Across Europe, a New Culture Clash

A gulf widens between Muslims and those of other faiths.


It doesn't help that the western Europeans grappling with these developments are overwhelmingly unreligious. "There is a popular theory in Europe that the less religious you are, the more enlightened, the more democratic you are," says Özdemir. In Germany, where the chancellor and five of his cabinet members chose to drop the "so help me God" portion of their respective oaths of office, only 3 percent of Protestants routinely attend church on Sundays. In England, Anglicans are now a minority. And in France, there are only 25,000 Roman Catholic priests—most past retirement age—in a country that is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe (5 million in a population of 60 million).

As this population continues to grow into a political force—if Turkey joins the EU, Muslims could account for 1 in 5 Europeans by 2050—the question becomes whether Islam is compatible with the Continent's secular democracies. Kadriye Aydin, a 34-year-old family and immigration lawyer born and raised in Germany, says her Muslim faith and democratic ideals coexist. Many Europeans, she says, "do not understand that it is possible to combine both identities, to be both a Muslim and a European who believes in democracy."

These days, though, European television is packed with exposés of the anti-West preachings by radical Muslim figures, from the Turkish imam caught urging those assembled in a Bavarian prayer room to "take advantage of democracy to further our cause" to another Berlin-based imam asserting that Germans were smelly sinners who would go to hell. Faced with deportation, the imam apologized for "my personal inability to adequately explain some things to the Muslim community without denigrating other cultures and religions."

Such incidents fuel fears that Muslim immigrants are exploiting liberal western values to spread religious radicalism, says Valerie Amiraux, a political scientist specializing in Islam in secular society at the National Center for Scientific Research in Amiens, France. What's more, she says, "after the days of Theo van Gogh, there was a sense that giving a place to multiculturalism may lead to violence and political disorder." Following that murder, parliamentarians in the traditionally liberal Netherlands began calling for mandatory Dutch classes in light of reports that half of Muslims in the Netherlands don't speak the language. Politicians are crafting initiatives to limit low-income housing for new immigrants and restrict the arrival of mail-order Muslim brides from the Middle East. Germany likewise is considering measures to force imams to preach in German.

Yet such laws do little to solve the root causes of the problem, says Gijs von der Fuhr, spokesman for the Amsterdam Migrant Center. The Netherlands, like much of Europe, has made the mistake of long ignoring parallel societies growing in the poor, immigrant neighborhoods. "When you're not integrated, don't speak the language, don't have a job, are living in half ruins—we must not overlook that there is a breeding ground for real violence," says von der Fuhr. It all leaves young Muslims, even those born in Europe, vulnerable to what he calls "garbage can" Islam. A recent survey of third-generation Germans of Turkish origin found that they are far more, not less, dedicated to religion than their grandparents were. And little wonder, says Aydin, who grew up as the only immigrant in a small German village. As a young woman, she was denied a job at a local grocery store because of the veil she wears. Today, she hears often from the Muslim clients she represents, "OK, you don't want us, you don't accept us; we go back to our community."

Increasingly, however, Islamic communities are coming forward to encourage their ranks not to retreat into closed enclaves but to create civic organizations with a political voice. On the heels of the van Gogh murder, some 20,000 Muslims in Cologne, Germany, took to the streets to demonstrate against the violence. In France, the decision to ban headscarves in the public schools also had the effect of galvanizing the Muslim community politically. "Muslims who were not believers but define themselves culturally as Muslim mobilize under the banner of 'I'm a Muslim,' " says Amiraux. But in linking up with other antiracism, pro-equality movements, Amiraux adds, they are becoming more accountable and active participants in the democracies they are accused of rejecting.