Fears of Eurabia How Much Allah Can the Old Continent Bear?
Switzerland's recent vote to ban the construction of new minarets has shocked and angered Muslims around the world. But the controversial move also reflects a growing sense of unease among other Europeans who have trouble coming to terms with Islam's increased visibility.
In the small Swiss town of Langenthal, the battle over the minarets has been fought, and there seems to be no hope of reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished. "I feel abused and injured as a person," says Mutalip Karaademi. "We wanted to hit a symbol," says Daniel Zingg, "and we hit it."
Zingg has prevented the minaret that Karaademi wanted to build, and has managed to make it illegal for any other minarets to be built in Switzerland. He was one of the authors of the referendum that was passed by the Swiss on Nov. 29 with 57.5 percent of the votes. The constitution will now contain the following sentence: "The building of minarets is banned."
The Swiss decision has shocked Europe and the world because its ramifications go far beyond the building of minarets -- they also concern the identity of an entire continent. This was a referendum on Western society's perception of Islam as a threat. The issue is generating intense debate: Just how much of Islam is predominantly Christian Europe prepared to accept? The decision by the otherwise so tolerant Alpine country reveals the deep-seated fear of an Islam that is becoming increasingly visible.
Are Muslim immigrants threatening European values? This is a concern shared by many Europeans across the continent. Surveys last week revealed that 44 percent of Germans oppose the construction of minarets, followed by 41 percent of the French. Fifty-five percent of all Europeans see Islam as an intolerant religion.
Does the Swiss vote reveal an attitude that a majority in Europe would also support if given the opportunity?
This would also explain why criticism of the vote was so vehement. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the United Nations and the Vatican were all equally up in arms. They said that the Swiss vote violated the principles of freedom of religion and non-discrimination. Turkey's EU minister called on Muslims to invest their money in Turkey instead of Switzerland, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it reflects "an increasingly racist and fascist stance in Europe."
But the vote was welcomed and cheered in comments on some Internet blogs, and right-wing populists like the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, and France's far-right National Front party voiced their approval. Roberto Castelli, a top politician in Italy's Northern League said: "The Swiss have once again given us a lesson in civilization. We have to send a strong signal to stop pro-Islamic ideology."
For the time being, what has been stopped is the minaret of the Islamic religious community in Langenthal. Mutalip Karaademi, 51, an ethnic Albanian who emigrated from Macedonia 26 years ago, is standing in front of the building used by his religious association, a former paint factory on the outskirts of town. There is a wooden construction on top measuring 6.1 meters (20 feet) It shows the height of the planned minaret, the first one that cannot be built.
Karaademi is the leader of the local Islamic community, whose 130 members come from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. The small mosque has been here for 18 years. At the outset the minaret wasn't so important, says Karaademi. It was simply an ornamental addition. But now it's a matter of principle. He wants to take legal action -- if necessary going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, where it is very possible that the judges in Strasbourg will end up reversing the Swiss constitutional decision. He loves Switzerland, this model country, says Karaademi. But this ban is "racist and discriminating against us," a scandal for the civilized world.
One Man's Battle
The quiet winner of this battle is Daniel Zingg, 53, a balding man with wire-rimmed glasses. He's sitting in a pizzeria across from the railway station in Langenthal and speaking in a hoarse whisper. The minarets, those "spearheads of the Sharia," those "signs of territory newly conquered by Islam," can no longer be built, he says, and thus the Swiss have solved a problem that has already become seemingly intractable elsewhere, such as in the large cities of England and France. It's a well-known fact that first come the minarets, then the muezzins, with their calls to prayer, the burqas and finally Sharia law, he says. According to Zingg, the ban is not directed against Muslims, although it is naturally true that "the Koran gives (people) the mission to Islamize the world, and the Muslims here have no other mission, otherwise they would not be Muslims."
For the past 15 years, Zingg has been giving lectures in support of Israel and against Islam. He's a politician with the ultraconservative Christian party, the Federal Democratic Union, which received 1.3 percent of the vote in the last election. He has never set foot in the mosque in his town because he has heard that anyone who walks barefoot in one becomes a Muslim. Zingg doesn't want to take that risk.
One might wonder how a man like this, whose radical views certainly do not reflect the majority opinion in Switzerland, was able to win a majority for his cause. There is also the question of why a country that has very few problems with its roughly 400,000 Muslims would decide to take such a dramatic step.
Perhaps fears are growing and radical demands are becoming ever more popular because there is practically no open political debate on what place Islam will assume in Europe.
An estimated 15 million Muslims currently live in the European Union, or roughly 3 percent of the population. But this is more than at any other time in the past. Immigrants, most of whom came as guest workers decades ago, have brought Islam to Europe.
Can Europe still be Europe if, for instance, in 2050 most young people under the age of 15 in Austria are Muslims? And when Muhammad today is already the most common name for newborn boys in Brussels and Amsterdam, and the third most common in England?
An 'Official Discussion of Islam' and a Subterranean One
American author and journalist Christopher Caldwell recently published his latest tome, "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West," a widely-read and skeptical book on Europe and its Muslim immigrants. What fascinates him about the result of the Swiss vote is the gap between the rejection of the ban in surveys and the considerable support that it received during the referendum. "It means there is an official discussion of Islam and that there is a subterranean discussion of it," he says. "That should worry Europeans."
Caldwell doesn't sound the same alarmist tones in his book as other conservative authors who have dubbed the old continent as "Eurabia" and see it -- due to higher birthrates among immigrants -- as a future outpost of the "Islamic world empire." But he also writes: "It is certain that Europe will emerge changed from its confrontation with Islam. It is far less certain that Islam will prove assimilable."
Caldwell believes that Muslim immigrants have had greater difficulties than other groups integrating themselves into European society. On the one hand, only a minority can identify with political Islam, also due to the wars that the West has waged against Islamic terror over the past few years. On the other hand, their religion goes hand in hand with conservative attitudes toward women, family relationships, sexual freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians. These religious attitudes are problematic for many Europeans.
Caldwell says that Muslims are a small minority, but Europe is changing its structures because of them: "When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter."
- Part 1: How Much Allah Can the Old Continent Bear?
- Part 2: Widespread Fears in Germany