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Rights groups see politics behind rise in Muslim hate crimes

Amnesty International says politicians have been pandering to prejudice against Muslims in a quest for votes.

April 26, 2012|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • A Muslim woman holds her French passport during a news conference last year on the country's ban on head scarves.
A Muslim woman holds her French passport during a news conference last year… (Remy de la Mauviniere, Associated…)

The Oslo courtroom where confessed mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is on trial offers a look at a tragic outcome of anti-Islamic hostility.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, years of war and repeated calls for violence against the West stirred worldwide fears of Muslim extremism, but many human rights analysts say they find it difficult to explain a recent surge in anti-Islamic hate crimes other than political manipulation and fears that displays of Islamic faith herald new threats from radicals.

In Europe and in North America, where incidents of Islamic extremism have been few and rarely fatal since the Sept. 11 attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased over the last two years as states enacted laws barring mosque construction and the wearing of veils, head scarves and beards meant to reflect the depth of Muslims' faith, not fanaticism.

A report this week by Amnesty International identifies widespread prejudice in Europe, where far-right political parties have gained traction with anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant fear-mongering that has served to legitimize discrimination against Muslims in the eyes of many.

Amnesty said political leaders, rather than combating fears of Islamic extremism and the equating of the devout with the radical, have been pandering to prejudice against Muslims in a quest for votes.

Recent legislative actions in France, Belgium, Spain, Turkey and Switzerland restrict the open practice of Muslims' faith. Swiss voters in 2009 passed a referendum banning construction of minarets in the alpine country, in one of the more powerful displays of anxiety about the continent's 44 million Muslims. Other European nations have acted to restrict Islamic dress in schools and offices and largely ignored employment discrimination against Muslims, Amnesty said.

The curbs aren't confined to Europe, U.S. Islamic leaders say, citing the recent battle over building an Islamic cultural center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and the legislative campaigns in at least 20 U.S. states to bar judges from recognizing sharia, the strict Islamic legal doctrine, which has no authority in the United States because judges are sworn to uphold the Constitution.

"The bizarre bans on Islamic attire and efforts to target mosques in Europe have great similarities to what we see here in the United States," said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for theCouncil on American-Islamic Relations.

Hooper recalled the emotional showdown over the $100-million Islamic cultural center renovation a few blocks from the site of the terrorist attacks in New York, and right-wing lawmakers' holding of congressional hearings on the threat of Islamic radicalization.

"It's all an effort to demonize Islam and marginalize Muslims in society," Hooper said. "Anders Breivik is the logical conclusion of the extremist views being promoted here and in Europe."

Violent extremism exists in America, the Center for American Progress said in a similar report last year, taking note of a sharp and unexplained rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

"Across the globe, there are terrorists killing in the name of Islam, but a new study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Military Academy shows that Al Qaeda attacks kill eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims," the Washington-based think tank said.

In its research on European attitudes toward Muslims, Amnesty pointed to the rising clout of right-wing political parties that play on citizens' fears of those openly espousing their faith and called on elected leaders to fight the portrayal of Islam as a violent theology. The Italian Northern League, Spain's Platform for Catalonia, the National Front in France and the National Union Attack of Bulgaria, a country where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have lived for centuries, have all gained political followings on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant platforms.

"These parties have instrumentalized public sentiments of anxiety and disenchantment and have contributed to Islam being identified as the 'most significant enemy,' by promoting ideologies of ethnic nationalism and notions of a 'clash of civilizations,' " Amnesty warned.

There is general agreement among Europeans that racial discrimination is unacceptable, "but this isn't the case with discrimination due to religion, especially Islam," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's director for Europe and Central Asia, citing United Nations and Council of Europe research on anti-discrimination laws in member states.

The rights group reported that Muslim women who apply for jobs with their heads or faces covered are routinely passed over or offered positions on condition they remove the veils.

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