INTERVIEW WITH MAHMOUD ABURAHMA
European Network Against Racism (ENAR), member of Protection International’s Board
To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Protection International (PI) interviewed Mahmoud AbuRahma, currently serving as Programme and Donor Relations Manager at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), as well as a member of PI’s Board. In this interview, we have a conversation around the struggle for racial equality in Europe. In fact, ENAR recently published a position paper about Racialisation and shrinking space, which summarises the threats to human rights defenders (HRDs) working with racialised people in Europe. This position paper is the result of a seminar co-organised with Frontline Defenders and Protection International in December 2022, and outlines five key recommendations to EU institutions.
Mahmoud AbuRahma’s human rights professional journey began over 20 years ago, when he started his activism. For a long time, he thought that the only way to deal with the risks he faced when defending human rights was to accept them. He then realised that there were people, organisations and resources available to support him and his allies, when they needed them the most. That is the reason behind him joining PI’s Board: using his personal experience to support an organisation that provides similar support to human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world by providing a perspective from the ground.
PI: Let us start with the basics. Racism is quite a modern definition, how has it evolved over the past years and decades?
MA: Racism is a complex, retractable problem. In the past, there were attempts to define racism around eugenics, genetics of human races, etc. to demonstrate that people were different on the basis of a set of different races – proposing at the same time a racial hierarchy where, of course, white males were at the top, it was a matter of nature. This is obviously nonsense; it is clear that we are the products of our social environments, our education, our climate… notwithstanding of racial background. We understand racism as a social construct which is guided by a process of “rationalization”. As such, one can actually be racialized in any place, vis-a-vis the dominant population and how it perceives its identity.
Racism is about power dynamics in society, where one group holds more privilege and power and thinks about others as different, as those “others” who do not belong to their group, and who are therefore discriminated against and disenfranchised. There is a large body of research that shows how racialized people are affected as they are overrepresented in some areas, such as incarceration, and underrepresented in others, such as employment, education and housing. This can only be explained by racism, be it implicit or explicit, that is widespread and produced by societal institutions.
PI: ENAR is a network of over 150 NGOs working to combat racism everywhere in Europe. What are the main challenges that anti-racism HRDs (individuals and organisations) which conform the network are facing in Europe nowadays?
MA: The struggle for human rights has been going on for a very long time, and so has the struggle against racism. Both are complex, protracted problems in modern society. There have been some achievements, of course, and with them, our understanding of racism as a social construct has evolved. For a long time, we have talked, for instance, about racism against people from African descent, a form of racism based on their skin colour. But there are forms of racisms motivated by perceived identity, religion, ethnicity or nationality; for example antigypsyism, which is an endemic problem in Europe; or antisemitism, islamophobia, etc. We are now going through a period where migrants are racialised, with strong sentiments against migration mixed with, or amplified by, other perceived identities like perceived ethnicity and religion. ENAR, as part of the antiracism movement, has been working on these various forms of discrimination for many years, challenging hate crime and hate speech, even fighting for the acknowledgement of racism as a problem in Europe, which was not the case until recently.
We are now focusing more on structural and institutional racism as a phenomenon. We look at how racialised people are disproportionately impacted by problems related to access to the labour market, quality education, justice, housing, economic opportunity etc. We also look into how societies and institutions produce and reproduce certain narratives that are influenced by power dynamics. Such narratives can, for instance, justify racism, violence, war, discrimination and make people focus on the “why certain things are the way they are”, as opposed to “why we must change them”.
These underlying power dynamics are a challenge because many people enjoy privileges associated to their perceived racial status; and while these people can understand individual forms of racism (against black or Asian people for instance), they do not always understand how racism is embedded in their social structures and institutions. When we fight against “institutional racism” and address its root causes, these power dynamics, we also challenge people’s privileges; but they are not always ready to let them go.
The backlash we are seeing now against the racial equality agenda is related to these perceptions and privileges. We now see entire social movements, political movements, even government officials in some European countries, who actively work to undermine the racial equality agenda by denying racism and racial inequality. They use arguments related to preserving culture, identity, etc. in which they situate themselves as the victims, as more at risk than racialized populations. As a consequence, hate crimes and hate speech are on the rise; we find lobby groups blocking legislation, policies and practices that aim to progress towards racial equality. We have started to hear in the media, for instance, the term “woke” as something negative, as well as kind of a “war on wokeness”, which is a war on being aware of social injustices and acting to tackle them. Our member organizations are facing more and more difficulties and threats in this environment, which is becoming more disabling than enabling for the defence of equal rights.
PI: How are EU countries doing in the fight against racism?
MA: There is an alarming deterioration of the State and social support to racial equality agendas for racialized communities all across the EU, as well as for those who support them and advance anti-racism agendas. This situation is especially acute for asylum seekers, people on the move and migrants, who are facing increased restrictions related to reception, mobility, etc, as well as direct violence. The situation in France, Hungary, Greece… is dire. In Spain, centres for unaccompanied minors are regular targets of attacks. In the UK, just this week, racist protestors surrounded and attacked hotels hosting migrants at a time when the government is promoting new legislation that violates international migration law…
Such violence adds to the structural racism problem: you will find racialized people are among the poorest, the less educated, the most represented in prisons. The justice system is a good example of our historic mentality of suspicion against people who are perceived as “others”; they are profiled by police, and therefore stopped more frequently. For instance, there is a dominant narrative of racialized people use drugs more often than white people but studies show, however, that predominantly white neighbourhoods have more or less the same number of drug consumers as neighbourhoods of racialized people. What changes is the profile of those who are policed, stopped and searched on the street. This leads to racialised people making up more of the prison population. There is also evidence of racial bias in court sentencing, where people perceived as “others” are handed heavier sentences than those perceived as “the majority”.
We are also seeing a backlash against those who support racialised people, notably through the use of strategic litigation – SLAPP – sometimes promoted by the State. In Portugal, for example, a member of our network is being prosecuted by the extreme right, who is accusing him of racism against the white people for exposing systematic racism. He is raising awareness about racist actions that led to the murder of people of African descent, about the police failing to protect racialized communities, etc., and the response to that was to sue him for being “a racist against the whites”.
We are also seeing how several EU member states increasingly tailor design regulations (administrative and legislative reforms) that aim to disqualify certain groups from accessing public funding because they serve racialised communities. All these narratives, legislation, policies and practices lead to further marginalization or discrimination against groups of people, and that is racism. It is deeply structural and replicated by the institutions people have to engage with on a daily basis: our legislative, our law enforcement, our media, education institutions, etc.
Scenarios like this are more prone to increase in light of the rise of far right movements and parties in Europe, states need to be much firmer in both fighting racism and protecting human rights defenders. We need to learn from existing mechanisms and regulations that have been successful in other countries and at the global level and set them up to support human rights defenders in Europe.
PI: Does racism towards white Europeans in Europe exist?
MA: Generally, yes. Any person or people can be subjected to expressions of racism. Even though such actions are rare, they must be challenged. Anyone who displays racist attitudes or expresses hate speech towards a majority or a minority should be condemned. However, denouncing the problems of racialized communities or the existing power dynamics behind them does not constitute racism by any means. That is where the line lies.
Besides, racist attitudes towards a power-holding majority rarely influence the power relations within society or undermine power and privilege. Therefore, we need to be aware of racism, condemn and reject it everywhere, while also being aware of its actual impact on people’s lives, on society and on democracy.
PI: And how has the European Union been doing? Which are then the key demands that anti-racism HRDs have towards the EU or other regional institutions such as the Council of Europe?
MA: There have been ups and downs. Overall, there has been progress in legislation and policymaking but implementation falls short and we are still quite far from a “racism-free EU”. There was a time when the EU did not even recognize racism as a problem, but now it is recognised and regulations are being built. EU institutions are also becoming more open to address racism as a structural problem that requires structural solutions. We have been collaborating with some EU institutions to better understand what racism is and how it impacts people’s realities. We collaborated with the European Commission, for instance, on the drafting and monitoring of the Racial Equality Directive and the Anti-Racism Action Plan (ARAP) 2020 – 2025. The EU included many of our demands in these documents but it took a long way to get there. We had to fight and learn from dramatic events like the murder of George Floyd for instance.
Now we have racial equality and anti-racism policies, we need to address the implementation challenge at member states and local levels. We find a lot of disparities there. Our key demands are a better enforcement and a harmonised implementation of EU policies and plans, as well as better monitoring of trends related to the discrimination and attacks against racialized communities and those who support them. We are demanding, for instance, better monitoring of the public narratives which discredit racialized communities, better monitoring of hate speech, which needs to be detected and addressed.
PI: Are European states meeting their obligations to protect civil society, HRDs? Are there effective public policies in place that facilitate anti-racism work?
MA: I think the EU has a basic contradiction. In its foreign policy, the EU is a global human rights champion. You would therefore expect strong processes and mechanisms to protect human rights at the domestic level. However, the equality research shows that is not the case and racialized communities in the EU are discriminated.
I think the same happens when it comes to HRDs, the EU is not escaping the global shrinking space trend. However, the EU is lacking, internally, many of the human rights mechanisms and tools that it implements externally, through its foreign policy. There is a clear need to better analyse and acknowledge how civic space is being shrunk within the EU borders. We are asking for a harmonisation of the EU’s external and internal mechanisms to protect human rights and HRDs.
The next step for us will be to advocate for practical and effective protection mechanisms at the EU level, and for the EC to better monitor the situation at member state level and to create early warning systems. This is very important considering what is going on in member states like Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Sweden, France, to mention some… where negative discourses and attacks against migrants, gypsy Roma, Sinti populations, transgender people and other minorities are increasing, and so are prosecution and restrictions against anti-racism agendas. In this scenario we can no longer claim, as Europeans, that we live in democracies and respect human rights, both of which are core EU values that we promote abroad.
PI: How can we – organised civil society or individual citizens – support the work of these defenders and anti-racism work in general?
We need to denounce the threats and attacks HRDs face, raise awareness about the important role they play. We need to join the calls to protect them and ensure that the EU is a place where we can fight for justice for all, even if what we call for is not in agreement with what governments believe. People can join civil society organisations and movements, but they can also campaign and write to their representatives.
We also need to realise how our institutions and dominant narratives are marked by our colonial past, and acknowledge there was a historical narrative of “them” and “us” according to which some people were viewed as of less value and could be controlled and exploited. We need to change the mentality and, with it, the narrative; and explain how racialized people are an essential part of the EU, not only for the diversity and the beauty of it, which is important, but because they are equal citizens with equal rights, obligations and space to contribute to society. Undermining them is a loss for society.
PI: To finalise, would you recommend us an inspiring film about anti-racism struggle?
MA: “Selma”. I think what happened with Martin Luther King Jr. and Selma, and the overall success of the civil rights movement can provide us with valuable lessons.
 “Woke” or “wokeness” is a term used to describe a way of thinking that focuses on being aware of and fighting against social injustices.
 Strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP)