February 07, 2008
When it comes to Muslims, Americans tend to be confused and suspicious, in large measure because of the trauma of 9/11. American Jews tend to be among the most wary because of rising anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and the strident calls emanating from Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere for Israel’s destruction.
However, as tense as relations with Muslims may be in America, they pale in comparison to what’s happening in Europe. There, Muslim populations are growing much faster than in the United States and are generally much less assimilated. Repeated incidents of deadly Muslim terrorism — London and Madrid being the two leading examples — serve only to exacerbate tensions.
Denmark is a case in point. Muslims now comprise as much as 5 percent of Denmark’s once overwhelmingly homogeneous population. The immigrants are primarily of Turkish, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and North African origin. (About 7,500 of Denmark’s 5.4 million citizens are Jews.)
Most Americans first became aware of Denmark’s Muslims in 2005. That’s when Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten newspaper printed cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, triggering a harsh and sometimes violent response from Muslims worldwide. The incident was a wake-up call for the largely secular Christian Danish majority; their liberal values, they discovered, were widely rejected, if not held in utter contempt, by much of the growing Muslim population.
Recently, I spoke to a group of visiting Danish journalists and educators brought to Washington by the U.S. State Department to study the interplay of interreligious relations in America. Tellingly, three of the nine Danish visitors had Muslim names (a fourth’s name was Hispanic).
The Danes’ hunger for strategies to help them move forward positively in their increasingly culturally bifurcated homeland was palpable. Why, they kept asking, do tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in America seem so much better than in Denmark?
We are not without our religious tensions, I responded, and some of them are quite serious. Roman Catholics and Jews have in the past both faced serious prejudice, but that’s mostly behind us. Mormons are still looked down upon as weird by many — witness the religious attacks on Mitt Romney — and Muslims face rising discrimination (reread my first paragraph to understand why).
Perhaps the most contentious religious divide we face is the one between liberal and conservative religious perspectives playing out in a host of gender- and sexuality-related issues. But for all this Sturm und Drang, Americans still have an easier time of it than do Europeans, who live on the front line of the clash of civilizations.
I was struck by how little the visiting Danes, for all their professional sophistication, seemed to know about the true nature of American society. Europeans like to call Americans provincial, but this lot came off as bewildered victims of a misguided European Union fantasy about the end of the nation-state. They seemed genuinely bewildered by the enormous social upheaval staring them in the face.
Europe is changing beyond recognition. Some commentators on both sides of the Atlantic say Christian Europe is rapidly reaching a point of no return (forget about Jewish Europe — its end is even clearer). An Islamic Europe, these commentators say, is just around the corner.
It seems plausible. What this will mean to Israel is a frightening thought.
A political and religious backlash among ethnic Europeans has already surfaced. In Denmark, which still retains Lutheran Christianity as its official (if largely ignored) state nation, anti-immigrant politics is on the rise. Some formerly secular Danes, I was told, are re-embracing the church for no other reason than to assert their identity as real Danes.
The future of Europe and the world is nothing if not insecure. The Danes I met showed it — including those with Muslim names.