Cultures collide

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 17, 2006

The Muslims refused to assimilate. They were expelled. This was the story in Europe 400 years ago. We are watching the sequel today.

Europeans are rarely welcoming to outsiders, even when the outsiders are blond and blue-eyed and come from the country next door. When the outsiders are un-European, swarthy and Muslim, they are tolerated at best. When some Muslims also insist that Europeans stop acting like Europeans, on pain of death, European tolerance comes to an end.

In the clash of cultures between secular Europeans and extremist Muslims, there can ultimately be no compatibility or compromise, only loss by one side or the other of the absolute values it holds dear. European capitulation on European soil, where they remain the dominant majority, is unlikely: Europeans revel in their liberty to mock religion, to poke fun at sacred cows, to be outrageous, even to offend.
CREDIT: Abid Katib, Getty Images
Young Muslims protest French
government policy. French
tolerance is waning.

European leaders have reacted to the Muslim upset over the cartoons two ways. Publically and to buy time, they seek to calm the protesters by deploring the abuse of freedom of speech. More significantly, they seek to preserve their societies by legislating Western norms, by tightening or ending immigration from Muslim countries, by enabling the expulsion of radical imans and other Muslim activists, and by raising the spectre of mass deportations.

In France, hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who in October characterized France’s urban rioters as “rabble,” will require non-European immigrants to sign a new “Contract of Welcome and Integration” that spells out their obligations. Among other reforms, the French government will be free to expel immigrants after 10 years. Insular Muslim communities – commonplace today – are outlawed. For immigrants to stay, they will have to demonstrate respect for French norms, such as equality between men and women. “If a wife is kept hostage at home without learning French, the whole family will be asked to leave [the country],” said Mr. Sarkozy, who proposes to rank countries to determine the desirability of their immigrants.

The Danes have brought in immigration laws that are stricter still, all but ending their liberal refugee program and discouraging even temporary workers. In the wake of the cartoon riots, many in Denmark, including those in government, want to see an outright ban on Muslim immigration and to have radical leaders stripped of citizenship and deported. To preserve home-grown values, Danish Minister for Cultural Affairs Brian Mikkelsen recently called for the creation of a “canon of Danish art, music, literature and film.” Last summer, he stated that, “In Denmark we have seen the appearance of a parallel society in which minorities practice their own medieval values and undemocratic views,” adding that, “This is the new front in our cultural war.”

In Germany, which pioneered the guest-worker program in Europe, a sea change has occurred. “Multicultural societies have only . . . functioned peacefully in authoritarian states. To that extent it was a mistake for us to bring guest workers from foreign cultures into the country at the beginning of the 1960s,” said former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Germany’s new Chancellor, Angela Merkel, shares his view: “The notion of multiculturalism has fallen apart,” she said prior to her election. “Anyone coming here must respect our constitution and tolerate our Western and Christian roots.”

The Netherlands, which has cut immigration in half since 2001, is deporting 26,000 rejected asylum seekers and keeping new arrivals in detention camps. Under proposed legislation, women will be banned from wearing the burka anywhere in public, not just in schools and public buildings as French legislation has it. “I believe we have been far too tolerant for too long, especially being too tolerant of intolerance, and we only got intolerance back,” said Member of Dutch Parliament Geert Wilders, who has been forced to live in safe houses because of Islamist death threats. According to a recent Pew Global Attitudes poll, 51% of the Dutch view Muslims unfavourably.

Belgium may be less tolerant still. “Islam is now the number one enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world,” states Filip Dewinter, leader of Vlaams Belang (The Flemish Interest), now Belgium’s most popular political party. Mr. Dewinter has gained popularity by arguing that, “it is an illusion to think that a moderate Islam exists in Europe.” He states: “There are already 25 million to 30 million Muslims on Europe’s soil, and this becomes a threat. It’s a real Trojan horse.”

Many Europeans fear their Muslim populations. In Switzerland, 25% consider Muslims a threat to their country. In Italy, half the population believes a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is underway and that Islam is “a religion more fanatical than any other.”

The fear debilitates but it also stiffens resolve. The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, backs the Danish government’s refusal to apologize for the cartoons, saying, “It’s better to publish too much than not to have freedom.” France’s Sarkozy prefers “an excess of cartooning to an excess of censorship.” Italy’s Northern League Party, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition government, printed T-shirts sporting the cartoons in advance of elections in April. The U.K. this week passed legislation broadening the right of free speech, no matter how offensive, barring a specific intent to provoke hatred.

Europe’s Muslims now know that they are expected to integrate or to depart. Four centuries ago, after decades of threats of expulsion, forced conversions and other failed attempts to assimilate Muslims, complaints about them – their use of Arabic, their clothes, their rejection of Western culture – were similar. “They marry among themselves and do not mix with Old Christians,” complained one report of Spain’s Moriscos (Muslims who had undergone forced conversions to Christianity). Riots by Muslims at offences perpetrated upon them added to tensions. In the end, still not assimilated, most were expelled.

Lawrence Solomon, author of the forthcoming book Toronto Sprawls, is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and Consumer Policy Institute, divisions of Energy Probe Research Foundation.; www.urban.probeinternational.org

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