Sunday, February 27, 2005

Cold War alive in Europe

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Republican-American

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were attacked in Paris. The assailants were a pack of kids, hooligans really, who hopped off their bicycles and began pounding their fists against my husband. Their assault came after I had exchanged words with one of their number who had jostled me on the sidewalk while on his bike. The boy confronted me. My husband ripped him off his bike. And then all heck broke loose outside the Pompadour Centre, as the boy and his friends retaliated for being what we might call "dissed."

To their credit, passers-by came to our aid, shielding us from these ruffians until a gendarme came to help us. For whatever reason, the gendarme sought to mollify me, assuring me that these creeps were not "real Frenchmen."

The boys who attacked us were not ethnic French. They appeared to be North African, of descent or birth. More than likely, they were Muslim. They belong to a growing population of Muslim immigrants who are increasingly seething with anger at what they see as lack of economic justice, persistent racism and political neglect. Not just in France, but in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, and, most dramatically, in the Netherlands.

In November, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed by a suspected Islamic militant, unleashing a wave of attacks on mosques, churches and religious institutions that dealt a fatal blow to the Dutch reputation for tolerance. The van Gogh murder and its aftermath shocked the freewheeling, multicultural Dutch but it should not have.

Only six months earlier, Muslim radicals killed 191 people on Madrid's commuter trains and French police say they have foiled a plot to cause similar destruction in Paris. Last year, France passed a ban to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols in its secular schools, saying such symbols incite violence. In response to the swelling animosity between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe, the European Union last year insisted that all new immigrants to the 25-nation bloc must learn local language and adhere to general "European values."

If anybody knows what those are any more.

There may be a hot war brewing between the United States and Iraq, but there is a Cold War in Europe between Muslims and non-Muslims. Europe's problem with Islam is potentially more dangerous than ours simply because there are more Muslims there. Although no one knows the actual numbers of Muslims in the United States, estimates range between 1 million and 2 million. There are 5 million Muslims living in France alone.

The majority of the estimated 300 million Muslims who live along the Mediterranean's southern rim are under 20, restless, and, often, simmering with resentment. We witnessed that in our Parisian donnybrook.

To many white Europeans, Muslim immigrants are a necessary evil, a fertile labor pool required to fill the jobs they won't take. That's fueled animosity and resentment, led to extremism on both sides and spawned a political xenophobia at odds with Europe's progressive view of itself. How volatile has the tension become? Last year, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt wished out loud that Germany had never let all those Turkish guest workers in the 1950s and '60s. And many Germans muttered in mute assent.

But ethnic Germans, and French, and Italians, and even, saints preserve us, the Irish, are simply not having babies at the clip with which immigrants are. With a low birth rate and an aging population, Europe needs immigrants to sustain its generous social welfare system and fill jobs to fuel its economy. Some estimates predict Europe will need 75 million immigrants by 2050 if it hopes to stay competitive.

But so profound is the enmity, and so latent the potential danger, that some Europeans are more than deeply resistant. They are openly hostile.

"We must stop the Islamic invasion," Filip Dewinter of Belgium's Vlaams Blok told The New York Times Magazine. Vlaams Block wants to forcibly expel all unemployed immigrants. "I think it's, in fact, impossible to assimilate in our country if you are of Islamic belief." France's Jean Marie Le Pen, with his "France for the French" is of much the same ilk. Le Pen, who's been convicted several times for comments he made about Jews and the Holocaust, has asserted "The main cause of crime is linked very directly to mass immigration."

It's tempting to think the European opposition to the war in Iraq is rooted in anti-Americanism. But with so many Muslims loitering around the ghettos of Europe, Europeans may just want to keep their hands out of the hornet's nest. Until, of course, the hornets swarm of their own accord.

Tracey O'Shaughnessy can be reached at Tosh@rep-am.com.

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