Every European constitution outlaws discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnic origin, as does Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights: 'The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.'
A new Amnesty International report tests whether these promises have any real-life impact, and comes to unsurprising conclusions:
Women wearing headscarves have little chance of finding employment in many European countries, according to a report on discrimination by Amnesty International, which criticizes politicians for their lack of action.
In its report entitled "Choice and Prejudice," the human rights organization studied discrimination against Muslims in five European countries - Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland - and concluded that discrimination exists in a number of forms.
"There is a general consensus that discrimination on the basis of skin color is unacceptable," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia. "But this isn't the case with discrimination due to religion, especially Islam."
Actually, all European constitutions say no individual can be discriminated against because of ethnic origin and religion. The main problem in most countries, Dalhuisen said, is not a lack of anti-discrimination laws but their effective implementation, which he referred to as "toothless." Discrimination, he added, is largely tolerated.
For its part, the German 'Equal Treatment Law' (known by its German abbreviation as the AGG), has loopholes large enough to fly an Airbus through. For instance, while repeating that discrimination is a bad thing that people shouldn't do, the law doesn't attach sanctions to intentional racial discrimination by any landlord who rents fewer than 50 units (g). In fact, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that many European countries deal with social problems by passing laws that officially 'deal with' them, and then move on to the next bright, shiny object, without ever asking whether the laws, in fact, actually work.
There are three main problems:
- First, there is no effective way of forcing employers or landlords to actually divulge relevant information about individual hiring decisions, or general patterns of employment. There's simply no equivalent of automatic, wide-ranging American-style discovery in most European countries, which means plaintiffs face burdens in proving discrimination unless employers are stupid enough to deliver them 'smoking guns' in the form of openly racists comments or memos.
- European minorities haven't learned a culture of public advocacy and personal accountability. When there is a clear case of a qualified person being denied an apartment or job or opportunity based solely on their appearance or ethnic background, naming and shaming needs to follow. Marches, demonstrations, picketing, boycotts, and sit-ins get attention and sympathy. Just as was the case in the USA of the early 1960s, and in fact in just about all societies, mainstream majority Germans are not going to care about the rights of minorities unless they are forced to do so.
- The financial penalties are too lax. The German law is quite vague on the subject of penalties, mainly saying that a victim of discimination should be compensated for 'losses.' But how are you going to prove specific economic losses caused by the fact that you were denied an apartment based on the sound of your last name? To be effective, anti-discrimination laws need to permit symbolic damages for violations: behavior will only change when employers and landlords need to fear large, unpredictable money damages for acts of proven intentional discrimination. German law allows precisely this in cases of 'insult': you can be forced to pay someone thousands of Euros or even go to prison for injuring someone's honor by a nasty public insult. But the German law doesn't clearly authorize such damages (much less a prison sentence) in cases of intentional discrimination, which, one would have thought, is a direct insult to human dignity and personal honor.
If European societies are serious about effectively combating discrimination, we'll need to start seeing stories like this:
Her face framed by a white scarf covering her head and hair — considered “a private part” for Muslim women — Susann Bashir grew sad Friday afternoon recalling her final encounter with a former boss.
She said she had already endured years of harassment by co-workers and had started pursuing a religious discrimination case against her employer when the supervisor, during a routine meeting in his office, snatched her scarf and exposed her hair.
Bashir sued, and this week a Jackson County jury awarded her [$120,000 in compensation and] $5 million in punitive damages against Southwestern Bell/AT&T, where she worked as a fiber optics network builder for more than 10 years [The punitive damages will be reduced on appeal].
Bashir said she endured religious discrimination nearly every day of the last three years she worked in the company’s downtown Kansas City office.
...Thursday’s overall award appears to be the largest jury verdict for a workplace religious discrimination case in Missouri history, Coopman said.
The previous largest such verdict came in 2009, when Mohamed Alhalabi, an Arab-American Muslim, was awarded $811,949 in St. Louis County Circuit Court in a case against the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
That same year a Jonesboro, Ark., jury ordered AT&T to pay $1.3 million to two former employees fired for attending a Jehovah’s Witnesses convention.
Bashir was living in North Kansas City in 2005 when she converted to Islam. According to court documents, that’s when her troubles at AT&T began. Just months before she converted, she had been commended in the company newsletter for doing good work, she said.
In court documents, Bashir said her work environment became hostile when co-workers made harassing comments about her religion and referred to her hijab as “that thing on her head.”
“I was shocked. I thought, ‘What is going on?’ ” she said during an interview at her lawyer’s Kansas City office. “Nobody ever cared what I wore before. Nobody ever cared what religion I was before.”
Bible verses were left on her desk. Co-workers asked if she was going to blow up the building and called her a “towelhead” and a terrorist.
...Bashir said the entire incident was mentally and physically taxing for her and tore her family apart. She is going through a divorce. In October, she moved with her daughter to Anchorage, Alaska, where she is an apartment manager.