Where Are You Really From? 

"Despite prevailing perceptions, many of the estimated 25 million European Muslims share my attachment to the EU ideal. And like me they suffer each time Islamophobia invariably reaches fever pitch after any Islamist-inspired terrorist act in Europe or elsewhere in the world. Anxiety over Muslims as the “enemy within” goes much deeper than post-terrorism trauma. Anxious debates on the place of Islam in Europe, and claims that European Muslims represent an impossible-to-integrate “other” and are foot soldiers in an ongoing existential confrontation between Europe and Islam, have dogged Muslims across the continent for decades."

By Shada Islam*

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays. 

It was nothing special, just a run-of-the mill encounter at a pre-Christmas reception attended by European Union policymakers, foreign diplomats and others in the so-called “Brussels Bubble”. As a friend introduced me to the EU representative of an international organisation, she mentioned that I was a European “expert” on EU stuff. There was a quick exchange of name cards. The woman looked at my name and then at me. She was clearly puzzled for a bit, but then had a Eureka moment. 

“Ah, I see you are from somewhere over there!” she said. “Is it Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, maybe Syria or Lebanon? Where are you really from?” 

There was an awkward silence. The person who had introduced us turned bright red. I started to say something but decided against it.  

No harm in the question, many will say: it is innocuous enough. Harmless. The woman was just being curious. Why be so thin-skinned, so sensitive? These arguments are familiar, and I have been asked where I am “really” from on countless occasions. I am usually quite easy-going about providing a short answer, usually quite politely. Mostly, it doesn’t matter. The questioner and the question are soon forgotten. 

This time, however, I could not get the exchange out of my head. The question stuck with me as I celebrated Christmas with my wonderful big, blended, mix-and-match, multi-cultural family. It stayed with me as I left Brussels right after Christmas to visit my mother in Karachi after three years of Covid-induced separation. By the time the Turkish Airlines flight landed at Quaid I Azam airport, I knew I had to tackle the issue head on. Why had the question upset me so much?  

Unlike Ngozi Fulani, founder of a British domestic abuse charity, who was repeatedly asked where she was really from at a royal event in London in 2022, the query had certainly not “traumatized” me. But this time, unlike any time in the past, the seemingly harmless query had triggered a complex mix of emotions: anger, irritation and sadness – all at the same time.  

I needed to clear my head and clarify — for myself as well as for others? -just why asking “where are you really from?” could be hurtful to so many people. So, I did what all journalists do: I wrote an op-ed about the experience, highlighting how the question had “pigeonholed, classified, and categorised me”. It also had simplified me, and turned me into a one-dimensional version of myself, denying my ability to move seamlessly between cultures, histories and geographies in a very complex world. The response was largely positive and supportive, with friends and others writing in with their own anecdotes. Of course, there was also plenty of hate mail and unpleasant comments. “Why are you always so critical these days?” asked one friend. Another insisted she had never seen me as a non-white person because “you could pass for Spanish or Italian”.  

Why all the fuss? After years of working, living and loving in #Brussels So White, why on earth was I venturing into the choppy and uncharted waters of defining EU identity? Why, after years of being a successful journalist and think-tanker, was I making people feel so uncomfortable? Why, when we were faced with a real war in Europe, was I so bent on engaging in a damaging, polarizing culture war? As a white male friend asked me: Why are you so woke? 

Why indeed? I’ve been reporting, writing and speaking for a long, long time about the very visible need for more diversity and inclusion – and less discrimination – within EU institutions and in the Brussels ecosystem of lobby groups, consultancies, think tanks and media. It has never been easy. People in and around the EU do not like conversations on race, colour, religion and ethnicity. When these conversations do take place, they are excruciatingly uncomfortable.  

This time, however, the question I’d been asked felt different, more aggressive, more deliberate. More disappointing. After the Black Lives Matter movement gained international momentum, the EU had promised to fight structural racism. I had assumed – obviously wrongly – that EU policymakers and people who worked in and around the EU had become more aware of their biases as well as the role of microaggressions and myriad discriminatory actions and policies.  

Clearly, not much had changed. I was running out of patience. Worse than that, I was also running out of hope. 

On some days, it certainly feels like those who want to live in a real Union of Equality – a Europe where people of different races, religions and cultures feel safe and at home – are fighting a losing battle for EU-wide diversity, equity and inclusion. Around us, across Europe, the opposite appears to be happening: racism, discrimination and Islamophobia are on the rise as the Far Right’s toxic rhetoric, ideas and actions seep into mainstream discourse, further spreading hate across societies.  

Racial and ethnic minorities – Europeans of colour – make up about 10% of the EU population. Yet reports by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency have underlined that 45% of people of North African descent living in Europe, 41% of Roma and 39% of people of Sub-Saharan African descent report having faced discrimination in the EU. Among Jews, 11% feel discriminated against, and Muslims experience prejudice in a broad range of settings, particularly when looking for work and while on the job, as well as when seeking to access public and private services. 

In 2022, in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the contrast became clear between the warm European welcome offered to refugees from Ukraine and the EU’s criminalization of both those fleeing wars in Africa and Asia and those trying to help them. Brown and Black students in Ukraine seeking to leave the war zone were pushed back by Ukrainian and Polish border guards. Yet for many EU policymakers, journalists and others in the Euro Bubble, such discussions remain quasi-taboo, conducted – if at all – in whispers.   

So I asked myself over and over again: Given this generalised state of denial on racism and discrimination across the EU, wasn’t it time to give up the struggle for diversity and inclusion, to drop this fanciful idea that people who are non-white, non-Caucasian, non-Christian can really and truly be accepted as European? Are the Far Right – and increasingly Europe’s mainstream politicians – correct to view us as eternal foreigners, permanent and unwanted outsiders in a white, Christian Europe? Will “real Europeans” ever accept that people who look different, pray differently and speak multiple languages, including non-European ones, also have the right to call Europe “home”? 

Some argue that “Europeanness” is intrinsically tied to whiteness and Christianity. As such, non-white people can never be “European”. As historian Shane Weller shows in The Idea of Europe: A Critical History, a persistent belief in European superiority runs throughout European history. For as long as Europeans have thought of themselves as such, they have also considered themselves better than the rest of the world. Additionally, Europe’s search for unity — or identity — has been constructed in opposition to an external Other.  

And that Other is Black, Brown and Muslim. As the legal scholar Sahar Aziz notes in her book, The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, race and religion intersect to racialize and disempower Muslims in both the US and Europe. That is also my experience and why I believe that fighting Islamophobia must be part of the wider anti-racism agenda.  

So what we are up against is deep-seated structural racism. Yet, for many Europeans, racism is seen as a problem limited to a few nasty apples. Casual Islamophobia is brushed off as “natural” and acceptable, nothing to get angry or upset about. 

It is because racism is seen as a problem solely of bad individuals that many Europeans quickly identify Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as the most openly racist European politician. There is no doubt that he peddles a particularly toxic blend of xenophobia, antisemitism and ethnonationalism. But bigots like Orbán are only part of the problem, which is systemic and structural. 

Racism is thriving across Europe because racist and xenophobic discourses and dog whistles to populists and far-right extremists have become deeply embedded in Europe’s mainstream politics, policies and institutions. They are also infecting the EU’s foreign and security policy; EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell recently compared Europe to a garden, a presumably civilized place, and the rest of the world to a jungle that could invade the garden at any moment.   

The headwinds facing advocates of a more inclusive and less racist Europe are strong and unrelenting. But it is impossible to abandon an effort one believes in so passionately. Although countries like Pakistan, where I was born and lived on and off until I was eighteen, have a reputation for being intolerant, the reality of my childhood years was very different. I went to a Christian school, my nanny was Hindu, my closest friend was a Buddhist from Burma, and the other children I played with came from different ethnic groups, spoke different languages, and belonged to different religions. We celebrated Christmas and I took part in Diwali festivals. As I grew up, I also learned from my father that I should always speak up when I believed people were being unfair or unjust. When things get difficult, don’t be afraid to raise your voice, he told me. 

Diversity was also part of my life in Belgium. I studied at the very multi-cultural and progressive Universite Libre de Bruxelles. I had friends from across Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.  

When I graduated and found a job working for a newsletter on the EU, entering the world of the union’s tradition-bound institutions was strange. Most journalists were white and almost 80 percent were male. Fresh out of university, Brown and quite young, I stuck out like a sore thumb. But I was gutsy and curious. 

So I asked disruptive questions, including on why EU institutions were so lacking in ethnic and racial diversity. For years, my questions were shrugged off as a distraction, or I received the glib response that EU recruitment policies were “colour blind” and that nothing could be done to change the existing situation. Europeans of colour didn’t quite have the “qualities” required to join the EU, I was told by one very self-satisfied spokesman. Another argument I heard repeatedly was that the EU lived by its motto of “unity in diversity” because the bloc’s member states represented an array of people, histories, cultures and geographies. No one listened when I said, yes, but the representatives and officials are all white. 

Inclusive policies were also not the norm in Brussels-based consultancies, lobbying groups, think tanks and media organizations, where conversations on equality focused on ways to empower, promote and recruit women but sidestepped other forms of diversity. With Europeans of colour largely absent in EU press rooms, it was rare that officials had to answer questions on race, religion or colour-based discrimination. 

It took some time before the winds of change began to blow softly even through the white bastions of EU power.  

EU policymakers and many others in Brussels had a rude awakening when #Black Lives Matter protests erupted across Europe following the death of George Floyd, the African American killed by police in Minneapolis in June 2020. The first EU reaction to the killing was awkward and clumsy, with some officials adamant that ethnic minorities in Europe did not face discrimination or police violence on the same scale as African Americans.  

Those (false) claims were not surprising. They reflected the simple reality that there are very few Black or Brown staff members in EU institutions, whether major ones like the European Commission, the EU Council and the European Parliament or smaller and more obscure specialised agencies. With very few people of colour in EU institutions or in cafes, restaurants and shops in its neighbourhood, even a quick walk around the quarter suggests that most inhabitants of the “Brussels so White” bubble have little or limited interaction with Europe’s ethnic communities, or “second-“ or “third-generation migrants”, the preferred EU label.  

I also learned very quickly that black or brown people seen in EU corridors were either cleaners or members of the security staff. If they were attending parliamentary meetings, they were usually Asian, Arab, African or Latin American diplomats. To many, I was always a “foreign journalist”, sometimes mistaken for a “lady from an Asian Embassy”. As underlined by former British European Parliament member Magid Magid, non-white Europeans are so rare in EU circles that they can be viewed as unwanted intruders.  

Still, to my delight (and some surprise), the Black Lives Matter movement spurred the EU and some national governments into belated action. Suddenly waking up to issues that had been around forever, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hastily promised to create an “anti-racist Europe” and acknowledged the importance of countering institutionalized racism and the need for more diversity in EU institutions.  

An unprecedented “anti-racism action plan” was adopted and a first-ever “anti-racism coordinator” was appointed to help implement it. “Diversity Advisors” working at the Commission and the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic arm, who had previously worked on promoting women through EU ranks, were now also tasked with overseeing the recruitment of ethnic minority staff.  A new “anti-Muslim hatred” coordinator was finally selected, joining the one on fighting antisemitism, who had been in the post since 2015. 

The EU’s baby steps to recognize structural racism and try to eliminate it were slow and painful and really only started after the #Black Lives Matter movement. My own “awakening” had occurred much earlier. It was also painful, but it was sudden, happening brusquely, from one day to the next. That day was September 11, 2001, when Middle Eastern terrorists attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Overnight, Muslims across the world found their lives disrupted and forever altered.  

I was no exception. Before 9/11, as a busy reporter working for several Asian and European media, my battle for diversity and against racism and discrimination had been intellectual and rational, not personal. Married at that time to a Spaniard, and busy juggling journalism with raising a son and daughter in a progressive, privileged and liberal environment, I had rarely faced open racism or discrimination. I had climbed through the ranks as a journalist, trying to meet deadlines, interview the most interesting people and get the best stories I could, but I had never bothered much about religion. We spent wonderful summers in Spain with my former husband’s not very Catholic family and equally wonderful winters in Pakistan with my open-minded and open-hearted parents.  

The 9/11 terror attacks changed all that in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, I was in the fray, as my surname and skin colour cast me among “those people” – reviled members of the Muslim community, who were collectively guilty of the terrible crime committed against the West. I had suddenly migrated from being one of “us” to becoming a part of “them”, “the Other”, repeatedly asked to explain how “my” religion could encourage such vile acts. Why, why, why?  

So the arguments, loud and often abusive, began. Everyone became an expert on Islam. I became used to acquaintances and strangers – and even some friends – offering unsolicited and often offensive advice and opinions on my faith. Islamophobic comments became – and still are – part and parcel of Brussels’ dinner party chatter. There were also constant small irritants. When I called my osteopath for an appointment, her new assistant asked warily: “You aren’t a fanatic, are you?” I stopped using my surname to make restaurant reservations. I kept telling people to stop asking me about the Koran, because I was an expert on the EU, not on Islam.  

To be fair, there was no change in the behaviour of close friends and most colleagues, and there was also a professional upside. Many, including the media outlets I worked for, were genuinely curious about this very visible “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West and wanted to know what, if anything, could be done to prevent it. I received invitations to travel and report on trips to Muslim countries by EU officials such as Chris Patten and Javier Solana, respectively the former external relations commissioner and the former high representative for foreign and security policy. Both of them sought to distance Europe from US President George W Bush’s post- 9/11 call for a “crusade” against terrorists, which many in Europe feared could spark conflicts between Christians and Muslims, sowing fresh winds of hatred and mistrust. 

I certainly did not become religious, but I read up on Wahhabism and Salafism, on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, whose version of Islam was so far removed from the mystical Sufi interpretation of the religion that had formed the backdrop to my childhood in Pakistan. In addition to reporting on the EU, I also started writing about Islamophobia, calling out those who conflated Islam with terrorism, reporting about European Muslims and the violence and discrimination they faced. I wanted to understand the drivers of Europe’s anti-Muslim hatred and sought to spotlight Islamophobia’s diverse and damaging manifestations.  

I also began writing more personal stories, editorials and op-eds about the need for cooperation across cultures and religions, for more inclusive EU policies and more diversity in EU policymaking. If people could just stop shouting, provoking and insulting each other, I thought, the world would be a better place and we could end or at least reduce ?division and hatred.  

As I wrote in the Brussels weekly, The Bulletin, on September 20, 2001: “In these dangerous times, EU governments – with their close historical and cultural ties to the Muslim world – have a crucial role to play in keeping the channels of communication open with their Arab and Muslim neighbours and in ensuring that the voices of moderation are heard above the clamour of fanatics.”   

It wasn’t to be. Those voices of moderation I was so desperate to hear were drowned out even further after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve caricatures of Prophet Mohammed in September 2005, prompting an all-time high in Islamophobic sentiments across Europe and Muslim anger at the West. In many unfortunate ways, we are still stuck in that vicious circle. 

As a journalist, I struggled to change that dynamic. I worked with Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists and the late Bettina Peters to launch an Ethical Journal Initiative, a tool box for reporters seeking to provide more reasoned and less sensational coverage of the ups and downs of a rapidly changing world.  

We noted that in Europe, many newspapers remained wedded to an old-fashioned and outdated concept of a continent where “immigrants and foreigners” are still viewed as exotic outsiders who have brought dangerous ideas and customs into Europe. And we pointed out that such toxic narratives were being peddled in the face of mounting evidence that more, not less, migration of people is needed in order to make up for labour shortages and maintain standards of living in a region where populations are ageing and the birth rate is static.   

We urged newsrooms to become more inclusive and diverse, to recruit more people from Europe’s ethnic minorities. We said the media was stoking the fires of intolerance and racism instead of raising awareness, helping fight prejudice, and engendering inter-community understanding. When I look around me today at Europe’s media landscape, our assessment remains true. Changes may have been made by some media groups, but they are minor.  

I’m often asked why I care so much. Well, as they say, the personal is political. Truth be told, I am passionate about Europe, sometimes – admittedly – naively so. I was – I still am – mesmerized by Europe’s story of reconciliation between enemies, the coming together of countries to make sure there were no more wars, the premise of building a European community where everyone was equal – a Union of Equality – and which would be a force for global good.  

Europe’s vision spoke to me. Growing up, I had become tired and frustrated with South Asia’s politics of hate, the constant fear of war, the trading of insults – and too often, of bullets. I had lived through two India-Pakistan conflicts, seen the devastation cause by Pakistan’s military during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. My mother often spoke about the violence and carnage that took place during the Partition in 1947, how she had wept as a young girl when her Hindu friends had been forced to leave Lahore for India.  

Despite prevailing perceptions, many of the estimated 25 million European Muslims share my attachment to the EU ideal. And like me they suffer each time Islamophobia invariably reaches fever pitch after any Islamist-inspired terrorist act in Europe or elsewhere in the world. Anxiety over Muslims as the “enemy within” goes much deeper than post-terrorism trauma. Anxious debates on the place of Islam in Europe, and claims that European Muslims represent an impossible-to-integrate “other” and are foot soldiers in an ongoing existential confrontation between Europe and Islam, have dogged Muslims across the continent for decades.  

There is a dangerous new shrillness to the conversation and a frightening sharpness to the allegations. The situation requires urgent attention and correction, both at the national level but also by the European Union. A combustible mix of geopolitical brinkmanship, unease over migration flows and fears of increased Islamist-related terrorism are adding to existing anti-Muslim sentiment. French President Emmanuel Macron may have denied allegations of fostering racism against Muslims ahead of presidential elections held in 2022, but Amnesty International had to warn French authorities to stop contributing to a “portrayal of all Muslims as suspects” and to end the “stereotypical, stigmatizing and discriminatory comments targeting Muslims and refugees”. 

Watching these signs of disconnect between many European governments and their Muslim citizens has been disturbing. The relationship is visibly dysfunctional and in dire need of a reset.  

As a first important step, the myth of Muslims in Europe as eternal outsiders, with a culture and customs that make them forever “untrue” Europeans, must be challenged. This means not conflating the tiny minority of Islamist extremists with the massive majority that abhors such views. It means accepting not only Islam’s historical role and influence in Europe but also recognising, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel did in 2018, that Islam is a part of modern Germany – and of Europe.  

Crucially, improving the situation also requires an end to the outsourcing of Europe-Muslim relations to foreign leaders of Muslim majority states. The acrimonious war of words between EU leaders and Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or EU leaders’ interviews with Arab news channel or plans to appoint an envoy for the Muslim world or inter-faith discussions are beside the point. Worse still, they are counterproductive. These foreign leaders know little of the real problems facing European Muslims.  

As reported by several respected media outlets, some are also meddling in Europe’s relationship with its Muslim citizens through toxic smear campaigns that make false accusations regarding their relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, EU leaders who talk to their foreign counterparts over the heads of their own Muslim citizens are not only being insulting, they are reinforcing perceptions of European Muslims as exotic and alien non-citizens.  

Women in particular are in the firing line. A recent project I worked on with MDI focused on the discrimination and violence faced by Muslim women, especially those who wear the hHijab, who have to fight the perception that they are either victims in need of help or a public threat. And yet my own experience shows that the large majority of Europeans who follow Islam live fulfilling and productive lives as law-abiding and tax-paying European citizens. Many are involved in local politics. Across Europe, Muslim entrepreneurs are revitalizing impoverished urban neighborhoods, creating jobs and prompting innovation and in business. They excel in sports as well as art and culture. These stories may be less sensational than those of misfits and criminals, but they also need to be told. 

The Open Society Institute has noted that European Muslims and non-Muslims share the same concerns, needs and experiences, including the quest for a “better quality of education, improved housing, cleaner streets and [the tackling of ] anti-social behaviour and crime”.  Notwithstanding populist and racist rhetoric, an overwhelming majority of Muslims in France and Germany describe themselves as loyal to their country and see no contradiction between French/German and Muslim values. “There is no evidence supporting the common contention that Muslims are living in a separate, parallel society,” according to Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation.  

My own journey is proof that the struggle against Islamophobia is part of the wider struggle against racism and discrimination. Campaigning for an anti-racist Europe also means fighting Islamophobia. As such, combating prejudice and bias against Islam must be an inherent part of Europe’s broader equality agenda. Hatred and discrimination against Muslims are a stain on Europe, its values, its internal cohesion and global reputation. 

Europe’s hopes of exercising more geopolitical influence and making more friends in the Global South are stymied by its Islamophobic discourse and actions, its discriminatory policies towards Europeans of colour, and its harsh treatment of racialized migrants and asylum seekers. EU governments’  reluctance to dive into uncomfortable questions, such as Europe’s legacy of colonialism and participation in the Atlantic trade in enslaved people also stand in the way of a more powerful global Europe.  

I have often pointed out that while the great European wars and the Holocaust are frequently commemorated, a strange silence has reigned over the ugly reality of Europe’s imperial and colonial history. Many European states arguably see the EU’s establishment in 1957 as a ‘virgin birth’ which erased any collective responsibility for EU states’ colonial pasts although many of the founding EU states still had colonies at the time.  

Some of this is changing slowly, but there is no miracle solution or quick fix, no one policy that can change years of willful neglect. However, the situation is not all gloomy everywhere. The good news is that even as national politicians step up the anti-Muslim rhetoric, local officials, especially city mayors, have adopted a different and more welcoming approach. Additionally, COVID-19 has spotlighted the strong presence of Muslims in many frontline services across the continent. 

Even some national leaders are trying to make amends. Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands have all – in their own way – tried to voice regret over the harshness of their colonial rule. European museums are working to repatriate at least some of their (mainly stolen) colonial-era artefacts. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has held an exhibition on the Netherlands’ participation in the trade of enslaved people. And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has finally acknowledged that it is time that the Christmas tradition of Black Piet, a white person with blackface who plays one of Santa’s little helpers, died out. 

More, much more, needs to be done at the EU and national levels. At the EU, there will have to be a mix of immediate actions – such as promoting awareness of dehumanising language and unconscious biases, less discriminatory EU recruitment policies, collection of data on ethnicity, improved police training, and stricter enforcement of the EU’s own anti-racism laws and regulations.. These efforts will have to go hand in hand with determined longer-term policies and measures to change deeply-anchored and long-standing prejudices, stereotypes and cultural norms.  

EU leaders and institutions must play their part in discouraging outdated, largely one-dimensional definitions of ‘European identity’, in favour of a recognition that ‘hyphenated’ citizens and residents, with fluid, changing and multiple identities, are also true Europeans. More diversity in media is needed to keep politicians on their toes and to ensure political accountability. 

In the end, it’s very simple: Europe needs to live up to its rhetoric on values and equity and to respect the human rights of all Europeans, regardless of their gender, race, religion and colour.  Europe’s future, prosperity and societal cohesion depend on becoming more inclusive and accepting – nay, celebrating – its diversity. As Europeans, we belong here. Europe is our home too. 

*Shada Islam is a Brussels-based EU analyst and commentator on EU foreign, security, trade and development policy and EU-Asia relations as well as on diversity, equity and inclusion. After nine years as Director for Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, she now runs her own global strategy company, New Horizons Project. Shada is also Senior Advisor at several think tanks, including the European Policy Centre. She is Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (Natolin Campus) and contributes to several international publications including EUObserver, the Guardian and East Asia Forum. In 2017, Politico identified her as one of Brussels’ 20 most influential women. She is the recipient of the prestigious “career award 2023” from the European Journalist Association in Catalonia for her work on building an inclusive Union of Equality.