The recent Swiss vote to ban minarets has highlighted the fact that many Europeans see Islam as a threat, although the reasons for that are not easy to pinpoint. Muslims have an easier time of it in the United States.
The presence of mosques and minarets still cause unease among many in Europe
Since the Swiss voted in a November referendum to prohibit the building of new minarets in their country, the debate over Islam and Muslims and their place in Europe has been reopened. The discussion has confirmed suspicions that instead of moving toward peaceful coexistence, a basic mistrust and even rejection of Islam and its adherents are growing.
A pattern has begun to emerge in the reactions in several European countries to the minaret issue. In Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain or France, the dismay of one commentator was usually countered by another who was seemingly sympathetic to the Swiss decision, and expressed the need "to understand the fears of the population," which felt itself being slowly dominated by Islam.
But to understand these perceptions, one has to look more closely at the numbers. France, the country with the largest Muslim minority, has around four million adherents who make up just over six percent of the total population. In the UK that number is just under three percent and in Germany, Muslims make up, at most, five percent of society.
"What kind of self-confidence must the Christian majority have to have so much fear of five percent of the people who live here?" asked talk show host Michel Friedmann in a television discussion of the subject.
"Anyway, most of those five percent are honest, bourgeois, boring and sweet - just like their German Christian neighbors," he said.
Fear and the unknown
But anxiety about the unknown, and fears of other religions, are strong psychological forces, especially as radicals on both sides have been largely successful in associating Islam with violence and destruction, especially since September 11, 2001.
Ignorance of Islam has led many to confound terms such as "Islam" with "Islamism" and identify the religion with terrorism or at least with a lack of respect for human rights. Many are of the view that the "Christian West" needs to be protected from a slow, but definite attempt by Muslims to "Islamify" it.
Observers say a lack of knowlege about Islam feeds the fear
"The problem is that people see their Muslim neighbors as emissaries of Islamic countries, which is not the case," said Aiman Mazyek, general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. "(Muslims here) are German citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of other citizens, be they Christian, Jewish or atheist."
In Switzerland it was minarets; in Germany the building of mosques has been controversial and has shown how much many people seem to fear even the sight of a house of worship they did not grow up with.
The bigger the building, the bigger the fear of Islam's alleged aims of dominating Europe, the thinking goes. Add to that the statements by radical Muslims expressing plans to make Islam the dominant religion in Europe and to replace democracy with Sharia law. Such words are eagerly seized upon by anti-Muslim radicals and given as much exposure as possible.
"Of course there are a few crazy people out there who continue to try to use religion for their own purposes. But, please, we need to look at how big a group this really is," said Mazyek
Integrate, or else
One indicator of Muslims' alleged desire for dominance in many Europeans' eyes is the unwillingness of Muslims to integrate fully, but rather to remain separate and live as part of a "parallel society." That can quickly lead to talk in anti-Muslim circles about Europe's "dominant culture," which they say Muslims had better hurry up and embrace.
In the Netherlands, the chairman of the right-wing Freedom party, Geert Wilders, has excelled in this area of argumentation. According to him, the day is not far away when Muslims will make up 30 to 40 percent of the population in Europe, changing the continent forever. Wilders wants to prevent that, he says, by openly threatening those who do not integrate with deportation.
"I have a very clear message. If you abide by our values, by our rule of law, by our constitution, you are very welcome to stay, you are equal as anybody else, we will even help you," he said. "But if you don't, if you commit a crime, if you start thinking about jihad or Sharia, then it's very clear we will send you away, we will send you packing."
Read more about Europe's concerns over a growing Islamic influence