Guest Editorial: Europe’s Muslims

Andrew Scott Lawrence Class of 2001

If Danish women’s groups or gay rights groups were to take issue with misogynistic or homophobic cartoons, a free speech argument would probably have less traction in Europe than the recent debate over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. Such attacks would be widely understood to endanger hard-fought gains for full legal protection for gays and women.
Why the different treatment for Europe’s Muslims?
The difference is not rooted in intractable tension between freedom of religion and freedom of speech, as has been widely hypothesized, but rather in the debates over the social and political future of Europe’s estimated 15 million Muslims. The struggle makes more sense if we consider it as a contest not over rights vs. freedom, but rather over who’s the boss in Europe.
Across Europe, even in Denmark, far-right anti-immigrant parties are gaining more parliamentary representation as their ideas bleed into the political mainstream. In France, get-tough policies directed at the youths in France’s immigrant ghettos, where anger at such policies boiled over into extended rioting this past fall, have gained more public resonance.
A sense of malaise — rooted in the rise of a spiritually challenged Western monoculture that has eclipsed folk ways — is blamed on immigrants’ refusal to integrate culturally. They are blamed for not assimilating European public values, of imposing their way of life in a new land.
Placed in a catch-22 by the demand to integrate, on one hand, and by pervasive discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations on the other, it is no surprise that some may emerge with a sense of ambivalence toward the sociopolitical order of their new home.
Tariq Ramadan, renowned professor of Islamic studies, argues that these youths should embrace a new Muslim identity, becoming a living testament to their faith, while embracing rights and responsibilities that are specific to their Western home.
Supporters of Europe’s far right, on the other hand, are indignant at high levels of criminality among immigrant youths that cannot be dismissed merely as stereotype-driven fiction. But this indignation is linked closely to an inflated fear of violence. Belgian sociologist Andrea Rea argues that the stereotype of the Muslim male, figuring prominently in media depictions of immigrant communities, has become for Europeans the ideal figure of danger. Fearing both hoodlum and terrorist, and rocked by the disintegration of family and community, right-wing supporters feel they are under attack by an outsider. A stranger in our own house, so they feel, is trying to be our boss.
The culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose, speaking with the New York Times, framed the cartoon debate in this light: “This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise.”
Many in Europe, we can see, already feel they have compromised enough and have issued the challenge. For some, continued publication of the cartoons means someone is finally putting their foot down. Muslim immigrants, some feel, are in no position to dictate what we can print in our own newspapers.
In the end, the question remains, is European free speech in need of crusading defense? Would a single, nominal refrain from absolute freedom in fact endanger free speech?
Since Islam condemns only visual depictions of Muhammad or God — no written criticism of Islam has so profoundly offended mainstream Muslims — the stakes are not in fact so grave.
If European papers drew the line at refraining from printing such images, but kept written criticisms on the table — and if Muslim groups agreed to accept the arrangement — a healthy public forum would remain well intact.
For such an understanding to hold, both parties would need to distinguish clearly between criticism of an idea and criticism of its mere publication.
Unfortunately, armed Hamas gunmen leaping in protest onto the walls of EU buildings in Gaza and the 2004 Amsterdam murder of Theo Van Gogh, who produced a film critical of women’s freedom under Islam, only reinforce the case that rights, rather than responsibility, are at stake.
A power struggle over demands has unfolded instead of a discussion about real grievances and needs.
Sadly, the insistence to publish and republish the cartoons has real costs that provoke more than just another bout of Gaza shouting; it literally hurts Muslims. Down to the core. In the words of Fatima, a friend of mine here in Morocco, “When I heard about the cartoons, I cried for a long time.”
Andrew Scott (LU, 2001) is cofounder of Peace in the Precincts, a St. Paul-based grassroots organizing project. He is currently serving as Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Morocco.