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."
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.
And when potentially inflammatory incidents crop up, European organizations, in cooperation with Muslim counterparts, are becoming more proactive. After some Dutch Moroccans were accused of shouting anti-Semitic slogans during a World War II memorial ceremony, the Amsterdam Migrant Center launched a school program on the contributions of Moroccan soldiers in the liberation of Europe. With that lesson for students, says von der Fuhr, "the Second World War also became their world war."
At the same time, countries across Europe are increasingly working to counteract the negative preaching of the radical imams appealing to disaffected Muslim youth. In France and Britain, there are programs to create "homegrown" imams who can earn anything from vocational certificates to university degrees. The Netherlands has created an imam buddy system, linking volunteers to imams coming from overseas. One imam was paired with a Jewish homosexual student. "Now, he's the only imam I know who has a museum card and rides a bike," says von der Fuhr.
Still, the cultural strains are evident to Nina Muehe, a German with bright-blue eyes who converted to Islam three years ago while doing volunteer work in Africa. After making the decision to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf, she has found that the reaction among friends and strangers ranges from patronizing to prejudiced. Trained as an anthropologist, Muehe never expected to feel so alien. In December, she arrived at a school offering to do mediation counseling for teachers and parents of Muslim students. But when Muehe showed up wearing the headscarf, she was turned away by the principal because of a legal ban on public-school teachers' wearing the hijab. "Now I can see that we as Europeans are tolerant, but only within limits."
There is, experts agree, even more to come. With the appointment of an EU terrorism czar, the adoption of a European arrest warrant, and rapidly increasing government surveillance of Muslim communities in Europe, the suspicions and social collisions, say some, will intensify.
At the offices of the Islamic Federation in Berlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, a leafy, canal-lined residential area for the city's more-established Muslim families, Islamic Federation Chairman Burhan Kesici reports that he, too, has heard about the trouble with the Muslim children at Rixdorfer Elementary. His students have been calling non-Muslim classmates "pork eaters" and the like. This, he acknowledges, is not good. "But there is no more trust left in the German system," says Kesici. "And times have changed. There are more and more Muslim people living here, and [German authorities] have to realize this and change their structures, so the problems don't become worse." Principal Berning, he says, has been in no hurry to work with him. Berning responds that she won't work with radicals, and she often puts down the telephone and walks away from it while Kesici is talking. They are at a stalemate, but 15 more schools in Berlin alone are scheduled to initiate Islamic education classes this year.
And as the sun sets at Speakers' Corner in London, the group of Christian hecklers heads to a nearby KFC to debrief. "We spend all of our time listening to the moderate Muslims, but no one is talking to the radicals," says Jay Smith, who leads the Christian workshops. "It is an ideal way to find out what they're saying." He fears this could all end if the proposed hate laws pass. Muhammed Dawud, pausing for a moment to let a passerby borrow the prayer rug draped over his shoulder, agrees. "Why would you want to have a law that would regulate what people say?" he wonders. "We don't support these laws." Neither does Merali, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, nor a man calling himself Red, a recent immigrant from Morocco who loves coming down to Speakers' Corner. "I think Speakers' Corner is the best thing that I have ever seen in this world for entertainment," he says. "You can talk about religion, and no one can stop you from doing it. And here, you also learn how to discuss things."
And so, in the heart of prime European debating territory, Christians and Muslims have found one point upon which they can agree.