Americans, when asked their opinion about European countries such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, France, and Italy, usually respond with glowing praise for these "socialist" havens. We love to take a vacation in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Stockholm or Oslo, all the while admiring the Old Continent' s easy way of life: going to work on a bicycle, or on the tramway, sipping espressos in the sidewalk cafe, taking a trip on picturesque canals, or even smoking legal marijuana in a Dutch restaurant. Compared to the daily rush hour grind in the U.S., European lifestyle seems much more relaxed, more enjoyable, in short, a paradise on Earth.
Behind this facade of daily bliss, there is, however, a much darker image. My relatives in Europe tell me of a much changed social interaction, where crime is on the rise, and where racial bigotry has raised its ugly head. Immigration from Eastern Europe and Africa has sparked a tense debate among political parties in all western European countries, and voters are beginning to lean toward those groups who oppose lenient immigration laws. The prohibition of "burkas" (full facial veils) in France sparked violent protests in Paris by French Muslims who feel as second class citizens. The construction of a mosque was forbidden in Geneva, the Protestant Rome, again causing public manifestations by the followers of Allah.
The opposition to more relaxed immigration laws is not just against Muslims, though it is by far the most controversial, it also addresses Eastern Europeans who seek better economic conditions. Some of these immigrants have a criminal past in their native country and continue to exercise their unlawful trade in their new home, thus showing very little gratitude for the opportunity to prosper. In Germany, things became so critical in a southern town that federal authorities had to intervene to avoid bloodshed; immigrants from Turkey actually convinced a school district to accept their native tongue as an official German language. They had such political influence that the town almost became a Turkish enclave. From this incident a new law was born forcing newcomers to learn German within a year or face deportation to their home country.
In France and Switzerland, strict new laws allow the State to deport immigrants (even those who are naturalized citizens) who have been convicted of a felony. In some ways, these laws mirror the tough new posture taken by the U.S. toward legal and illegal immigrants. After many years of liberal and generous views toward those who must flee their country because of economic or political conditions, western powers are tightening the restrictions on immigration, due mainly to poor economies and rising voters' move to the right of the political spectrum. Some of the more vociferous complaints by native Europeans touch on the delicate matter of religion, Islam in particular.
The war in Afghanistan, Al-Qaida's threats toward Westerners, the perception that most Muslims are extremists anxious to become martyrs by killing the "Infidels", all these events since 9/11 have contributed to form the conviction in many Europeans (and Americans) that there is a war between religions worthy of the Crusades of the 11th century. "If you come to my country as an immigrant and you don't like our rules and way of life, go back home," is a phrase uttered constantly by right wing followers in the European Union. There is indeed a grain of truth in that statement, especially with regard to Muslim women who, in the eyes of Westerners, are treated very badly in Arab countries.
The full integration of non-white immigrants in Europe will take a long time, but I am convinced that eventually, common sense will prevail as it has in the New World.