Europe, which has long had a Muslim minority, was not prepared for this summer’s wave of asylum seekers, mainly from Syria. Now with Russian military strikes escalating the war in Syria, Europe anticipates millions more fleeing toward its borders. Finding them shelter and a job is only one concern. European leaders also debate if the Continent will be challenged by a rise of religious intolerance, either by Muslims or against them.
Germany, which is accepting nearly a million new entrants, is facing a test more severe than its post-cold-war reunification 25 years ago, says President Joachim Gauck. He says Germans must better unite with the Muslims in their society.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian conservative leader, questions the open-arms strategy of Germany and other nations, claiming that taking in more Muslims will alter Europe’s Christian culture. Other critics say radical Muslims will not accept Europe’s pluralistic society based on democratic citizenship and insist on Islamic law.
One example of this debate was a political dust-up this week after comments by British Prime Minister David Cameron. He asked that children taught in Muslim schools, or madrasas, not have “their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate.” An estimated 200,000 Muslim children attend such schools in Britain. The Muslim Council of Britain responded by saying it is not Islamic to be isolationist or to teach hatred of other faiths.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also adamant that Europe not be afraid of welcoming more Muslims.
“When someone says: ‘This is not my Europe, I won’t accept Muslims....’ Then I have to say, this is not negotiable,” Politico quoted her as saying.
“Who are we to defend Christians around the world if we say we won’t accept a Muslim or a mosque in our country? That won’t do.”
Also part of her argument is that Europe has little choice in taking asylum seekers from war zones like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Closing the borders is nearly impossible, said the head of Germany’s Christian party. She also refuses to “take part in a competition of who can be the least friendly to refugees.”
Such voices of tolerance, mutual respect, and inclusiveness are sorely needed during this refugee crisis. Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, warns of a “worrying rise in anti-Muslim hatred.” The Dutch national says the vast majority of Muslims now living in Europe “are absolutely no threat to our society but render our society stronger.” Yet a recent poll showed nearly a third of Europeans would not feel fully comfortable working with a Muslim colleague.
One of the Islamic world’s most respected scholars, Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, says the Western concept of citizenship is “very, very close to the traditional Islamic view.” Residents have both rights and responsibilities as members of that society. The roots of Islam, he says, go against sectarian hatred and require that “conviviality between people is not only possible, but it’s realizable in the best of manners.”
Europe’s refugee emergency also requires a spirit of conviviality, which is universal in the major religions. It is the best glue to hold European societies together.