Islamophobia, Employment Discrimination and the Labor Movement

Mark Bergfeld
April 28, 2017
Mark Bergfeld

Across Europe, the far right is both mobilizing in the streets and gaining electorally through whipping up anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia against refugees, migrants and Muslim citizens. The Pegida movement in Dresden, Germany, continues to mobilize thousands “in defence of the Occident” on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party has become the main opposition party in the Netherlands and Marine LePen’s Front National is making a strong showing in the French presidential election campaign.

As heads of states pursue policies or make statements indistinguishable from the far right it becomes obvious that the far right is driving the agenda. President Trump’s Muslim travel ban (Executive Order 13769), former British Prime Minister David Cameron referring to refugees as a “swarm,” and German Chancellor Merkel’s pronouncement that “Multkulti ist tot” (multiculturalism is dead) are cases in point. 

Moreover, every country has its fair share of liberals, feminists and leftists who are more than happy to (ab)use feminism, gay rights, or human rights – the three pillars of the New Left – to argue that Islam poses a threat to Western civilization. When challenged over the racist content of their statements, they argue that Islamophobia isn’t racism because Islam isn’t a race but a religion after all. 

There are two ways to address the likes of French author Michel Houellebecq, German feminist Alice Schwarzer or US talk show host Bill Maher who advance this type of argument.

First, they fail to recognize that racist ideology and its justifications have shifted from biological racism to the terrain of culture. According to the scholar Edward Saïd, the primacy of the cultural terrain in the construction of anti-Muslim racism has its roots in the West’s colonial experience. Through the framework of what Saïd labels “orientalism,” populations of the Middle East and North Africa are homogenized. A 2011 Pew study on US Muslims, by contrast, dismisses the idea of a homogenous Muslim community. It shows that they are just as likely or unlikely to visit their place of worship once a week as their fellow Christian citizens. 

Second, a human rights argument can be made. The United Nation’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination establishes freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a civil right (Art 5.vii). The convention further argues that racial discrimination is premised on purpose or effect regardless of one’s intention (Art.1).

Aside from the intentional racism of the far right we can see how Muslims in North America and Europe are subject to racial discrimination in their working lives. Research shows that racial discrimination of Muslims manifests itself primarily in exclusion from the labor market. Hence, the homogenization of Muslim citizens and migrants has direct consequences for their employment prospects. 

  • Studies from Germany show that workers with a Muslim, Turkish or Arabic background are disproportionately discriminated against in the labour market. (Kreienbrink and Stichs 2012; Peucker 2010)

  • The French Montaigne Institute found that a French Muslim is four times less likely to get invited to a job interview than a French Catholic.

  • A British House of Commons committee report found that Muslims were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as the general UK population. At the same time, Clark and Drinkwater find that “the probability of white British Muslims gaining employment is 16-20 percentage points lower than those with no religion.” 

  • In 2010, Muslim employees in the US filed 803 claims of employment discrimination which was a 20 percent rise from 2009 and a 60 percent rise from 2005 (newer figures not available). 

While Muslim employees experience myriad forms of employment discrimination at the workplace and in the labour market, the issue of the Muslim headscarf (hijab) cannot be ignored. The European Court of Justice ruled that employers can ban women employees from wearing the hijab in the workplace. The two cases brought forward concerned one private security officer and a design engineer working in IT consulting. The ruling states that the hijab can only be banned as part of a policy of banning all religious and political symbols in the workplace, thus forcing the security officer to choose between her faith and her employment.

Amnesty International, the European Convention of Rabbis and Germany’s Protestant Church have all opposed this ruling on either human rights or religious grounds. Yet European labor unions remain quiet as this is not regarded as a real labor issue. 

However, the labor movement would do well to remember an historic lesson from 19th Century Germany. Back then, the founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), August Bebel, defended Catholics against Chancellor Bismarck who accused them of being disloyal to the German state in favor of the Pope. As Bismarck went on to ban the Jesuit order, Bebel and the SPD defended the Jesuits’ freedom of religion against the repression of the state. Six months later the SPD would be illegal as well. Policies targeting religious freedoms can both set a precedent and be used to weaken the labor movement. 

This is exemplified in France today. Pierre Gattaz, the chair of the French Union of Employers, and a journalist compared the French CGT union during its campaign against labor market reforms to “terrorists” and ISIS respectively. At the same time, the state of emergency in place due to terror attacks was used to prohibit labor protests, demonstrations and strikes as well as fine and even jail union leaders. In the same way that anti-terror legislation frequently targets the entirety of the Muslim community, legislation initially targeting Muslims is used as a blanket cover for all groups who pose a challenge to the state.

French employers once built prayer rooms in car factories - eloquently described by Robert Linhrat in his book L’etabli (The Assembly Line) – in order to keep Muslim guest workers out of reach from Communists and the labor unions. A weakened labor movement and the ideological ferment of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism since 9/11 and the War on Terror require unions in Europe and North America to rethink their approaches. 

Political self-organization and cooperation are necessary preconditions to civil and societal participation. It should not be forgotten that the New York Worker Taxi Alliance emerged from a campaign against racism. The mobilization of New York City’s Yemeni bodega owners against the Muslim travel ban underlined that sections of the Muslim community won’t let themselves be victimized. Labor unions can assist these efforts by providing platforms for anti-racist and worker organizing. 

A story from a recent labor dispute at one of Berlin’s airports in Germany underlines that the labor movement cannot divorce itself from politics in times of far-right insurgency. As workers went on strike for higher wages, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) issued a solidarity statement and asked the strike committee whether they could take a picture with some of the strikers excluding the Turks. The strike committee stood firm and responded: you either take a picture with all of us or none of us. You won’t divide us.

There must be other examples and experiences like that. Hopefully this blog post can start a process of collecting some of these. 

Mark Bergfeld is a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London, School of Business and Management. His research deals with immigrants and labor unions. He has been active in various social movements and union campaigns. He can be contacted at and can be found on Twitter @mdbergfeld.