gm: In Switzerland, a majority voted for a ban on minarets; in France and in Belgium, the Islamic headscarf is being heavily debated; in Italy the crucifix is coming under fire. And also here in Germany the debate surrounding Muslims is often hysterical. Why do Europeans fear religious symbols or "foreign" religions so much?
The debate in Europe has shifted in some 25 years (a whole generation) between immigration and the visible symbols of Islam. Which creates a paradox: even people who were opposed to immigration acknowledge now that the second and third generation of migrants are here to stay and that Islam has rooted itself within Europe. So now the debate is about the status of Islam. And here we have a strange phenomenon: while anti-immigration feeling is mainly associated with the conservative right, anti-Islamic sentiment is to be found on both the left and the right, but for two very different reasons. For the right, Europe is Christian and Islam should be treated as a tolerated, albeit inferior religion. There is (unfortunately) no way to ban it (because of the principle of "freedom of religion", inscribed in our constitutions, international treaties and UN charter), but there are means to limit its visibility without necessarily going against the principle of freedom of religion (for instance the European Court of Human Rights did not condemn the banning of the scarf in French schools). For the left, the issue is more generally secularism, women's rights and fundamentalism: it opposes the veil, not so much because it is Islamic, rather because it seems to contradict women's rights. Hence the debate on Islam disguises a far more complicated issue: what is a European identity, and what is the role of religions in Europe; and of course, on these two issues the left and the right take very different positions. But we are witnessing the rise of new populist movements (like Geert Wilder's In Holland) mixing both approaches, basically siding with the right but using leftist arguments.