Special Representative on antisemitic, anti-Muslim and other forms of religious intolerance and hate crimes

Online hate speech is a growing and dangerous trend

Initial results of a consultation of Muslim organisations

Working document July 2021

Increasing antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred

Freedom of religion and the prohibition of discrimination are basic rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (Articles 9 and 14, respectively). The fight against discrimination, including on grounds of religion or belief, is a key mission of the Council of Europe.

In recent years, we have observed alarming incidents of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in many parts of Europe. This includes hate crimes[1] such as attacks on Jews and Muslims, and on their respective places of worship, as well other forms of intolerance which are below the threshold of being classified as criminal offences.

The Council of Europe’s anti-racism body ECRI (the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) is currently preparing two policy recommendations to its 47 member states on combatting antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred, respectively.

Hate speech on the Internet

A growing domain of hatred and intolerance, if not already the largest, is cyberspace. Incitement to violence and death threats on the Internet are particularly dangerous because they can spread exponentially and lead to actual violence and killing. The attack on a Synagogue in Halle in October 2019 and the racist killing of nine people of predominantly Muslim background in the town of Hanau in February 2020 are terrible examples of this dangerous phenomenon.

The Council of Europe is also preparing a recommendation to governments on how to tackle hate speech, including on the Internet, from a human rights perspective.  Several governments, and the European Union, are planning new or updated legislation to tackle illegal hate speech online. Major social media platforms have become more responsive to the danger of hate speech, but more needs to be done to protect users from abuse and attacks.

For example, in an ongoing legal case, the Union of Jewish Students in France (UEJF) accuses Twitter of failing to take down illegal content within 3-5 days of being notified by users. According to the UEJF and other NGOs, the platform only deleted about 20% of manifestly antisemitic or racist posts in recent months. The UEJF also complains that Twitter provides no transparency over how, and with what human and digital resources, it moderates illegal content.

The European Commission has recently published a study[2] on the rise of antisemitism online during the Covid pandemic, relating to French and German content. By contrast, there is comparatively little research at the European level specifically on the phenomenon of anti-Muslim hatred on the Internet (despite the fact that Muslims represent the largest religious minority in Europe and Islam is Europe’s second largest religion[3]). 

The latest report on anti-Muslim hatred[4] by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief highlights how harmful narratives and stereotypes about Muslims and Islam are widely disseminated through digital media and social networks.The report also notes that surges in online hate speech are often catalysed by offline “trigger-events[5]”, such as the Christchurch attack on two mosques which killed 51 people in 2019.

Consultation of Muslim organisations

To estimate the dimension, nature and dangers of hate speech from the point of view of the Muslim community, we consulted Muslim organisations in several European countries, including those with the largest Muslim populations[6]: France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The following findings represent the views of the respondents. More organisations in other countries need to be consulted. The results should not be regarded as being fully representative or comprehensive. Rather they are work in progress, intended as input to further research and policy recommendations at the national and European levels. The questionnaire is appended to this document.

Responses were received from Muslim organisations in eight countries: France, Germany[7], the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg and Norway.

Responses were also received from two Europe-wide Muslim representative bodies whose replies broadly reflect the findings of the national organisations.

Incitement to violence, death threats and conspiracy theories abound

Seven[8] out of eight national Muslim organisations explicitly mentioned incitement to violence and death threats as a dangerous trend. Such threats are generally classified as criminal offences. The Austrian IGGiÖ estimates that half of the reported cases of anti-Muslim posts online are of a criminal nature.

A commonly used threat against Muslims in France is “le départ ou le cerceuil” (“leave or you’ll end up in a coffin”). A recent hate message circulating in the UK was “just eradicate every single f****** Muslim”. “Send them out to sea on a leaky boat” was posted in Norway.

All of the organisations reported an increase in anti-Muslim conspiracy theories on the Internet, in particular during the Covid pandemic.

A common accusation against Muslims is that they are responsible for the “islamisation of the west/Europe”, “taking over the government” or wanting “to ban Christmas”. Muslims are denounced as “extremists”, “terrorists” and promoting “political Islam”. They are also blamed for being “paedophiles”, “wife beaters” or practicing “Taqiyya” to justify lying. Muslim women are depicted as “backward” or “stupid”. More recently, Muslims are also blamed for spreading the Covid pandemic as “super spreaders”.

As the Belgian EMB phrased it, anti-Muslim hate online often appears to reflect an “ignorance of the cultural and religious diversity” existing in the country.      

Six organisations (from France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway) mentioned that anti-Muslim prejudices are often expressed on social media and in blogs in comments linking to articles in the mainstream media.     

The authors of anti-Muslim hate speech: Extreme right, anti-immigrant and identity movements

All respondents identified far right, racist and/or anti-immigration groups as the most frequent authors of anti-Muslim hate speech. In Germany and Austria, the so called “identity movements” frequently post anti-Muslim hate speech. In addition, many perpetrators of online hate are unidentified individuals using anonymous accounts.

Most anti-Muslim hate is posted anonymously, but the threshold is decreasing

The organisations of five countries (France, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria Luxembourg) broadly estimated that the bulk of anti-Muslim intolerance is posted anonymously. The other respondents cited a lack of data available to make an estimation. Germany’s ZMD estimated that two thirds of anti-Muslim messages are posted anonymously, and Luxembourg’s Muslim organisation estimated a proportion of 80%.

However, organisations in four countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Austria and Norway) expressed concern that more and more online hate messages are being seen on named accounts and that the threshold for posting anti-Muslim content was decreasing, meaning that it was becoming more “acceptable”. 

Many hate attacks online are not reported

The responses suggest that a significant amount of anti-Muslim hate speech online is not reported. This corresponds to the report of the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief4 that Muslim victims of discrimination often hold back from reporting incidents and/or don’t believe it will result in any change (this was also mentioned by the UK’s MCB).

However, three organisations (from France, Belgium and Luxembourg), indicated that, in general, Muslim internet users were aware of the authorities or bodies to which they could report hate crimes[9]. The German respondents considered that only a minority of victims knew where to address complaints. Four organisations (from the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria and Norway) mentioned the existence of several NGOs to which Muslims could take complaints, without estimating whether there was a broad awareness of these NGOs in the Muslim community.   

Anti-Muslim attacks online have become equally or more threatening compared to attacks offline

The organisations of a majority[10] of six of countries stated that anti-Muslim hatred online is now equally or more threatening than conventional kinds of offline verbal and physical attacks. For example, Austria’s IGGiÖ quoted an NGO[11] which reported 1,051 cases of anti-Muslim racism in 2019, of which roughly 60% were posted online.   

Public authorities are not doing enough to protect Muslims

Organisations in all countries responded that public authorities were not doing enough to protect Muslims from attacks, both online and in general. The most frequently mentioned criticisms were:

·         insufficient public monitoring of anti-Muslim incidents;

·         a failure to recognise and understand the phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred by law enforcement bodies and other authorities;

·         no willingness on the part of politicians to address the issue and engage with Muslim organisations and the Muslim community at large.

Further action is needed

In sum, the spread of online discrimination, incitement to violence and death threats is a growing concern among minorities in Europe, including the Muslim community. Like other kinds of racist and anti-religious intolerance, the phenomenon of anti-Muslim sentiment and hatred is complex. But it is clearly on the rise and it is dangerous because hate online is leading to actual violence and killing. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

·         The findings of our survey need to be substantiated by further research at the national and European levels. Expertise such as the recent EU study on the rise of antisemitism online during the Covid pandemic could also be envisaged to examine the specificities of anti-Muslim hatred online.

·         Governments may consider assigning experts with a specific mandate to develop recommendations to counter anti-Muslim hatred, such as the independent expert panel[12]appointed by Germany’s interior ministry in 2020, following the Hanau attack.

·         Political leaders should listen to the concerns of Muslim representatives and engage actively with the Muslim community. This would also help efforts to improve integration. 

·         A more regular exchange between European governments on the subject of anti-Muslim hatred would also be useful to compare and identify effective counter measures. The Council of Europe stands ready to facilitate such an exchange.

Organisations participating in the survey

France: Conseil français du culte musulman

Germany: Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland/ Koordinationsrat der Muslime, Muslimisches Zentrum für Mädchen Frauen und Familien, Muslimische Jugend in Deutschland

United Kingdom: The Muslim Council of Britain 

Italy: The Union of the Islamic Communities of Italy

Belgium: Exécutif des Musulmans de Belgique

Austria: Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich

Norway: Islamsk Råd Norge                                                                 

Luxembourg: Observatoire de l'islamophobie

Europewide organisations: Council of European Muslims, Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations

Appendix: questionnaire on anti-Muslim hatred on the Internet

1.         What kinds of discrimination and hatred are Muslims confronted with on the Internet (for example on social media)? Please give concrete examples (swear words, threats, allegations, conspiracy theories etc). …

2.         To the extent that they are known, who are the authors of anti-Muslim hate messages on the Internet? Please name them (for example, particular xenophobic, right-wing groups or individuals). …

3.         Approximately what proportion of anti-Muslim hate messages are posted anonymously? …

4.         Do Muslims know to whom/to which body they can take complaints against such hate speech on the Internet?

Generally no …

Generally yes …

If yes, to which bodies or authorities do they take their complaints? …

5.         Compared to verbal and physical attacks outside the Internet, are anti-Muslim messages on the Internet

Equally threatening? …

6.         Are public authorities generally doing enough to protect Muslims from attacks online, and in general?

Yes …
No …
Other …

[1]For example, the German Interior Ministry, for example, recorded an increase in the number of antisemitic hate crimes from 2,032 in 2019 to 2,351 in 2020 (+15,70%). Anti-Muslim hate crimes increased in number from 950 in 2019 to 1,026 in 2020 (+ 8%).

[2] The rise of antisemitism online during the pandemic - A study of French and German content


[3]Muslims represent about 6% of the 47 Council of Europe Member states and about 5% of the EU-27 with a growing trend.

[5] Such events may include terror attacks (including attacks on Muslims), comments made by prominent public figures, or political events such as elections or referenda.[5]Following the Christchurch attack, one civil society organisation recorded a 692% increase in online attacks against Muslims, many using the same rhetoric as the attacker.

[6] In 2016 some 5.720.000 Muslims lived in France (8,8 % of the population);
4.950.000 Muslims lived in Germany (6,1 % of the population);
4.130.000 Muslims lived in the United Kingdom (6,3 % of the population).
Source: Pew Research Center, 5 facts about the Muslim population in Europe, November 2017

[7]In the case of Germany, responses were received from three organisations: the Central Council of Muslims in cooperation with the Coordination Council, the Muslim Centre for girls, women, and families and the Muslim youth in Germany (see list of participating organisations on page 6).

[8]One respondent, the Exécutif des musulmans de Belgique did not explicitly mention “threats” or “incitement to violence”, however it did refer to “racist” and “illegal” content.

[9] France: Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (public monitoring body). Belgium: UNIA (public anti-discrimination body). Luxembourg: Observatoire de l’Islamophobie (NGO). 

[10]The Exécutif des musulmans de Belgique and one German organization, Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschlandconsidered offline threats to still be more dangerous.