The Economist magazine (newspaper) recently published a special survey about Islam in the West. The upbeat conclusion is that modernisation is slowly but surely transforming the attitudes and behaviour of Muslims living in Europe and North America. While immigrants arriving in the 1960s and 1970s mostly expected to return to the Middle East and Turkey, second-generation settlers were increasingly torn between traditional Islamic religious practices and beliefs and the prospects and opportunities in open societies. Since the end of the 20th Century the West has become steadily more secular and liberal – e.g. in approving same sex marriage – in contrast to the repressive social codes associated with Islam in a wide arc of countries stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. These tensions have tended to give rise to conflicts and extremes, reflected in the statistics of attacks and the rhetoric of hatred. But the authors of the survey argue that most young people in the third generation of Muslims are leaving the fundamentalists behind and are set to become a permanent part of more diverse, more tolerant Western society – as long as that society continues to nurture those values.
The warning is apt, given that hard line conservatives and anti-democratic forces have the wind in their sails in a raft of countries at present. Precisely the key values identified in the survey – diversity and tolerance – have been ridiculed and rejected by many right-wingers in Denmark since the early 2000s. Thus, the survey authors observe that although many European parliaments have passed laws against wearing the burka for example, in terms of anti-Muslim legislation Denmark has gone further than most.
The country has one of Western Europe’s lowest rates of jihadist attacks, but fear of Islam is pervasive. Last year the right wing government introduced a rule requiring children from designated poor districts inhabited mainly by immigrants, which it calls “ghettos”, to attend a day-care centre for 25 hours a week from the age of one (as almost all Danish children do). Another recent law requires new citizens to shake hands at naturalisation ceremonies even though some Muslims oppose touching members of the opposite sex on religious grounds. Government subsidies to Muslim (but not Christian or Jewish) schools have been cut and some have been closed down. To many Muslims and Western liberals such measures seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive. Unlike in many other Western countries, young Muslims in Denmark are more observant than their elders.
“Angst essen seele auf” says Ali in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 movie story of a love affair in Munich between an aging cleaning lady and a Moroccan immigrant. It looks as if fear is eating the souls of many people in Europe these days.