AP, October 27, 2006
Stratford-Upon-Avon, England: Interior ministers from six of Europe’s most populous nations met to seek ways to curtail alienation among the continent’s Muslims.
The issue topped the agenda of the interior ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland who concluded a two-day summit yesterday.
Concerns about alienation of European Muslims were highlighted by violence in the deprived suburbs of Paris, where youths—many from immigrant families—set three buses on fire before the first anniversary of three weeks of rioting that raged there last year.
Relations between Europe’s Muslims and non-Muslims have become a contentious issue around the continent, with strains growing and many fearing that increasing numbers of disaffected young people are being seduced by extremism.
The ministers agreed to work together to promote integration and said they would stage media campaigns and public events to try to persuade young Muslims to reject radical ideologies and embrace democratic values.
They said they would target young audiences with messages from ‘secular Muslim’ role models as part of the effort.
A debate over the veils some women wear has prompted emotionally charged arguments about minority groups’ identities and integration. Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw set off the argument by announcing he had asked Muslim women to remove their veils when they came for meetings in his district office.
In France, tensions are high a year after immigrant youths rioted for three weeks in the gritty suburbs of Paris.
The 2005 violence sprang in part from anger over entrenched discrimination against immigrants, many of them Muslims from former French colonies.
Brussels—More then six citizens in ten fear an increase in religious tensions in Belgium according to a survey by Belgian newspaper Le Soir.
A “pessimistic” attitude in contrast with the overall “moderate attitude” of Belgians towards religions, notes the evening paper.The majority of interviewees supported a ‘respectful criticism’ of religions, meaning that criticism can be expressed so long as personal religious beliefs are respected.
But not all Belgians follow this moderated view: 23 percent are opposed to all critics of religion, half as much as the French notes Le Soir, while 16 percent assume a highly critical standpoint, three times more then in France.
Eric de Beukelaer, spokesman of Belgium’s Francophone Bishops, said he was satisfied with the results.
“All religions can be criticised, but there are limits,” he said, emphasizing the difference between “criticising” and “offending someone in his or her conviction.”
The CAL, the Centre for Secular Action (Centre d’Action Laïque), agreed, although its president, Philippe Grollet said that 23 percent of Belgians thinking religion should not be criticised is “too much.” He deplores such attitudes which leave no space for debate.
Abdelmajid Mhauchi, Belgians representative of the European Muslim Network, said that Belgium has a long history of conflict between Seculars and Catholics and has learnt to respect religious liberties. “As a Muslim” he said “I accept critics of Islam … but I cannot tolerate mockery and provocation.”
About 60 percent of Belgians accept the presence of religious signs and symbols in public life. A minority of 36 percent admit the wish to see these symbols and signs confined to the private sphere. This view is reflected in France’s law which bans the public display of ostentatious religious symbols in republican intuitions such as schools and tribunals.
Here, too, religious institutions and organizations expressed satisfaction with these figures. Philippe Grollet of CAL pointed out that although people should be allowed to display signs of their religion, “those who represent the government (secular and neutral by definition) and the public authority—magistrates, policemen, teachers etc—should remain neutral.”
Despite these reasonable views, 60 percent of the people interviewed predict an increase in tensions between Christians and Muslims with Flemish men being the most pessimistic.
Only 7 percent of the interviewees forecast a decrease of tensions in Belgium. In this respect, Brussels is the Belgium capital of optimism with 12 percent predicting a decrease in tensions.