Europe’s Muslims face rising Islamophobia, new EU report warns

A German Muslim says his neighbors suspect he is making weapons in his mosque. An Austrian believer complains that some dog owners set their pets on her when they pass her on the sidewalk.

Such acts of “Islamophobia” are on the rise across Europe, where many Muslims are menaced and misunderstood — some on a daily basis — the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia warned Monday in a new report.

The Vienna-based center, which tracks ethnic and religious bias across the 25-nation EU, said Muslims routinely suffer acts ranging from physical attacks to discrimination in the job and housing markets.

It called on leaders to strengthen policies on integration, and on Muslims to “engage more actively in public life” to counter negative perceptions driven by terrorism or violence, such as this year’s backlash to cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

“The key word is ‘respect,'” said Beate Winkler, the group’s director. “People need to feel respected and included. We need to highlight the common ground that we have.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, many of Europe’s nearly 13 million Muslims feel “they have been put under a general suspicion of terrorism,” Winkler said.

The 117-page report reinforces the growing urgency of tackling religious tensions in Europe.

In Turkey earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for greater understanding between Christianity and Islam and sought to ease Muslim outrage over his remarks in September that cited a medieval emperor speaking about violence and Muhammad’s teachings.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term Ärab”describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called tolerance one of the “essential values” of his nation and denounced “hatemongers, whatever their race, religion or creed.”

Although the center conceded it is hampered by spotty data that makes Islamophobic acts “underreported and underrecorded,” it listed hundreds of cases of violence or threats against Muslims in the EU since 2004.

The incidents include vandalism against mosques and Islamic centers, abuse against women wearing Islamic head scarves, and attacks, such as one by a gang carrying baseball bats emblazoned with swastikas and racist slogans that targeted a Somali family in Denmark.

Muslims spared violence are all too often “disproportionately represented” in unemployment statistics, and many lag well behind the European mainstream in education and housing conditions, the report says.

It cites a 2004 study by the University of Paris, which replied to 258 job advertisements for a sales position and concluded an applicant with a North African background was five times less likely to get a positive reply.

“Many European Muslims, particularly young people, face barriers to their social advancement. This could give rise to a feeling of hopelessness and social exclusion,” said the report, adding that many Muslims feel pressured to lose their Islamic identity.

But Carla Amina Baghajati, a German-born convert to Islam who now serves as spokeswoman for Austria’s Islamic community, said she was unnerved by inflammatory comments posted on Web forums Monday by people suggesting Muslims have brought their troubles upon themselves.

“We have to be very careful that making Islamophobia a general issue is not counterproductive,” she said. “There’s the danger that people say, ‘Well, he deserves it.’ We have to create a climate that makes it possible to overcome prejudice and racism without showing Muslims as victims.”

The monitoring center called on EU nations to improve “equal access to employment” for Muslim jobseekers, revise school policies and textbooks to offer more balanced perspectives on Western culture, and require “discussion of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

In accompanying interviews with 58 Muslims from 10 EU nations, many respondents bitterly complained of feeling like second-class citizens because of perceptions that the Islamic community is intolerant of Western values and supports terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.

“Many Germans feel you are producing weapons in the mosques,” it quoted an unidentified Muslim in Germany as saying.

Another, a Muslim woman living in Austria, told the center: “We face Islamophobia in daily life: small incidents, small things … Somebody walks his dog and says, ‘Fass!'” — German for “Attack!”

Yet even a crisis can provide opportunities to improve relations, the center said, highlighting how authorities and clerics in Britain worked together to ease tensions after the July 2005 bombings of London’s transit system triggered a 500 percent jump in Islamophobic incidents.

“Integration is a two-way street,” said Anastasia Crickley, who chairs the group’s board. “There is no room for complacency.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 18, 2006.
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