Culture Clash: European Art Provokes Muslims

Michael Weissenstein, Yahoo News, March 15, 2010

With the West locked in conflicts across the Muslim world, why would anyone throw fuel on the fire?

A small group of Europeans have been doing just that–provoking death plots and at least one murder by turning out art that derides the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran in the name of Western values.

Behind the scenes is something bigger: a rising European unease with a rapidly growing Muslim minority, and the spreading sense that the continent has become a front in a clash of civilizations.

Recent events–including surprising electoral success by an anti-Islamic Dutch party, moves to ban veils in France and minarets in Switzerland, and arrests in Ireland and the U.S. this week in an alleged plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist–are signs of the rising tensions.

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The cases are extreme, but millions of moderate Europeans also are re-examining the meaning of the liberal values widely cherished across the continent. How, many are asking, should a liberal society respectfully deal with immigrants who often espouse illiberal values? Should the immigrants adopt the values of their adoptive land–or, to the contrary, should society change to accommodate the newcomers who now form part of it?

France, home to at least five million of the estimated 14 million Muslims in Western Europe, launched a parliament-run dialogue on what to do about full-face veils last year. It ended with a parliamentary panel recommending a ban on the veils in buses, trains, hospitals, post offices and public sector facilities. In December, a large majority of Swiss voters backed a ballot initiative banning the building of any new minarets.

The measures sparked some peaceful protests. But the most incendiary provocations have come from the Dutch and their Nordic neighbors, nations with long histories of homogeneity, tradition of provocative artwork and less experience with large-scale immigration than former colonial titans like Britain and France.

Jan Hjarpe, a professor emeritus of Islamic studies at Lund University in southern Sweden, near Vilks’ home, said the deliberate provocations were helpful to Islamic extremists, who have been hunting for targets that would win them popularity in the Muslim world.

“It has had almost no effect on the Muslim community in Sweden, who regard it as not very interesting,” he said. “These threats against him have to do with extremist groups that want something to react to.”

Denmark’s Prophet Muhammad cartoons emerged from a discussion in 2005 about whether Islam was being treated with special sensitivity among Danish artists for fear of reprisals from extremists. Jyllands-Posten said the project was a way to challenge self-censorship and show that Muslims, too, must be ready to put up with mockery in a society based on democracy and free speech.

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It was only in 2002 when the populist politician Pim Fortuyn began speaking openly against immigration and the threat to the Dutch identity that people felt free to voice their anger. Fortuyn’s popularity soared, and the party he founded was hugely popular even after Fortuyn himself was assassinated (by an animal rights activist).

Successive governments clamped down on immigration and forced new arrivals to learn about the Dutch language and culture in an attempt to integrate them into mainstream society.

Wilders is derided by his enemies as a neo-fascist but has been able to turn his provocations into political success: his Freedom Party winning in the town of Almere and coming in second in The Hague this month the only two races it ran out of 394 cities and towns that elected local councils.

If the outcome is any indication of the parliamentary vote in June, Wilders could emerge as a king-maker on the national stage with no combination of parties is likely to be able to form a working majority in the next parliament.

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