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  European Viewpoint



Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a member of the Dutch Parliament for the liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. She is the co-writer, with the late filmmaker Theo van Gogh, of the film "Submission: Part 1," and author of "The Cage of Virgins" and "The Son Factory." This article is excerpted from a longer essay in the fall 2005 issue of The Brown Journal of World Affairs ( entitled "Islam and the EU Identity Deficit," part of a broader survey on identity in the European Union. She wishes to thank the co-writer of this article, who wishes to remain anonymous, for contributing to its realization.

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

AMSTERDAM -- Two determining issues in the evolution of an EU identity -- immigration and Turkish accession -- can be traced back to negative perceptions of Islam. Why is Islam seen as a problem? What do we mean when we talk about Islam-related problems?

For various reasons, a number of different groups in Europe see Islam as a problem of great concern. Others feel very uncomfortable actually linking the words “Islam” and “problem,” because they fear making an unjustified generalization, hence stigmatizing a group in society that is already seen as vulnerable.

But not articulating the problem means not solving the problem. The ongoing reservation on the part of the Dutch political establishment is a significant obstacle in tackling issues such as anemic social participation, high school drop-out rates, domestic violence and militant religious fanaticism among people of Muslim background. This is not to say that these issues are solved just by articulating how Islam and certain social problems are related, but dismantling the taboo around this topic is a necessary precondition for ameliorating the societal tensions wracking the Netherlands. A first step toward lifting the taboo is exploring the sources of popular concern with Islam.

Causes of disquiet with respect to Islam can be divided into short-term and long-term concerns. The most acute is fear of pure violence committed in the name of Islam. Terrorism, by definition, aims to spread a sense of insecurity and fear among large groups of people. In this sense, Islamist terrorist groups seem to have succeeded in their attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001; in Bali on Oct. 12, 2002; in Casablanca on May 16, 2003; in Madrid on March 11, 2004 -- and now in London as well as various smaller attempted attacks. This fear is real and it has become permanent.

In the Netherlands, a number of Islamic fanatics have been arrested since last summer. Their houses contained ample proof that they were planning to bomb the Amsterdam Airport, the port of Rotterdam and the Parliament. Not only did they keep explosive material; they were also in possession of maps and drawings of their potential targets, including depictions of possible gaps in security measures. But individuals can only be convicted after the fact, so almost all of these young men, arrested before carrying out any bombings, were released. This has not had a reassuring effect on the public.

Next to the fear of direct violence, there seems to be major concern about Islamic social, religious and political movements throughout Western Europe. These movements operate parallel to the terrorist networks and usually work through dawa (preachers and missionaries) whose job it is to spread the radical message of political Islam. 

There is little doubt that these movements are the primary forces spreading Islamic fundamentalism in Europe today. Generally these organizations have no direct violent agenda themselves, but, as terrorism officials warn, many young Muslim men pass through these groups and find their way to an extremist, militant interpretation of their religion. There is a general agreement that these movements provide fertile soil for new terrorists, but intelligence services fail to penetrate the groups sufficiently to prove direct training of perpetrators. Reports from various Western European national intelligence services point out how these networks function as safe harbors: In them, hostility toward Western society is sufficient that potential terrorists are tolerated and by no means corrected in their ideas. This concern with Islamic movements, like the concern with terrorism, is grounded in experience and empirical evidence.

A number of long-term concerns are also discernible. First, Islamic education is a source of worry to some. The Netherlands currently counts 43 Islamic schools; at the Ministry of Education, another 200 applications for the establishment of new Islamic schools are waiting for approval. What can be empirically established is that these schools have high concentrations of disadvantaged pupils and students, both in socioeconomic terms and in terms of language skills. What is not empirically established, and therefore has to be treated as a perception, is the idea that at least some of these schools, especially those that operate in close cooperation with nearby mosques, are potential breeding grounds for a large cohort of orthodox anti-Western students. In this context, the role of (foreign) religious leaders on school boards is often seen as troubling.

The ghettoization and Islamification of certain urban areas is also perceived as a disturbing problem. Demographic trends indicate that this particular type of ghetto formation will continue throughout Western Europe. This evident form of ethnic and cultural segregation is problematic. In cities, villages or provinces where Islam is dominant, it may mean that bits and pieces of the Shari’a are introduced in practice even though no formal legislation in this direction is taking place.

Practical observations substantiate this concern. In Western Europe, such pockets with a Muslim majority have become discernible over the past decade. An example of this is the town of Evry, south of Paris. There, informal Islamification has already taken place. Supermarkets stopped selling pork and alcoholic beverages, and ritual sheep slaughter has become an official activity. Social control is extremely high among Muslims, who constitute two-thirds of the total population of Evry.

Although not formally institutionalized, in areas of this kind it is the Shari’a, rather than the secular constitution, that enjoys primacy. In the Netherlands, the same phenomenon is taking place in some areas of Rotterdam and West Amsterdam. Large sectors of society are deeply uncomfortable with the gradual emergence of these types of states within the state, where rules and values other than those of tolerant and democratic liberalism dictate social conduct.

Throughout Western Europe, xenophobia forms another basis for the fear of Islam. Unlike other bases for fear, this one has no empirical grounding. Although members of traditionally xenophobic groups have often had little to no contact with Islam, Muslims or immigrants of any kind, they have strongly negative attitudes toward any group with diverging cultural backgrounds or ethnic origins. Besides Islam, their hostility may also be directed at Jews, Roma or even nationals of a neighboring country. A malicious distrust of the unknown characterizes these groups, even in the absence of rational or empirical arguments.

Clearly, these groups provoke fear within the political establishment, in part because their rhetoric and, sometimes, because their use of symbols invokes associations with fascism and Nazism. Their abject ideas have a paralyzing effect on the discussion of immigration and Islam because established politicians and opinion-makers fear that even slightly touching on the negative elements of immigration and Islam means playing into the hands of the extremist right. This is why the Netherlands has been in a deadlock for more than a decade. The Belgian situation is also a case in point. There, for more than a decade, the political establishment has placed a cordon sanitaire around the xenophobic and racist Flemish Bloc, hoping its support would fade with time. Unfortunately, this has not happened. The Flemish Bloc has continuously and steadily gained supporters, while at the same time problems with radical Islam have not be addressed, and have increased as the years go by. It is clear that not addressing these issues is not only shortsighted but also counterproductive.

It is primarily the immigration question and the Turkish accession to the EU that raise issues of identity among the people(s) of Europe, both giving a central place to Islam. Yet questions about the relationship between Islam and Europe have not been adequately addressed by elites, who fear both Islamic and nativist backlashes as a result of opening up identity problems for public discussion. Ignoring the issue, however, leaves extant a dangerous identity vacuum that encourages fundamentalist intolerance of all stripes. Democracy requires candid debate, even about sensitive issues. Failure to address European identity and Islam can undermine confidence in the responsiveness of government and perpetuate dangerous democratic and identity deficits that, if unchecked, will weaken the EU at an essential moment in its history.