Will Europe put its foot down?
By Hege Storhaug
The Swiss vote against the construction of any more Islamic minarets has forced Europe, increasingly awash with Muslim immigrants, to ask itself some difficult questions: How many minarets can Europe tolerate before its strong sense of communal connection is dissolved? What will happen, then, to democracy’s liberal values?
Either Islam will be Europeanised, or Europe will be Islamised.” In recent years this prediction has been made by many major experts, among them the American Bernard Lewis, the Syrian-born German Bassam Tibi, and the French Gilles Kepel. This is, without question, an uncomfortable and sensitive topic, but it’s one that is very pertinent now that the Swiss have put their foot down and said that they will not accept another minaret within their borders.
In recent decades, Islam has exploded in Europe. You can see the changes with your own eyes from year to year —whether it’s the increasing presence of hijabs on the street in a city like Oslo, or the bearded men with ankle-high baggy pants, or the new and resplendent mosques that are under construction. For my part, I’ve noticed an increasing insecurity and unease among ‘ordinary’ people who feel like aliens in their own country. People ask: What is the purpose of this project? Don’t we, as a nation, have a right to pass our own cultural legacy, our traditions and values, on to our children and grandchildren? Should we, in the name of tolerance, give in to the demands made by ‘others’ whose influence is growing, and whose voices are becoming louder, as their numbers increase? Or as a Norwegian Labour Party politician said to me in a private conversation: “On the day that most of the members of the city council are Muslims, what do you think will happen to the right of Oslo bars to serve alcohol?” Another leading Labourite with over a couple of decades’ experience in politics put it more bluntly when I asked him “What you think about immigration from the Muslim world?” The answer was so crisp, merciless, and genuinely felt that I gasped: “What have they contributed?” Period.
Let it be said that of course there are many Muslims in Europe who are getting along just fine and who get the same chills down their spines that other European citizens do when they think of sharia’h and the lack of freedom that accompanies classical Islam. But as a rule those aren’t the Muslims who are the most prominent members of their faith among us; they aren’t the ones who enjoy power in the Muslim community, and they aren’t the ones who are best organised and who have developed exceptionally strong connections to our public officials.
No, it’s not the secularised Muslims who are leading the way — far from it. Ayaan Hirsi Ali made this clear when I and a colleague of mine from Human Rights Service in Oslo met her at the Dutch Parliament in The Hague in 2005. As she put it, there most certainly are Muslims in Europe who want a Europeanised Islam — that is to say, a private, personal Islam without political and judicial influence. But these aren’t the Muslims who are powerfully positioned in Europe’s community organisations, Europe’s corridors of power, and Europe’s universities.
Here is an interesting point: Immigrants from Iran tend to be secular, well-integrated, and — very often — well-educated. In Norway, Iranians have generally integrated themselves into our culture, accepting Norwegian values even as they’ve maintained Iranian traditions that don’t conflict with human rights, such as celebrating Iranian New Year. But Iranians are not the leaders of Europe’s Muslim communities. Nor can I think of a single mosque in Norway, or anywhere in Europe for that matter, that has been founded by Iranians.
If Iranians, generally speaking, have been an immigration success story, enriching Europe and becoming fully participating members of European society, this isn’t true of the members of many other major immigrant groups, whose origins are in traditional villages in other Muslim countries. It’s precisely these people’s unwillingness (or inability?) to assimilate with European society — indeed, to appreciate such typically European values as freedom, equality, social participation, and personal responsibility — that may be a major reason why Switzerland said no to more minarets. At some point, Europe must put its foot down if it truly wishes to continue to be the Europe we know today. There is a limit as to how many minarets a society can live with, how many hijabs and baggy pants the streets of Europe can tolerate, before the public space becomes as ideologically charged and as palpably unfree as the streets of, say, Pakistan. We need to stand up and preserve our culture — a successful culture that is itself the only reason why immigrants are streaming from the Muslim world to our continent rather than in the other direction.
Here’s a specific example of how misguided our politicians have been in their handling of the challenge of Islam — an example that I think provides a very clear picture of grotesque weakness. In 1974, Muslim immigrants from Pakistan established the first mosque in Norway, the Islamic Cultural Centre. The name has a comforting, harmless sound: A ‘cultural centre’ sounds like something very different from a mosque. In reality, however, the ICC is a direct subsidiary of an extreme religio-political movement and political party in Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami, which was established by one of the leading Islamist ideologues of the last century, Abu Ala Maududi (1903-1979). When Pakistan’s worst despot ever, Gen Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), Islamised that country from top to bottom, his main inspiration was Maududi. Today Qazi Hussain Ahmad, who has been a top JI leader for several years, has been banned for security reasons from entering about 25 European countries, as well as Egypt. He has been under house arrest in Pakistan several times for having instigated violent riots that took human lives. Unsurprisingly, he’s also a fan of Osama bin Laden. Yet he’s not prohibited from entering Norway, and when he landed at Oslo Airport in August 2004, the arrivals hall was packed with Norwegian-Pakistani men and boys who openly cheered him.
The ICC, then, which has a grandiose new mosque with minarets in downtown Oslo, follows an ideology that is a carbon copy of Maududi’s terrifying, violent creed. It doesn’t just belong to a philosophically dangerous movement; it belongs to a movement which preaches that Muslims should not become fully integrated members of Norwegian society. This is exactly the same attitude that is preached at every mosque in Europe that has ‘respect’ for itself. And yet the ICC, like many other mosques that share its theology, was allowed to establish itself in Norway, and in Europe generally, without protest from anybody. And that’s not all: Today it’s one of the largest and most influential so-called faith communities among Norwegian Muslims and has, over the years, received tens of millions of kroner in Government support because it is regarded — absurdly — as a religious body.
But Europe’s cultural elite is blind to this ugly reality. On the contrary, that elite, which lives largely off of the dialogue industry — exchanging endless amiable platitudes with Muslim leaders — is all bent out of shape over Switzerland: it views the ban on minarets as an assault on free speech and on freedom of religion; the ban, according to the elite, is an offence against cultural diversity, an expression of intolerance, prejudice, and extremism that will lead to a clash of civilisations. Not to mention that the ban violates international conventions.
Yet this same elite never gets worked up when Christians are murdered in Pakistan or when their churches and homes are burned down. Or when women and men are stoned to death in Somalia, or when burqa-clad women in Afghanistan are crammed together with goats in the backs of trucks. Nor do they pay the slightest heed to a woman walking through the streets of Oslo in a burqa — a garment that must be described as the clearest possible manifestation of antipathy to Western culture, a powerful statement of complete rejection of the society in which the woman lives.
It is not too much to say, then, that the elite is completely off-balance. And it’s this lack of balance, this lack of sensible attitudes in the salons of the privileged, this lack of respect for their own culture and for the values on which that culture is founded, that the grass roots are reacting to. Simply put, ordinary people are sick of being told by their ‘betters’ what to do and think: They want with all their hearts to defend themselves and their own. Their message is: By all means, come to Europe and become one of us. But don’t come here to turn our culture and our values upside down. The people have, in short, begun to wake up and to say no to the utopian multicultural dream. For they realise that Norway will no longer be Norway, and the West will no longer be the West, if the country’s essential culture is not preserved; and Christianity is an indissoluble part of that culture. Whether one is personally religious or not, that’s simply a fact. If Islam is going to place itself at the heart of our culture, most Norwegians understand that what we now consider Norwegian will be dead and buried. The only alternative would be a miracle: A revolution within Islam. Of course, such a revolution would also require an end to all of the violence and hatred preached in the Quran.
For about a millennium, Islam has failed spectacularly to pull off such a revolutionary project. It’s precisely for this reason that people are pouring out of these failed states (yes, they’re also failed on account of other kinds of ideological despotism, including socialist projects, which when combined with an authoritarian, oppressive religion produce something like gunpowder). The big question, however, is this: Why should we expect a form of Islam to develop in Europe that is entirely antithetical to the form of Islam found in the Muslim world?
Of course Norway, and Europe as a whole, should not embrace any and every kind of culture or religion that finds its way here. But where to draw the line? There is no one answer to this question. The answer will vary according to the nature of the culture or religion and the strength of the challenge that it represents. But if we sell out our mainstream culture, and relativise it, accept a watering down of our rights, we may end up with a set of supposedly democratic but in fact empty and meaningless ideals that fail to provide us citizens with a values-related map or compass. And what can happen in critical situations if the people don’t share a sense of community? How can we ensure a sense of belonging if, for example, freedom of speech faces a major threat or if we suffer a terrorist attack? Can we risk having civil war-like conditions, as we is already the case in Europe’s no-go zones? Democratic order is, above all, a technical and practical matter, and it can thus never replace people’s need for a community, their need to be part of a common culture.
People must, then, have feelings —positive ones — about one another. Last winter I had a thought-provoking experience on the east side of Oslo on my way home after work. A thin layer of snow covered the icy streets. A Somali woman dressed in a tent slipped on the ice as I passed her. Instinctively, I grabbed her and thus managed to prevent what could have been a bad fall, and helped her back to her feet. I asked if she was okay, but she just hurried on with a completely expressionless look on her face. Not a single sign of human connection, not a single glance at me. I stood there feeling empty and alienated.
Awareness of a society’s and a culture’s need for a sense of community seems especially absent from the EU system. The kind of communal feeling I am talking about contrasts sharply with the multicultural mentality of the pro-EU and anti-national forces. They refuse to understand that a nation’s culture — its folk songs, traditions, holy days, flag, and national anthem — is different from a broad-based Constitution based on ideals of equality. A text, simply put, cannot replace a feeling of community. A national community with strong survival instincts is founded not on a text but on matters that are close to the heart, on traditions, on things that are palpable, on things as obvious as a common language and a sense of belonging to a motherland. The principles that tie people together cannot be legislated by politicians; such bonds call for something more — trust between citizens, national loyalty, a high degree of agreement as to what freedom is and is not, and a broad sense of support for the obligations that a real community demands of its members.
The minarets, then, don’t symbolise community in the European sense — they symbolise the ummah, the Muslim community. They don’t represent loyalty to Norway or Switzerland or any other European country — they represent loyalty to Mecca and to the ummah. They don’t signify freedom, but illiberalism (women’s oppression, the punishment of apostasy with death). The minarets, in short, embody the antithesis of the Declaration of Human Rights (as is clear to anyone who has read the 1990 Cairo Declaration about so-called “human rights in Islam”,which was formulated by the Organisation of Islamic Conference). Nor are they, one might add, a part of our architectural tradition or any other Western tradition. On the contrary, they bear witness to a state of mind that views us, the ‘others’, as strangers.
The policy of forcing oneself to tolerate something for which one has no sympathy whatsoever will, moreover, only erode the national culture. Pointing fingers and making moral judgements is not the way to enhance tolerance.
In light of the immigration from the Muslim world, it’s very important for us to be aware of the history of our Western democracy. It’s not true, after all, that we adopted democracy, with all the magnificent liberal values that accompanied it, and then developed a broad community of the people. On the contrary, our free society is a historical consequence of a communal society based on trust, a shared culture in which Christianity has naturally played a central role. Norway would not have managed to come together under our Constitution, signed at Eidsvoll in 1814, if the country that produced it had been split along cultural and religious lines. The people whose representatives met at Eidsvoll were a people who shared essentially the same culture and religion and who could hence agree on the text upon which their nation was to be founded. The same thing happened when the Puritans settled in New England and built a society that grew into American democracy. It is actually somewhat odd to think that America owes the liberal democracy enshrined in its founding documents to a group of original settlers whose strong sense of community was based on conservative religion and illiberal traditions. It is, then, shared cultural norms, and not theoretical or abstract ideals of equality or international conventions, that lead people to stand shoulder to shoulder and to find community together. A liberal democracy such as that of Norway or Switzerland is not and never has been self-sustaining.
The minaret case, then, can be very critical for Europe’s future. How many minarets can Europe tolerate before our strong sense of communal connection is dissolved? What will happen, then, to our democracy’s liberal values and to the social harmony we have enjoyed? These are questions that most of the political parties in Norway and in a number of other European countries do not wish to address. They absolutely refuse to recognise that Islam is an ideology and a social system, a religion of laws — a religion with a political orientation and with political ambitions. Yet Islam and Christianity are still treated by Norwegian (and European) officials as identical twins. This misguided way of thinking may end up costing us heavily. We must learn from the Swiss as quickly as possible — must learn, that is, to face up to, and respond appropriately to, the political and legal realities of the Islamic congregations in our midst.
This essay originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of Human Rights Service, www.rights.no, and was translated into English by Bruce Bawer.