The World Cup, Islam and European hospitality

Hospitality was Germany’s motto for World Cup 2006: “The world as guest among friends.” Yet there was a note of anxiety in Germany’s effort to present itself as a good host and a good neighbor. Ironically, World-Cup visitors had little contact with their German hosts. “German” hospitality was extended by proxy, by Turkish taxi drivers and Taiwanese hotel receptionists, because Europe’s low-pay tourist industry is manned by almost anyone except the local citizens.

World Cup 2006 was a great success, and the summer visitors went home happy. But Germany’s PR coup makes little difference in the real test of European hospitality: Europe’s long-term foreign residents, falsely called “guest-workers,” most of whom are Muslims.

Over the last five years, terrorist strikes in New York, Madrid and London have redefined European thinking about Western Europe’s 20 million Muslims. Complacent European governments have been embarrassed by evidence of Islamic terrorist networking all across Europe, and discussions about immigrants have therefore become more defensive, linked to the global conflict between Euro-American democracy and Islamic fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, this new way of framing the issue is no better than the old complacency. Europe’s recent debates about Muslims and immigration—in which racial, cultural and anti-religious bigotries are often poorly concealed—have stirred up violent grievances among Muslims in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and, most recently, France. One typical irritant is a recent federal law banning traditional Muslim head-scarves from French public schools. The ruling is explicitly formulated as a consequence of the French état laïc (the non-clerical, non-sectarian political state), and it specifically forbids any attire that functions as religious expression. Among the ethnic French, most of whom are only nominally religious, the new law is hardly worthy of notice. Muslims in France, however, see the new ruling as discriminatory and anti-Islamic in practice, if not in theory. French officials have been surprised to find themselves facing sweet-faced little Muslim girls whose respect for French democracy has been destroyed. This is hardly the ideological victory for French tolerance and modernity that the law’s advocates envisioned.

Adopted just weeks ago, France’s latest anti-immigration law, “le loi Sarkozy,” now raises the stakes by targeting far more than outward symbols. The new law, named after France’s Minister of Interior and the top candidate for next year’s presidential election, ostensibly defines crucial European norms and demands conformity as a condition of legal residency: no religious interference in politics (laïcité), equality of the sexes, full autonomy of the individual in matters of marriage and sexuality. Here again, despite the universalizing French legalese, Europe’s Muslims understand the message. The Sarkozy law labels as un-European and unwelcome even the majority of peaceful and moderate Muslims, whose notions of gender roles and whose practice of arranged marriage, for example, differ from the beliefs and practices of Enlightened Frenchmen.

Sarkozy defends the law as a policy of “selective immigration” to match France’s economic needs, and most of the controversy is about the justice of such economic selection. But the law also involves a new and significant form of ideological selection that undermines the modern civil protections of which France is so proud. After all, freedom of religion is much like freedom of speech: it makes no difference, and you demonstrate no commitment to it, until you defend someone’s right to express ideas that you yourself reject.

These bitter conflicts are the background for the most traumatic single moment of World Cup 2006: Zinedine Zidane’s notorious head butt against Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the cup final. Moments before the head butt, Materazzi is reported to have called Zidane a “son of an Arab whore.” Despite all that Zidane has accomplished for the French team, this ethnically Algerian native of Marseilles still faces taunts from ethnic Europeans like Materazzi, implying that Muslims will always be unwelcome in Europe, merely “tolerated,” in the worst sense of the term.

Beneath the thin veneer of European hospitality, Muslim resentment is seething. Europe desperately needs to clarify its relationship to Europe’s Muslims, but to do so it must face the hypocrisy of its own traditions—its own cultural arrogance and anti-religious bigotry. Moreover, European policy toward Muslims is of global importance because democratic modernity’s chief point of contact with Islam is not the United Nations, not the Israeli-Palestinian border, not the bloody streets of Bagdad. It is the streets of Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam; it is the shameful and dishonest relationship between Europe as “host” and its long-term Islamic “guests.”

Bruce Boeckel, Ph. D., teaches English at Fresno Pacific University. He lived in Europe for six years, most recently in the predominantly Turkish district of Kreuzberg, in Berlin.