WASHINGTON – The State Department’s fifth Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, released on Dec. 18, shows a frightening increase in anti-Muslim attitudes in several European countries, including some of America’s strongest allies. The report cites the growth of Europe’s Muslim immigrant population as the most common reason for anti-Muslim tensions in that particular region.
In Britain, where 1.6 million Muslims live, a London-based Islamic human rights group reported 344 incidents of anti-Muslim violence against Muslims in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, including the stabbing of a Muslim woman.
Since June 2002, British Muslims have reported assaults, acts of vandalism and attacks on mosques, some motivated by negative and irresponsible media coverage. In June 2003, for example, anti-Muslim remarks were drawn on walls at the Birmingham’s Central Mosque shortly after the airing of a fictional BBC television program showing the recruitment of suicide bombers in a Birmingham mosque.
In Italy, home to about a million Muslims, several political and religious leaders, including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, have contributed to anti-Islamic sentiment by portraying Muslim immigrants as a “threat” to Italy and by claiming that Muslims were unable to integrate with the rest of society.
In September 2001, Berlusconi fueled the anti-Islamic movement by describing Islamic civilization as inferior to the West. At a news conference in Berlin, he said, “We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights – and in contrast with Islamic countries – respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understandings of diversity and tolerance.” Berlusconi’s remarks angered Muslims all over the world and were denounced by several Western leaders.
According to the U.S. report, state restriction of religious freedom is the second key cause for anti-Muslim discrimination in Europe.
On Dec. 18, John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, criticized France for its stance on the issue of Muslim women wearing of head scarves and affirmed his belief that Muslim women should be able to wear head scarves to fulfill their religious duties. “All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference, as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society,” he said, adding, “We’re going to watch this carefully.”
The debate over religious symbols, especially Muslim head scarves, has intensified in France since President Jacques Chirac proposed on Dec. 18 a law to ban religious symbols in French public schools and to regulate them in the workplace.
Muslims constitute the second largest French religious faction in number, with roughly four million to five million adherents, or about 7 percent to 8 percent of the French population.
Another head scarf debate erupted in Germany in June 2002 after an administrative court upheld a 1998 ban in the southern state of Baden-Württemburg on Muslim teachers wearing head scarves in the classroom.
In July 2002, the Federal Administrative Court supported the lower court’s ruling. A Muslim teacher affected by the ruling appealed the decision to the Federal Constitutional Court, which held its first review of the case in May, the first time the country’s highest court has examined this issue. A decision is expected soon. In the meantime, Muslim students remain free to wear head scarves in the classroom. There are about three million Muslims living in Germany.
In Spain, Muslims, Jews, and Protestants complained that the government favors Catholicism, the dominant religion, in political relationships and financial support.
“Leaders of the Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities,” the State Department reported, “continue to press the government for comparable privileges to those enjoyed by the Catholic Church.”
The United States has also expressed its concern that some governments may use the war on terrorism to restrain religious freedoms. Hanford warned that “nations have targeted religious believers, even under the guise of antiterrorism campaigns, and driven some toward radicalism and violence.”
The State Department has done an indispensable job in monitoring the status of Muslims’ religious rights in Europe. To complete its vital work, it should discuss the findings of its report with European leaders and international rights groups. It should also call for an international conference to discuss the status of Muslims’ human and religious rights in Europe and elsewhere to make certain that the war on terrorism will not be used as cover for anti-Muslim abuses anywhere in the world.
Ayaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian writer who lives in Washington.