Is Islam Endangering 'Europeannesess?'

ByABC News

Dec. 7, 2004 — -- It was not what she said, but the way she looked and her manner of dress that had the crowd hooting and jeering as she addressed a conference in Paris last year.

When Salma Yaqoob, a 32-year-old British Muslim activist, took the stand at the November 2003 European Social Forum, she was taken aback by the ruckus.

As chairwoman of the Stop the War Coalition in Birmingham, England, Yaqoob was in Paris to talk about the backlash against British Muslims sparked off by the war on terror during a session titled "Dimensions of Islam." But it was her veil, or hijab, that turned into the subject of an acrimonious dispute.

This was months before France passed a controversial law banning head scarves in public schools, and Yaqoob, a psychotherapist who took up community service shortly after the 9/11 attacks, says she was rattled by the audience hostility.

"I was genuinely shocked how people reacted just because I happened to be wearing a hijab," Yaqoob recalled in a phone interview. "It was actually a very upsetting experience. It was shocking to see people so passionate and, in my view, so ignorant of basic things, basic things like etiquette. [They] felt they had a right to behave that way in the name of what they thought was freedom and liberation."

In the Netherlands -- a country famed for its relaxed attitude to everything from pot smoking to prostitution -- at least 14 Muslim buildings and schools were attacked in the troubled days following the killing of a Dutch filmmaker by a suspected Islamist extremist. Postings in online chat rooms showed a rising anti-Muslim feeling. "Today is the day I became a racist," read one typical message.

And when a TV contest recently asked viewers to name the "greatest Dutchman ever," they chose Pim Fortuyn -- a self-avowed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant politician who was killed by a white animal rights activist in 2002.

In neighboring Belgium, the country's highest court recently ruled the far-right Vlaams Blok party racist and stripped it of its funding and TV access rights, forcing it to disband. Party leaders say they plan to reconstitute under a new name.

In Denmark, an Islamophobic party came in third in the 2001 elections, foreshadowing Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing party's stunningly strong showing in the French elections the next year.

"There is definitely a rise in Islamophobia across Europe," said Liz Fekete, deputy director of the London-based Institute of Race Relations. "Muslims collectively are being blamed for the attacks on the World Trade Center, and there is a general punitive climate toward Muslims. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways. On the ground, there has been a rise in racial violence on Muslim targets across Europe. And the biggest problem is that the scale of the problem has not been acknowledged," Fekete said.

Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has been widely viewed as a bastion of internationalism, moderation and social progressiveness -- a haven of affluent, eco-conscious citizens in stark contrast to the perceived unilateralism and parochialism of the United States.

But across Western Europe, immigrant and civil rights experts say a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim wave appears to be gripping a region once famed for its tolerance.

German politicians warn that "Germanism" is being subsumed by people of Turkish origin, who make up a little over 2 percent of the population. French supporters of a hijab ban believe headscarves on schoolgirls pose a risk to the French ideal of laïcité, or secularism. And in Denmark, controversial new rules that strip children of immigrants of their right to automatic citizenship are drawing criticism from human rights groups, who say they are a breach of citizenship rights as well as the right to a family life.

Across the continent, the rhetoric of a threatened "Europeanness" is making its way from fringe far-right circles into mainstream national debates.

Europewide statistics on the extent of anti-Muslim attacks are hard to calculate. While Germany saw a 40 percent increase in reported racist crimes last year, and the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission has recorded a 13-fold increase in backlash complaints in Britain since the 9/11 attacks, such figures are difficult to collate in countries like France, where ethnic origins of complainants are not recorded.

Nevertheless, Europewide opinion polls show an alarmingly high level of intolerance toward Muslims within the European Union. One recent poll found 14 percent of EU citizens admitted to being "intolerant" of minorities, while another 25 percent said they were "ambivalent" toward them.

Allegations of discrimination against Muslims are not exclusive to Europe. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States has come under heavy criticism for alleged civil rights infringements under the controversial Patriot Act. Rights groups have also recorded a dramatic increase in profiling complaints and backlash attacks against American Muslims.

And like Europe, immigration is at the front line of the anti-Muslim assault in the United States, where thousands of illegal immigrants have been indefinitely detained without criminal charges and summarily deported without access to lawyers.

But rights activists say that unlike Europe, the rights of immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens have not been compromised despite the domestic war on terror.

"I don't want to give the United States too much credit, but it is true that in the three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. continues to have a citizenship program that is far more speedy and accessible for people who meet the requirements," said Julia Hall, senior researcher from Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division.

Right-wing European politicians such as Peter Skaarup, deputy chairman of the Danish People's Party, say it's unfair to compare U.S. and European cultural track records.

"It's very difficult to compare the United States with Denmark, because the United States is a country built on immigration, on being a multi-ethnic society," said Skaarup, whose party recently ran a campaign warning Danes their country was turning into a "Muslim-majority nation."

"Denmark," Skaarup said, "does not have a record of immigration. We've been quite a homogeneous society for many years, and for many of us therefore it comes as a very big challenge when suddenly there is a very large immigration."

At the heart of Europe's rising Islamophobia is the debate between integration and multiculturalism.

While countries such as the United States, Britain and Canada have rejected the social "melting pot" model for a "salad bowl" or "mosaic" metaphor, Fekete says the notion of multiculturalism in Western Europe is in jeopardy.

"Political parties have been introducing new 'integration measures,' and these enter into the highly public discourse about the limits of cultural diversity and a European fixation with social homogeneity that eschews pluralism," she said. "And the underlying theme is this is based on the Muslim community."

Noting that integration "is a two-way street," Fekete warns that by denying Muslim immigrants citizenship rights, European governments risk further alienating the community.

Indeed after decades of Muslim migrations -- mostly from former colonies -- Muslim representation in European parliaments is still low, with only two practicing Muslim members of Parliament in Britain, one in Germany and none in the French parliament.

Experts warn that the lack of political representation, coupled with a growing intolerance ofIslamic culture, increases the risk of increasing extremism among Europe's young Muslim population.

Certainly, the existence of the Hamburg, Germany, terror cell -- which planned the 9/11 attacks -- as well as growing evidence that the March 11 Madrid train bombings were masterminded by Islamic extremists in Spain have increased security concerns in Europe.

But Muslim community leaders say it's unfair to castigate all of Western Europe's estimated 12.5 million Muslims for the actions of a few. They point that contrary to popular European belief, extremism among the continent's Muslims is not widespread. According to a report in the British magazine The Economist, for instance, out of about 1,500 mosques in Britain, only two were known to be run by extremists.

One of the chief complaints of Europe's Muslims is the manner in which Islamic fundamentalism is widely viewed as proof of the inherent patriarchy and cultural reactionism of Islam. Under this rubric, they say women's rights have now become the fulcrum around which European Islamophobia revolves.

The French hijab ban is meant to ensure secularism in public schools, but it's also aimed at protecting the rights of girls who, supporters of the ban say, may be forced by their families to wear the veil. Muslim women's activists warn, however, that the new law could cause families to keep their daughters at home, thus preventing many Muslim girls from getting an education.

And in the Netherlands, the current "clash of civilizations" furor was sparked Nov. 2, when controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh was stabbed and shot to death in Amsterdam, and a man with dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship was arrested. Van Gogh had received death threats after "Submission," his film about the abuse of Muslim women by Muslim men, was aired on national television. It included a scene in which four Muslim women wore transparent chadors -- or traditional gowns -- over semi-naked bodies inscribed with Koranic verses.

While he condemns van Gogh's killing, Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, notes that the subject of his film, violence against women, is not exclusive to the Muslim community.

Pointing to the fact that some widely condemned customs, such as forced marriages and dowry deaths are as prevalent among Hindu immigrants from the Indian subcontinent as Muslims, Sharjareh claims that while effective legislation is necessary, it's also important not to stereotype communities.

"We do need infrastructure to limit extremism," said Shadjareh, "and this has to come from all sides. If the Dutch government had prosecuted van Gogh for his racism, he may have been alive. I'm not saying that anything, absolutely anything legitimizes a killing, but we also need to limit hate speech -- on all sides."

For British activist Yaqoob, the particularly galling aspect of Europe's penchant for taking on platforms in the name of Muslim women is that, more often than not, they are adopted without consulting Muslim women.

A year after she was booed at the European Social Forum, Yaqoob was back at the conference. But this time, things had changed. For one, it was held in London this year. For another, the conference took place months after France instituted its hijab ban, and most of the non-French delegates opposed the ban.

"I asked them [the French delegation], have you talked to them [French Muslim women]? And they said, no, we don't need to," she says. "I told them I personally chose to wear the hijab. And they told me, 'You're oppressed, you just don't know it.'"

An articulate activist, professional psychotherapist and mother of three sons, Yaqoob sometimes does believe she's oppressed. But not by Islam.

"After 9/11 I myself have been attacked, I've been spat on ... I can't tell you how awful it was," she said. "I thought, we can't live like this. This is so unnecessary. And that's why I started doing what I'm doing now. But I'm on a journey and I'm learning constantly."