Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, the Muslim population of Europe grew rapidly, suddenly emerging as a “social problem.” Although census figures were disputed, Muslims made up between 5 and 9 percent of countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Great Britain. Unlike prior generations of immigrants, these did not easily trade their old identity for membership in their new home and in fact saw themselves primarily as citizens of an umma, or international community of believers. With some notable exceptions, they tended to retreat to enclaves where they attempted to perpetuate a traditional Islamic lifestyle, including most controversially the practice of sharia law. These enclaves were a fertile field for Islamist demogogues and hate merchants preaching, among other things, the need for a return to a Caliphate that would acquire dominance in the world.
The extent of the problem presented by this volatile combination of ideology and demographics became clear when Muslim riots broke out in France in 2005. This violent development marked a turning point in social relations between “ethnic” French and the nation’s Muslim citizens, and in assumptions that the society in which they lived shared a sense of identity and a jointly acknowledged social compact.
The riots began in late October in the banlieus (suburbs) of Paris after two Muslim teenagers were accidentally electrocuted while hiding in a power station where they had been chased by police investigating a break-in at a construction site. The event sparked pre-existing social tensions. Large numbers of disaffected Muslim youth began to protest. The demonstrations spread throughout the banlieus and eventually to other urban areas in the country. Hundreds of cars were burned and bands of demonstrators clashed in often-bloody confrontations with police for several weeks.
The upheaval was widely taken as evidence of how French Muslim youth are victimized by poor education and high unemployment. It occasioned a national self-inventory about discrimination and sluggish outreach on the part of government agencies to minorities. But inquiry and analysis also confirmed that the riots were the result of a voluntary separatism and reluctance to integrate into the majority culture on the part of many Muslims who rejected French secularity.
Alongside charges from Muslims and liberal intellectuals that France was riddled with Islamophobia was an upsurge in concern among French non-Muslims that a time bomb of disaffection and Islamism was ticking within French society. Because of a commitment to “multiculturalism,” the majority culture had facilitated an Islamic subculture at odds with concepts of free speech, religious liberty, and the equality of women and gays. The continuing tension between assimilation and separatism in France is expressed today in the ongoing dialogue over such issues as whether or not Muslim women shall be allowed to wear the veil in school.
The events in France were reinforced across Europe—and indeed, across the world—by another event that occurred in 2005. The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammed in humorous or satiric guises. The cartoons were intended to provoke a dialogue about a self-censorship that uniquely applied to Islamic subjects and the intrusion of religion into the public square. Instead they provoked an outburst of violence by Muslims who claimed that the cartoons were blasphemous to Muslim believers.
Death threats were issued, and many of those involved in the publication of the cartoons were forced to accept security details or go into hiding. Other European newspapers, in a gesture of solidarity with the Danish editors and a statement about press rights, published the cartoons. There were riots and violence. The atmosphere was so intimidating that newspapers in the U.S. and Canada refused to print the cartoons. As late as 2009, Yale University Press decided to expunge reproductions of the cartoons from a scholarly book entitled The Cartoons That Shook the World, for fear of retaliation by radical Muslims on American soil.
Another disturbing sign of unrest was the murder of Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri. On November 2, 2004, van Gogh was bicycling through the streets of Amsterdam when Bouyeri, a Muslim wearing traditional Islamic clothing, began shooting at him. After Van Gogh fell off his bike, the assailant ran up to him and began slitting his throat, attempting to behead him. In his agony, van Gogh pleaded with his killer, “Can’t we talk about this?” Bouyeri replied by stabbing van Gogh repeatedly and leaving a note on a knife stabbed into the body. The note contained verses from the Qur’an and threats to other Dutch public figures who opposed the flood of Muslim immigrants into the Netherlands.
Bouyeri killed van Gogh because of the filmmaker’s twelve-minute video Submission, which had aired on Dutch TV a few weeks earlier. A collaboration between van Gogh and the Somali ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was then a member of the Dutch Parliament, Submission decried the mistreatment of Muslim women — and even featured images of battered women wearing see-through robes that exposed their breasts, with verses from the Qur’an written on their bodies.
At his trial, Bouyeri was unrepentant -- and absolutely clear about why he murdered van Gogh. “I did what I did purely out my beliefs,” he explained, Qur’an in hand. “I want you to know that I acted out of conviction and not that I took his life because he was Dutch or because I was Moroccan and felt insulted…. If I ever get free, I would do it again.” He was, he said, acting in accord with Islamic law: “What moved me to do what I did was purely my faith. I was motivated by the law that commands me to cut off the head of anyone who insults Allah and his prophet.”