A controversial anti-Islam demonstration in Brussels has descended from tragedy to farce.
The anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks is not the easiest time of year to be a western Muslim – and this year will be no exception. Although I can understand the fear violent Islamism elicits in many ordinary Europeans, I find it hard to accept how the threat is exaggerated and manipulated by certain interest groups for their own ends, stigmatising innocent, law-abiding Muslims in the process.
The anniversary of this sad day is a golden opportunity for certain groups to dust off their tired rhetoric and attack the “fifth columnists” in their midst – and a group of them have been planning a demonstration in Brussels against what they call the “Islamisation of Europe”.
The demo was the brainchild of Udo Ulfkotte, a German ex-journalist turned self-proclaimed cultural crusader for “Christian values” and wannabe politician who has plans to set up an anti-Islam party in Germany. Ulfkotte teamed up with Danish, British and Belgian far-right activists. He linked his own Pax Europa with the Danish-British Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) alliance and approached the far-right Belgian party Vlaams Belang (VB) for their assistance.
In August, the socialist mayor of Brussels, Freddy Thielemans, refused to license the demonstration citing concerns that the march could lead to clashes between rightwing extremists and the city's Muslim population. The march was likely to attract provocateurs itching for a fight and the chance to denounce those “violent” Muslims. Going by past experience, they could actually get this opportunity if the radical Arab European League mobilises a counter-protest, as some press reports have suggested.
Despite the security issue and even though I disagreed with the aims of the march, I questioned the wisdom of the mayor's decision on both principled and pragmatic grounds. I am a firm believer in freedom of speech, even if that speech is intolerant.
On a more pragmatic level, given how tiny the movement is, I doubted that the demonstration would attract anywhere near the 20,000 marchers Ulfkotte had estimated – a few hundred was probably nearer the mark. In addition, the ban has enabled the organisers to wallow in their own highly evolved sense of martyrdom and perhaps win broader public sympathy – by playing the victim of the “authoritarian” state turned against its “own” people – than they would otherwise have gained.
Predictably, the ban was used by the demo's backers to insinuate that the invisible puppeteer's hand of Islam had yet again deftly manipulated the gullible European political establishment. Jurgen Verstrepen, an ex-VB politician, claimed on his blog that Thielemans was “dancing to the pipes of Islam and the immigrants in Brussels”.
The head of another rightwing party, VLOTT, helped Ulfkotte take the mayor to court, but the case was bogged down in bureaucracy. All of a sudden, late last week, the German dropped a bombshell and announced he was cancelling the demonstration. He expressed concern on the Pax Europa website that “extremists prepared to use violence can abuse the demonstration for violent actions”.
He told Flemish TV that he felt exploited by the VB and that he did not want to be tarnished with the same brush as them. VB party leader Frank Vanhecke told the conservative Gazet van Antwerpen, which bears the name of the port city that is the far right's main stronghold in Belgium: “Don't forget that he came to us asking for help.”
Ulfkotte's departure has caused the other members of his alliance, who insist that the demonstration will go ahead despite the ban, to turn their vast reserves of fury against him. The SIOE website issued the following condemnation: “We regard his behaviour as despicable and we both regard Ulfkotte as a Judas to the cause of anti-Islamism.”
Descending into schoolboy taunts, they mock that: “Udo Ulfkotte has declared he intends to start and lead a political party to combat Islamism. We believe he couldn't lead a starving donkey to grass. He is a director of Pax Europa. Well, we believe he couldn't direct a drinking straw into a bottle.”
In tune with the fantastical conspiracy theories popular in far right circles, the SIOE website alleges that: “[Ulfkotte] may be employed by the European intelligence agencies.” The movement advises the German people “to avoid him and his future political party, unless they wish to endure an existence under Sharia law”. I must admit this last leap of illogic left me confused. Are they suggesting that Ulfkotte has abandoned his political crusade to take up a political jihad?
There must be some mistake. After all, this is the man who earlier this year declared: “I am not with the left, I am not with the right, I am with the Lord God.” At the same gathering of 50 people, he insisted that living together with Muslims was practically impossible, because: “European values are those of the Judeo-Christian tradition: peace, freedom, democracy and tolerance.”
Contemporary Europe is, indeed, a bastion of peace, freedom and democracy. But it wasn't always so and there is no guarantee that it will remain so, as the rise of fascism in the 1930s demonstrates. In addition, peace, freedom, democracy and tolerance are human values, not just European ones.
Moreover, European culture cannot be reduced to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has also been profoundly influenced by Greek philosophy, the pre-Christian pagan traditions, the Enlightenment, the ancient civilisations of the near East, and, much to Ulfkotte's undoubted chagrin, Islam.
It is, in fact, centuries too late to stop the “Islamisation of Europe”. The Muslim influence is so hard-wired into European society that most people are unaware of it. Where would we be without hospitals, universities and cafes (to name just a few things Europe has imported from the Muslim world)?
Philosophy, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences would be centuries behind if it weren't for the contributions of Muslim scientists, such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). In our daily lives, so many things we take for granted may not have arrived in Europe if it weren't for those despised Muslims.
The influence is no less profound on Europe's literature and culture. Where would any childhood be without genies and ghouls and the Disney remakes of Ali Baba, Aladdin and other Arabian Nights' stories? I believe that Ziryab, the eccentric and dandy “Sultan of Style”, who had a massive influence on Europe's musical, culinary and fashion heritage, ought to be recognised alongside the continent's other cultural greats.
Although the Muslim world's golden age has passed, contemporary Muslims play a valuable and often unsung role in modern Europe's success. Many top scientists, entrepreneurs and professionals are Muslim and Muslim workers have contributed their share to the economy. That's not to mention all the top Muslim sports and music stars, especially in France. In addition, thousands of Algerians and Moroccans died fighting for freedom in France in the second world war and other conflicts, such as the Spanish civil war.
Of course, there are some Muslim extremists who are hostile towards Europe's secular values and tolerance but attacking and marginalising the Muslim community is not the way to weed them out. Europe has struggled hard to build its inclusive society and we must not tolerate extremism of any type, including Islamophobia. Europe must protect its status as one of the most tolerant and prosperous places in the world by valuing and respecting all its citizens – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist and agnostic.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 11 September 2007.