German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just broken one of Europe's greatest taboos. But the truth may prove more dangerous than the lies that preceded it.
Europe has a decidedly love-hate relationship with racial, cultural and religious pluralism. On the one hand, Europeans have no choice but to deal - more than do Americans - with a continent with a multiplicity of languages, they love to lecture 'simplistic' Americans about tolerance, and moreso than in the U.S., there's a powerful taboo among the governing elite against even talking about cultural or social issues of any kind, let alone subjecting them to free public debate. On the other hand, there's thousands of years of history of racial, ethnic and religious animosities tearing the continent apart and leading to many of human history's worst atrocities. And with regard to specific case of Europe's relationship with the Islamic world, think location, location, location: even places we think of as far distant lands - Algeria, Libya, Syria - are geographically right on Europe's doorstep, and familiarity in Europe has often bred contempt, and worse. It was Europe that was invaded by Muslim imperialists pretty much continuously from the 700s (when Charles Martel stopped the Muslim advance into France at Poitiers) to the 1600s (when the Turks were stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1683); Spain spent 700 years under Islamic rule, parts of the Balkans even longer. It was also Europeans who launched the Crusades, beginning some 300 years after Poitiers. European nationalism is not the conservative, free-market, liberty-oriented variety we have in the United States, and really never has been; it tends to be statist, befitting its feudal origins, and in recent centuries it has lost the restraining or at least balancing force of Christianity, as the continent has become less Christian.
The elite consensus has been placed under exceptional strain in the past decade by two symbiotic trends: the declining birthrates of native Europeans, who reproduce barely more than pandas, requiring large-scale immigration of young workers to make Europe's welfare states even remotely sustainable; and the fact that those immigrants are predominantly Muslim and include large numbers of people who have no respect for pluralism of any kind. Put simply, Europe can't live without Muslim immigration, but at some point, if demographic trends continue and the immigrants don't drastically alter the extent of their cultural assimilation, it won't really be Europe anymore.
We are only now seeing quite how traumatized Europe was by the riots over the Danish Muhammad cartoons in late 2005 and early 2006, a watershed in a long series of events across the continent in which Europeans were faced with behavior by the Muslim minority (or in some cases, almost now a majority) - usually involving violence or threatened violence - utterly inconsistent with pluralism of any kind. (Indeed, one of the great untold stories of the past decade is the extent to which events after September 11 have eroded the benefit of the doubt given by the public in the U.S. and Europe alike to the idea that Islam in practice is a peaceful faith and leached the credibility of leaders like George W. Bush who labored long and hard to draw distinctions between Islam's majority and its terrorist minority.)
There is, of course, great debate to be had over issues of assimilation and cultural tension generally, and specifically over the extent to which Islam can or should be integrated into a pluralistic society in the way that Christianity, Judaism and other faiths have done in the West (albeit with always imperfect results). But the merits of that whole debate aside, what is newsworthy is that Europeans have started fighting back, and if history is any guide, there are real reasons to worry that the reaction will as bad as the problem. We've seen the early signs in France's ban on the burqa and German authorities closing the Hamburg mosque where the September 11 attackers met.
Germany's attempt to create a multi-cultural society has failed completely, Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the weekend, calling on the country's immigrants to learn German and adopt Christian values.
Merkel weighed in for the first time in a blistering debate sparked by a central bank board member saying the country was being made "more stupid" by poorly educated and unproductive Muslim migrants.
"Multikulti", the concept that "we are now living side by side and are happy about it," does not work, Merkel told a meeting of younger members of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party at Potsdam near Berlin.
"This approach has failed, totally," she said, adding that immigrants should integrate and adopt Germany's culture and values.
"We feel tied to Christian values. Those who don't accept them don't have a place here," said the chancellor.
"Subsidising immigrants" isn't sufficient, Germany has the right to "make demands" on them, she added, such as mastering the language of Goethe and abandoning practices such as forced marriages.
And there are signs that Merkel has public opinion on her side:
A recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation think tank showed around one-third of Germans feel the country is being "over-run by foreigners" and the same percentage feel foreigners should be sent home when jobs are scarce.
Nearly 60 percent of the 2,411 people polled thought the around four million Muslims in Germany should have their religious practices "significantly curbed."
Far-right attitudes are found not only at the extremes of German society, but "to a worrying degree at the centre of society," the think tank said in its report.
It's easy to think today of European society as a static feature of the landscape that will ever be with us. But much of the continent was, little more than two decades ago, living under the yoke of tyranny. Stable government is a tenuous tradition in Southern Europe, we last had a significant coup attempt in France in 1958, and the last time we had religious war and something like genocide in Europe was in the mid-1990s. With demographic and fiscal crisis rising on the continent, we may yet be in for another time of turbulence in Europe. Germany, at the continent's cultural, geographic and financial center, will be a crucial test of how it weathers that storm.