(photo credit: )
"I remember all the talk while I was growing up in the 1950s, that one day soon the Netherlands was going to be a Catholic nation, because the Catholic birthrate was so much higher than that of the Protestants. Of course, during the following years the Catholic birthrate dropped to just about the level of the other Dutch, so it never happened. I suspect that over time this is also what will happen with the Muslims here."
This is my Dutch father-in-law talking during a recent family visit to the Netherlands. We were discussing the growing concern over the Muslim demographic issue in parts of Western Europe - especially in the Netherlands, whose population of one million Muslims is second per capita only to France. Most of that is concentrated in the main cities, a fact inescapable to the eyes of anyone touring through Amsterdam.
The growing tide of Muslim immigration to Western Europe, and the rising birthrate among Muslims already settled there, along with the decline of Christian European birthrates into negative-growth territory, already has some conservative commentators sounding a cultural death knell for "Old Europe."
"Large parts of the Western world are literally dying - and, in Europe, the successor population to those aging French and Dutch and Belgians is already in place," writes Mark Steyn in America Alone. It's a concern echoed by Bat Yeor's Eurabia, Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept and several others who foresee a European future sometime later this century in which churches are replaced by mosques, civil law by shari'a and the liberal values of the Enlightenment by a strict Islamic code of conduct.
The Netherlands is often held up as exhibit No. 1 of this alarmist trend, given both its demographics and the sharp cultural clash between its traditionally tolerant (or permissive) laws and attitudes with the far more restrictive worldview of many of its unassimilated Muslim immigrants.
The country fortunately hasn't yet experienced anything like the widespread riots by disaffected young Muslims in the Paris suburbs two summers ago. But the usually calm Dutch national temperament has been unnerved in recent years by such incidents as the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic radical in 2004, the killer's unrepentant behavior during his subsequent trial and the travails last year of Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsh Ali, another target of Muslim extremists, who finally left for the US after she was nearly expelled in a flap over her legal immigrant status. The Dutch Jewish community has also complained of growing anti-Semitic attitudes and actions by the more extreme Muslim elements, along with a reluctance on the part of officials to take proper action in response.
These are major problems, as indeed is the entire situation of how Europe will contend with both its internal Muslim situation and in what way it will usefully contribute to the global struggle against radical Islamic aggression, be it in the form of international terrorism or the nuclear policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ideologically driven Iranian regime.
But to "write off" Europe, as some are doing, as a useful and effective player in that struggle - and even to go as far as prophesying a Continent that will acquiesce in abandoning its basic democratic and liberal values in the face of a fundamentalist Islamic outlook propagated by some of its growing Muslim population - is simply silly, short-sighted and counterproductive.
And it's also not accurate.
IF EUROPE has indeed long been dozing over the issue of internal and external Islamic extremism, it's clearly had a rude awakening in recent years and reacted accordingly. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have made statements and taken stands on these issues which have broken with decades of conventional political wisdom in their respective nations, often putting them into sharp conflict with their domestic media and intellectual elites.
A new minister in Sweden's center-right government, herself an African immigrant, made headlines recently by publicly declaring that Swedish Muslims must make more of an effort to fit into their adopted country. And French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, just chosen as the governing party's candidate in the upcoming presidential election, has taken the kind of tough stances regarding immigration and Muslim extremism which simply would have been unimaginable in mainstream Gallic politics not too long ago.
The Netherlands too is talking about taking some dramatic steps, in sharp contrast to its long-standing laissez-faire multicultural social policies, including extending official oversight of imams and their preaching in local mosques, the banning of burkas (the head-to-toe garment worn by some Muslim women) in public places and of course the tightening of immigration controls.
All this hasn't yet translated into such things as greater European political support for Israeli policies or real determination by European leaders to halt Iran's nuclear-development program. But the winds of change are definitely sweeping the Continent when it comes to dealing with its own Islamic extremist problem, and this is also beginning to influence how it is fundamentally viewing the conflict in this region.
Polls conducted in France, Germany and the United Kingdom last autumn by The Israel Project, for example, found that in each of these nations more people now believe that Islamic extremism is a greater cause of instability in the Middle East than Israeli policies - without question in large part due to concerns over their own Muslim problem.
Of course stricter immigration laws and measures to monitor and contain the impact of European-based Islamic extremists are not going to impact on birthrates in either the Muslim immigrant community or among native Europeans. The only real answer to Europe's dilemma in the long term is successfully integrating its Muslim population (and that of potential EU member Turkey) more fully into European society, inculcating in them the values of democracy, tolerance and separation of religious and civil law.
I know that's what my father-in-law is hoping for in the Netherlands, and I certainly hope he's right. While visiting Amsterdam, I took my children to see the Anne Frank House, and at one point found myself standing next to a group of Muslim Dutch schoolgirls wearing traditional Islamic head scarves while hearing the story of another teenage girl who perished in the Holocaust that just a few days earlier Iran's president was so adamantly trying to deny. At least at that moment, I felt much better about the Netherlands' and Europe's future, and hoped its Muslim population would in fact one day turn out to part of the solution to the threat of Islamic extremism in our time.
The writer is the director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project. www.theisraelproject.org