The non-specific call a few weeks ago to Americans and others to be vigilant when travelling in Europe sounded like a version of the classic telegram: “Bad news — start worrying — letter follows.” Or was it yet another way to canvass support for the “war on terror”?
Perhaps there’s more to it. The alert came after the killing by an American drone of a number of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, among them German citizens. The fear may have been that terrorists would now retaliate by planting lethal bombs in European cities as they had done in New York, London, Bali, Mumbai and elsewhere.
Other reasons also come to mind. At the time of the alert, a government was being formed in Holland. Its very thin majority would depend on the 24 out of 150 members of parliament of the Freedom party led by Geert Wilders, who has gained international notoriety for his attacks on Islam. One of his reported statements equated the Qur’an with Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
The result of the recent elections in Sweden may have added to the sense of urgency. There, a staunchly nationalist and anti-Muslim party gained 5.7 per cent of the vote and 20 out of 349 parliamentary seats. No wonder that Sweden was quick to join the American alert against potential terrorist attacks.
Banning the burqa in France has given its more than 4 million Muslims further cause to see themselves as pariahs in the country they regard as their own, and feel that their native culture is being trampled on.
To reassure Germany’s growing Muslim minority, President Christian Wulff declared in a speech marking two decades of his country’s unification that Islam has become part of the reality of contemporary Germany. But his statement is belied by popular sentiment. A recent poll has shown that no less than 64 per cent of Germans disagree with him and only 24 per cent regard Muslims as equals.
In many countries, a way to reassure Muslims has been to allow court procedures against those who make defamatory statements about Islam. But disgruntled indigenous citizens have complained that whereas Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others are free to attack religion in general and Christianity in particular, negative views about Islam end up in the courts. Some see it as a vain and illegitimate effort to appease militants.
The aim is, of course, to deploy affirmative action to forestall terrorism and to protect vulnerable minorities as they’re finding their feet in their new homelands. In particular, the offspring of immigrants whose forebears were originally brought to perform menial task but who have been schooled in the languages and culture of the West feel discriminated against. Many seek legal redress; others become militant; most feel isolated and unhappy.
But what neither terrorism nor legal action can achieve, solidarity might. That’s the view of Canada’s preeminent philosopher Charles Taylor. Asserting in a recent article that “solidarity is essential to democratic societies,” he wrote: “The great task is to calm the fears that our traditions are being undermined; to reach out to people who are coming to our lands from other countries; and to find a way of recreating our political ethic around the kernel of human rights, equality, non-discrimination and democracy.”
Contrary to popular prejudice, Taylor believes that “religion provides a profound and powerful base of solidarity, and to marginalize it would be a big mistake, just as marginalizing atheist philosophers would be a mistake.”
Canadians should take Taylor’s views to heart. His approach seems infinitely more constructive than spreading unrest among Muslims and panic among travellers.