As I look back to the continent where I was born and grew up, I cannot escape a deep sense of foreboding. Everywhere, parties of the far right, some of them eerily reminiscent of fascist organisations of the distantly remembered past, are on the rise.
In France, head of the National Front Marine Le Pen continues to poll strongly and may well make it to the run-off round in the Presidential election due next spring, as indeed her father did before her. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party is now represented in eight of the country’s state parliaments, and at present levels of support will definitely pass the 5% threshold for a presence in the Bundestag itself at the next election also in 2017. In just over two weeks’ time, a member of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) will compete in the second round of voting for the post of president in that country, having come top in the first round. Similar parties are on the rise in Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden (Sweden, for Heavens’ sake) and so on.
A major factor behind the increasing popularity of these political movements is growing public concern about immigration, in particular – no use beating about the bush – of people of the Muslim faith. Watching the appalling events unfolding in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan no-one could fail to have sympathy and understanding for those fleeing to sanctuary in order to save their families. Yet they bring with them religious practices and beliefs that do not fit easily with modern lifestyles in Western Europe.
In December last year there was a column in this newspaper which I actually clipped and retained (something I rarely do, except of course for my own masterpieces). Entitled "We must better understand Muslim views", it was written by a humanist and a local university professor. Although it was no doubt well intended and made some good points, I did not find the contents altogether reassuring. For example, there is a massive gulf between the faiths on the subject of apostasy. In the west, one is free to pursue any religion or none at all. There may be frowns from neighbours and even some degree of social ostracism, but at the end of the day you can do as you wish. Muslims take a fundamentally different view. If you are born of that faith, many – including a majority of those from the Middle East -- believe there should be severe punishment and the death penalty for those who renounce it. No European government would outlaw a change of religion, but what if some followers take the law into their own hands?
While most Muslims say "honour" killings are not justified, clear majorities in both Iraq and Afghanistan do condone extrajudicial executions of women who engage in what men from those countries believe to be unacceptable sexual behaviour but which would not raise eyebrows in the west.
Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, is not part of Islamic faith and indeed in 2007 the Supreme Council of Islamic Research ruled that it had "no basis in Islamic law" and there is no reference to it in the Quran. Nonetheless some of the refugees arriving now in Europe, some of them Muslim, do practice it, and in the popular mind it is often erroneously associated with Islam because of that religion’s emphasis on female chastity.
So here are three obvious areas where what is supported by most or some Muslims would actually constitute a criminal offence in the western countries to which they are fleeing.
Some readers may by now be wondering why someone with no discernible religious faith is dwelling on these issues at all. The answer is simply that the difficulties host nations are going to face in absorbing large numbers of people with very different value systems, and the difficulties those people are going to have integrating in their new communities, cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. They must be acknowledged and addressed if the tide of neo-fascism is to be turned back.
What triggered this column was a recent news item from Switzerland. The practice in that country is for schoolchildren to shake hands with the teacher as a sign of respect. Two young refugee boys declined to do so apparently because it was not allowed for a male to touch a female who was not a family member. This was interpreted by locals as "Thank you for taking us in and saving our lives at great cost and inconvenience to yourselves. But now we’re here you must change your ways to accommodate us". It might have been better if a local mullah could have found a more flexible approach.
Understanding is, after all, a two way street.