We Americans have tended to be of two minds as we have watched events unfold in the Netherlands in the three weeks since the murder of filmmaker and anti-immigrant provocateur Theo Van Gogh. Half of us look at the mounting tensions surrounding Europe’s growing Muslim minority, the incidents of jihadist and anti-Jewish violence, and the ambivalent response of Europe’s leaders, and we see the continent on the eve of a fourth reich, blind as ever to the evil in its midst. The other half view the whole dispute as a giant misunderstanding, a series of unfortunate incidents magnified into a racist, anti-immigrant fantasy. One side thinks this could all be settled with better dialogue and improved day care. The other side is itching for a full-scale world war to defeat the new evil empire, once we find its headquarters.
If only life were that simple. The truth is that Europe does face a challenge to its culture and identity, as a minority population grows within it that does not share its traditions of tolerance and liberalism and shows little inclination to adopt them any time soon. The truth is, too, that those very traditions of tolerance forbid the sorts of extreme measures advocated by some zealots to protect the European identity. The question, as the British newsweekly The Economist asked recently, is how far liberal societies should go in tolerating the intolerant. There is no easy answer.
It is true that extremism flourishes when minorities are kept separate, unable to integrate themselves into the mainstream. Europe will continue for the foreseeable future to absorb a significant flow of Muslim immigrants seeking jobs and a better life. Improved efforts at absorbing the newcomers, giving them an economic leg up, encouraging them to enter mainstream culture — all this might reduce the growth of extremism in the immigrant ghettoes.
It’s also true that attitudes of young Muslims in Europe are deeply influenced by the worldwide mood of the culture war, in which masses of Muslims feel themselves, their religion and their culture to be under assault by a crusading America. The television screens across the Muslim world are filled daily with images of Muslims battling the armies of America and its Christian — and Jewish — allies. To reduce the rage, America and its allies must find a way to defuse the conflicts.