Europe’s war against Islam

Attacks on religious freedoms are going mainstream

Europe's war against IslamPerhaps it is fitting that it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who came to the defence of the Swiss, who voted in November to ban the construction of new minarets in their country. Sarkozy’s father was an immigrant to France, and his mother’s ancestors included Ottoman Sephardic Jews from Thessalonica. Sarkozy’s father abandoned his family and refused to help them financially. Sarkozy grew up poorer than his peers and resented it. “What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood.”

He was, in other words, something of an outsider. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that he might be predisposed to sympathy toward the millions of other outsiders now trying to find their place in Europe—the continent’s growing Muslim population. Yet Sarkozy reacted to the Swiss vote by urging that it be respected. “Instead of condemning the Swiss out of hand, we should try to understand what they meant to express and what so many people in Europe feel, including people in France,” he wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde. “Nothing would be worse than denial.” He urged French Muslims, who make up four per cent of France’s population and are more numerous than in any other country in Europe, not to challenge France’s Christian heritage and republican values.

Sarkozy, a populist politician, was simply reflecting widespread popular discomfort about Islam in Europe. A 2008 survey funded by the Germany Marshall Fund of the United States found that more than 50 per cent of respondents in Germany, Italy, Holland, and France believe that “Western and Muslim ways of life are irreconcilable.” Another study, by the Pew Research Center, revealed an increase in negative views toward Muslims and Jews in Europe from 2004 to 2008. (Attitudes towards Muslims and Jews in the United States improved during the same time period.)

Some sort of symbolic demonstration was likely inevitable. But the Swiss never looked like obvious candidates to launch what is arguably the most illiberal and bigoted legislation Europe has seen in years.

Switzerland hasn’t suffered an Islamist terror attack. And Swiss Muslims, who make up about five per cent of the population, are more integrated and upwardly mobile than Muslims elsewhere in Europe. Most Swiss Muslims come from Turkey, Albania, and the former Yugoslavia. Few are radical or even all that conservative. Women who hide their faces behind Islamic niqabs are a common sight in east London, but not in Berne.

Islam’s presence isn’t that visible in Swiss architecture, either. In the entire country, there are a grand total of four minarets—the steeple-like spires that often adorn mosques where Muslims pray. But that was four too many for the Swiss. More than 57 per cent of participating voters approved the proposed ban, with majorities in 22 out of 26 cantons supporting the constitutional amendment.

The conservative Swiss People’s Party spearheaded the referendum campaign. Their anti-immigrant public relations campaigns in the past have included posters depicting three white sheep kicking a black one off of a Swiss flag. This time around, their posters featured a sinister-looking woman in a black burka standing before a Swiss flag riddled with missile-like minarets.

Those supporting a minaret ban pointed to a poem Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited more than 10 years ago that compares minarets to bayonets. But the vote wasn’t really about minarets, or architectural harmony, or even, as some have suggested, the Swiss thumbing their noses at political and media elites who assured them that the responsible thing to do would be to reject the proposed ban.

“The minarets are an excuse,” says Stefano Allievi, a sociologist at the University of Padua. “The issue is Islam.”

According to Clive Church, an emeritus professor at the University of Kent, many Swiss are slow to accept foreigners. Citizenship can be denied to third-generation Swiss residents, whose grandparents immigrated decades ago. There is also anger in Switzerland over the arrest in Libya of two Swiss businessmen who were detained in 2008, shortly after Geneva police arrested Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s son and his son’s wife on suspicion that they beat their domestic staff. Gadhafi’s son and daughter-in-law were quickly freed, while the Swiss businessmen were jailed for more than a year before they were released on bail in November. (They have since been convicted of immigration offences and sentenced to 16-month jail terms.) Some Swiss anger over this affair was channelled into the movement to ban minarets.

Still, it would be wrong to portray the minaret vote as some sort of freak storm that will soon dissipate. The vote tapped into a deep well of unease. Already there are moves to build on it. Christophe Darbellay, head of Switzerland’s Christian Democratic People’s Party, wants a ban on separate Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. And the Swiss People’s Party is planning further measures to reverse what one of its MPs describes as the Islamicization of the country. “Voters gave a strong signal to stop the claim to power by political Islam at the expense of our laws and values,” Adrian Amstutz told a news agency. “Forced marriages, female circumcision, special dispensation from swimming lessons, and the burka are top of the list.”

Elsewhere on the continent, the Swiss vote has intensified a debate as Europeans grapple with the fact that the demographic makeup of their countries is changing rapidly, and likely forever. Many want to halt this transformation, or at least erase its most visible manifestations.

One in four Swedes is in favour of banning the construction of more minarets. In Italy, a member of the Northern League, which is a junior partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, called for a vote to ban minarets modelled after the Swiss referendum. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the Northern League, says he would have “no objections.” A nationwide vote may not be necessary. Allievi, the Italian sociologist, says mosques in northern Italy frequently have their electricity and water cut off. The official explanation is that they have transgressed fire or zoning bylaws. “The real reason is they detest Islam,” he says.

Protesters in 2006 left a severed pig’s head outside a mosque being built in Tuscany. The following year, those opposed to the construction of a mosque in Padua paraded a pig around the site to “desecrate” the soil for Muslims. Roberto Calderoli, a Northern League senator, has called for a “Pig Day” to protest the construction of a mosque in Bologna.

Opposition to visible signs of Islam in Germany is rarely so explicit. Anti-mosque rallies draw more police than activists. One last year brought out a handful of anti-Islam protesters, and some 40,000 supporters. But, says, Josef Joffe, editor of the German newsweekly Die Zeit, “We do this more subtly.” People are unlikely to complain about the mosque itself, but rather the resulting noise or lack of parking.

In France, where a law already prevents French students from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols at state schools, a parliamentary panel is exploring possible laws that would forbid women from wearing burkas. Sarkozy has voiced his support for such a ban. “The burka,” he said, “is not a sign of religion. It is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.” Last month, the country’s justice minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said that men who force their wives to wear burkas should not be granted French citizenship. “There are a certain number of basics on which we must stand firm,” she said. “For instance, someone whose wife wears the full veil is someone who would not appear to be sharing the values of our country.”

France’s former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has accused the government of starting a “barroom discussion” about identity. This is probably a good thing—at least until the discussion moves from the bar to the gutter outside, where several political parties have set up camp and are seeking to exploit tensions regarding Islam’s growth in Europe.

The far-right National Front in France has, predictably, called for a referendum, but one that would extend beyond the simple issue of minarets to include immigration and the impact of religious and ethnic minorities on French society. In Holland, Geert Wilders, the platinum-haired leader of the Party for Freedom, has seen his popularity soar on the strength of an unequivocal stand against Islam. Never mind minarets. He wants to ban the Quran.

The British National Party, a far-right organization that is only now moving toward allowing non-white members (because Britain’s Human Rights Commission threatened legal action), today focuses its vitriol almost exclusively against Muslims. “To go anywhere near inciting racial hatred is grotesquely unfair because no one can change how they are born,” BNP chairman Nick Griffin has said. “On the other hand, to criticize a religion in much stronger terms—even if it does cross the line imposed by law—I think is entirely justifiable, because everybody has the choice to change a religion if it’s bad.”

Griffin describes Islam as “a wicked, vicious faith” and “a cancer eating away at our freedoms and our democracy and rights for our women.” This June, the BNP won two seats in the European Parliament. The party is poised to accept its first non-white member, Rajinder Singh, a septuagenarian Sikh who hates Muslims. “He is perhaps the kind of immigrant you want, if you are going to have them,” a BNP spokesman says.

At issue is a question of national identity—what it means to be Dutch, or French, or German, or Italian. “The big problem in Europe is that the way we create identities is unlike how it is done in classic immigration nations like the United States, Canada, and Australia,” says Jan Techau, director of the Europe program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “We have not developed any kind of mechanism that allows people from all over the place to enter our societies, play by a certain set of rules, and become one of us.”

Indeed, many of the Muslims in continental European countries are the descendants of migrants who arrived a generation or two ago as “guest workers.” They were never meant to stay, and therefore little effort was made to integrate them. But they did stay. And they had children who are now considered foreigners despite their native birth. Often without citizenship, they have little stake in the political process, and withdraw into isolated Muslim enclaves that are common in dozens of European cities.

It would be wrong, however, to blame this segregation solely on the host societies. Integration is not always sought by European Muslims, either. Many mosques and Muslim organizations in Britain, for example, have ties to South Asian Islamist groups that discourage friendly interaction with non-believers. In some European Muslim communities, brides are imported from poor and backward villages in North Africa. They arrive too late to attend school and have little opportunity to learn the language, get a job, or become part of the larger society.

“It takes two to tango,” says Joffe. “The indigenous have to be more generous about accepting ‘the Other’ and his unfamiliar ways. The newcomers have to adapt to local mores: don’t drop out of school, learn a trade, become a bit like us, try exogamy, don’t build mosques that are higher than the church steeple next door, don’t live in ‘parallel universes,’ as a classic shibboleth has it. This is going to be a long bargaining process—painful for both sides, but absolutely necessary.”

For several years, Usama Hasan, a part-time imam at the al-Tawhid mosque in east London and a professor of artificial intelligence at Middlesex University, has been trying to encourage the growth of a “Western, British Islam” that is both modern and moderate, and rejects the cultural and political baggage of South Asia and the Middle East. Last year, he helped launch the Quilliam Foundation, which dubs itself the “world’s first counter-extremism think tank,” and whose founders are ex-Islamists who now reject the ideology they once followed. “It’s worrying, this kind of development,” Hasan said of the Swiss referendum in an interview with Maclean’s. “It underlines the need for more dialogue, more interaction, more balanced and sane voices to speak up. That’s the only way forward after this.”

Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss author and academic, blamed the minaret ban partly on his compatriots’ fear of Islam. “While European countries are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic—and it’s scary,” he wrote in the wake of the vote. But Ramadan also blamed his fellow Swiss Muslims for their passive role in the debate, for not engaging with their countrymen. “I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective Western societies,” he said.

Integration won’t be easy. And there are many European Muslims and non-Muslims who don’t appear to want it. But it’s difficult to imagine a stable and harmonious continent unless this occurs. Those who want to ban minarets might not want to acknowledge it, but Islam is now a European religion.

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