With the rising tide of terrorist threats across Europe, one can somewhat understandably expect a surge in Islamophobia across the West. Yet in a contest to see which can be more racist, one would be safer to bet on Europe than on the traditional bogeyman, the United States.
One clear indicator of how flummoxed Europeans have become about diversity were the remarks last week by German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying that multi-culturalism has “totally failed” in her country, the richest and theoretically most capable of absorbing immigrants. “We feel tied to Christian values,” the Chancellor said. “Those who don’t accept them don’t have a place here.”
One can appreciate Merkel’s candor but it does say something the limitations about the continent’s ability, and even willingness, to absorb immigrants. It’s quite a change from the generations-old tendency among Europeans, particularly on the left, to denigrate America as a kind of hot bed for racism. Yet even before the latest report of potential terrorist attacks in several western European cities, the center of Islamophobia – and related ethnic hatreds – has been shifting inexorably to the European continent.
Of course, America has always had its bigots, and still does. And of course, Islamists who threaten or commit violence need to be arrested and thrown behind bars. But, to date, neither major political party has been able to make openly white-supremacist politics a successful leading platform. After all, what was the last time anyone took Pat Buchanan , who has made comments similar to those of Merkel, seriously? Despite the brouhaha over the Arizona anti-illegal alien law, only 5% of Americans consider immigration the nation’s most pressing issue, according to a September Gallup poll.
The situation in Europe is quite different. Openly racist, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic groupings are on the rise, and they are wreaking havoc on once subdued European politics. Traditional mainstream parties are declining, and the new racist parties can be seen in broad daylight in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, where populist firebrand Geert Wilders has suggested banning the Koran. In Italy the anti-immigrant Northern League is already hugely powerful.
It is true that as many Europeans as Americans–about half–think immigration is bad for their countries. The big difference is what Europeans are willing to do about it. Just consider French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s farcical effort this fall to expel the hapless Roma.
Yet for most Europeans the big issue is not purse-snatching gypsies but fear and loathing toward the expanding presence of Muslims–who are at least three times as numerous in the E.U. as in the U.S. Over half of Spaniards and Germans, according to Pew, hold negative views of Muslims. So do roughly 40% of the French. In contrast, only 23% of Americans share this sentiment.
More disturbing, Europe is actually putting these ethnic hostilities into law. An early sign came this winter, when the usually phlegmatic Swiss voted to prohibit the building of new minarets. More recently a ban on burqas – the admittedly unattractive female body suits favored by some orthodox Muslims – passed in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim community. The same measure is now being considered in Spain.
These actions reflect a broad, and deepening, stream of European public opinion. A recent Pew survey found that over 80% of the French support banning the burqa, as do over 70% of Germans and a large majority of Spaniards and British.
In contrast, nearly two-thirds of Americans find the burqa ban distasteful. Burqas don’t exactly stir admiring glances in the shopping mall, but few Amercians think we need to ban them. The basic ideal of “don’t tread on me” means “don’t tread on them” as well – at least until they start blowing themselves up at Wal-mart.
This nuance escapes some of our own knee-jerk racial obsessives, like the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Cynthia Tucker, who equates opposition to a mosque at Ground Zero as proof of a “new McCarthyism” aimed against Muslims. But you don’t have to be a bigot to have second thoughts about erecting a mosque at the very spot where innocents were slaughtered by radical Islamists.
Critical here are profound differences between the U.S. and Europe in the role played by ethnicity, race and religion. On the continent national culture is precisely that — the product of a long history of a particular ethnic group. Small minorities, such as Jews in Holland or Armenians in France, are tolerated but expected to submerge their ethnic identities. France has many artists and writers who may be Jewish, but you don’t see many French Woody Allens or Larry Davids who exploit their otherness to help define the national culture.
Muslim attitudes in Europe are not exactly helpful either. European Muslims often seem more interested in breaking the national mold than adding to its contours. More than 80% of British Muslims, for example, identify themselves as Muslims first before being British. This is true of nearly 70% of Muslims in Spain or Germany. Similarly, up to 40% of Britain’s Islamic population believe that terrorist attacks on both Americans and their fellow Britons are justified.
This alienation also reflects an appalling social and economic reality. In European countries immigrants can receive welfare more easily than join the workforce, and their job prospects are confined by education levels that lag those of immigrants in the United States, Canada and Australia. In France unemployment among immigrants–particularly those from Muslim countries–is often at least twice that of the native born; in Britain Muslims are far more likely to be out of the workforce than either Christians or Hindus.
Partly due to a less generous welfare state, American immigrant workers with lower educations have, for the most part, been more economically active than their nonimmigrant counterparts. The contrast is even more telling among Muslim immigrants. In America most Muslims are comfortably middle class, with income and education levels above the national average. They are more likely to be satisfied with the state of the country, their own community and their prospects for success than are other Americans—even in the face of the reaction to 9-ll.
More important still, more than half of Muslims identify themselves as Americans first, a far higher percentage than in the various countries of Western Europe. More than four in five are registered to vote, a sure sign of civic involvement. Almost three-quarters, according to a Pew study, say they have never been discriminated against–something that is definitely not the case in Europe where a majority, according to Pew, complain of discrimination.
Over time, these differences between Europe and America may become even more pronounced. America is becoming increasingly diverse, but it is also growing demographically, and Muslims make up a very small part of that. There’s little fear in Anerica of the kind of Muslim envelopment that appears to threaten a rapidly aging, and soon to be depopulating, Europe.
Of course the U.S. still has its bigoted Islamophobes, just as it has its own small cadre of vicious Islamists. One law of history appears to be that morons will be morons. But America’s culture seems strong enough to resist the anti-immigrant hysteria emerging throughout Europe. This is one case where la difference between America and Europe may prove a very good thing indeed.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.