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Why 'Islamophobia' is less thinly veiled in Europe

How anti-Muslim sentiment is different in European countries than in America.

By Staff writer / September 5, 2010

A German youth carried a national flag and an anti-Islamic sign during a march in opposition to the building of a mosque in Cologne, Germany, in 2009.

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

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London and Paris

Rooful Ali is an accountant who commutes, "suited and booted," to his corporate office in London from Northamptonshire, England, where he grew up in a Bangladeshi family. His avocation is photography. But he also finds time to direct the first Europe-wide association of Muslim professionals.

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The group includes marine biologists, lawyers, professors, astrophysicists, executives, doctors, artists, and political and civic figures in 10 countries – chosen for their accomplishments. They give inspirational talks and mentoring workshops for young people in the Muslim community.

Mr. Ali is part of a second generation of Muslims just starting to get traction in Europe. It is a generation that drives their kids to school, worries about office deadlines, loves sports, participates in the arts, and owns businesses. Ali and some of the 70 others in his professional network believe that Muslims can give something to European society by acting as role models within their own community.

Yet in the current political and social climate in Europe – where a larger and more visible Muslim presence is causing a backlash – they face strong head winds. Not only is mainstream Europe looking more askance at Muslims, but younger Muslims with higher expectations and hope for belonging are growing more restless.

"Much of the depiction of Muslims is without sufficient knowledge," Ali says. "Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban – that's how we are seen. It's sad. We would like to showcase who we are in a good way."

VIDEO: American Muslims on misconceptions about Islam

It is Europe, not the United States, where the West and Islam exist in closest daily proximity. Some 20 million to 30 million Muslims live here, making up about 4 percent of the population compared with less than 1 percent in America. Mosques, once an urban phenomenon, are found in far corners of the Continent. Muslims are more visible on European streets, and most are not professionals, but work in retail, agriculture, food service, and labor.

In the US, the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero has brought some of the most visible instances of public Islam-bashing, mostly on the right side of the political spectrum – a departure from the line taken by President Bush after 9/11 not to equate Islam with terrorism.

But in Europe a pushback against immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, has been under way for much longer. A postwar Europe long priding itself on cosmopolitan tolerance is facing a population seen as different – at a time of concern about the economy, jobs, and when mainstream Europe isn't quite sure about its security and its future.