By Symi Rom-Rymer
The recent ban on the construction of minarets (tall spires commonly found on Islamic mosques) in Switzerland is simply the latest move in a laundry list of actions taken by European countries to staunch the tide of growing visibility of Islam in what the far-right consider to be Christian lands. (The fact that Jews have also lived in these countries for centuries and that France, home to the nationalist group the National Front, boasts the largest Jewish population in Europe appears to be meaningless).
Far-right groups, and their followers, view the current struggle to be potent examples of a larger clash of religions. In their view, Islam is incompatible with Christian practices and traditions. (Substitute Judaism for Islam and you could be back in 19th century. ) What is conveniently ignored is that few West Europeans see themselves as practicing Christians. What Muslim immigrants represent to many, therefore, is not so much a threat to Christian practice, but rather a threat to a finely honed secularism that reigns supreme throughout Western Europe.
But the issue of the minarets goes beyond the religious/secular divide. It speaks to a bigger problem: fear of change, the type of fear that feeds off of dramatic shifts in cultural touchstones, in traditions, and in societal mores. Europe must face its current reality. It is home to a large Muslim population, many of whom were welcomed with open arms as guest workers in the 1960s and 70s. These guest workers, together with their families, have now been citizens of countries like France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland (all of whom have political parties who support the minaret ban) for generations but yet are still treated like outsiders. France’s Muslim community has been living and working in mainland France since the early 20th century and many still feel disenfranchised from French society. In fact, according to a recent article in Le Monde, one out of every two young men (many of whom are second or third generation French Muslims) live in poverty. Even those who have managed to become successful, such as Le Monde journalist Mustapha Kessous, face ongoing discrimination from peers and colleagues. The Dutch welcomed waves of guest workers from Morocco and Turkey in the post-war years. And yet, even after family reunification laws were put in place guaranteeing that Muslim immigrants would stay, the Dutch made little effort to understand their traditions while insisting that the Muslim community instantly conform to Dutch culture and belief systems. The Swiss meanwhile, not the picture of tolerance some would make it out to be, have refused citizenship to immigrants living in Switzerland for several generations. When are Europeans going to realize that the people they consider to be outsiders are really insiders? Their skin color may be different, they may practice a different religion, but the majority speak the native language, contribute to the work force, and are good citizens in their adopted countries—and have been so for quite some time. What most of them ask for in return is appropriate respect for their traditions, the ability to practice their religion openly, and to be accepted on equal footing.
Europe does not have a good track record when it comes to embracing those they view as strangers. One need only to look to the Holocaust for confirmation. To atone for the sins of the Shoah, many European countries, including France and the Netherlands, have erected monuments, museums, and required Holocaust education in junior high and high schools. But that’s easy compared to confronting the difficult task of integrating a growing minority that has been pushed to the fringes for so long. The past 60 years has been an experiment in tolerance and multiculturalism. To use the violent actions of a small fundamentalist minority as an excuse to engage in xenophobic rhetoric and action—as those who support the minaret ban did—suggests that perhaps this experiment may not be based on such a strong foundation as one may have thought. It is not enough anymore to judge Europe on how it confronts its past. It must also be judged on how it treats its present. Is it up to the challenge?
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.