A Woman’s Head Scarf, a Continent’s Discomfort

The Washington Post
March 13, 2005

Ten days ago, a 31-year-old Moroccan-born immigrant to Belgium quit her job at a prepared foods factory in the small town of Ledegem. Her decision was the result of several months of intimidation, beginning in November when her employer, Rik Remmery, received an anonymous letter. It claimed to be his “death warrant” unless he fired his “fundamentalist” Muslim employee — or made sure that she removed her head scarf.

A few days later, a second letter arrived, repeating the threat. Another came, putting a $326,000 bounty on Remmery’s head. When a further envelope showed up containing a bullet, Remmery and his wife became truly worried. Although they had stood by Naima Amzil, their employee decided to ditch her head scarf while she worked. It was a wrenching decision for her. “A piece of me has been taken away,” she cried.

It wasn’t the end of her ordeal, though. After two more bullets showed up in the mail, Amzil finally decided to quit the job she had for eight years rather than endanger either her life or her employer’s.

During my two most recent research trips to Europe, I saw how a story like this could capture people’s imaginations. It represents one of the most radical cases of what Germany’s newspaper the Sueddeutsche Zeitung has called anti-Islamic “hysteria,” which makes many Europeans see “every head scarf as a political emblem, every Muslim [as] an extremist, every mosque [as] a seething hotbed of hatred.” And it shows what I have come to see as a dangerous failure in Europe to distinguish between threats from an extremist fringe and symbols of Muslims’ rich cultural heritage. Unless Europeans learn to make that distinction, I am afraid their societies risk being torn apart. Such a possibility was reflected in a study of 11 European Union states released last week by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which warned that some Muslims feel as if they are viewed as “an enemy within.”

Islamophobia is a new phenomenon in modern Europe. In the early 1970s when I lived in Britain, Muslim women in France used to tell me how their neighbors admired their “stylish turbans.” Turkish women in Berlin and Cologne would flaunt their head scarves, which their own country’s ultra-secularist government had banned from many public places. Some Arab women arriving at Paris’s Orly Airport would take off the veils they were obliged to wear in their homelands. They did so of their free will, not because of Europeans’ negative reactions to their cultural peculiarities.

In fact, 30 years ago Muslims were rarely recognized in Europe as a religious group at all. In Britain, Muslims were usually identified by ethnic and national labels — Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kashmiris and so on. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Britons began to refer to them as Muslims. In the last five years, the cultural symbols that distinguish Muslims have come to be mistakenly viewed as symbols of Islamic extremism.

Islam has been put on Europe’s social map by these increasingly visible cultural symbols: Halal butchers’ shops (which sell ritually slaughtered meat), Arabic and Urdu store signs, women in head scarves, men in Arab robes, mosques and Islamic schools abound in Europe’s traditional power centers. These symbols reflect the rapid growth of the E.U.’s Muslim population. In 20 years, between 30 and 40 percent of the populations of about a dozen European cities will be Muslim. These changes have prompted fears among Europeans that their continent is becoming “a colony of Islam,” as Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci put it.

Such fears have been stoked by a few dramatic acts of violence by Muslim extremists, such as last November’s brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, which exposed the fissures between Muslim immigrants and the indigenous population.

Security services have since been monitoring thousands of mosques across Western Europe, especially in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Imams — or prayer leaders — have been fired under government pressure for making “extremist” comments. Among them is Yakup Tasci of Berlin, who appeared to me to be nothing but a traditionalist cleric during an October 2000 conversation at his Mevlana mosque. A hidden tape recorder later caught him saying that “German infidels” who had attacked a mosque “will burn in hell.” The literalist imam was apparently referring to an admonition in the Koran that consigns “infidels” to hell to float in “boiling water” and suffer other forms of punishment, much as a literal reading of the Bible supports the belief that the unrighteous will be condemned to eternal fire (Matthew 25:41). The imam wasn’t advocating violence here on earth.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands, programs have been launched to assimilate Muslims into national mainstreams. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has demanded that Muslims learn “Enlightenment values” and not live in “parallel societies.” Other European politicians and intellectuals agree, excoriating proponents of multiculturalism and advocating instead an assimilationist policy.

The assimilation of ethnic or racial groups has historically meant their merger through marriage, friendships and socialization. Most Europeans, however, can’t imagine having those kinds of relationships with minorities of non-European origin. The Germans still call third-generation Turks Gastarbeiter, or guest workers. Britain, a multicultural society, has been more hospitable to Muslim immigrants than oil-rich Arab Muslim countries. Yet a BBC survey found that 94 percent of native Britons don’t have “close friends” among Muslims or other minorities of non-European origin. What’s more, surveys show that six out of 10 European Muslim youths insist on keeping a Muslim cultural identity. Marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims range only from 3 percent in Britain to 17 percent in France.

For many Europeans, Muslim assimilation means ridding Muslims of their distinctive lifestyles. Recalling that children of religious Italian, Polish, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants to northern European countries gave up strict religious adherence before they assimilated into host societies, some European intellectuals are predicting that European-born Muslims will “assimilate over time.” They see extremism and estrangement as symptoms of Muslim religiosity.

These prognoses show an almost willful ignorance of Muslim history and contemporary culture. The two European-born generations of Muslims are, in fact, secularizing fast. An unscientific survey of about 200 Muslim youths that I conducted in 2000 shows that only 5 to 12 percent of them pray regularly, which is on par with other Europeans’ church attendance.

But Islam didn’t go through a church-state power struggle, an Inquisition or a Thirty Years’ War, all of which make some Europeans disdain anything associated with religion. Secular Muslims cherish key Islamic symbols as part of their cultural traditions, and they are very upset by the vilification of these symbols. Hence many European Muslims, religious and secular, railed at van Gogh for having “smeared” the Koran in his controversial movie, while condemning his killing. Sixteen years ago, they denounced Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” because it portrays the prophet Muhammad as an impostor.

Ties to their transnational Islamic community, the umma, are also cushioning Muslims against assimilation. This solidarity is helping them remake their ethnic communities throughout Europe. During a 2003 visit to England, my Bangladeshi friend Reaz Ahmed told me about his daughter’s wedding: The groom’s father was a Pakistani and his mother Indian. The guests included Muslims of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi and Arab origins. European-born Muslims like these people are gathering into new ethnic melting pots of their own. And once embedded in these communities they show little urge to assimilate into native Christian societies. Ethnic Muslim communities, not Islam, pose the real challenge to European societies.

The best way to preserve democratic order in Europe, thereby lessening the chance of cross-cultural clash, is to stop trying to expect Muslims to give up their cultural traditions and instead adopt a multicultural policy. Indeed, in Marseille not long ago, Abdel Aziz Mehdi, a retired linguistics professor, told me that he sees “multiculturalism [as] Europe’s destiny.” One in four residents of that wind-swept Mediterranean port city is a Muslim of North African origin. Its expansive Canebiere avenue is lined with Muslim shops. In late afternoons the restaurants tune in their TV sets to Algerian channels and play North African music. Outside, men relax on chairs chatting in Arabic or reading Arabic-language newspapers.

Over a couscous meal at one of the restaurants, Mehdi explained that the rapid growth of their communities had heightened European Muslims’ “cultural sensitivity [to a degree] I couldn’t imagine 10 years ago.” European societies would be “torn apart,” he added, unless Muslims were allowed to nurture their cultures and unless they were accommodated in a multicultural setting. Without it, he said, there would be no social stability in Europe.

The best that can be hoped from Europe’s assimilation campaign is its early demise. Because, as Naima Amzil and Rik Remmery would both attest, a head scarf should not be seen as anything more sinister than a simple symbol of cultural affinity.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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