We may soon have to rethink our view of the “tolerant” Dutch. In the Netherlands’s upcoming general election, the far-right candidate, Geert Wilders, is the current favorite to end up as prime minister in a coalition government. However, Wilders has labeled Islam “retarded” and has called to ban the Koran. These dismaying steps are part of an eruption of Islamophobia throughout Europe. Across the Continent, the far right has exploited fears of terrorism and changing demographics with great success. Although people should have the right to oppose a dramatic change in the make-up of their societies, something far more radical may be afoot in Europe. Years after Europeans heralded the success of multiculturalism, open vilification of Islam has become standard in many mainstream parties.
The recent Swiss referendum on the building of minarets, spires used to call Muslims to prayer, is a perfect example of how Islamophobia extends beyond a vocal minority. Recently, 57 percent of Switzerland’s population voted to ban the construction of future minarets in their country. This response seems excessive because there are currently four minarets in Switzerland and roughly five percent of the population follows Islam. The danger of the Alps’ chocolate-box villages being swept away in favor of numerous variants of the Blue Mosque looks slim. A comment by Roberto Calderoli of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League sums up what this vote is about, “Switzerland is sending to us a clear signal; yes to bell towers, no to minarets.” It is very much about Islam, and the rejection of a “foreign” culture.
Fear of Islamic culture is encapsulated also in the Europe-wide debate over the veil. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has promised to push ahead with a ban on the full veil, and Belgium has become the first European nation to hold a successful vote on the subject. A concerted effort has been made to tie the debate over Islamic dress to women’s rights within Muslim society. Politicians repeatedly invoke the need to “liberate women,” while some left-wing members of parliament have gone so far as to label the burqa a “walking coffin.” That most of the women who dress in this way appear to have made a voluntary decision to do so appears to not matter. As in Switzerland, far-right parties have persuaded voters that the veil is unequivocally a symbol of Europe’s Islamification—even though only an estimated 1,900 women wear the full veil in France out of six million Muslims. Polls indicate that 70 percent of the French public supports a ban on the burqa, even though a fraction of this number would be in favor of outlawing similar expressions of faith from other religions such as crosses and yarmulkes.
Banning minarets and burqas may only be the beginning. In Italy, the Northern League is increasing its numbers in Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition and came out on top in many of March’s regional elections. The party specializes in “Muslim-baiting” and has called for boats carrying illegal immigrants from North Africa to be shelled. A popular campaign poster warns that native Italians will end up on reservations like their American counterparts as a consequence of immigration. The League now has control of the Italian Interior Ministry, while Berlusconi himself has proclaimed the “superiority” of Western culture over Islamic culture.
However, even the situation in Italy pales in comparison to the Dutch situation. After years of heavy migration from North Africa and Turkey, the stereotypically tolerant Dutch now believe (poll numbers indicate a massive disparity of over 60 percent) that Islam is incompatible with “modern European life.” As a result, the Dutch government may soon not only drastically curb immigration but also move to outlaw the Koran. The difference between restricting immigration and banning a book exemplifies perfectly how enthusiasm for preventing European society from changing too much has evolved into a radical reaction against Islam. The threat of outright discrimination toward Muslims in Europe is becoming a reality. European leaders seem prepared to brazenly attack Islam and disregard the basic freedom of expression of which the Continent has become so proud. Even the president of the European Union, Herman Van Rompuy, espouses hard-line opposition to Turkey joining the EU, simply on the grounds of its Islamic population. Multiculturalism in the Old World may soon shape up to be little more than an ideal.
Eli B. Martin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Straus Hall.