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Gary Younge
Convert or be damned

To write this off as the product of ignorance, poverty, underdevelopment or isolation would be both tempting and flawed. According to the US census, 40% of the residents of Cobb County have a bachelor's degree or higher, one in eight was born abroad, the poverty level is half the national average and the median family income is more than $67,000 (£36,000).

There are no excuses you can make for the people of Cobb County. And that is just as well because they are not asking you to. Much though it may irk some, particularly in Europe, people who own both a satellite dish and a mobile phone, whether in Kuwait or Kansas, still believe the jury is out on whether the Earth is or is not flat.

This apparent contradiction is one which the liberal left has proved singularly inept at dealing with. The influence of religion in politics provokes in them not a thoughtful response but a mixture of ridicule and contempt.

Those who denied that there was any political context to the September 11 attacks sought refuge in psychology and cultural superiority. The hijackers, they argued, were "jealous" of America's wealth and modernity. The suggestion, which would soon become quite explicit, was that Islam was somehow the creed of a primitive, unaccomplished people. Even as the Catholic church became ever more deeply mired in child sex abuse scandals, Islam remained the principal target of western - particularly European - intellectual disdain.

For the colonial mind in the post-colonial era, Islam was an underdeveloped religion, hateful of the developed world. Its followers, we were warned, were prone to irrational and spontaneous expressions of fundamentalism - no one associated with Christianity, it seems, had ever committed terrorism or hated gays and women - that are incompatible with western values.

The elevation by popular demand of an evangelist to the White House suggests fundamentalism and economic and social modernity may be incongruous but can still coexist. It also shows that western values aren't quite as uncontested or immutable as secular Europeans claim they are.

Sadly this is still news to some on the liberal left. Failing to distinguish between fundamentalism and religiosity, they regard engagement with religious communities as compromising progressive values rather than an opportunity to win people over. They berate the religious right for introducing gay marriage amendments in 11 states without stopping to think what they might have done differently to prevent each being passed with a thumping majority.

Fundamentalism, of all kinds, is a thoroughly reactionary political and social current. Devoted to eternal and exclusive truths, it brooks no dissent and tolerates no debate. Those who believe in gay and women's rights are not going to win over Finsbury Park cleric Abu Hamza or Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who wants the death penalty for abortion doctors, any time soon. But these leaders move from the margins to the mainstream only at times of massive polarisation. When the centre ground has been torched, those caught in the middle are forced to choose a ditch to die in. Faced with a nation where one-fifth of the electorate vote fascist and the state wants your headscarf, some young French Muslims may well end up in the arms of a misogynous imam.

But that's not where they have to be or where they have to stay. Fundamentalists are not born, they are made. The same is true for the secular. But if they are going to make their presence and values felt and understood, then the secular will have to be a bit more adventurous than the missionary position.

At the moment all the liberal left offers is the choice of full-scale conversion or total alienation - baptism into the secular or banishment from the state, off with your headscarves and out with your loyalty cards. They want to win elections without persuasion and impose social cohesion without negotiation.

When dealing with religious communities that have power, like US evangelists, the liberals respond with impotent rage and condescension. Poking fun at the president of "Jesusland" has helped to ease the pain in Europe and the US. But each insult confirms one of the religious right's principal contentions - that there is a foreign and coastal liberal elite that despises almost everything that is not secular and cosmopolitan.

When dealing with religious communities that have less power, like Muslims in Europe, liberal secularists tread a narrow line between sanctimony and bigotry. The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a lone Muslim extremist unleashed a spiral of Islamophobia. Responding as though the actions of this assailant represented the wishes of an entire community (imagine if black Britons had held all white people responsible for Stephen Lawrence's murder), the Dutch government is considering the closure of mosques that spread "non-Dutch values". Would these be the values of the people who sheltered Anne Frank or those who shopped her?

The notion that fixed national identities are being contaminated by fluid foreign bodies is as fundamentalist and obnoxious as anything you hear out of Riyadh or Utah. As a continent where, in most countries, the number of people voting for openly xenophobic parties exceeds the number of Muslims, let alone the tiny number of Islamic extremists, Europe poses a far greater danger to Muslims than Muslims do to Europe.

"Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France," said Nicolas Sarkozy, the finance minister, and once the interior minister. "So you've got to integrate it to make it more French."

Mr Sarkozy obviously doesn't like it at all. More importantly, it clearly has not occurred to him that if this relationship is going to work, France will also have to become more Islamic, just as the French made parts of Asia and west and northern Africa become more Christian.

This is only a problem for those who believe Islam has nothing positive to offer France. It is up to them to explain why any self-respecting Muslim would want to integrate into a society that saw his or her faith as incapable of making a valuable contribution. It is the liberal left's choice to see religiosity as a potential threat or an opportunity. The trouble is that right now they don't seem to see its potential at all.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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