Europeans worry that Muslims cannot assimilate

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Debate moving from extremists to more moderate factions.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Europe appears to be crossing an invisible line regarding its Muslim minorities: More people in the political mainstream are arguing that Islam cannot be reconciled with European values.

“You saw what happened with the pope,” said Patrick Gonman, 43, the owner of Raga, a funky wine bar in downtown Antwerp. “He said Islam is an aggressive religion. And the next day, they kill a nun somewhere and make his point.

“Rationality is gone.”

Gonman is hardly an extremist. In fact, he organized a protest last week in which 20 bars and restaurants closed on the night when a far-right party with an anti-Muslim message held a rally nearby.

His worry is shared by centrists across Europe, angry at terror attacks in the name of religion on a continent that has largely abandoned it and disturbed that any criticism of Islam or Muslim immigration provokes threats of violence.


For years, those who raised their voices were mostly on the far right. Now, those normally seen as moderates — ordinary people as well as politicians — are asking whether once unquestioned values of tolerance and multiculturalism should have limits.

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, a prominent Labor politician, seemed to sum up the moment when he wrote last week that he felt uncomfortable addressing women whose faces were covered with a veil. The veil, he wrote, is a “visible statement of separation and difference.”

When Pope Benedict XVI made the speech last month that included a quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor calling aspects of Islam “evil and inhuman,” Muslims berated him for stigmatizing their culture while non-Muslims applauded him for bravely speaking a hard truth.

The line between open criticism of another group or religion and bigotry can be a thin one, and many Muslims worry that it is being crossed more and more.

Whatever the motivations, “the reality is that views on both sides are becoming more extreme,” said Imam Wahid Pedersen, a prominent Dane who is a convert to Islam. “It has become politically correct to attack Islam, and this is making it hard for moderates on both sides to remain reasonable.”

Pedersen fears that onetime moderates are baiting Muslims, the very people they say should integrate into Europe.

The worries about extremism are real. The Belgian far-right party, Vlaams Belang, took 20.5 percent of the vote in city elections Sunday, five percentage points higher than in 2000. In its base of Antwerp, though, its performance improved only slightly, suggesting that its power might be peaking.

In Austria this month, right-wing parties also polled well on a campaign promise that had rarely been made openly: that Austria should start to deport its immigrants. Vlaams Belang, too, has suggested repatriation for immigrants who do not make greater efforts to integrate.

The idea is unthinkable to mainstream leaders, but many Muslims still fear that the day — or at least a debate on the topic — might be only a terror attack away.

“I think the time will come,” said Amir Shafe, 34, a Pakistani who earns a good living selling clothes at a market in Antwerp. He deplores terrorism and said he himself did not sense hostility in Belgium. But, he said, “We are now thinking of going back to our country before that time comes.”

Unable to integrate

By its very nature, Islam makes it extremely difficult for Muslims to integrate. Islam means submission, and the Quran makes it clear that Muslims expect non-Muslims to submit to Islam. Western values are not compatible with Islam. As a result, many Muslims form ghettos and engage in other forms of non-integration. Hair-tricker sensitivities that have Muslim extremists respond to real or perceived insults with death threats, violent demonstrations, murder and terrorism, make it difficult or even impossible for non-Muslims to believe the claim that Islam is a ‘religion of peace.’ Therefore a high birthrate among Muslims, combined with high (legal and illegal) immigration figures, have Europeans and others worried about the Muslims in their midst.

Many experts note that there is a deep and troubled history between Islam and Europe, with the Crusaders and the Ottoman Empire jostling each other for centuries and bloodily defining the boundaries of Christianity and Islam.

A sense of guilt over Europe’s colonial past and World War II, when intolerance exploded into mass murder, allowed a large migration to occur without any uncomfortable debates over the real differences between migrant and host.

Then the terror attacks of Sept. 11 jolted Europe into new awareness and worry.

Subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-born Moroccan, stand as examples of the extreme.

But many Europeans, even those who generally support immigration, have begun talking more bluntly about cultural differences, specifically about Muslims’ deep religious beliefs and social values, which are far more conservative than those of most Europeans on such issues as women’s rights and homosexuality.

“A lot of people, progressive ones — we are not talking about nationalists or the extreme right — are saying, ‘Now we have this religion, it plays a role and it challenges our assumptions about what we learned in the ’60s and ’70s,’ ” said Joost Lagendik, a Dutch member of the European Parliament for the Green Left Party who is active on Muslim issues.

“So there is this fear,” he said, “that we are being transported back in a time machine where we have to explain to our immigrants that there is equality between men and women, and gays should be treated properly. Now there is the idea we have to do it again.”

Perhaps most wrenching has been the issue of free speech and expression and the growing fear that any criticism of Islam could provoke violence.

In Denmark, videos showing anti-immigrant party members mocking the Prophet Muhammad were pulled from Web sites Monday as two youths seen in the clips were reported in hiding, and the Foreign Ministry warned Danes against traveling to much of the Middle East.

In France last month, a high school teacher went into hiding after receiving death threats for writing an article calling Muhammad “a merciless warlord, a looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist.” In Germany, a Mozart opera with a scene of Muhammad’s severed head was canceled because of security fears.

With each incident, mainstream leaders are speaking more plainly.

“Self-censorship does not help us against people who want to practice violence in the name of Islam,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said in criticizing the opera’s cancellation. “It makes no sense to retreat.”

Many Muslims say this new mood is suddenly imposing expectations that never existed before that Muslims be exactly like their European hosts.

Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Lebanese-born activist in Belgium, said that for years, Europeans had emphasized “citizenship and human rights,” the notion that Muslim immigrants had the responsibility to obey the law but could otherwise live with their traditions.

“Then someone comes and says it’s different than that,” said Jahjah, who opposes assimilation. “You have to dump your culture and religion. It’s a different deal now.”

Additional material from The Associated Press.

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The New York Times, via Statesman.com, USA
Oct. 11, 2006
Dan Bilefsky
www.statesman.com

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This post was last updated: Oct. 11, 2006