Europe: Continental Drift

Silvio Berlusconi was trailing his center-left rival, Romano Prodi, in polls preceding Italy's general elections on April 9 and 10. So, less than two weeks before the vote, he did what most politicians in such situations do: He moved to shore up the base -- his allies in the hard right Italian Northern League. His chosen method? He aimed his crosshairs on the country's Muslim immigrants. “We don't want Italy to become a multiethnic, multicultural country,” he told the state-run radio in late March. “We are proud of our traditions.”

In this, Berlusconi is representative of many politicians, particularly on the center-right, in western Europe, for whom race baiting has become increasingly profitable at the polls. In nearly every election on continental Europe since September 11, center-right parties have adopted a two-pronged approach to Muslims in Europe: First, paint Islam as an uncompromising religion; second, describe Muslim men under 30 as hooligans, terrorists, or both.

This rhetoric can be partly explained by the dynamics of proportional representation in places like Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands, where the center right must compete with right-wing populists that feed off growing public hostility to Muslim immigrants. Yet while politically expedient, it does little to address the stunted prospects of a generation of Muslim youth who are now turning against the countries in which they were reared. So long as the European right continues to substitute high-octane oratory for pragmatic solutions to integrating Europe's disenfranchised Muslim immigrant population, they will be a singularly pernicious influence on European (and by extension, American) security and well-being.

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The term “immigrant” connotes different things in continental Europe than in the United States. Generally speaking, in Europe it refers not just to emigrants from foreign countries, but to their children and in some cases grandchildren as well. It is the progeny of North Africans and Turks who were recruited to fill Europe's post-war labor shortages in the 1950s and 1960s -- the so-called second-generation immigrants -- who are the target of popular hostility in Europe today.

In most cases, European governments recruited their parents as guest workers but made no conscious effort to integrate them into the European social model. For their part, many in the first generation did little to embrace European values, though they had no plans of leaving the continent. When Europe's industrial base declined in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these low-wage jobs disappeared. The workers, who by then had brought their families, remained.

For decades, politicians on both the left and right were content to ignore the problems associated with a growing and segregated underclass of Muslim immigrants. Meanwhile, the children born to these imported workers grew up in suburban ghettoes and now exhibit pathologies associated with segregation and urban poverty. In the Netherlands, for example, the unemployment rate of Dutch Muslims is 60 percent higher than the national average. In France, where Muslims make up 10 percent of the population, unofficial estimates indicate that more than 60 percent of prison inmates are Muslim.

Against this backdrop, and as members of this generation reached their teens and 20s, a Europeanized version of the fabled super-predator began to appear. As in the United States, the right began capitalizing on popular fears of dark-skinned young men and set the tone of the political debate. Add a dose of popular antipathy to Islam following September 11 (and the very real presence of a cadre of radical clerics in Europe), and you have a recipe for a new dynamic of right-wing populism in Europe.

Denmark's November 2001 election was a watershed moment. A Willie Horton-style advertising campaign criticizing the lenient sentence handed to second-generation Palestinians convicted of rape galvanized right-wing support for the center-right Liberal Party's anti-immigration platform. When the Liberals' Anders Fogh Rasmussen became prime minister, his minority governing coalition's greatest ally became the nationalist Danish People's Party, whose leader Pia Kjaersgaard has at various times called asylum seekers untrained illiterates and posited that the accumulation of Muslims leads to mass rapes. Together, Rasmussen's minority government and the Danish People Party possess an absolute majority in Parliament. Soon after the election, they passed Europe's most restrictive anti-immigrant laws to date.

Four years of this governing coalition had a dampening effect on integrating Muslims in Denmark, and went a long way toward increasing racial tensions there. These tensions grew to a fever pitch in February when the riots over the infamous cartoons that skewered the prophet Mohammed erupted in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Yet it was not Muslims in Gaza or Karachi that these cartoons were meant to provoke, but those in Copenhagen. Rasmussen played this controversy masterfully. He rejected a middle ground like that adopted by the Bush administration, which defended the right of a paper to publish the cartoons but complained about their mean-spirited tone. Rasmussen accused his domestic critics, virtually none of whom questioned the right of a paper to publish what it pleases, of being insufficiently
pro-free speech.

Even in countries where the far right does not hold a controlling stake in national parliaments, the desire to appease right-wing populists still runs strong among ambitious politicians. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, has promoted sensible integration policies, like expanding affirmative-action programs that are now being tested in some universities. He also appointed France's only Muslim prefect (the chief federal administrator of the region) and oversaw the creation of an official Muslim Council of France to attend to the needs of France's five million Muslims, like certifying halal and arranging army and prison chaplaincies.

Yet, despite these policies, Sarkozy remains public enemy number one to many French Muslims. During last autumn's riots he pledged to “karcherise” the “rabble” from the streets. (Karcher is the well-known brand name of a high-pressure washer used, among other things, to clean bird feces from the sidewalk.) “I like Sarkozy's policies,” says Julianne Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and coauthor of a report on the nexus of Muslim integration and security policy in Europe. “But his rhetoric only reinforces a sense of embattlement felt by French Muslims.”

In the Netherlands, this kind of Sarkozy-esque triangulation has tainted one of the continent's best chances of creating a pluralistic, Europeanized Islam. In late 2004, the Dutch center-right Christian Democrats proposed to subsidize an Islamic theology program in Amsterdam's largest private university. The opposition on the left responded to this idea with enthusiasm. But, fearful of looking “soft” on the Muslim question, the left sought to outflank the Christian Democrats by simultaneously proposing a ban on all foreign imams, who were considered under the influence of foreign governments like Saudi Arabia (some undoubtedly are).

Eventually, their proposal was found to contravene Dutch law and was never enacted. But the damage had already been done. Dutch Muslims were furious that their religious leaders would be subject to a double standard, and a promising remedy to wean Dutch imams from foreign financial and intellectual dependency got off to a poisoned start.

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The prospect of a state of sustained antagonism between European governments and their Muslim minorities has terrorism experts worried. In an authoritative study of 373 terrorists arrested or killed in Europe and the United States from 1993 through 2004, Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke of the Nixon Center found that one-quarter were Western European nationals. These vary from students of the London School of Economics to career petty criminals. “Class is not the determinant,” says Daniel Benjamin, the former director of counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and coauthor of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right. “But if you look at the personal biographies of those who have been arrested on terrorism charges in Europe, it's clear that being alienated and denied opportunity heightens the threat.”

Though the situation in the aggregate is rather bleak, scattered local initiatives that work with, rather than against, local Muslim communities have shown promise. One borough of Amsterdam, for example, entered into legal contracts with its three local mosques, spelling out the obligation of the mosque to the community, and vice versa. Per the contract, the mosques receive city funding for some of their social service projects. In return, mosque leaders identify and monitor youth they feel might be drifting toward radicalism. Further, the borough enlists the mosques' support to enroll young immigrant mothers in civic education and parenting classes.

But so long as stoking popular resentment against Muslims remains politically profitable in national politics, these programs are not likely to move beyond the local level. “You cannot build a collaborative relationship with people you waste no time insulting,” says Jytte Klausen, author of an exhaustive study of Europe's Muslim middle class, The Challenge of Islam: Politics and Religion in Western Europe. Unfortunately, a tragic number of European politicians are content to sacrifice a dose of enlightened self- interest for derogatory sound bytes.

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