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Europe’s Islam problem

Large numbers of immigrants don’t respect the law or want to assimilate

Police at the scene of the stabbing on Parnell Square in Dublin, Ireland, on Nov. 24. Associated Press/Brian Lawless/PA

Europe’s Islam problem
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Last week, European politics was upended by the shocking victory of arch-populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom in the Dutch parliamentary elections. Long a pariah for his outspoken anti-Islam views (going so far as to call for a ban on mosques), Wilders softened his rhetoric just enough to surge past more moderate politicians and secure a winning 37 seats in the Dutch Parliament.

Just two days later, the normally peaceful streets of Dublin were rocked by waves of riots after a man of Algerian descent started knifing kindergarten children in broad daylight. Although police have said nothing about the attacker’s motives, a similar attack in France a few weeks ago appeared to be an act of Islamic terrorism. These rising tensions highlight what many have known for years: Europe has an Islam problem.

Of course, European elites would never say it that way. In the wake of the Dublin stabbings, authorities and media alike rushed to redirect the narrative. The knife-attacker (described merely as “a man in his 40s”) and the five-year-old girl in critical condition were thrust into the background; the real story was the rioters, a “lunatic, hooligan faction driven by a far-right ideology.” To be sure, looting storefronts and torching vehicles is reprehensible behavior, but during the BLM riots, the media seemed strangely willing to look past such behavior to try and understand underlying grievances. Not this time. The only motive that could be ascribed to them, or to Dutch voters, was an irrational hostility to immigrants.

To be sure, rapid immigration can and will destabilize any society. Nations depend upon shared histories, customs, languages, and religious practices in order to sustain the mutual understanding that prevents politics from descending into a warfare of rival clans. And this shared matrix of communication can begin to break down if a nation tries to welcome too many newcomers too fast. Ethnic tensions flared in early 20th-century America when the immigrant population reached a peak of 15 percent of the nation, a level that the formerly homogeneous Netherlands has just reached after surging migration in recent years. Ireland too has received a huge influx of foreigners, with 141,000 new arrivals in just the past year, in a country of only five million.

But Europe’s problem is not simply too many new people to assimilate. It is that many of these newcomers, and indeed their children, don’t want to assimilate. And this presents an existential crisis for the ideology of liberal democracy, which is based upon the myth that all diversity is good diversity, that pluralism can embrace any difference. No wonder then that when Britain’s Home Secretary dared to point out earlier this year that the country’s child sex trafficking epidemic was largely driven by Pakistani gangs, the media had a fainting fit.

Many Muslims have cheerfully adapted to the majority culture, but some harbor intense hostility to the West.

The fact is that while tolerant societies can handle a great deal of diversity and disagreement over which laws are the best to live under, they cannot easily handle disagreement about whether to live under the laws. John Locke himself, in his famed Letter Concerning Toleration, took it virtually for granted that Roman Catholics could not be tolerated in England so long as the Pope claimed the right to depose the monarch or override Parliament’s laws. Islam poses a similar challenge for the modern West, at least for those adherents who hold sharia law alone to be valid, or who see Israel and any societies that support Israel as their existential foes.

If such worries seem melodramatic to us here in America, it is in part because, for all the pride we take in the diversity of our society, we have rarely had to deal with diversity over such fundamental issues. For most of our history, our vaunted religious pluralism has been chiefly between different varieties of Protestantism that mostly recognize each other’s legitimacy; Roman Catholics stopped provoking anxiety only after they adjusted their teaching to keep the pope well out of politics. Mormonism, which did provoke intense conflict before also modifying its teachings to conform better to the American mainstream, has never numbered more than about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. And as for Muslims? They make up less than 1 percent.

Compare that with countries like the Netherlands or France, where Islam now makes up a rapidly-growing 7.1 percent and 8.8 percent of the population respectively. Many of these Muslims have cheerfully adapted to the majority culture, but some harbor intense hostility to the West. Within such a context, the wearing of headscarves becomes not a personal fashion choice but a deeply divisive cultural statement.

Now of course, it is not impossible for a society to function well with large religious minorities. But those with successful track records have generally been very clear-eyed about the challenges they face, recognizing that beneath fundamental differences over what it means to be human, or over the sources of political authority, there always lurks a threat of violence. As long as Europe’s leaders continue to blind themselves to the reality of these divides, and dismiss anyone who dares mention them as “far-right hooligans,” however, the threat of conflict will only continue to grow.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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