'Islamophobia' on the rise in Europe, report says

Posted in Religion and Politics , Broader Middle East | 19-Dec-06 | Source: International Herald Tribune

European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia

Report cites attacks and discrimination

VIENNA: "Islamophobia" is 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 said Monday in a new report.

The Vienna-based center, which tracks ethnic and religious bias across the 25-country European Union, said Muslims routinely suffered problems 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 the backlash this year caused by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

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

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

Although the center conceded that it had been hampered by incomplete data that make 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 are all too often "disproportionately represented" in unemployment statistics, and many are 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 that 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," said the report. "This could give rise to a feeling of hopelessness and social exclusion."

But Carla Amina Baghajati, a spokeswoman for Austria's Islamic community, said she was unnerved by inflammatory comments posted on Web forums Monday by people suggesting Muslims had 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 countries to improve "equal access to employment" for Muslim job seekers, 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 countries, many respondents bitterly complained of feeling like second-class citizens because of perceptions that the Islamic community is intolerant of Western values and supportive of terrorist groups.

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 the authorities and clerics in Britain worked together to mitigate tensions after bombings on the London transit system in July 2005 triggered a sharp increase in Islamophobic incidents.

"Integration is a two-way street," said Anastasia Crickley, chairwoman of the group's board. "There is no room for complacency."