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Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|September 11 has not been a disaster for Europe's|
|04/25/02 at 23:57:42|
The far right is on the march, but not because of terrorism
Friday April 26, 2002
On her way to a conference in Brussels recently, the Israeli historian Fania Oz-Salzberger travelled on a tram packed with Muslim schoolgirls in headscarves. One smiled at her, and she smiled back "wholeheartedly though perhaps a little wistfully; she was Europe's future and I was Europe's past". The future to which she refers is one in which the Muslims of Europe prosper in a continent which does not repeat, on however reduced a scale, the mistakes and crimes of earlier times.
Ever since Muslims became a substantial presence in European countries, the shadow of the older anti-semitism, directed against Jews, has hovered over the newer one, directed against Muslims. This is something acknowledged by the Jewish intellectuals who campaigned for intervention in Bosnia. September 11 gave that danger a new edge. Could that edge be a cause of recent successes for the extreme right? Has there been a "September 11 effect" in European politics?
When trials start almost weekly of Muslims accused of plotting outrages in Europe and America, when boys from little towns in the English Midlands or from the suburbs of Paris turn up in Afghanistan, when hijackers are seen to have been living apparently normal lives in student flats in Hamburg, a sense of betrayal in the host nations would be a normal reaction. After all, it has become more and more obvious that the Islamist extremism which led to the attacks in America was incubated in Europe, even if it did not originate there. Yet on the whole the European reaction has not been to characterise Muslims as dangerous but to try to puzzle out, Muslims and non-Muslims together, why such things could happen and how to prevent them in the future.
September 11 led to an explosion of interest in Islam and the Muslim world. Soon, hardly an educated household was without its volumes on fundamentalism and terrorism, volumes which almost all made a careful distinction between these forces and the typical forms of faith and ordinary life of the great majority of Muslims, whether in the Islamic world or in Europe and North America. Books like Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History lay on many coffee tables, and it may be that some nominal Christians in Europe, who have paid little attention to their religious tradition for years, now know more about Islam than they do about their own faith.
Ingmar Karlsson, a Swedish diplomat who has written extensively on the subject of Islam in Europe, says that the effect of September 11 in Sweden has been almost entirely positive. "Interest in Islam is at a peak not seen before," he says, "and acceptance of Muslims - and we have 350,000 in a country with a small population - is as normal among ordinary people as it is among the highly educated."
Other reports from Sweden, for instance of increased hostility to asylum seekers, are not so sanguine, but it is certainly a better picture than that in Denmark, where the government proposes restrictions on immigration that represent a serious departure from its liberal traditions. It is important that the fate of the far right in the two countries in the 1990s was very different. The established parties united against the new rightwing party in Sweden, whereas in Denmark the Social Democrats were influenced by its Danish equivalent and, crucially, September 11 coincided with the run-up to the general election.
The difference between Sweden and Denmark suggests that the key to any September 11 effect lies in where relations between majority and Muslim minority lay before that date. In one country it was positive, in the other negative. A study being completed for the EU on the impact of September 11 on relations with Muslim minorities is said to rank Britain and Spain as the countries where there was the least adverse reaction, with Denmark and Italy - the latter no doubt because of Silvio Berlusconi's forcefully expressed feelings about the superiority of Christian civilisation - at the bottom of the list.
Professor Jorgen Nielsen of the University of Birmingham's Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations compares the general process over the years in different countries to that of tectonic shifts in an earthquake zone. Some countries, such as Britain, exhibit lots of small explosions and incidents that, paradoxically, release tensions and lead to reports and reforms. Others, such as Germany, show more surface orderliness but pressures may be building up underneath. France may stand somewhere in between.
References to September 11 and terrorism have not played as large a part in the campaigning of far-right groups in Europe as some expected. It may be that there is confusion on the far right, which in many countries has to reconcile an anti-Americanism which is also part of the tradition with anti-Muslim and anti-migrant elements, and which also has to juggle two anti-semitisms.
Far-right groups have also shown contradictory impulses to reach out to reactionary forces in both the Arab world and Israel. But the probability is that, on the ground, experience suggests that tangible issues like unemployment on the one hand and assertions of white rights on the other work better than terrorist themes. British graffiti, Professor Nielsen notes, are still mainly of the old generally abusive variety; those touching on terrorism are relatively rare.
Among the positive effects of September 11, perhaps, can be rated greater engagement between majorities and Muslim minorities than before. The new emphasis on integration in Britain, with which there are parallels in other countries, at its best represents a recognition that an uneasy and semi-voluntary separatism would be the worst way of continuing. Add to this the effect on opinion of the intensified struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This week's ICM poll, showing that British support for the Palestinians stands at twice the level of those whose primary sympathy is with Israel, was a British indication of another trend which runs counter to any rise in hostility to Muslims. Muslim students in Britain, even though only a small minority are of Arab origin, are showing an intense interest in the Palestinian issue.
It seems that Muslims and non-Muslims are ready to ask more of each other. Still, as one academic put it, it is hard to resist the impression that things could easily go "in an adverse direction" in any of the European countries. A major attack in Europe, to take up the most obvious possibility, would surely have a serious effect on the position of Muslims, particularly as an implicit part of the new understanding is that in future Muslim communities will play their part in the detection and prevention of terrorist acts. A major assault on the lives and rights of Muslims, as might occur in the heat of rioting, would also be very dangerous.
The September 11 effect has probably given the far right no more than a slight push forward in some countries, and in others it may actually have helped arrest it. Le Pen's luck in France may have pumped up the problem beyond its true size. But it is there, and it deserves the most careful attention.
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