Europe’s Muslim Moment

The rise of right-wing parties and the radicalization of European public opinion toward Muslim migrants will soon encourage steps that might temporarily slow their arrival on Europe’s doorstep

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FILE Photo: Muslim immigrants in Berlin, Germany.
FILE Photo: Muslim immigrants in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Reuters
Shaul Mishal
Shaul Mishal

Waves of popular uprisings, violence and terror against regimes and elites in Arab states undermined their ability to ensure domestic quiet and governmental stability. This led to a rise in the power of local communities, in the form of tribes, sects, religious organizations, ethnic groups and terrorist organizations. All these groups acquired a place of honor alongside the fluctuating regimes and the regional and global powers which meddle in the region.

The bloodbath and upheavals in Syria led Iran and the Shiites to travel from their base in the Middle East’s southeast to its northwest. The cradle of Sunni Islam and Arabism, located in the Fertile Crescent, was conquered by Shiite Islam. The historic heart’s desire of Sunni Islam and Arabism thus migrated south to the Arabian peninsula, namely Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

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At the same time, waves of immigration flooded Europe, comprised of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries who had lost everything due to these changes. They became an influential factor in Europe’s societal debate and the continent’s economic and political agenda.

The Arab Spring was sowed in the Middle East, but its fruits landed in Europe. It failed in the east, but succeeded in the west. The Islamic State’s ouster from Iraq and Syria, the weakening of Al-Qaida and the suppression of opposition militias that fought against Arab regimes in the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and North Africa all turned Europe into a magnet for activity by radical Islamists and mass migration by Muslim populations.

This pincer movement by Arabism and Islam, which migrated to the southern Middle East, combined with the Muslim populations striking roots in Europe, has given birth to a new social and cultural reality on the continent. Islam has become a permanent resident. The influence of waves of migrants and refugees on European lifestyles, on what is permissible and forbidden, on views of the public scene, education, family structure, housing, clothing and the labor market, is visible all over.

The political upheavals within Europe are the swallows that herald the Arab Spring’s arrival there. The signs of deep social and political undercurrents on the continent include the strengthening of right-wing parties, the return of factionalism, ethnicity and sectionalism, and the fact that questions of identity and uniting around community values and primary affiliations have taken the place of norms of national unity and European integration.

The Islamic pincers are closing in on Europe and threatening the Western cultural experience, democratic politics and fundamental liberal values. No possibility of escaping its grip is visible in the foreseeable future. Climate forecasts that predict significant warming in the southern Middle East, with temperatures expected to rise to 50 degrees Celsius on average, make it even harder for Europe to turn back the clock. Desertification is spreading. The shortage of water is getting worse. Already, Yemen is far into the process of drying up, and its population suffers from hunger and disease. The water situation in the Fertile Crescent, once known for its flourishing agriculture and two abundant rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, also bodes ill. Turkey, where the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates are located, is building dams to reduce the amount of water flowing downstream to Iraq and Syria. Egypt is also under existential threat from the dam Ethiopia is building at the source of the Nile.

The fact that all of the Arab world’s water sources come from elsewhere increases the danger of shortages of this vital commodity. It also intensifies the trend of Muslim populations migrating to Europe. The Middle Eastern golem has turned on its European creator. The cultural worlds that dictate political realities are dissipating, and optimistic views about a world whose life breath is liberal and democratic are in severe crisis.

The varied responses by European countries are insufficient to provide a suitable solution to this emerging reality. The rise of right-wing parties and the radicalization of European public opinion with regard to attitudes toward Muslim migrants will soon encourage steps that might temporarily slow their arrival on Europe’s doorstep. These range from a willingness to consider financial grants and other material incentives to Middle Eastern countries to encourage them to prevent emigration from their territory to forcibly repulsing ships packed with refugees seeking safe haven.

But assuming there are no exceptional, crisis-style events afoot to unexpectedly change this emerging reality, none of these steps have the power to fundamentally change the trend. It’s not inconceivable that the countdown to the end of Europe has begun. Europe has apparently been sentenced to a prolonged process of returning to the bosom of Islam, which flourished there from the eighth to the 14th century. It’s not at all impossible that in the future, 2010 – the year the Arab Spring erupted – will be regarded as the beginning of the 21st century in Europe.

Prof. Shaul Mishal is director of the Middle East studies program at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a professor emeritus of Tel Aviv University

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