Op-ed: The question of whether it was appropriate to publish the Mohammed cartoons is secondary. The primary question is whether the European society is capable of recognizing the problem that has been placed on its doorstep

Mohammed cartoon that was published in Jyllands Posten

Enough political correctness

PUBLISHED IN |  Sep 2, 06

“Islam is now the No. 1 enemy not only of Europe, but of the entire free world. There are already 25 million to 30 million Muslims on Europe’s soil and this becomes a threat. It’s a real Trojan horse. I think it is an illusion to think that a moderate Islam exists in Europe. What is happening today is that Muslims are not integrating into our society because they are interested in preserving their own way of life. They should become Europeans like us.”

These caustic comments were made by Filip Dewinter, the leader of the extreme right in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium, in an interview with Haaretz last summer. He also said Islam is “a medieval religion that has not undergone the European age of enlightenment” and that the essence of Islam is to rule, adding: “Once they are in power, they are not tolerant of any other culture or religion.”

Dewinter’s party, Vlaams Belang (The Flemish Interest), is the largest party in Flanders according to recent polls. At the end of 2006, he has a good chance of becoming mayor of Antwerp, the largest city in Flanders. In light of the tempest raging in Europe and the Muslim world over the last few days over the publication of cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed, it’s worthwhile to examine the Flemish example and the lessons it provides.

Until 20 years ago, the far-right party Dewinter heads was considered a marginal phenomenon lacking any importance, but since then its electoral power has grown 10 times over. The principle reason is the increase in immigration, primarily from Muslim countries, which was accompanied by a feeling among many Flemish people that their homeland was being taken over. The local pub closed down and was replaced by a shwarma stand. Dockworkers from the Antwerp port were sent home, replaced by cheaper Muslim workers. A few years ago, the Muslim community even demanded that Arabic become the fourth official language in the country, in addition to French, Flemish and German.

The feeling that the large and established parties were not doing enough to deal with the problem also contributed to the strengthening of the far right. In the name of multiculturalism and tolerance, the Flemish establishment – the media, courts and parliament – avoided dealing with the increasing public feeling that the land of the Flemish no longer belonged to them. The Muslims demanded that boys and girls study separately in schools. The Muslims also demanded that no pig products be eaten in government schools.

The helplessness of the establishment led many people to feel that “only Dewinter can” and that “only Dewinter can bring order.” But the solutions Dewinter proposes are extreme, and sometimes even elicit horror. Last summer he suggested establishing a quota system to limit the entry of young Muslims to public swimming pools. He had previously suggested attaching electronic handcuffs to refugees arriving in Belgium, so that the police could track them everywhere. Dewinter also proposed that women caught on the road wearing veils be put on planes and returned to their country of origin.

The clear lesson is that ignoring the problem – the rising feeling of discomfort among many Europeans over the amount of Muslims on the continent – is liable to lead to the growth of weeds whose strengthening is dangerous to the Europeans themselves, to European democracy and to Muslim citizens. After all, what does the average European think when he sees the pictures of the Danish and Norwegian embassies being set on fire in Beirut and Damascus? Reading the Internet forums that the larger European newspapers started up is enough to make one see the repugnance and shock.

The question of whether it was appropriate to publish the cartoons is secondary. In Europe, Israel, and the Muslim world, much harsher cartoons have been displayed in the last few years. The primary question is whether Europe is capable of recognizing the problem that has been placed on its doorstep. Mainstream politics and media must set aside political correctness and say in a clear manner what kind of continent they want and why they have been fighting for it for so long. As Dewinter shows, the danger of not doing so is still greater.