Ralph Giordano’s recent criticism of a mosque being prominently constructed in Cologne earned him denunciations from fellow Jews and liberals for supposedly supporting the racist agenda of right-wing extremists. The respected German writer, however, is hardly the only Jewish liberal to finds himself with strange new bedfellows.
The controversy Giordano triggered is typical of the predicament facing a growing number of European Jewish leaders and thinkers: Representatives of one embattled minority are demanding a tough line against another ethnic group whose leaders, they charge, are betraying Europe’s liberal values. While they may be generally right, they are walking a very fine line between courage and bigotry — and some, including Giordano, may have crossed that line.
Giordano, an 84-year-old journalist, author and filmmaker, was widely criticized and even received death threats after warning that a mosque being built in Cologne — with 180-feet-high minarets and set to hold 2,000 believers — “would be an expression of the creeping Islamization of our land” by mostly Turkish immigrants. In a television debate, Giordano referred to burka-clad women as “human penguins” whom he did not want to see walking around on German streets.
It wasn’t just the choice of words that caused the uproar. Among the leading opponents of the mosque, which would be located across the river from the Cologne’s iconic cathedral, is a right-wing group called “Pro Cologne” that holds five of 90 seats on the city council. At an anti-mosque rally in June, the keynote speakers included prominent far-right leaders from Austria and Belgium. Giordano himself has called his unsavory allies “the local variant of contemporary National Socialism.”
So why would a man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a cellar in Hamburg and who spoke out forcefully against racism and antisemitism by neo-Nazis in the early 1990s allow himself to be associated with such company? Giordano’s answer is that radical Islam and its totalitarian creed, not the remnants of European fascism, are the main threats to liberal democracy today.
He finds himself in a similar bind as French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who was widely condemned as a racist when he told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in November 2005 that the French Muslim community was itself to blame for the social and ethnic tensions that led to the riots in Paris’s suburbs earlier that year. Finkelkraut’s arguments echoed those of Nicolas Sarkozy, then-interior minister and now president, and even National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. The mainstream leftist position, by stark contrast, was that French society had failed the immigrant youth because of a lack of integration and economic opportunity.
All across Europe, one can see liberal Jewish thinkers parting ways over the issue of Islam with their non-Jewish peers, among whom criticism of Islam is often frowned upon. Their willingness to speak out may have to do with a special Jewish abhorrence of totalitarian thinking, or concern over the widespread anti-Israel and antisemitic views among Europe’s Muslims, or (at least in Germany’s case) a feeling that Jews can speak out where others feel inhibited by their history. They are often joined by ardent feminists, who focus more on the plight of Muslim women than on general racism in society.
It is not that European liberals are blind to the problems. There is some recognition that European societies’ passive acceptance of Islamic social structures and practices has hindered integration and encouraged the radicalization of large parts of the immigrant communities.
And there are some facts that even the most apologetic of liberals have a hard time ignoring. Except for in France, Muslim girls are allowed to wear headscarves in school, and more and more of them do so. Many do not participate in gym classes.
Far more pernicious is the tradition of North African and Turkish immigrant families forcing their children to marry someone from their home village — a practice that has not only swelled the number of immigrants, despite all political efforts to restrict the flow, but which also effectively undoes in every generation progress toward integration. And, of course, the rise of homegrown Muslim terrorists in the United Kingdom is the most terrifying sign that a mostly hidden parallel society exists within Europe.
But while a growing number of liberals recognize the problems Europe is facing with fundamentalist Islam, they have yet to offer up any decent solutions.
The most pressing issue is how to better integrate Muslim immigrants already living in Europe. The passive acquiescence of so-called multiculturalism has not worked in the past and will almost certainly not work in the future. Any compulsory measures to speed up integration, on the other hand, could easily cause a backlash.
If the Cologne mosque ends up not being built, devout Muslims will worship and socialize in small prayer houses — out of sight and out of the control of mainstream society. Resentment about that rebuke could radicalize young people who wanted to try to adapt to German society. And in France, if immigrant youths receive no help in finding jobs and gaining social acceptance, the next round of riots becomes all but inevitable.
Liberal Jews have to be aware that even if their motives are not racist, they can easily be perceived that way. To be a first- or second-generation Holocaust survivor is no guarantee against bigotry.
The future of Islamic life in Europe does not lend itself to simple answers. If Jews find themselves too close to demagogues who want to rid society of all minorities, they should know that they are on the wrong track.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.