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Transforming Europe

Freedom Go to Hell.

Placard displayed by Muslim protester in London, 2006

While most agree that Europe's newer ethnic communities should be harmonized into a new society, the means of achieving this are by no means obvious. Americans can sympathize with contemporary European dilemmas, given their own long debates over minority populations and controversies over assimilation, integration, and multicultur-alism. Prior to the 1960s, many American liberals assumed that ending racial discrimination would mean admitting all people of whatever race to the rights and privileges of white Americans, whose values they would accept wholeheartedly. They soon found, of course, that blacks and Latinos had no wish to accept integration if that meant absorption. In Europe too, assimilation may not be a desirable goal if it means the renunciation of distinctive cultural patterns and religious beliefs. Europeans also must decide how far cultural and religious identities should be prized and preserved, and the social costs of doing so.

Domestically, the rise of religious diversity forces European nations to confront issues of tolerance and minority rights that most had thought long settled. How can societies balance the right to religious freedom with the need for balance and secularism in public life? Resolving the competing pressures toward conflict and assimilation challenges European values of tolerance and pluralism. The dilemma can be phrased simply. European states, and the European Union, preach certain core values, including secularism, tolerance, individualism, and progressive views on gender, family, and sexuality. At the same time, they must deal with communities who differ radically from these values at many key points. We are only beginning to see the legal and constitutional battles arising from these struggles.

In fairness to European states, we must acknowledge the very short historical time period in which the present situation has existed: realistically, it would be amazing if cultural conflicts were not developing. Even so, the continuing scale of divisions raises serious questions, all the more so when the European Union seems on the verge of admitting significant new Muslim populations, from Turkey and perhaps someday Morocco. While such admissions make sense in the long run, it is amazing that they are being debated with so little attention to the cultural and religious consequences for a Europe still trying to define its basic values. The prospect of Turkish entry in particular indicates once more that European elites are not only thoroughly secular in their own ideology but they are reluctant to credit the power and authenticity of religious motivations among others. If Europe does succeed in accommodating its Muslim minorities, this happy outcome will occur despite its political and cultural leaders, rather than because of them.

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