October 11, 2006
Across Europe, Worries on Islam Spread to Center
By DAN BILEFSKY and IAN FISHER
BRUSSELS, Oct. 10 — 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, 25 miles from here. “He said Islam is an aggressive religion. And the next day they kill a nun somewhere and make his point.
“Rationality is gone.”
Mr. 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 calling aspects of Islam “evil and inhuman,” it seemed to unleash such feelings. 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.” Mr. 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 last Sunday, five percentage points higher than in 2000. In Antwerp, its base, though, its performance improved barely, suggesting to some experts 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 made 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 — may be 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.”
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 then 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, 2001, jolted Europe into new awareness and worry.
The subsequent bombings in Madrid and London, and the murder of the 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 issues like 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 60’s and 70’s,’ ” 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.”
Now Europeans are discussing the limits of tolerance, the right with increasing stridency and the left with trepidation.
Austrians in their recent election complained about public schools in Vienna being nearly full with Muslim students and blamed the successive governments that allowed it to happen.
Some Dutch Muslims have expressed support for insurgents in Iraq over Dutch peacekeepers there, on the theory that their prime loyalty is to a Muslim country under invasion.
So strong is the fear that Dutch values of tolerance are under siege that the government last winter introduced a primer on those values for prospective newcomers to Dutch life: a DVD briefly showing topless women and two men kissing. The film does not explicitly mention Muslims, but its target audience is as clear as its message: embrace our culture or leave.
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 France last month, a high school teacher went into hiding after receiving death threats for writing an article calling the Prophet 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.”
The backlash is revealing itself in other ways. Last month the British home secretary, John Reid, called on Muslim parents to keep a close watch on their children. “There’s no nice way of saying this,” he told a Muslim group in East London. “These fanatics are looking to groom and brainwash children, including your children, for suicide bombing, grooming them to kill themselves to murder others.”
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 here 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 Mr. Jahjah, who opposes assimilation. “You have to dump your culture and religion. It’s a different deal now.”
Lianne Duinberke, 34, who works at a market in the racially mixed northern section of Antwerp, said: “Before I was very eager to tell people I was married to a Muslim. Now I hesitate.” She has been with her husband, a Tunisian, for 12 years, and they have three children.
Many Europeans, she said, have not been accepting of Muslims, especially since 9/11. On the other hand, she said, Muslims truly are different culturally: No amount of explanation about free speech could convince her husband that the publication of cartoons lampooning Muhammad in a Danish newspaper was in any way justified.
When asked if she was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Muslim immigration in Europe , she found it hard to answer. She finally gave a defeated smile. “I am trying to be optimistic,” she said. “But if you see the global problems before the people, then you really can’t be.”
Dan Bilefsky reported from Brussels, and Ian Fisher from Rome. Contributing were Sarah Lyall and Alan Cowell from London, Mark Landler from Frankfurt, Peter Kiefer from Rome, Renwick McLean from Madrid and Maia de la Baume from Paris.