Believe it or not
When Ammar Alkassar, 30, a young computer scientist in Aachen in western Germany, wanted to join a political party several years ago, he scanned the list of options that, in the past, have attracted voters like him (he was born in Germany to parents who migrated from Syria), but found the Greens and the old-line Social Democrats wanting. Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (cdu) is on the right of the political spectrum and has not historically been associated with the ethnic minority vote. It opposed full Turkish membership of the E.U., for example, and has taken a tough line on immigration. Even so, said Alkassar, the cdu has “some basic views that I consider my own.”
Those views are not precisely the Christian ones of the party’s name — Alkassar, now a district councillor for the cdu in the small university town of Homburg, is a Muslim. But for Alkassar and many like him, identifying with a conservative Christian party is preferable to the secular alternative. “I believe in the importance of God and faith,” he says.
Such insistence that religion — any religion — should have a role in politics is echoing throughout Europe. After decades of rising secularism and declining church attendance, religion is now back on Europe’s political agenda. Islamic terrorism and Turkey’s hopes of entering the European Union have compelled politicians from Vienna to the Hague to declare their Christian identity; Pope Benedict XVI is making the war on secularism a defining feature of his papacy. France’s presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy suggested in a recent book that France might reconsider the possibility of state funding for religious institutions. The age of keeping God out of politics is over, says Jytte Klausen, a Danish political scientist and author of The Islamic Challenge, a recent study of Muslim élites in Europe. “European politics,” she says “is no longer a religion-free zone.” Battle lines are being drawn that have not been seen for decades. They are not necessarily between Christian and Muslim. They are instead between secular Europeans and people of faith — any faith — and the conflict may well determine the future of the European state.
Modern Europe has taken root in secular soil. The tradition of Voltaire and the Enlightenment valued humanism and individual rights, and many early socialist parties were vehemently anticlerical. By the early 20th century, France’s Third Republic had formally decreed the separation of church and state, and Pope Pius X complained that “God has been driven out of public life.” Attempts by militaristic governments in the 20th century to mix God and patriotism, such as Francisco Franco’s National Catholicism in Spain, served to heighten the distrust Europeans felt for religion. After the 1960s and ’70s, secularism had become a central part of the West European mind-set, so much so that even devoutly Christian leaders — like Britain’s Tony Blair — were extraordinarily cautious about proclaiming their faith in the public square. Meanwhile, regular church attendance in Western Europe continued to plummet. By the late 1990s, only 15% of Europeans said that they attended a place of worship each week. Despite some last-minute lobbying by Poland, Italy and others, the draft of the E.U. constitution treaty finalized in 2004 omitted any mention of God or Christian values. But the familiar pattern of religion’s retreat and secularism’s advance now has to be reassessed. The wave of immigration from Muslim countries to Europe has catalyzed a new debate about the place of faith in public life. By varying estimates, up to 18 million Muslims now live in Western Europe, up from less than a million after World War II. Many among the first generation of immigrants wanted to leave their religion in the old country. But for a variety of reasons that are far from fully understood, their descendants are returning to the mosque in droves, and, moreover, calling on the state to sanction their choice. Demands by European Muslims for legal protection range from appeals for the freedom to wear head scarves in schools to requests for permission to build new mosques and for official recognition of the validity of Shari’a law in “private affairs” such as inheritance and divorce.
Such demands have met with a varied response. France banned the wearing of religious symbols including head scarves in public schools, a measure that some Muslims saw as directed at them. And a rash of new books has started to warn that some of Europe’s cherished traditions are under attack. In While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within, expatriate American author Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, paints a picture of a weakened and directionless Europe besieged by extremists intent on imposing Shari’a law. Barring a sudden about-face in Europe’s policy of “appeasement” toward “intolerant” Islam, says Bawer, Europe faces “a long twilight of Balkanization with Europe divided into warring pockets of Muslims and non-Muslims.” A new best-selling volume from Denmark titled Islamists and the Naive strikes a similar chord. Its co-author, Karen Jespersen, is a former Interior Minister with Denmark’s Social Democrats, a party often associated with policies friendly to Muslim immigrants. The threat posed by Muslim fundamentalism in the 21st century is comparable, Jespersen writes, to the twin scourges of the past century, Nazism and communism — other forms of “totalitarianism.”
Left-wing intellectuals across Europe are increasingly split over the perceived danger posed by fundamentalist Islam, with some embracing multicultural integration while others loudly raise the alarm over the perceived threat to liberal values. Together with xenophobic parties of the right, like Italy’s Northern League, which oppose immigration for completely different reasons having to do with jobs and race, a strange alliance is taking shape. The Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002, was openly gay, and opposed immigration because he feared for the Netherlands’ liberal way of life. But once he had broken the taboo, his cause was embraced by conservatives across Europe. The advent of terrorism carried out in Islam’s name — in Madrid, London and elsewhere — has deepened the rancor in the debate. Days after the most recent plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic was uncovered by British intelligence, Muslim leaders used the renewed focus on their communities to call for further measures to make them feel at home. An open letter to the Prime Minister signed by 38 Muslim groups in Britain and six politicians even demanded that the government “change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.” British Home Secretary John Reid described the letter as a “dreadful misjudgment.”
But it is not only because of Europe’s Muslims that the old patterns are changing. Recent controversies have inspired a broader and deeper re-examination of what it means to be European, reviving the ancient struggle between Christian and secular values. The Spanish parliament’s recent decision to legalize gay marriage, for example, was met by severe disapproval from the Vatican, as were the 2004 objections to Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione’s candidacy for European Justice Commissioner on the grounds that he had labeled homosexuality a “sin.” In a secular Western Europe, Roman Catholics are now often claiming that they are victims. “In the Western world today, we are experiencing a wave of drastic new enlightenment … of secularization,” Pope Benedict XVI said recently. “It is becoming more difficult to believe.” But in parts of Eastern Europe, religious politicians are pushing back, demanding that traditional beliefs be taken seriously in the political domain. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the new Polish Prime Minister from the ardently pro-Catholic Law and Justice Party, prefers Catholic pilgrimages to football games. The government is proposing a new constitution that will begin “In the name of God Almighty” and describe Polish independence as a “gift from God.” Still, however much Christians may be demanding social and political respect for their beliefs, Islam remains the driver for the new debates between religion and secularism. Nowhere is that more true than in Turkey, where issues that some — perhaps naively — thought had been resolved 80 years ago have now been reopened. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the new Turkish Republic, sought to stampede his native land into modernity by restricting public displays of a religion whose expression he saw as an impediment to progress. He banned the fez, purged the education system of any reference to Islam, and paraded his wife bareheaded through rural parts of the country. His successors outlawed head scarves from public buildings, requiring conservative young women, including the daughters of the current Prime Minister, to go abroad to study. When a woman named Merve Kavakci won election to the Turkish parliament wearing a head scarf in 1999, she was booed out of the Assembly and subsequently stripped of her citizenship.
Now the country’s conservative Muslim Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to lift the head-scarf ban, and millions of conservative Turks would be pleased if he did. But Erdogan risks provoking the ire of hard-line secularists. At a recent secularist demonstration in Ankara, a chanting mob surrounded a woman passing by in a head scarf and ordered her to take it off; she pleaded with the crowd, but eventually removed it. In the run-up to elections next year, confrontations over Turkey’s secular constitution are likely to grow.
How will European governments respond to the claims of the religiously observant for protection? There is no single pattern applicable to all countries, but some — Germany, France and the Netherlands, for example — are now planning to help select and train “homegrown” imams instead of relying on a supply of less acculturated clerics from nations such as Turkey and Algeria. European politicians are beginning to recognize, as the German Interior Minister said recently, that moderate Muslims are the best possible defense against religious extremism and its violent wing. “We need the cooperation of the Muslim organizations,” Wolfgang Schäuble said in Berlin, “to fight against extremists from their own ranks.”
In time, perhaps, the perceived contradictions between Europe’s secular and religious traditions will wither away. Liberal values do not exclude religious practice; they can help it flourish. The reason Turkey’s pro-Islamic government is so eager to join Europe, for example — and the reason it has been so disappointed by the opposition it has encountered on religious or cultural grounds — is that Europe’s liberal traditions promise Turkey’s conservative Muslims a degree of protection they do not have now. Europe has never — not even in the 1960s and ’70s — been an entirely secular society. The need now is for Western Europe to find ways in which its secular traditions can coexist not just with those of the Continent’s traditional faiths, but with those that have, 500 years after the reconquista, returned to its shores. Islam is in Europe to stay. There will be no more pressing challenge to the next generation of Europeans than to reconcile its practice with the best of the old Continent’s humanist tradition. Autor: Andrew Purvis