EUROPE AND ISLAM
No European democracy has the perfect way to handle Islam
Nov 15th 2015, 16:02 BY ERASMUS in the economist
EUROPE'S democracies are standing united in the face of the nihilist terror which struck the heart of the continent on November 13th. With no fear, this time, of alienating patriotic voters, David Cameron managed a few words of French as he expressed his solidarity with the French people.
Even before the latest attacks, it was clear that the leading governments of Europe faced broadly the same dilemma. Within the large and growing Muslim communities which every European state now hosts, a minority is attracted by the cause of violent extremism, at home or abroad. The challenge is to keep that minority small and make sure that the rest of society, including the rising generation of Muslims, plays its part in this.
But in their approaches to this problem, European states have always had differences, often robust ones. At least in pre-9/11 days, French security chiefs used to refer scathingly to "Londonistan" because of the British capital's willingness to harbour Islamist opponents of secular regimes, like the one which usurped power in Algeria.
There are differences of ideology as well as practice. Like America, only a bit more so, the French republic has a specific set of founding principles and it expects all citizens to accept them, however diverse they may be in other respects. It is agreed that one of the purposes of universal education is to inculcate those ideals. That is in sharp contrast with the British ideal of multiculturalism. To French eyes, it seems that Britain has been too lax in allowing immigrant sub-cultures, like the Asian Muslim enclaves of northern England. The existence of British schools (whether private or within the state system) where the ethos is that of ultra-conservative Islam can seem astonishing to observers from France, or from other European states where education is more centralised.
Britain now acknowledges that multiculturalism has gone too far, especially in education, but in a country that lacks a written constitution, there is uncertainty over what common denominator citizens and schoolchildren should be asked to accept. Whatever answer is found, it will not as demanding as the French approach. In Britain, the decade-old French law that bars headscarves from schools seems like an infringement of liberty. When Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, said he preferred Muslim visitors to his office not to wear full face-veils, he was denounced as grossly insensitive by fellow Labour politicians. That sentiment is still widespread.
Not only is each European country different, each one is changing at a different pace and in a different direction. In contrast with secular France, post-war Germany has always had a lot of religious education, Protestant and Catholic, in its school system. Now there is increasing provision for Islam; what will happen after the arrival of more than a million refugees, mostly Muslim, is anybody's guess. The Netherlands used to be generously multicultural but a sharp reaction set in after the murder of Theo van Gogh, a film-maker, by a Muslim fanatic in 2004, and the effects are still palpable.
The hard truth is that no European country has found the ideal balance between accepting diversity (which is the natural impulse of a liberal democratic state) and demanding adherence to a common set of values. That is because no perfect balance exists.
France has done its collective best to offer Muslim citizens a hard secularist bargain: accept the ideals of the republic, which include the religious neutrality of the state, and you will be as free to practice your religion as any Catholic, Protestant or Jew. It has more-or-less successfully imposed that bargain on the organisations which speak for Islam in France. But inevitably, there are those who reject it. For the great majority of French citizens of Muslim heritage, the republic's offer is probably acceptable. But if only 1% of young French Muslims radically reject it that is easily enough to provide terrorist movements with ample recruits.
Exactly the same applies to the somewhat different bargains that every other European state is offering. There is no ideal solution, but we still have to keep looking for one.