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Europe: Conference Examines Obstacles To Real Tolerance

A Swedish-Palestinian man poses outside his restaurant in the Swedish town of Arvidsjaur (file photo) (AFP) BRUSSELS, June 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A meeting of scholars in Brussels has concluded that frictions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe have their roots in prejudices created by social tensions and often uncritically accepted sweeping generalizations.

Jocelyne Cesari, a French scholar of Muslims and Islam, was one of the key figures at the June 12 conference, which was organized by the European Policy Center. She and a team of researchers have recently conducted a study that concludes Islamophobia, or fear of Islam, is a dangerous reality in Europe.

But Cesari, who is affiliated with the Paris-based CNRS and U.S.-based Harvard University, found that the everyday tensions that feed Islamophobia have little or nothing to do with religious differences.

The Real Issues

Instead, she said, the problem has more to do with four social factors. These are the Muslims' immigrant background, usually lower social standing, cultural practices, and the Islamist terrorist threat.

"These kind of key domains of discrimination can be used either by Muslim[s] or non-Muslim[s] in an ideological way," Cesari said. "When some Muslim[s] tend to lump together structural inequalities and clear [instances] of [someone] discriminating [against] Islam, and saying, 'This [means] all Europe is against Islam and all Westerners are enemies' -- this does [happen]. On the other side, non-Muslims tend to do the same thing, to see all Muslim[s] as the same, unified group threatening not only the jobs, not only the housing, but also the core values of European society."

Another participant, Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan, noted such "ideological" generalizations nurture further discrimination against Muslims by non-Muslims.

Time To Examine Key Assumptions

At the same time, he said, the generalizations create a "sense of victimhood" among European Muslims.

Ramadan called for both sides to examine their key assumptions critically. His main criticism, however, was directed at the way Europe's political establishment is increasingly succumbing to an irrational fear of Muslim communities.

Ramadan said such fears stem from Europe's economic difficulties, pressures of immigration, eroding national identities, and citizens' concerns over security in the wake of recent terror attacks.

As a result, he argued, Europe's Muslims are on the verge of facing persecution reminiscent of that of Jews in Europe in the 1930s.

Ramadan said that like Jews then, Muslims now face increasing accusations from the political mainstream of engaging in “double talk," “double loyalty,” and having a secret, proselytizing agenda.

Ramadan said that preying on non-Muslim Europeans’ fears, Europe’s politicians are turning its laws against the Muslim minority.

A Double-Edged Sword

“The law that we are all promoting [is] not implemented the way we want," Ramadan said. "In fact, when you trust the citizens you are dealing with, you use the law to integrate them. When you don’t trust them, you use the law to protect yourself [against] them. The same text, but not the same reading.”

Ramadan argued for a new, inclusive definition of what it means to be European, based on overarching, undiscriminating laws and equality of citizenship.

A reminder of just how difficult reconciliation may prove to be was provided by a Portuguese member of the audience, Luis Armorim.

Armorim said that as a married homosexual in Brussels -- which is home to many Muslim immigrants -- he “fears Islam.”

“I’m afraid for my personal physical [safety] because as a homosexual, and a married one with a[n adopted] child of 11 months, in certain areas of Brussels, I cannot hold hands with my partner," Armorim told the conference. "Because I see myself being insulted and physically threatened because I’m holding hands with my partner.”

Armorim explained that he is not denouncing Islam or its adherents indiscriminately, but he worries that there appear to be "no voices” advocating tolerance in Muslim immigrant communities.

He said “versions” of Islam appear to want to “invade Europe’s public space” and put people like him in a position of “marginalization, if not illegality, and even of death.”

Need For Self-Criticism

In the ensuing lively debate, some Muslim participants downplayed Armorim’s fears, arguing Muslims too face daily discrimination.

However, Ramadan said Muslims do tend to shun self-criticism.

“We have a lack of internal discussion, intra-community discussions, critical discourse," Ramadan said. "The very moment you start to be critical with your own fellow Muslims, it’s as if you were playing with the ‘other.' You are on the other [side] you are with the West against us.”

Cesari agreed, saying Muslim intellectuals tend to be “very conservative.” She said the Muslim world must “put the public voices of [its] intellectuals behind tolerance.”

Tariq Ramadan (AFP file photo)

Ramadan said he believes “the great majority of Muslims” do not want to change Europe’s “social sphere” and its values. Their main ambition is to abide by the law, respect others, and be respected in their difference.

Responding to a question from the audience on the increasing use of controversial “civic-knowledge” examinations by EU countries, Ramadan provided a telling counterpoint to the debate. He said a German friend had told him, “ask the pope to sit the examination, and he will fail.”

Ramadan’s quip is a reminder that the mainstay of Christianity in Europe, its Catholic Church, holds homosexuality to be a mortal sin and does not allow women to become priests.

Islam In A Pluralistic World

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)


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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.