I’m just home from a three-week trip through Europe, my first extended visit to that part of the world — where I used to live and work and study — in a quarter century.
My return coincided with the savage murder in Norway of dozens of people by Anders Breivik, a white supremacist who hoped to spark an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant crusade.
This kind of racism and cultural phobia is nothing new. Most European countries host influential right-wing parties that build their popularity in large measure around the idea that the continent’s vital Christian identity is being eroded.
Switzerland has gone so far as to ban minarets on mosques, and in France the Islamic veil or hijab worn by some women has been banned in schools and other public places.
And it’s fair to say that in many European countries, large groups of immigrants — from Algeria, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey and other nations — have integrated into mainstream society far less successfully than here in America.
But during my travels, I couldn’t help feeling that these conflicts, terrible and complicated as they often are, actually reflect a hopeful kind of demographic earthquake.
Largely homogenous Europe is evolving fast into something that looks far more like multicultural America.
When I lived in Europe in the 1980s, the continent was truly white, and truly Christian (mostly lapsed Christian, actually). In Germany, where I was a student, people were shocked when I joined a wrestling team made up largely of Turks.
Turks were “auslander” and “fremder” (“foreigners” and “strangers”) despite the fact that many of the kids on my team had been born in German and were second or third generation residents.
In London, where I worked as an intern for UPI radio in the mid ’80s, “Paki bashing” was something of a national preoccupation.
These days, all that has changed radically, which is part of the reason — I suspect — that radicals like Breivik are so militant, and so frightened.
In Zurich, in the heart of Switzerland, people of all colors, nationalities and ethnic groups can be seen walking along the Zurichersee. Interracial couples are common.
In Barcelona, it’s very much the same: The “native” Spanish population is now textured and shaped by a growing population of residents of North African descent.
In Paris, that most European of all cities, Metro trains look like the subway trains in New York City. That is to say, they are filled with people of every possible background, most of them busily reading Le Monde and chattering away in French.
Indeed, the beautiful thing is that this expansion of Europe is happening without causing any of the erosions or losses that reactionaries proclaim. Venice doesn’t feel any less like Venice because many of the shopkeepers are Asian.
The truth is that Europe, like America, is a powerful enough concept to absorb this kind of change, without being “swamped” or “diluted.”
And the other truth is that Europe, like America, needs a constant infusion of new energy, new peoples and new ideas in order to remain vibrant.
(One of the reasons, I suspect, that modern Greece is so economically stagnant and myopic is that that in the 1920s the nation expelled most of its Turkish population, creating a society far less cosmopolitan, far less dynamic.)
This is, of course, nothing new. At its best, Europe has never been a static museum piece sort of place. It has always been shaped by great migrations and arrivals, many of them Islamic.
It would be trite, and insensitive, to suggest that acts of brutality such as the one carried out in Norway are merely the growing pains of a Europe that is embracing a far more diverse and interesting future.
Just as it would be trite and insensitive to suggest that acts of terrorism by Muslims are nothing more than the growing pains of a frightened and dim minority within Islamic society, confronted with the complexity of our modern world.
But it is important to remember that behind the savagery in Norway something very good and powerful is happening.
Cultures are opening, nations are evolving. And bit by bit were are proving that murderers such as Breivik and bin Laden are nothing more than sad little crackpots frightened by change.
As always, your thoughts welcome.