BRUSSELS (Reuters) - People who "look Muslim," especially women in headscarves, have been the main victims of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe since the September 11 attacks on the United States, a European racism body said Thursday. But in a study entitled "Islamophobia in the EU," it said the attacks on New York and Washington had served mainly to ignite prejudices which had smoldered for years.
"September 11 has in some cases merely acted as a detonator of feelings that we have failed to adequately address," Bob Purkiss, chairman of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), told a news conference.
"If it is right for Europe to give a lead where there is ethnic tension (elsewhere) in the world, then it is imperative that it puts its own house in order if it is to be listened to," he said, presenting the study.
After the hijack attacks, blamed on Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and his followers, the EUMC began monitoring anti-Islamic reactions in the EU's 15 member states as well as how national politicians responded to these outbursts.
The study covered the period from September to the end of 2001, well before the recent election gains by far-right anti-immigration parties in France and the Netherlands.
The EUMC said Denmark, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden had all seen a rise in violent racially motivated attacks during the period under study, though most other countries registered only increased verbal abuse.
However, European politicians and community leaders had taken steps to bridge the gaps between Muslims and non-Muslims, mainly in the form of inter-faith meetings and campaigns for intercultural tolerance, it said.
HEADSCARVES RIPPED OFF
In Austria, women with headscarves were "increasingly insulted" and in Denmark one woman wearing a headscarf was thrown out of a taxi for her "alleged responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center" in New York.
Several countries reported that Muslim women had had their headscarves, or hijabs, ripped off or had been spat at.
Male followers of the Sikh religion, who wear turbans, were mistakenly confused with Muslims and suffered attacks in several countries, including Germany, Ireland, Austria and Spain.
Another vulnerable group since September 11 has been asylum seekers. The EUMC called for better official treatment of these people, who it said were often "no more than political capital" in some member states.
The conflict in the Middle East has also provoked racist attacks in Europe against Jews and synagogues, prompting the EUMC to monitor this phenomenon closely too.
The EUMC urged EU member states to take responsibility for minorities living inside their borders and to address the problems of social marginalization and segregation.
"This needs clear leadership and counteractions which are explained to the population," Purkiss said, adding that European leaders needed to reinforce the message of accepting differences while rejecting terrorism.