When Ammar Alkassar, 30, a young computer scientist in Aachen in western Germany, wanted to join a political party several years ago, he scanned the list of options that, in the past, have attracted voters like him (he was born in Germany to parents who migrated from Syria), but found the Greens and the old-line Social Democrats wanting. Germany's Christian Democratic Union (cdu) is on the right of the political spectrum and has not historically been associated with the ethnic minority vote. It opposed full Turkish membership of the E.U., for example, and has taken a tough line on immigration. Even so, said Alkassar, the cdu has "some basic views that I consider my own."
Those views are not precisely the Christian ones of the party's name Alkassar, now a district councillor for the cdu in the small university town of Homburg, is a Muslim. But for Alkassar and many like him, identifying with a conservative Christian party is preferable to the secular alternative. "I believe in the importance of God and faith," he says.
Such insistence that religion any religion should have a role in politics is echoing throughout Europe. After decades of rising secularism and declining church attendance, religion is now back on Europe's political agenda. Islamic terrorism and Turkey's hopes of entering the European Union have compelled politicians from Vienna to the Hague to declare their Christian identity; Pope Benedict XVI is making the war on secularism a defining feature of his papacy. France's presidential aspirant Nicolas Sarkozy suggested in a recent book that France might reconsider the possibility of state funding for religious institutions. The age of keeping God out of politics is over, says Jytte Klausen, a Danish political scientist and author of The Islamic Challenge, a recent study of Muslim élites in Europe. "European politics," she says "is no longer a religion-free zone." Battle lines are being drawn that have not been seen for decades. They are not necessarily between Christian and Muslim. They are instead between secular Europeans and people of faith any faith and the conflict may well determine the future of the European state.
Modern Europe has taken root in secular soil. The tradition of Voltaire and the Enlightenment valued humanism and individual rights, and many early socialist parties were vehemently anticlerical. By the early 20th century, France's Third Republic had formally decreed the separation of church and state, and Pope Pius X complained that "God has been driven out of public life." Attempts by militaristic governments in the 20th century to mix God and patriotism, such as Francisco Franco's National Catholicism in Spain, served to heighten the distrust Europeans felt for religion. After the 1960s and '70s, secularism had become a central part of the West European mind-set, so much so that even devoutly Christian leaders like Britain's Tony Blair were extraordinarily cautious about proclaiming their faith in the public square. Meanwhile, regular church attendance in Western Europe continued to plummet. By the late 1990s, only 15% of Europeans said that they attended a place of worship each week. Despite some last-minute lobbying by Poland, Italy and others, the draft of the E.U. constitution treaty finalized in 2004 omitted any mention of God or Christian values.
But the familiar pattern of religion's retreat and secularism's advance now has to be reassessed. The wave of immigration from Muslim countries to Europe has catalyzed a new debate about the place of faith in public life. By varying estimates, up to 18 million Muslims now live in Western Europe, up from less than a million after World War II. Many among the first generation of immigrants wanted to leave their religion in the old country. But for a variety of reasons that are far from fully understood, their descendants are returning to the mosque in droves, and, moreover, calling on the state to sanction their choice. Demands by European Muslims for legal protection range from appeals for the freedom to wear head scarves in schools to requests for permission to build new mosques and for official recognition of the validity of Shari'a law in "private affairs" such as inheritance and divorce.
Such demands have met with a varied response. France banned the wearing of religious symbols including head scarves in public schools, a measure that some Muslims saw as directed at them. And a rash of new books has started to warn that some of Europe's cherished traditions are under attack. In While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within, expatriate American author Bruce Bawer, who lives in Oslo, paints a picture of a weakened and directionless Europe besieged by extremists intent on imposing Shari'a law. Barring a sudden about-face in Europe's policy of "appeasement" toward "intolerant" Islam, says Bawer, Europe faces "a long twilight of Balkanization with Europe divided into warring pockets of Muslims and non-Muslims." A new best-selling volume from Denmark titled Islamists and the Naive strikes a similar chord. Its co-author, Karen Jespersen, is a former Interior Minister with Denmark's Social Democrats, a party often associated with policies friendly to Muslim immigrants. The threat posed by Muslim fundamentalism in the 21st century is comparable, Jespersen writes, to the twin scourges of the past century, Nazism and communism other forms of "totalitarianism."
Left-wing intellectuals across Europe are increasingly split over the perceived danger posed by fundamentalist Islam, with some embracing multicultural integration while others loudly raise the alarm over the perceived threat to liberal values. Together with xenophobic parties of the right, like Italy's Northern League, which oppose immigration for completely different reasons having to do with jobs and race, a strange alliance is taking shape. The Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered in 2002, was openly gay, and opposed immigration because he feared for the Netherlands' liberal way of life. But once he had broken the taboo, his cause was embraced by conservatives across Europe.