Intolerance in Europe: A Historical Perspective

On closer examination, the French government is simply asking Muslims to abandon Islam. This secular inquisition has deep historical roots. And not only in France.

By Muneeb Baig
Posted: 25 Zul-Qa'dah 1424, 18 January 2004

There has been a recent surge in Islamophobia in Europe, as exemplified by the recent developments in France and Germany over the issue of hijab. Some people trace the history of the hijab controversy in France to 1989 when a secondary institution expelled three Muslim students for wearing the hijab. However, one must realize that intolerance of Islam has been present in the European mentality for centuries, dating back to the very first contacts between Christianity and Islam.

Since the beginning, Europe has always regarded Islam with fear, suspicion, and hostility. Islam, being a complete way of life, and claiming to be the last in the series of revelations, superseding Christianity, was regarded as an unwanted competitor for influence with Christianity. Islam's swift spread as well as its power to draw followers from the Church to itself made the Church uneasy. Islam also raised profound questions about the truth of the religion monopolized and preached by the Church.

Europe was terrified by Islam. At that time, the Church held sway over the hearts and minds of the people. To combat Islam's powerful influence, the Church invented many labels to keep people away from it. Islam was idolatrous, heretic, pagan, immoral, a schism in the church, a creation of the devil (to combat the success of the Church), and one with no Divine foundations.

Among the strongest of the Church's labels against Islam was plagiarism. Anything noble in Islam was considered copied; anything considered bad (by their account) was Islam's own creation. The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts audaciously: "What is really good in Mohammedan ethics is either commonplace or borrowed from some other religions, whereas what is characteristic is nearly always imperfect or wicked."

All types of false and malicious allegations were laid against the fundamentals of Islam. The personality of the Noble Prophet Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam was attacked in ways that was not done even by the pagans of Makkah.

Thus, Europe in effect closed its mind to Islam. Anyone appearing to hold the slightest sympathy towards it was automatically considered heathen. An extreme form of intolerance was practiced towards Islam.

The Muslim parliament of Great Britain wrote in its newsletter (Vol 1 issue 5, Dec 1997), describing medieval Europe,

"Christians who negotiated with Muslim rulers were suspected and accused of treason, … Working for Muslims was a sin. Christians had to be rescued from Muslim rule because their faith was in danger, hence the crusades. Within Christendom, contacts with Muslims and Jews were not allowed. Christians were forbidden to work in Muslim and Jewish households. Muslims and Jews could not hold any position of public authority, they also had to wear a distinct clothing so that they didn't mix. The adhan was banned as it was an offence to mention the name of Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam amongst the worshippers of Christ. Muslims had to be converted. They were forced to accept missionaries in their mosques so that conversion could be attempted…"

Classical literature is filled with diatribes against Islam and Prophet MuhammadSall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Dante's Divine Comedy is a famous example of this hate. But Dante was not alone.

Classical literature is filled with diatribes against Islam and Prophet MuhammadSall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. Dante's Divine Comedy is a famous example of this hate. But Dante was not alone. The Catholic Encyclopedia writes, "Luther looked upon him [Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam] as 'a devil and first-born child of Satan'…Spanheim and D'Herbelot characterize him as a 'wicked impostor,' and a 'dastardly liar', while Prideaux stamps him as a wilful deceiver."

The prejudice also affected the vocabulary. "Paynim" is an archaic English word whose roots start from Latin "paganus" meaning pagan, but is used to especially refer to Muslims. The word Mohammedanism was invented to convey the message that Muslims worship a man named Mohamamed instead of Almighty God.

Thus, it is not difficult to understand how the Crusades erupted and how an extreme fervor was excited inside the hearts of ignorant men by the clergy to "wrest that land [Jerusalem] from the wicked race." The resulting contact between Europe and Islam resulted in Europeans taking some of the ideas, technology, and exotic goods of the East while keeping their hatred of the "paynim."

The conquest of Spain by the Muslims and the resulting Muslim-European interaction did not help dispel the myths surrounding Islam. Instead, as Franco Cardini notes in his book Europe and Islam, "Medieval authors were unanimous…in their opinion that Europe was the main seat of Christianity, if not its only one. They also believed that anyone living in Europe who was not a Christian was either an outsider or an invader." Thus, the "Reconquista" movement started barely after the Muslims arrived and culminated in the fall of Grenada in 1492, after which the untold oppression, forced conversions, and persecution were mercilessly inflicted on the land's Muslim and Jewish populations.

After the decline and fall of the Church and during the period of the Renaissance, secularism rose and became the dominant force in Europe. Despite the enormous contributions of Muslim Science to its reawakening, Europe remained at heart hostile and intolerant towards Islam. Steeped in its own prejudices and blinded by arrogance, it refused to attempt to understand Islam honestly. Rather, attempts to understand Muslims were made with the intention of learning how to destroy them or how to ridicule them by feigning knowledge, while preaching lies.

Despite the fall of the Church and the start of the period of "Enlightenment" and Renaissance, fundamental sicknesses remained in the European body: racism, arrogance, intolerance, oppression, and immorality. Neither the Christian Church nor the "Secularist Church" attempted to rectify this situation.

The colonial period shows the effects of these sicknesses in the mindset of the Europeans. The slave trade targeted "inferior" civilizations: Africans and Native Americans. Nearly 30% of the slaves brought to America were Muslims. While Islam was attacked for ostensibly supporting slavery, the cruelest form of slave trade and system of slavery ever instituted on the face of this earth was implemented by the Europeans, with the support of the Church itself!

The intolerance showed by Europeans to their new subjects is beyond comparison. It is a reflection of the arrogance and greed that characterized the imperial masters.

During the past century, the World Wars took place. The Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the victors; Palestine was given off to the Zionists; oppression in Algeria, Kosova, Bosnia, Chechnya, etc took place…. Europe had a central role in all of them! Salman Rushdie wrote his filthy Satanic Verses…and was given protection by Britain. Many other European writers and politicians capitalized and continue to do so on the widespread hate against Islam.

While the history of Europe is full of bloody wars, inquisitions, pogroms, massacres, and persecutions, it did try to change its image and claim for itself the championship of human rights and the leadership of the civilized world. The façade it created did help it with the influx of the much needed immigrant labor after the Second World War.

Most of them were Muslims from former colonies. They were never accepted as equals but their different ways were tolerated for the time being in the hope that they would slowly dissolve in the melting pot under the heat and pressure of the pop culture.

But to the bewilderment of the superior race that did not happen. And now this façade of tolerance and freedom is already starting to crumble. Europe is up to its old habits again.

To the people who still cherish a long history of racism, bigotry, and ignorance, the presence of hijab in schools is threatening. The increasing demand for building of mosques and for halal foods is unsettling. The interest and confidence the young Muslims are showing in their own religion and culture is unnerving. The idea that Muslims could have equal rights is unacceptable. The fact that despite all the propaganda increasing numbers of open minded and sincere Westerners are finding solutions to their problems in Islam is devastating. So they have now decided to forcibly assimilate Muslims into their societies.

The following quote from a paper presented by John Bowen at the Conference of the Europeanists, (Chicago March 14-17 2002) is instructive in understanding the meaning of "assimilation."

"In France, the frequency of performing salat [Prayer] was taken by one government body to indicate the degree of one's assimilation into French culture. The Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques (INED) defined 'assimilation' as the disappearance of culturally specific features, the convergence of behavior into a general French model, and a mixing of populations (Tribalat 1996:254-55). Assimilation implied the reduction of religion to the private sphere and a lessened intensity of religious practices, 'in sum, a laicization of behavior' (254). Specific indices of assimilation used in the report include praying less frequently; not following the fast, abandoning polygamy, and making fewer visits to the country of origin..."

Specific indices of assimilation used by a French government agency included praying less frequently; not following the fast, abandoning polygamy, and making fewer visits to the country of origin.

The unequivocal and emphatic support of the French president for a bill to ban hijab in schools and workplaces as well as to prevent women from asking for women doctors in hospitals (and males asking for male doctors) is an example of the suppression of basic rights of citizens that are glorified in the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Accords.

Principle VII of the Helsinki Accords, of which all European countries are signatories, clearly states:

"The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief…They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development…the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience."

Yet, not one country in Europe has found the discrimination and direct assault on the religious freedoms of citizens blameworthy. Rather, they are either watching quietly on the sidelines or even pursuing their own discriminatory practices. Several states in Germany have already banned the hijab. Belgium is also publicly debating it.

Unfortunately, some Muslims are still confused that Europe = liberty, freedom of religion, and equality. The following quotes from some European officials can help clear up this confusion.

Mr. Schwartz is deciding that Muslim girls cannot wear the hijab, simply because if they do, their individual liberties will be compromised. It does not matter if the girl wants to wear it or not; in fact she does not have the liberty to decide for herself! This is a very revealing example of European protection of "individual liberties."

The ban on Hijab and on being treated by female doctors are examples of the suppression of basic rights of citizens that are glorified in the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Accords.

The debate and controversy is not just about a piece of cloth on one's head; rather, according to Remy Schwartz "the veil and what it signifies is incompatible with the concept of the republic of French society." (emphasis mine). What does the veil signify? Religious belonging. A refusal to submit to the immoral pop culture. A preference for the laws of God over manmade laws. This is what terrifies the French Republic and other European countries so much. And this is why it is not difficult to anticipate that the hijab will not be the last target, but is only the first. Who knows what is to come next? Prohibition of prayer and fasting? Ban on mosques? Forced wine drinking? Forced pork feeding? Forced conversions? These seem far-fetched, and we hope they never happen, but it should be realized that the arguments being used to justify the hijab ban can easily be extended to each one of them.

Remember Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's comments in 2001: "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilisation, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and - in contrast with Islamic countries - respect for religious and political rights." He added that the Western civilization is superior because "it has at its core - as its greatest value - freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture." He went on to conclude that the West would eventually conquer Islam.

Contrast the above with Pope Urban II's speech in 1095, when he called for the Crusades:

"Oh race of Franks,... race beloved and chosen by God,... set apart from all other nations... by your Catholic faith and the honor you render to the holy Church; to you our discourse is addressed.... We wish you to know what a serious matter has led us to your country, for it is the imminent peril threatening you and all the faithful that has brought us hither…[he mentions some alleged wrongs of the Turks]…On whom, therefore, rests the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory, if not upon you -- you upon whom, above all other nations, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you and incite your minds to manly achievements…Let the holy sepulcher of our Lord and Savior, which is possessed by the unclean nations, especially arouse you…Enter upon the road of the Holy Sepulcher, wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves....."

Different ideals and reasons for superiority, but the same tone and mindset. Europe has done little to rid itself of its arrogance, ignorance, and intolerance.