Challenging Hate: A Conversation with Shada Islam

Brussels, June 18, 2024 – Europe has a problem with hate speech. People are increasingly comfortable voting for parties that actively use exclusionary and inflammatory rhetoric, from Islamophobia and anti-migrant messaging to threatening gains in reproductive and LGBTQI+ rights.  

Far-right and formerly fringe parties have steadily gained support. In countries including France and Belgium, these were the most popular parties in the latest EU elections. 

Coupled with a strong youth vote from the generation now being dubbed as “foreigners out!” that bucked the trend of youth votes leaning left, hard-line, anti-immigration views are no longer taboo amongst Europe’s youths. 

As Europe grapples with a rise in hate speech incidents, voices like Shada Islam’s are more crucial than ever in advocating for diversity, inclusion, and proactive measures to counteract this growing problem.

Before the European elections, Shada Islam shared her experiences and insights on the Open Doors podcast, illuminating how to push for diversity, equality and acceptance in Brussels and beyond.

On this International Day for Countering Hate Speech, we highlight some of the key points from our discussion. 

An Accidental European

Shada Islam’s journey to becoming a prominent voice in Brussels was not set in stone. Growing up in Pakistan, Islam came to Brussels as a diplomat’s child following her father’s posting to the city. 

Having studied French during her A-levels, Islam had the opportunity to fully immerse herself in Belgium. 

“I didn’t go to VUB [Vrije Universiteit Brussel] to learn English, work in English, study in English”, says Islam. “I went directly into ULB [Université libre de Bruxelles], the French university, and completed my studies in French, my master’s thesis in French … my friends were from Chile, Argentina, South Africa, I mean, Morocco, Tunisia, from everywhere, we were really a very, very multicultural group of friends”.

This outsider perspective gave Islam an advantage as she started her career as a journalist.

“All of the time, I had a kind of a sixth sense, which was always about how is the world the rest of the world, looking at Europe, and also how is Europe looking at the world”, says Islam. “I remember sitting in press conferences and saying, Well, what about how would this impact Southeast Asia, how does this impact Japan?”

Navigating Journalism in the Brussels Bubble

These early days in the newsroom left an impact on Islam.

“I have to say, I did not at that time face, or at least I didn’t feel that I faced any discrimination”, she says. 

But despite initial perceptions of acceptance, Islam soon faced discrimination and casual racism, particularly after 9/11. “My name sticks out, right?”, she says of navigating journalism during this time period. “And suddenly, I was considered to be a specialist on Islam. Well, I’m a specialist on the EU, I’m a specialist on NATO, on security”.

Combined with the stark inequalities Islam saw on the streets of Brussels, she found herself raising the issue of inequality, discrimination and diversity for now over 30 years. 

Challenging Ignorance

From her experience in the newsroom, Islam remembers the uninformed views that dominated during the early 2000s.

“I remember also asking people where are the other journalists who look like me?”, she says. “Or officials who look like me. And they would say, oh, you mean, the foreigners? And I said, no, no, no, I know there are Chinese in the room and Japanese and there are some Indian journalists, very few Arabs. But where are Europeans who looked like me?”

Why did people think like this?

“Some of it was not deliberate, it was very casual”, she says. “I now call it ‘casual racism’, in those days we didn’t even have the words to express it. But there was so much basic ignorance about what Islam really is, the Muslim world, things like that”.

More work has been done to address this ignorance head-on to dismantle these harmful biases, but ignorance still fuels racism and hate speech in Europe.

Being a Public Figure

As a prominent voice in Brussels and Europe who is not afraid to ask difficult questions and push for diversity, Islam is no stranger to being on the receiving end of hate speech online.

Has the advent of social media been a net loss for society and diversity?

While there are obvious downsides, Islam points to the positive achievements of social media. “There are more diverse voices in journalism than ever. And if you can’t get them in mainstream media, for instance, on the story of Gaza, we get it through Palestinian journalists writing for different channels going on television, speaking the truth. I am, I have to say, grateful for that, to have access to this wide variety of sources that exist”.

But it goes beyond social media alone. At the core of the issue, Islam believes that power structures are the main obstacle. “I’ve pushed on #BrusselsSoWhite issue, and I’ve found it’s not just a question of skin colour alone”, she says. “It’s about power, power structures and ways of thinking, and forcing people to be slightly less Eurocentric, challenging them all the time, making them feel uncomfortable and daring to do so. I think a lot of people are doing that now”.

Hope for the Future

With the disparaging rise of far-right views becoming more extreme in Europe, it is understandable that those who want a more inclusive society are feeling disheartened. How can they maintain positivity in the face of such challenges?

For Islam, community is key. “One of the best things that has happened is the friends I’ve made on social media”, she says. “We are many across the world who are doing the same things in white spaces, many people of colour in white spaces who are making that point, whether it’s the UK, whether it’s the US whether it’s Canada, Australia, the world over, and I think that gives me a lot of strength”. 

Another source of hope? The young people, who Islam describes as fantastic at breaking barriers and demanding their rights. But we need to do a better job of engaging them.

“I am invited often by young Muslim students or people of colour to come and speak to them”, says Islam. “They are so interested in what’s happening in Europe but they do not see themselves here. The real challenge we’re going to have is to make sure that people of colour in Europe think that Europe is relevant to them, that the EU is relevant to them, and that they actually come out and vote”.

A Call to Action

How can we push forward diversity equality and acceptance in our daily lives?

The first step forward that all of us can take is to call out instances of injustice. 

“Let’s call it out each time. When we see something happening, it’s very uncomfortable, it’s very difficult, but call it out. Call out injustice. Call out unfairness. Call out if it’s an all-male pane, if it’s an all-white panel. Say something. People may look at you in anger. And you know, you may feel distressed, but when you see injustice, my father taught me you should always speak out”.

To listen to the full conversation, listen to our episode with Shada Islam on the Open Doors podcast here.


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