Employers can ban employees from wearing the Islamic hijab, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruled in a nod to the rise of right-wing extremism across the continent. The court's controversial ruling is a dangerous step toward the institutionalization of Islamophobia, which had been largely contained in the political arena thus far. The landmark decision could not only become a symbol of Europe's break with its own values but also the beginning of the end for the European Union as we know it.
To be clear, the ECJ's most recent decision is not unprecedented. In Leyla Şahin vs. Turkey, a 2004 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) case brought against Turkey by a medical student – who has since become a Parliament deputy – challenging a ban on the Islamic hijab at educational institutions, the court ruled in favor of the ban. Three years earlier, the court had, in Dahlab vs. Switzerland, concluded that the Swiss government could force a teacher to remove her hijab. In contrast, the ECHR ruled in Lautsi vs. Italy that the display of crucifixes at public schools was permitted. To add insult to injury, the court claimed that there was a threat of Islamism in Turkey and effectively agreed with the Italian government that crucifixes symbolized the principles and values that formed the basis of democracy and Western civilization.
Given the history of European institutions' negative bias toward Muslims, it did not come as a shock when a Belgian company was told they were free to discriminate against an EU citizen on the basis of her religious affiliation.
As a wave of populism, which is wreaking havoc through the old continent, rapidly evolves into good, old-fashioned racism, European institutions, not just short-sighted politicians, are contributing to the European dream's collapse. In the wake of an uptick in violent attacks against Muslim and immigrant community centers around Europe, the shocking popularity of openly racist movements in polls and calls on law-abiding EU citizens of color to "go back home," it is probable that we have reached the point of no return.
But there could be reason for hope.
It isn't just Muslims, Turks or refugees whose sheer existence, Europe's white supremacists state, cannot be tolerated. Moving forward, there is no doubt that all religious and ethnic minorities will be targeted by emboldened racists and designated as "the enemy." As right-wing extremists take their war on diversity and multiculturalism to a whole new level, the only way to survive is to form a united front that can mobilize civil society and fight prolonged legal battles against the emerging order.
Non-whites and non-Christians were once considered "the barbarians at the gate." In retrospect, the barbarians were inside Fortress Europe all along. Today, those once accused of pushing the European Union to its limits and undermining the continent's values must step up and realize that they represent the union's final chance to survive.