PARIS – European laws on what girls and women wear on their heads are encouraging discrimination against Muslims and against a religion that has been part of Europe's fabric for centuries, Amnesty International says in a new report.
Extremist political movements targeting Muslim practices for criticism have enjoyed a rise in several European countries -- as witnessed by French far right leader Marine Le Pen's surprisingly strong showing in presidential elections this week.
In that climate, the Amnesty report released Tuesday lists a raft of examples of discrimination against Muslims from Spain to the Netherlands and Turkey, spurred on by laws viewed as anti-Islam.
The report, titled "Choice and Prejudice," pays special attention to national laws or local rules against wearing headscarves or face-covering Islamic veils. France and Belgium ban them outright, as do some towns in Spain and elsewhere.
"Amnesty International is concerned that states have focused so much in recent years on the wearing of full-face veils, as if this practice were the most widespread and compelling form of inequality women in Europe have to face," the report says.
Proponents, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, say face-covering veils imprison women and violate France's values of equality. France also bans headscarves in schools.
The niqab, a veil with just a slit for the eyes, and the burqa, with a mesh covering for the eyes, are worn only by a very small minority of European Muslims. But banning them creates an atmosphere of suspicion of anyone with visibly Islamic dress, the Amnesty report says.
It cites French Muslim women who wear headscarves, which cover the hair but leave the face exposed, as saying they have experienced epithets and public pressure since Sarkozy started calling for a face-veil ban.
The human rights group spoke to Muslims who have had trouble getting jobs or had to change schools because of discrimination over their head coverings.
The report says Spain and Switzerland, in particular, don't have strong enough laws against discrimination. Switzerland has banned the construction of new minarets.
In Spain, Amnesty highlighted cases in the northeastern region of Catalonia where Muslims are sometimes obliged to pray in the street because their congregations have grown too big for existing mosques, yet permission to build new ones is denied because local residents have objected. It said at least 40 disputes over new mosques had arisen in Catalonia between 1990 and 2008.
Belgium has seen several legal disputes in recent years involving Muslims who say they lost work because of their headscarves, and Muslim communities barred from building a minaret for their mosques because "this doesn't fit the landscape," said Mehmet Saygin of moderate group Muslim Vigilance.
Amnesty urges European authorities to allow mosque-building regardless of whether non-Muslim residents disagree.
"If a proposed Muslim place of worship meets all requirements, public authorities should not deny authorization solely on the grounds that some people living locally may not want a mosque in their neighborhood," it says.
Many Europeans wrongly assume all Muslims are immigrants, even though Islam has been a leading religion in Europe for centuries, the report notes. That makes the discrimination especially painful for the millions of Muslims born in Europe who are told to "go home" -- when they have no other "home" to flee to.
In France, candidate Le Pen and her anti-immigrant National Front party have singled out Muslim practices such as ritual slaughter of animals for criticism.
Conservative Sarkozy has borrowed from Le Pen's rhetoric as he heads into a runoff vote May 6 with Socialist Francois Hollande. Le Pen scored a strong third place in Sunday's first-round election, handing her party new political influence ahead of parliamentary elections in June.
European Union officials warned this week against flirting too much with the extreme right and sacrificing European unity, built on the ashes of World War II.
One of the most vivid signs that European authorities have failed to root out a growing Islamophobia was the massacre in Norway last year by a man who fears Muslims are taking over Europe. Images of him defending his rampage in court have been televised across the continent over the past week.