Across Europe, a New Culture Clash

A gulf widens between Muslims and those of other faiths.


BERLIN—Told that she couldn't sit in on religion classes for the Muslim students at Rixdorfer Elementary School, Marion Berning went into the classroom anyway on the pretext of fixing a window. What she found stunned and angered her. The teacher was saying that "women are for the house, for the children. And the girls were sitting like this," she says, placing her hands in her lap, slumping her shoulders in an imitation of a meek posture, and casting her eyes downward. "While all of the boys," she is yelling now, "were talking and playing. This is fundamentalism."

Berning isn't a meddler; she is the principal at Rixdorfer, in the Berlin neighborhood known as Little Istanbul. Here, Turkish markets line the streets and Muslim worshipers file into discreet prayer rooms tucked away in back alleys and old railway stations. And these days her job is complicated by a widening gulf among her students. There have been more fights and more name-calling incidents at Rixdorfer, Berning says, since a German court granted a group called the Islamic Federation the right to teach religion classes in Berlin schools, where 8 percent of students are Turkish Muslims. Now, Muslim girls are dropping out of sports classes and field trips, says Berning, and there are fewer friendships between Muslim and non-Muslim students. Although the Islamic Federation is under observation by German officials who suspect it of being an extremist organization, the religion classes continue.

Meanwhile, just down the road from Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park in London, a Christian group offers workshops in heckling Muslim speakers in the basement of a nearby church. One Sunday at the park, a spectator denounced an imam as a Muslim extremist, even though the imam was decrying violence in the name of Islam. The preacher didn't respond, but someone in the crowd did. "Yes, my friend, I am an extremist," the man said. "And I hope my children are extremists, too."

Some verbal exchanges have escalated into fights, leading the British government, with the backing of the Muslim Council of Britain, to consider new laws against inciting religious hatred—laws that could have the effect of restricting free speech in a place long considered one of the world's great locales for open debate.

Across western Europe, religious leaders, educators, and policymakers describe a social collision between Muslims and non-Muslims. At its nucleus, they say, are radically different ideas about what constitutes religious extremism—and what is Islamophobia. Tensions have erupted into open hostility on the heels of several key events—from the debate over European Union membership for Turkey and the ban on headscarves in French schools to the commuter-train bombings in Madrid (linked to a Moroccan terrorist cell) and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, allegedly by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim radical. Some 80 percent of Muslims polled in a recent survey of the Islamic Human Rights Commission reported feeling harassed and discriminated against, up from 35 percent in 1999. "It was really quite shocking for us," says Arzu Merali, the commission's director of research. "Muslims feel under siege."

So do Europeans, who face powerful trends, not just in culture and faith but also in underlying demographics and economics. Old Europe's population is aging, which causes its unfilled jobs and underground economy to attract unemployed young people from the Mideast and North Africa. Immigrants often join an underclass of young, European-born Muslims filling the mosques even as attendance falls at Christian churches. The building of new mosques with traditional minarets is on the rise, from 77 in 2002 to an estimated 141 in 2003 in Germany alone. A bishop emeritus of Germany's Independent Lutherans told one news service, with only a touch of melodrama, that "I fear that we are approaching a situation resembling the tragic fate of Christianity in northern Africa in Islam's early days."

Turkey's EU membership talks have highlighted the fact that nearly one third of Europeans will be over the age of 65 by the year 2050, while Turkey's predominantly youthful population, now 70 million, will grow to nearly 100 million. "When you talk about the debate on Turkey's EU membership, it immediately becomes a talk about headscarf issues and building mosques," says Cem Özdemir, a German of Turkish origin who serves on the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. The underlying issues, he says, are "the unsolved problems of immigration and integration."