Is Islam Endangering 'Europeannesess?'

ByABC News
November 29, 2004, 11:43 AM

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.