Secular Europeâ€™s fundamental test
By Aslam Abdullah
When the renowned German Opera in Berlin cancelled Idomeneo in September amid security fears that its content might offend Muslims, the move triggered weeks of continental convulsions.
The self-censorship came at a sensitive time. Muslims were outraged at Pope Benedict XVI for linking Islam with violence during a speech in Germany. And earlier in the year, Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (s) had caused riots in some Muslim countries.
Berlinâ€™s opera officials feared a climactic scene added in a 2003 version of the opera might further inflame passions. It depicts the King of Creteâ€™s revolt against the gods by displaying the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus Christ (as), Prophet Muhammad (s) and the mythical Greek god Poseidon.
The cancellation unleashed a predictable chorus, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on freedom of expression and a threat to Europe as we know it.
Opera officials reversed their decision and Germanyâ€™s political class came out in force under tight security on Dec. 18 to attend the premiere. The evening went ahead peacefully with not a Muslim protestor in sight.
Politicians congratulated themselves on having upheld a cherished value and the subtext was as clear as a tenorâ€™s squillo: the perils of fundamentalist Islam had been beaten back.
Lost in the applause was the fact that Germanyâ€™s Muslim leaders had never asked for the showâ€™s cancellation.
Ganging up on Islam is a sign of the times in Europe. Whether itâ€™s British cabinet ministers launching an attack on the veil, the Netherlands proposing to ban the head-to-toe-covering burqa, or France banning headscarves in schools, all forced tense national debates over a tiny, almost invisible minority of women.
These issues are certainly topics for discussion in a continent where the integration of 15 million Muslims is probably the most pressing challenge. But the message too often, even in countries with a multicultural model, is that citizens canâ€™t be Europeans and devout Muslims at the same time.
From the xenophobic right, at least, the overtones at times suggest Muslim hordes back at the gates of Vienna after a 400-year reprieve. But the clash isnâ€™t so much between Christianity and Islam, as between Islam and Europeâ€™s dominant faith, secular humanism.
Christianity is part of Europeâ€™s heritage. But like the King of Crete, Europe long ago attacked religion, with the guillotines of the French Revolution and the Enlightenmentâ€™s prophets of reason. Even Pope Benedict, during a recent trip to Turkey, suggested an alliance with Islam to combat secularism, described as the scourge of contemporary times.
Perhaps the pontiff was recalling the decision of Osloâ€™s local authorities six years ago, when they first granted Muslims the right to call the faithful to prayer through loudspeakers. They balanced it off with permission for atheists to shout from the rooftops, â€œGod does not exist.â€
A recent poll found that 85 per cent of Muslim schoolchildren in France considered religion an extremely important part of their identity, compared with 35 per cent of non-Muslim students.
Yet France is the most extreme example in Europe of secularism as a condition of citizenship. When mainly Muslim youths undertake the yearly ritual of torching their suburban ghettos and demanding they be fully accepted as French citizens, itâ€™s not just their poverty theyâ€™re protesting. Integration doesnâ€™t prevent riots or terrorism, but it certainly reduces the pool of recruits to the cause. Nowhere is this more apparent that in the United States.
The White Houseâ€™s disastrous Middle East policy, particularly its war on Iraq, provoked Muslim outrage worldwide and boosted support for extremist views. Yet even widespread detentions of Muslims in the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks didnâ€™t cause a noteworthy spike in homegrown terrorism.
By contrast, bombers have hit London and Madrid, a Dutch filmmaker was butchered in the name of God on the streets of Amsterdam, a noticeable flow of European Muslims are taking up jihad in Iraq, and arrests of suspected plotters is practically a monthly event.
In Britain alone, 99 people await trial on terror-related charges and 1,600 others are actively engaged in promoting attacks at home and abroad, according to MI5 intelligence.
Immigration patterns made it easier for the U.S. to integrate its Muslim population, estimated at anywhere from three to seven million people. They were better educated and more affluent than Muslim migrants to Europe, and today tend to be better off financially than the average American family.
With few exceptions, European governments spent decades using Turkish and North African immigrant â€œguest workersâ€ for cheap labor. Neglect, and a belief that they would one day return home, meant they got little help to integrate.
Last year, the Paris-based Montaigne Institute conducted an experiment: It responded to job ads with identical CVs and found that CVs with â€œtraditionalâ€ French names got five times as many replies as those with Arab names.
Yet since 9/11, European politicians have defined the problem of integration not in terms of economic and social barriers but in terms of religion.
American Muslims also face a disturbing amount of â€œIslamophobia.â€ But in a country where the dollar bill proclaims trust in God and Bible study groups are held in the White House, the notion religion might be a barrier to integration is inconceivable. Simply put, Muslims feel more at home in God-fearing America than in atheist Europe.
â€œIf the message they hear from us is that the necessary condition for being European is to abandon their religion, then they will choose not to be European,â€ writes Timothy Gordon Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University.
Muslims have much to do to help their integration. An attitude of victimization is setting in that risks seeing Muslims accept their marginal status, indeed wear it as a badge of honour. More effort is needed to develop a European brand of Islam, which fully incorporates values of democracy, tolerance and equality, and is preached by homegrown imams.
Reform is all the harder, however, in an atmosphere where even Tony Blair, a devout Christian, is reluctant to publicly profess his faith. In the run-up to the Iraq war, when a journalist asked about rumours that he prayed with Bush, the British prime minister allowed his chief spin doctor to cut off the question with a blunt, â€œIâ€™m sorry, we donâ€™t do God.â€
The sooner Europe accepts that many of its Muslim citizens are legitimately â€œdoing God,â€ the better.