Over the past year or so the rural Italian idyll of Colle di Val d’Elsa has played host to a bitter battle for Enlightenment values. On one side, the hamlet’s small Muslim community has raised a considerable amount of money to build a large mosque. Having gained the mayor’s approval, the Muslims signed a declaration of cooperation with the town hall and even planted a Christmas tree at the site as a good-will gesture.
In response, other locals pelted them with sausages and dumped a severed pig’s head at the site. On a wall near the site vandals daubed: "No Mosque," "Christian Hill" and "Thanks to the communists the Arabs are in our house!!!"
Such is the central dynamic in European race relations at present. It is probably not the dynamic you have heard most about. The most popular one making the rounds this side of the Atlantic involves hordes of Muslims, rabid with anti-Semitic and misogynistic views, running amok as they bomb, bully and outbreed their clueless liberal hosts in a bid to build a caliphate.
"Do you have a child back in England?" an elderly Los Angelena asked a British reporter on a recent
"No," he said.
"You’d better start," she replied. "The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they’ll have the whole of Europe."
Nor is it by any means the only dynamic. There
a handful of nihilistic young Muslims keen to bomb and destroy and a far larger number sufficiently disaffected that they are prepared to riot. There are also many Europeans keen to see equality and meaningful integration, defending civil liberties and opposing wars against predominantly Muslim lands.
But the primary threat to democracy in Europe is not "Islamofascism"–that clunking, thuggish phrase that keeps lashing out in the hope that it will one day strike a meaning–but plain old fascism. The kind whereby mostly white Europeans take to the streets to terrorize minorities in the name of racial, cultural or religious superiority.
For fascism–and the xenophobic, racist and nationalistic elements that are its most vile manifestations–has returned as a mainstream ideology in Europe. Its advocates not only run in elections but win them. They control local councils and sit in parliaments. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy, hard-right nationalist and anti-immigrant parties regularly receive more than 10 percent of the vote. In Norway it is 22 percent; in Switzerland, 29 percent. In Italy and Austria they have been in government; in Switzerland, where the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party is the largest party, they still are.
This is not new. From Austria to Antwerp, Italy to France, fascists have been performing well at the polls for more than a decade. Nor are they shy about their bigotry. France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen has described the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history"; Austria’s Jörg Haider once thanked a group of Austrian World War II veterans, including former SS officers, for "stick[ing] to their convictions despite the greatest opposition." But the attacks of 9/11, the bombings in Spain and Britain and the riots in France gave the hard right new traction. The polarizing effects of terrorism facilitated the journey of hard-right agendas from the margins to the mainstream. Islamophobia became de rigueur. Recently German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a Christian Democrat party congress that "we must take care that mosque cupolas are not built demonstratively higher than church steeples."
In September 2006, British novelist Martin Amis told the
of London: "There’s a definite urge–don’t you have it?–to say, ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation–further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan…. Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children."
Far from being the principal purveyors of racial animus in Europe, Muslims are its principal targets. Between 2000 and 2005 officially reported racist violence rose 71 percent in Denmark, 34 percent in France and 21 percent in Ireland. With few governments collecting data on racial crime victims, it has been left to NGOs to record the sharp rise in attacks on Muslims, those believed to be Muslims and Muslim targets.
None of this means anti-Semitism and jihadism don’t exist among Muslim communities in Europe. But it does provide a context for both. Muslims are a relatively tiny percentage of European citizens–there is a higher proportion of Asians in Utah than Muslims in Italy–and are overwhelmingly concentrated among the poor. More than 40 percent of Bangladeshi men in Britain under the age of 25 are unemployed. All of this excuses nothing but explains a great deal. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the principal concerns of Muslims in France, Germany and Spain are unemployment and Islamic extremism. Integrating into a society that won’t employ you, educate you or house you adequately is no easy feat. Participating in a political culture that scapegoats you is also tough. Attacked as Muslims at home and abroad, they defend themselves as Muslims. Every respected report in Britain has shown a direct link between the war in Iraq and recruitment to Islamist movements. And so the symbiosis of Islamophobes and Islamists is complete, with each thriving on polarization and prejudice: picking at scabs that might have healed, until the blood runs freely.
The most potent anti-Semites and bigots in Europe do not live in run-down housing projects but grace the corridors of power. They are not Muslim; they are Christian. The continent is not suffering from some new strain of bigotry imported from the Arab world or the Maghreb–it is simply suffering from one of its oldest viruses harbored among its most established ethnic populations.