Eight months ago, Shammi Begum started covering her hair. The 21-year-old British-born student from Luton, northwest of London, had been seeking ways to reflect her Islamic faith in her daily life, so she recently began to wear a headscarf in the traditional Muslim gesture of female modesty. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Begum's hajib suddenly became as much a source of anxiety as of pride. "I am afraid to be walking by myself, especially in the evening," she says. "You can't help having that fear inside you."
Little wonder. In the days following the attacks, members of Europe's estimated 11 million-strong Muslim community found themselves subjected to verbal abuse, the defacement and burning of mosques, and physical assaults. The problem has not reached the scale it has in the U.S., where several hundred incidents of harassment have been reported. But in the U.K., where the backlash has been at its worst, an Afghan taxi driver was left paralyzed after three passengers beat him up, and a 19-year-old British woman was set upon by two men wielding a baseball bat. Mosques and community centers in at least five British cities have been vandalized or petrol-bombed, and worshipers pelted with stones and abuse, since the terrorist attacks. In Germany, verbal and physical abuse has been reported and an attempted arson attack made on a mosque, while the Central Council of Muslims in Cologne has received a flurry of vicious e-mails, calls and faxes. And even in countries like France and Belgium, where no major incidents have surfaced since the attacks, much of the Islamic community is on its guard.
Muslim women and children, say community leaders, have borne much of the verbal abuse. Nada Shakaki, a Vienna housewife and mother of three who has spent 23 years in Austria, was invited last week to discuss the meaning of Islam on local chat shows. Even so, when she ventured out in her traditional veil, a passer-by called her a terrorist. According to Aydan özoguz, a Social Democratic candidate for Hamburg state elections later this month, a Muslim child late for school the day after the attacks was taunted by her teacher that her family had celebrated too long the previous night. London's state-funded Muslim Islamia School received threatening telephone calls and closed its doors for a week.
Some Muslims complained that press coverage of the attacks and their aftermath was fueling the antipathy. "The media are always referring to 'Muslim terrorists,'" says Shakaki. "They put all Muslims in the same basket." Others complained that too much space was given to the views of extremist groups. Says Mohammed Afzal Khan, a councilor in Manchester in northern England: "These small fringe groups don't represent mainstream Muslim views." But they do know how to draw attention to themselves. In London, a gathering of extremist Muslim groups, including supporters of the vocal Al-Muhajiroun, encouraged the people of Pakistan to use nuclear force against America and vowed to start World War III if Afghanistan were attacked.
Even as politicians called for understanding and restraint and in some cases protection for Muslim communities they started to take a hard look at radical Islamic activity within their borders. The British government has already proscribed 21 radical groups, and more names may be added to the list. Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel voiced concern that his country had been too liberal in allowing fundamentalist schools to operate and suggested that the government exercise some kind of control over their course content. The German government, with the support of Muslim organizations in general, introduced a bill that permits officials to outlaw Islamic associations formerly protected by a religious privilege dating from 1964 that abuse their status to engage in criminal activity. And in Italy, members of the anti-immigration Northern League, a junior member of the government coalition, distributed pamphlets in Venice featuring a picture of Osama bin Laden and the caption: "Illegal Immigrants Mean Islamic Terrorists."
Muslim community groups say they have received many messages of friendship and support from across the political and religious spectrum. But they worry that sporadic instances of abuse and attack will deteriorate into organized violence once military operations are under way. "If there is an escalation," says the chairman of Germany
s Islamic Council, Hasan zdogan, "it might very well happen that normal people in the street start fighting as well."