Resistance to the presence of Muslims in Europe is not new, but it has increased dramatically in recent months with jihadist terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the influx of refugees and economic migrants from mostly Muslim countries, and sexual assaults by Muslim men in Cologne and other cities. Surveillance has increased, fences have gone up, and borders have been closed.
These police measures reflect anxieties stirred by recent events. But a deeper unease about Europe’s relation to Islam can be seen in other, more symbolic gestures and philosophical treatises. After the November attacks in Paris, France’s President Hollande proposed stripping convicted jihadists of French nationality. This measure, which would have had no deterrent value, symbolized the nation’s stark refusal to accept responsibility of any kind for the radical alienation that has driven some European Muslims to attack the societies in which they were born and raised. After months of wrangling, however, the National Assembly and Senate could not agree on the wording of a constitutional amendment, which therefore died, despite polling suggesting substantial public support.
Now members of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have proposed a similar penalty for that country. But a law to punish terrorists is not the only or the most alarming sign of hardening anti-Islamic attitudes in Germany, which has absorbed 1.2 million migrants since Chancellor Angela Merkel uttered the brave words “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!) in 2015.
Although tens of thousands of Germans have pitched in to welcome the newcomers, others make no secret of their implacable hostility, not just to immigrants but to the Islamic faith itself. A party known as Alternative for Germany (AfD) has ridden the wave of anti-Muslim hostility to become a significant political force, winning a substantial share of the vote in three recent regional elections (scoring a high of 24.2 percent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt, a remarkable achievement for a party that has existed for only a few years).
Last Sunday, AfD federal spokesman Alexander Gauland told a Frankfurt newspaper that “Islam is not a religion like the Catholic or Protestant faiths but an intellectual construct inevitably associated with seizure of state power” and therefore “a danger for Germany.” Germany, he added, is a “Christian-secular country in which Islam is a foreign body. In reality there is no such thing as a Euro-Islam.”
Gauland’s position was amplified by AfD’s deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch. Von Storch, who bears the title of Duchess von Oldenburg, caused a firestorm in January when she said that any migrant who refused an order to stop at a border crossing could be shot as an “aggressor.” Last Sunday she returned to the attack, proclaiming that Islam was “incompatible with the German constitution.”
The statements by Gauland and von Storch were not slips but deliberate provocations intended to bolster the AfD’s image as an anti-immigrant party modeled on Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, which has lately returned to its xenophobic roots after a period in which the party placed greater emphasis on economic issues. Von Storch may also be aiming to replace AfD leader Frauke Petry, who has criticized her remarks about shooting border crossers. Although Petry led the way in transforming the AfD from a party of conservative economists to a populist party of the far right by defeating Bernd Lücke in a leadership contest in 2015, she is seen as more restrained than the outspoken Duchess von Oldenburg.
The AfD’s anti-Islamic provocations have not gone unchallenged. Chancellor Merkel stated flatly that the German constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all Germans, including Muslims. Thomas Oppermann of the left-wing SPD charged that the statements from the AfD amounted to “wholesale slander of all peaceful Muslims” aimed at “dividing German society.” And Heiner Geissler, general secretary of Merkel’s CDU, accused the AfD of “religious racism.”
With battle lines hardening in Germany, it is at first sight surprising to find a French philosopher of a conservative Euroskeptic stripe recommending accommodation rather than confrontation with Islam. Pierre Manent’s Situation de la France argues that French efforts to contain Islam within the framework of laïcité—the uniquely Gallic version of separation of church and state—will not work. France’s best course, he thinks, is therefore not to banish the expression of Muslim culture and values from public space but to welcome it as a manifestation of communal solidarity in a country whose social bonds have been weakened by an excess of individualism. Manent asks only one thing of French Muslims: that they agree to bans on polygamy and the burqa. Even here, however, his language is conciliatory: He explicitly does not insist that Muslims “adhere to the western idea of relations between the sexes.”
On closer inspection, however, Manent is not quite as accommodating as he appears. He is less keen to accept Islam than to reject what he sees as the decadence of Western liberal democracies. By emphasizing the rights of man rather than man’s duties to his spiritual brothers and his God, the French Republic and other European welfare states have vitiated their powers, Manent maintains, and thus rendered themselves vulnerable to the more robust Islamic umma, the spiritual community of Muslims. “The extension and consolidation of the domain of Muslim mores … is the major political fact” of our time, he writes. “Islam has too much authority and the Republic, or France, or Europe too little. … I therefore contend that our regime must surrender and simply accept their mores because the Muslims are our fellow citizens.”
The French have no choice but to surrender to Islam, Manent argues, because they have become “tired of freedom.” To speak of “surrender” is of course not an innocent choice of words at a time when polemicists less subtle than Manent are decrying the refugee influx as an “invasion” intended to effect a “great replacement” of Christians by Muslims. “The most striking fact about the present moment is the political and spiritual enfeeblement of the nation. … If Islam is extending and consolidating its influence … in a region where all social forms are vulnerable to corrosive critique in the name of individual rights, then there can scarcely be any future for Europe other than Islamization by default.”
Under the guise of accommodation, Manent’s rhetoric of “surrender” to Islamization is hardly less incendiary than von Storch’s declaration of Islam’s incompatibility with the German constitution or Gauland’s denunciation of the Muslim community as a “foreign body” that Europe must reject in order to preserve its own health. Borrowing a metaphor from Alexis de Tocqueville, Manent argues that our desiccated democracies have so thoroughly dissolved the social bond in the acid of individual rights that nothing is left but a “dust” of isolated egos.
By contrast, Muslims, bound by a community of faith, form “a distinctly solid and compact mass” in Western society. The difference between Manent and the more blunt-spoken Germans is that he sees this foreign body as generating an immune reaction that will heal Europe’s moribund nation-states of their spiritual sickness, encouraging them to renounce the false god of European Union and reinvest the nation-state with the sacred force it enjoyed in the halcyon days of European nationalism.
Such is the French conservative’s case for a European integration of Islam. Manent’s perversely subtle arguments for a re-spiritualization of the national community are not likely to serve as the rallying cry for a political party. The provocations emanating from the German extreme right are far cruder and far more likely to galvanize political opposition. But wherever one looks in Europe, the monitory signs are there: The volatile mixture of religiously tinged nationalism with massive social disruption and large-scale population movements threatens once again to become explosive, and the ability of liberal democracy to contain it is once again in question.