Intolerance in Europe

Saturday, November 25, 2006

EUROPE'S MUSLIM communities increasingly are portrayed -- especially by European media -- as havens for religious intolerance that flourish thanks to the overly tolerant policies of liberal governments. It's true that until relatively recently, some Western European governments shrank from confronting clerics or others who promoted extremist ideology or encouraged terrorism. It's also true that some European artists and politicians have been threatened or even killed for criticizing or mocking Islam. But another important part of the dangerous increase in tensions between Europeans and Muslims is the blatant bigotry of many mainstream political leaders, journalists and other elites against Islam and its followers.

Sometimes the bigots portray their crude attacks on Muslim beliefs and culture as a defense of freedom of speech -- as when a Danish newspaper last year chose to publish gratuitously offensive cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. Sometimes they claim to be promoting better communication, as when British parliamentarian Jack Straw recently asked Muslim women to remove their veils when visiting his office. Luckily for the enemies of cynicism and disingenuousness, there is also the Dutch government -- which no longer bothers to disguise its ugly prejudice.

On Nov. 17, just five days before Wednesday's hard-fought general election in the Netherlands, the incumbent center-right government promised that, if reelected, it would introduce legislation to ban the wearing of burqas and other facial coverings in most public places, including courts, schools, trains and even streets. The ruling Christian Democratic Appeal party finished first in the voting, but the makeup of the next government remains unclear. If enacted, the prohibition would affect no more than a few dozen of the country's 1 million Muslims, who make up some 6 percent of the population. But the point is symbolic: A country famous for tolerating prostitution, drug use, euthanasia and public nudity considers Muslim veiling beyond the pale.

Rita Verdonk, the immigration minister who is rapidly becoming the face of the new Dutch intolerance, claimed that the measure was needed for "reasons of public order, security and protection of citizens." Nothing subtle in that connection: As far as Ms. Verdonk is concerned, burqas and terrorism are synonymous.

Like other Europeans, the Dutch have reason to worry about terrorism; the country has been traumatized by the assassinations of a prominent right-wing politician and a right-wing filmmaker in the past few years. But attacking Muslim culture -- as opposed to those who practice or promote violent acts -- is no way to diminish the threat. It won't be surprising if more Dutch Muslims respond to their government by putting on burqas -- or by answering intolerance with intolerance.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company