to criticize religions or belief systems, even where followers may be offended or shocked, such criticism, which includes when it aims to challenge violations of human rights which may be fuelled by those practices, should not be led by stereotyping and intolerance and should take into account the human rights of those who associate themselves with a specific religion. (p.5)
Included are plenty of examples of people who have experienced bigotry:
P., who lives in the Italian speaking part of Switzerlnad, told Amnesty International: “Muslims are held responsible for what happens in Middle East and North Africa. It is also because of the stereotypical portrayal of Muslims in the media. For instance, I remember that after September 11 a colleague of mine stated that all Muslims should be set fire to. People called me names in the street or made unpleasant remarks. Recently I have been insulted in the street by a man who identified Islam as the cause of what was happening in Libya and who told me to return to my own country. (p.13)
One important focus of the report is religious dress. Although it acknowledges the danger that women may face coercion to dress in a certain way within their communities, it also suggests that replacing one form of coercion with another (from the state) may not be the best solution. (However, as the report notes, 60% of French Muslims approve of the ban on full veils.) But it certainly seems wrong that the scientist discussed on p.33 was obstructed in her search for work because she wore a scarf. The similar case of a woman hoping for a job in tourism is described on p.36 – she faced repeated refusals to employ her on account of her headscarf.
Several times the report notes that banning headscarves impacts disproportionately on Muslim girls – but, as it does acknowledge the problem of coercion, it might seem logical to note that not banning them also has most impact on Muslim girls. (Non-Muslim girls are unlikely to be affected one way or the other.)
This is a difficult topic. Although freedom of religion is important, it is hard to assert (even though it is clearly tendentious and fails to acknowledges that there is diversity within Islam) unless you really haven’t been paying attention at the back, that there is no truth in this statement, quoted on p.84,
We are against mosques because they are not only places of worship. They are places where social and political rules are imposed. The Muslim world does not distinguish between social, religious and political aspects of life so that mosques become a nest of Islamism and radicalism. We are against mosques because Islam is incompatible with our European culture based on tolerance, freedom, democratic values and equality between women and men.
But – as the report demonstrates – sometimes Muslims may quite legitimately feel that they are not experiencing tolerance and that some of their freedoms are being curtailed. An irritated niqab wearer, quoted on p.92, surely gets it right when she says that, although she understands that her dress may offend some people, there is no right not to be offended.