Politics & Policy

Not All Is Lost in Europe

A continent awakens to a threat.

Some are fond of saying that Munich’s spirit– the irresistible urge to appease dictators that brought catastrophe onto Europe in 1938–is alive and well in Europe. And judging by the way so many pundits and officials are responding to the cartoon jihad, one is tempted to agree. Norwegian and Danish embassies were burnt and Arab countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Denmark. European products are being boycotted. The highly effective and largely European police force enforcing a fragile Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the city of Hebron in the West Bank was sent packing last week–not because of the brutality of the Israeli army or the extremism of Israeli settlers, but because of the understandable rage of Muslims demonstrating peacefully to voice their hurt over their religious sensitivities.

Europe has not responded yet in any meaningful way. Instead, Franco Frattini, EU commissioner for Security, Liberty, and Justice, has expressed understanding for the feelings of “humiliation” of millions of Muslims in Europe and has suggested the adoption of EU legislation on a code of conduct for the media to avoid a future recurrence of the cartoons (translation from EU-speak: legislation directed at gagging the media when news and images may offend Muslim sensitivities). French President Jacques Chirac has condemned the publication of the cartoons in the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as a provocation. And U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw similarly decried the publication and praised the wisdom of the British press for not going along with their continental colleagues. (One can understand Straw: Given the critical Muslim swing vote, his constituency would be lost to Labour if he took a different line. But a nation’s foreign policy cannot be dictated by the electoral balance of a politician’s constituency.) A Welsh student paper that tried to publish the cartoons was gagged this week by its university student union. Gair Rhydd, the Cardiff University student magazine, was withdrawn from stands and its editor, along with three journalists, was suspended. An investigation is under way. And while politicians call for sensitivity, Danish cartoonists have gone underground, not to fight for freedom, but to run for their lives.

Violence pays, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. While Chirac condemned the “provocation,” Charlie Hebdo reports a sudden jump in sales. And a cursory glance at newspapers’ websites across Europe shows a strength of response from readers that their politicians have long failed to detect. The land is seething with rage. Not Muslim rage at Euro-insensitive newspapers, but Euro rage at the inability of their politicians and pundits to show courage in the wake of intimidation.

Enter the European Foundation for Democracy, a Brussels-based nonprofit organization. EFD has just released a poll, taken during the run-up to the IAEA vote on Iran’s nuclear program, of European attitudes to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The poll was taken in four countries–Austria, the current holder of the EU presidency and host to the IAEA in Vienna, France, Germany, and Great Britain, the members of the EU-3 team that negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program.

Some remarkable data emerge from the surveys. Most respondents are “somewhat worried” or “very worried” about Iran’s program: 51 percent in the U.K., 67 percent in Germany, 73 percent in Austria, and 83 percent in France. Most Europeans believe Iran’s intentions are not peaceful: 54 percent among French respondents say that Iran’s nuclear program aims at nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy, with a further 24 percent assuming its main goal to be just nuclear weapons. In Germany the breakdown is 62 percent and 20 percent, in Austria it’s 71 percent and 14 percent, and in the U.K. it’s 43 percent and 9 percent. Even in Great Britain, home of the Guardian and the BBC, more than half of the public understands what the Iranians really want. The public feels that the Iranians’ goals should be “strongly prevented” or “somewhat prevented”: if one adds up the two categories, 76 percent of Austrians, 74 percent of Germans and French, and 56 percent of Britons wish the Iranian plans to be thwarted.

The knee-jerk European reaction to pursue such goals through diplomacy remains dominant, of course. Support for limited military strikes against Iran is in the single digit figures in all four countries, with overwhelming preference for continued diplomacy and only limited support for sanctions, or even for helping Iran’s opposition groups. But here’s the catch: in all four countries, if it emerges that Iran is on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon, more Europeans are ready to support limited NATO military strikes than those who wish to oppose strikes no matter what. Again, the data show a split in Germany (46 percent in favor, 45 percent against), but in the U.K., France, and Austria the public is clearly persuaded: 45 percent to 26 percent in the U.K., 51 percent to 40 percent in Austria, and 74 percent to 20 percent in France.

This is not a mandate for military strikes–not yet at least. The experience of the Iraq war teaches a lesson in caution for Europe. If military strikes become a distinct possibility, there will be a concerted effort by the usual suspects to question intelligence and call into doubt whether Iran is so close to the bomb after all. Europeans have little appetite for military action, and under violent pressure, their governments have not shown signs of resolve and commitment.

But the data are nevertheless encouraging: It is becoming clear is that there is a European constituency for a blunter, more self-assured foreign policy that believes in Western values and refuses to cave in to pressure and blackmail; and there is an awareness–even in the country of Jack Straw–that some of the threats that come from the East are real, not the sinister concoctions of the “neo-cons.”

Right now, apathy is the trademark of Europe’s silent majority. Intimidated by Islamic fanatics who call for the beheading of anyone who insults Islam, and scorned by their elected representatives who prefer to pander to radical Islam rather than take a principled stance, it is no wonder their views remain largely unexpressed. The only ones who clamour in the streets are Islamist fanatics. The PC brigade, largely stationed in the media world and in the public sector, is dominating the public sphere with its apologetic message. Those who care to express European outrage openly in the name of Western values and freedom are usually Fascists or from some other extremist group–hardly the standard bearers of freedom and democracy, and often indistinguishable in their message of hatred and intolerance from their Islamist foes. Still, it would be foolish to assume that there is no room for grassroots movements and political parties which can both uphold freedom and take the Islamists head on.

The EFD data show that the public is not easily fooled about the true motives and intentions of our Islamist adversaries. And their willingness to support military action if all else fails proves that even Europeans, if pushed against the wall, will wake up to the ugly reality that confronts us all. All that is needed now is to put a good argument forward and show that there is a truly democratic alternative to the current dominant views. People who endorse this message are out there, waiting for a wake up call. If shown the way, they will reclaim the public spaces of Europe. And for this to happen, all it would take is for a few good men (and women) to stand up and say loudly and with pride: We will not let freedom die.

Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University.

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