Europe, prepare to greet Islam

A year ago, I interviewed octogenarian Otto von Habsburg, who, if history had taken a different turn, would be the Austro-Hungarian emperor. Instead, the long-time member of the European Parliament dedicated his entire life to the idea of a united Europe.

For centuries, the ruling Habsburgs defended the Continent against the expansion of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Now Mr. von Habsburg makes it clear that all nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea – including those in North Africa and the Middle East – have a place in his broad vision for tomorrow's Europe. Malta and Cyprus are already knocking at Brussels' doors.

Some may label von Habsburg as a nostalgic dreamer trying to resuscitate the spirit of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg hereditary title. But those who understand the Mediterranean phenomenon know how closely linked are the populations of its coasts, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians. Of course, the Mediterranean of Saint Augustine and tolerant medieval Islam is a very different place from the Mediterranean of the holy jihad. It also can be argued that the Mediterranean of a year ago is a different world from the Mediterranean of today.

Nearly every week brings news of another rusty boat loaded with refugees in the territorial waters of Italy, France, or Spain. Three hundred to five hundred "boat people" cross at a time – Kurds (from Turkey and Iraq), Afghans and Pakistanis, Tunisians and Moroccans. Risking it all in this dangerous game, they have only a miserable life to lose – but stand to gain a better life for themselves and their children.

Because of official French policy toward minorities, it is not easy to find out how many Algerians, Moroccans, or Tunisians are already living in the country. The closest one can get are religious statistics that assess the number of French Muslims at 4 million. Roughly 1 million of them live in metropolitan Paris and their numbers are growing exponentially due to a high birthrate.

In Italy, the center of the Arab/Muslim culture is in the country's financial capital, Milan. But growth of the Islamic population is accelerating mainly in the poorer south – around Naples and in Sicily. Germany chronically struggles with the cultural assimilation of second- and third-generation Turks and Kurds whose fathers came to the country as Gastarbeiter to work at jobs nobody else wanted. Benelux and Scandinavia became the home of huge Arab communities, too. And hundreds of thousands of Bosnian or Albanian Muslims flooded Western Europe as a result of the Balkan wars.

In the meantime, the wealthy western part of Europe is beginning to feel the impact of a low birthrate trend. Countries like Germany, France, and Italy need an influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year in order to maintain a balanced demographic structure.

There may be a temptation to open the borders to educated and culturally compatible immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. The German parliament has recently approved an immigration law offering green cards to young computer experts – a Machiavellian method of demographic infusion. But there are also thousands of emigrants from North Africa and the Middle East making it to the European coasts without invitation.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times argues that it is not by chance that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers came to the US through Europe. According to him, Europe is not a melting pot, which explains why some young middle-class Arabs who went there to study suddenly felt alienated by a hostile culture. Frustration pushed them to embrace a more radical form of Islam.

Indeed, Europe built its identity for centuries on the idea of cultural exclusion rather than inclusion, dominating the outside world and exporting European values, rather than accepting the ideas of others. Franz Koenig, the respected cardinal emeritus of Vienna, once said that geographically, Europe is just a small peninsula of continental Asia. What makes Europe a real continent is its unique spiritual and cultural heritage. Now all this is in jeopardy.

Because of growing unrest in the adjacent Islamic world, which resonates among their own Arab/ Muslim minorities, many European nations have started to feel the imminent danger. Neo-Nazi groups are taking advantage of the situation: The same people who yesterday burned homes of Turkish and Arab immigrants in Germany became today's "defenders" of Palestinian rights while burning Jewish synagogues. There is no doubt that Paris, Rome, Madrid, and Berlin are very carefully following the escalation of tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fearing the damaging impact of a potential war in Iraq.

Strategically, the Mediterranean region is perceived by Europe in the same way as the US sees the Caribbean. The "unilateral" and "unpredictable" Middle East policy of the Bush administration makes some of the allies from the other side of the North Atlantic feel uneasy about their own future.

If America still values and cares about the old transatlantic partnership, it is time to meet and discuss the problem. Washington should show more interest in European arguments and fears. European countries should start to act as a united political entity.

At the same time, Europe will need to redefine its identity and prepare its citizens for the inevitable encounter with the world of Islam. The ancient Roman Empire survived its own cultural and political death by embracing the new ideas brought by Christianity. It does not mean that Christian Europe must now unconditionally convert to Islam.

But after centuries of fighting each other, the followers of the two largest religions must start to build on peaceful coexistence. It won't be easy, especially for proud Europe. But any other alternative would lead sooner or later to total self-destruction. Lacking new ideas and new ideals, the old Continent has already lost the advantage of the first move in this high-stakes chess match.

• Juraj Kittler is a journalist from Slovakia who worked as a political correspondent in Rome from 1992 to 1997.

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