For long, Europeans have reacted to the aggressive march of Islam like a deer transfixed in the headlights of an onrushing car. The latest terror attack in France that killed 10 journalists and two policemen may undo decades of policy paralysis regarding the radicalised generation of European Muslims while reigniting the debate about Islam’s place in Europe.
The irony is that while mainstream mosques in Europe — and elsewhere — indulge in hate speech and routinely depict Jews among others as pigs, the latest attack was against a satirical non-serious magazine with a tiny readership. It makes you wonder if Islam has a place at all in modern societies like Europe, which separated church and State hundreds of years ago. Increasingly, Europeans are asking that same question.
Last month saw a spate of anti-Islam rallies in Germany. In 2009, Switzerland banned the construction of minarets. In 2010, France prohibited face-covering Islamic headwear in public places, a ban that was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights last year. Poland has forbidden the export of halal meat. Two years ago, German president Joachim Gauck said in a newspaper interview that while German Muslims clearly “belong” to the country, it is less clear whether or not Islam does.
In fact, across Europe there is widespread alarm — and a fair bit of scaremongering — about the continent’s turbulent Muslim minority. Europeans are spooked when they hear about Muslim parents preventing their daughters from attending swimming classes, gymnastics or summer camps in public schools because they don’t want their girls to be together with boys. Europeans find it incredible that female genital mutilation is being practised by Muslim families in cities across the continent.
Eerily, a new book imagining a future France coming under Islamic rule hit French bookshops the same day as the deadly attack. Soumission (Submission) by France’s top author Michel Houellebecq conjures up a France in 2022 where a Muslim president takes power after disturbing scenes of violence, and establishes sharia law under which women are made to wear veils and are excluded from jobs.
Its concept touches on real-life themes already simmering in France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and other EU nations. Some commentators saw Soumission filling the sails of Europe’s far-right. The head of France’s far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, said that while the book was fiction, “it’s a fiction that could one day become reality”.
Across the Atlantic, Tom McInerney, a US military expert, reacting to the terror attack, pointed out the dangers of the rapid increase in Muslim populations worldwide and how it impacts nations. According to McInerney, France, in particular, is hurtling towards disaster as its Muslim population is “approaching 20 percent”. “When they get there, they provoke the culture of the nation they are in, and tell them about the culture they want the nation to adopt,” he told Fox News. “That’s where the political correctness comes.”
However, the biggest casualty of the Paris terror attack is free speech, which is something that Europeans cherish because it has been hard-won. Famous Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, known for his controversial drawings of prophet Mohammed, feels the barbaric attack will impact the freedom of publications to print what they want.
“The problem is that we already have a very high level of censorship when it comes to Islam and religion and things like that,” Vilks told RT. “The consequences of this will be that people become more fearful. I have problems when I have lectures or exhibitions as most things are cancelled because of fright. This occasion here will make things even worse and people will be very scared after what has happened. This could also cause problems with censorship because who would dare to publish anything after what has happened?”
Media outlets like to sidestep controversial issues concerning Islam. Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo were one of the few outlets that published without fear. Things will be different from now on. “This is good for terrorists because they know they can attack one of these few targets. I think a consequence is now there will be even less of these (magazines),” Vilks said.
Vilks only has to look at publishing houses in India. The mainstream media here has gone completely politically correct owing to such fears. Most editors who work in and around Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg often warn their copydesk teams not to publish anything controversial about Muslims because the Muslim-majority Old Delhi area is dangerously close.
In fact, in 1956 India was plunged into the bitterest communal riots since Partition, resulting in the death of 23 Hindus and Muslims. According to TIME magazine, “The riots ripped the delicate fabric of peaceful Hindu-Muslim relations and dealt a cruel blow to PM Nehru’s belief that in nine years of the ‘secular’ State the ancient religious animosities of his people had been ‘healed and forgotten’.”
The trouble was caused by an obscure book published 14 years prior in the US — not in India — that was allegedly blasphemous of prophet Mohammed.
Not all journalists are cowed by Islamic fundamentalists. Stephane Charbonnier, the lead editor of Charlie Hebdo and one of the 12 people murdered in the attack on the magazine’s office, gave a quote to Le Monde in 2012 that is rapidly becoming his epitaph. Speaking about threats against the magazine over its cartoons portraying prophet Mohammed, he said, “What I’m about to say is maybe a little pompous, but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”
Meanwhile, the one good news tumbling out from this grim scenario is that there is an effort to bring European Muslims into the mainstream. Jonathan Laurence, associate professor of political science at Boston College, writes on Farid Zakaria’s blog: “The series of terrorist attacks against western capitals from 2001 to 2005 in combination with high unemployment and educational under-performance, ended Europeans’ hands-off approach. After leaving them outside domestic institutions for decades, governments gradually took ownership of their Muslim populations. Authorities began to treat Islam as a domestic religion and encouraged Muslims to embrace national citizenship.
“This brought the religion out of the embassies and basements and into national institutions and proper mosques. Many of the rights and State oversight that other religious communities receive are slowly being extended to Islam councils, such as the German Islam Conference, which just held its seventh annual convention. Everything from imam training to animal slaughter to religious school curriculum has come under greater scrutiny and is being adapted — sometimes painfully — to fit where Muslims now live and work.”
While there will surely be backlash from Europe’s far right, and Muslim fundamentalists are likely to launch copycat attacks, further inflaming passions, the hope is that the next generation of European Muslims are more integrated.
The problem is hope is never good policy.