- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

GENEVA A year after the devastating attacks by Islamic fanatics in the United States, Western Europe is trying to come to grips with what it identifies as "political Islam" in its midst.
Governments are seeking to determine to what extent the estimated 12 million Muslims, mostly from Arab countries, serve as a pool for potential terrorists and a destabilizing factor in Western Europe's open and vulnerable societies.
Accompanying the intelligence and security process across the Continent is an effort to assimilate the growing Muslim population that in a number of countries including France, Germany and Britain now constitutes the second largest religious group.
As Muslim populations grow, authorities are discovering that they tend to group in urban ghettoes, resist assimilation and frequently become a source of tension and a politically divisive factor.
At the same time, leaders of Muslim communities in Europe, as well as in their home countries, say that their immigrants are discriminated against, left at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and often deprived of legal protection.
A recent conference in Tunis was told that European governments were refusing or limiting visas for Arab immigrants from North Africa, and that immigrants already in Western Europe were experiencing increased discrimination at work and social ostracism.
Noureddine Hached, assistant secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, says that xenophobia has been on the rise in Europe since the September 11 attacks last year, that immigration has been restricted and that Muslim communities are "losing their Arab identity" under European pressure.
European and Muslim sociologists are debating a question to which no one has found a satisfactory answer: how to harmonize traditional Islam with a surrounding modern European society.
According to Oussama Cheribbi, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, "Islam should be taken out of the ghettos" and not be left "in the hands of imams preaching Shariah [Islamic traditional law]."
There is little doubt that deprived of freedom of action in their own countries, a number of Islamic fanatics have found a convenient haven in Western Europe.
It was only after September 11 last year that the authorities realized that terrorist cells thrived in Muslim communities in European cities, and that subversive literature was distributed in mosques where imams often called for an Islamic victory over Christianity and Judaism.
They found that "political Islam" was unquestionably on the rise in Europe, including activities of fundamentalist movements banned in Tunisia and Algeria, whose extent had been ignored by European governments until the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Since May and June this year, U.S. and European intelligence agencies have increased cooperation with their North African counterparts to track down recruitment centers for suicide bombers. It has been established that a number of prospective Arab terrorists had become "radicalized" while in Europe, rather than in their home countries.
Among suspects with North African links arrested recently were Mounir Motassadeq, a Moroccan citizen accused of helping with plans for the September 11 attacks; Djamel Beghal, an Algerian who acknowledged planning attacks against American targets, and four Moroccans accused of preparing a bioterror attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, noted as havens of tolerance, have begun to look for new formulas to cope with myriad Islamic organizations on their territories.
According to Roger Van Boxtel, former minister in charge of integration in the Netherlands, the most effective formula is to "identify enemies through security services and follow it up through intensive assimilation. Under no circumstances should the Muslim communities [as a whole] be blamed for acts committed by a few fanatics."
Although governments, educational and social institutions are painfully aware of the magnitude of the problem and are trying to remedy it in a humane manner, they are also faced with an inevitable popular reaction that blames Muslims for the rising crime rate and declining educational standards in state schools.
European sociologists note that over the centuries countries such as France have absorbed millions of immigrants but mainly from such Christian countries as Spain, Italy and Poland.
By the end of the 20th century, these immigrants were part of French society, identified principally by their family names. They did not make demands for specific forms of dress or special respect for their national customs. They simply blended in with the surrounding culture, unlike most immigrants from Islamic countries.
According to most assessments, until recently Europe had been ceding ground to militant Islam in a number of ways.
In the Netherlands, where Muslims represent a million of the country's 16 million inhabitants, imams have been given the same status as priests and rabbis.
In Austria, where there are 400,000 registered Muslims and Islam is recognized as the second religion after Catholicism, 40 public schools offer courses on Islam and its history.
In Belgium, the state finances the construction of mosques and Islamic religion is taught in schools when requested by students.
In France, which has an Islamic population of 4 million, there are 1,430 mosques, financed mainly by Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
There are 230,000 people living in polygamous marriages in France, and the media recently brought to scrutiny the case of an unemployed Moroccan immigrant whose social security allowance for his three wives and 20 children amounted to $6,000 a month.
In Switzerland, the authorities bowed to Islamic pressure and allowed Muslim women to be photographed for their identity cards wearing the traditional scarf.
Before last year's carnage in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania, the Islamic message in Europe was becoming increasingly strident. For example, the imam of Bradford in England appealed to his congregation to struggle "with the aim of replacing secular values by Islam."
A booklet printed in Saudi Arabia and distributed throughout Europe describes the aim of Muslim societies as "trying to become one day a majority through reciprocal assimilation with the non-Islamic majority which will gradually accept the morals and religion of Islam."

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