It would be foolish to conflate a few isolated incidents but to dismiss them as aberrations would be to deny the prejudice Muslims face across Europe.
A British Minister walks out of a Muslim constituent’s wedding protesting against segregation of male and female guests; a prominent moderate Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, is hounded out of not one but two separate jobs for hosting a show on an Iranian television channel; aggressive right-wing campaigners in Switzerland demand removal of minarets from all mosques; and French President Nicolas Sarkozy calls for a ban on wearing burqa in public.
These incidents, occurring within days of each other in recent weeks in different parts of Europe, have coincided with a rash of new books portraying European Muslims in the darkest possible colour. Their alarmist tone has reminded many of the sort of things once written about European Jews.
Are these simply isolated events? Or is Europe in the grip of a new wave of Islamophobia?
First, the books described by writer and critic Pankaj Mishra in a long polemical article in The Guardian as works of “Eurabia-mongers” who believe that Europe is about to be “over-run” by Muslims with at least one American writer claiming that they are already “conquering Europe’s cities, street by street.”
A common theme running through these books is that Europe’s 53 million-strong Muslim population is a “demographic time-bomb” which needs to be defused immediately if the continent does not want to end up as “Eurabia.” The solution is simple if stark: keep Muslims out of Europe and, if necessary, throw them out. Some of the suggestions on how to deal with the Muslim “problem” amount to ethnic cleansing.
For flavour, consider this chilling passage from Canadian commentator Mark Steyn’s book America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It: “In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography — except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out — as other Continentals will in the years ahead; if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.”
American writer Bruce Bawer’s new book Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom, which has been hailed as “an essential wake-up call” for the West (New York Times Book Review called it “unquestionably correct”), is a vitriolic attack on European liberals, including sections of the liberal media, who — it argues — have been driven by a combination of fear and political correctness to appease radical Islam at the cost of their “most cherished values.”
And then there is American journalist Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Can Europe be the Same with Different People in it?, which likens the “threat” to Europe from Muslim immigrants to the situation in Russia on the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. If anything, there were “probably fewer Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 than there are Islamists in Europe today,” Mr. Caldwell writes. He warns that Europe is in danger of losing to its Muslim minorities what, in effect, is a “clash of civilisations.”
The book has been widely acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, a measure — as Mr. Mishra points out — of how such toxic anti-Muslim views are becoming increasingly mainstream, often lapped up even by liberal opinion-makers. It is against this background that there has been a temptation among Muslims to see a “pattern” in the events mentioned in the beginning of this article. “Pattern” or no pattern, they do indicate how fraught the mood is.
Take the “stop-the-minaret” campaign in Switzerland. The European skyline is dotted with domes, spires and minarets but it says something about the current climate that for the first time such a public campaign has been launched. More than 1,00,000 Swiss are reported to have signed a petition in support of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party’s demand for a ban on minarets forcing the government to call a referendum in November.
Campaigners say a minaret is a “symbol of Islamic power” and amounts to an “ideological intrusion” into the Swiss way of life. “They are symbols of a desire for power, of an Islam which wants to establish a legal and social order fundamentally contrary to the liberties guaranteed in our constitutions,” Ulrich Schuler, an SVP MP says.
Muslims, however, believe that it is not a campaign about how a mosque should look like but a veiled prelude to demanding a ban on mosques themselves. “Today, they want minarets to be banned — tomorrow they will say they don’t want mosques in their midst,” a Muslim leader is quoted as saying.
So far, though, the Muslim reaction in Switzerland has been muted but there are fears that if a ban is approved in the referendum, it could be seized by militant groups to whip up Muslim sentiment.
The sacking of Mr. Ramadan, a Swiss national, from his jobs as community adviser to the city of Rotterdam and visiting lecturer on religion at Erasmus University, has caused a great deal of surprise. Quite apart from the fact that he is one of the most respected moderate Muslim voices in Europe (hailed by some as an “Islamic Martin Luther King”) who has been trying, in his own quiet way, to confront extremism, it is the grounds on which he was stripped of his posts that have raised eyebrows.
Mr. Ramadan was thrown out for “disregarding” Dutch public opinion over Iran’s “rigged” presidential election by refusing to give up a programme he hosts on the London-based Iranian television channel PressTV. In a statement that ironically sounded more like a missive from Iranian censors, his employers said he had “failed sufficiently to realise the feelings that participation in this television programme ... might provoke in Rotterdam and beyond.”
Mr. Ramadan claimed he had publicly condemned the repression of pro-democracy protesters in Iran and backed the campaign for “transparency and respect for human rights.” His programme, he said, debated a range of issues, including freedom and inter-faith dialogue, and challenged his critics to produce the “slightest evidence of support for the Iranian regime.”
There is a view that the PressTV show was simply a pretext for humiliating a man whom the European political establishment has always regarded with suspicion because of his ancestry. Mr. Ramadan’s grandfather was Hassan al-Banna, a controversial figure in radical Islam and one of the founders of Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamic revival movement.
This has coloured his critics’ reading of Mr. Ramadan’s argument for a “European Islam” which would combine Islamic teachings with respect for European laws. Some see in it what one British commentator called a “puzzling ambivalence.” What is often forgotten is that Mr. Ramadan’s ancestry also has a liberal strand: his granduncle Gamal al-Banna was a great Muslim reformist leader. Ultimately, though, it is not about Mr. Ramadan losing his jobs but about the message the humiliation of moderate Muslims like him will send out to those who are convinced (and have indeed been preaching) that the West will never trust Muslims, no matter how moderate. They will, of course, be delighted.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Jim Fitzpatrick, the Minister who stormed out of a Muslim wedding protesting against the “segregation” of men and women, has been accused of “cultural insensitivity” and, worse, playing the “race card” to appease white working class voters in the run-up to next year’s general election. The latter accusation came not from the local Muslim community but from a prospective Tory candidate Tim Archer, who said: “I can’t help but feel he’s playing a certain race card to save his skin at the next election. I think it’s a desperate strategy.”
Mr. Archer’s attack on a political rival need not be taken seriously and there is no evidence that the Minister is either racist or an Islamophobe (if that were so, he wouldn’t have been an MP from an area where 35 per cent voters are Bangladeshi Muslims). But the suspicion remains that his behaviour was not entirely innocent. He acted the way he did because (the denials notwithstanding) it is an open season on Muslims; and their “primitive” cultural practices have become a soft target for anyone looking for easy headlines in the “struggle” to protect the western way of life.
Mr. Fitzpatrick’s argument against gender segregation is valid but he was wrong to give the impression that Muslims alone cling to such a “strange” practice, as he put it. Separation of sexes at certain private functions such as services and weddings is believed to be common among Orthodox Jews, and some other religious groups.
It would be foolish to conflate incidents which may be no more than just local difficulties and blow them up into an anti-Muslim conspiracy. Yet to dismiss them as an aberration would be to deny the prejudice that Muslims face across Europe.