LONDON—A local council's effort to evict a mosque from an abandoned industrial site here demonstrates Britain's shifting appetite for multiculturalism, a concept the U.K. prime minister has said should be rejected.
The remarks by Britain's David Cameron on Saturday are the latest step on a path much of Europe has been moving down in recent years after a decadelong burst of immigration led to fears of home-grown terrorism and the erosion of local culture.
But in charting a new course, European governments are weighing the risks that they encourage xenophobia or alienate people in countries that are important to Europe, like Turkey. They're also wary of scaring off skilled laborers from the developing world.
In a speech on terrorism last week in Germany, Mr. Cameron called for a "muscular liberalism" that confronts extremist Islam and questioned why the U.K. tolerates and sometimes funds groups that don't conform to Western values. As examples, he mentioned groups that bar women or preach isolation.
That battle is evident in east London, where local campaigners argued at a hearing this week that the Tablighi Jamaat Islamic group should be stopped from winning an extension of their land-use permit because, the campaigners allege, the group doesn't let women worship; its teachings have inspired terrorists, and it preaches isolation from the wider community.
"Tablighi Jamaat are exactly the sort of people who come here and are not in the slightest bit interested in integrating and they, in fact, teach against integration," said Alan Craig, head of Newham Concern, a local group.
A spokesman for the mosque said it "welcomes people into our community" and does not "support terrorism in any form."
Standing outside the ornate Victorian debating chamber of the local Town Hall, mosque attendee Tahir Saiyed said this fight and the wider rejection of multiculturalism stemmed from a fear of Islam's growing popularity. "We are a God-loving and peaceful people," he said. "We need this place to worship."
European politicians, including Mr. Cameron, have for some years argued against multiculturalism—the notion that different groups within a society should be encouraged to follow their own cultural paths.
European critics of the concept say the failure to integrate immigrants have resulted in generations of people—from inside and outside the EU—who don't speak the local language well, lack basic skills and have become a drag on welfare systems. Rising jobless rates in nations like Spain and France have inflamed the debate.
In October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism in Germany had been a "total failure." In November 2009, Swiss voters approved a ban on the construction of new minarets on mosques. And in September, France prohibited burqas and other full-body robes worn by some Muslim women.
That same month in Sweden, which for decades prided itself as a beacon of multiculturalism, the Sweden Democrats won 5.7% of the vote in national elections after campaigning on a platform of anti-immigration and antimulticulturalism.
"Swedes are moving out from some cities; they don't feel it's their home, it doesn't feel like Sweden anymore," said Kent Ekeroth, one of the party's new lawmakers.Instead of multiculturalism, politicians across Europe have lately been calling for integration through policies like mandatory language courses that force immigrants to assimilate.
In Burnley, in northwest England, Apu Choudhury said he was already seeing the effects of the roll back on multiculturalism, with fewer translations of written materials in libraries, courts and government offices.
After race riots in North West England in 2001, the Labour government began making a series of changes to improve integration and ease long-term resident's worries that newcomers were getting priority treatment. The government introduced citizenship ceremonies modeled on the U.S., where new U.K. citizens pledged allegiance to the Queen, and in 2009 councils were given flexibility to prioritize existing residents for state housing.
In recent years, France has introduced mandatory courses for all immigrants, or any foreigner seeking a residence permit in France. The courses focus on "French values," women's rights and a historical overview of France. At the end of the course, participants are required to sign an agreement saying they are aware of French values and agree to abide by them.
But politicians also see the need to tread carefully.
Having campaigned in the 2007 French presidential elections on issues of national identity, Nicolas Sarkozy created a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity and began a series of public debates on what it means to be French. But after a torrent of xenophobic commentary, Mr. Sarkozy halted the debates and cut "national identity" from the ministry's title.
Many Muslims reject the notion that they don't integrate. A recent report by pollsters Gallup showed that 77% of British Muslims identify "very strongly" with the U.K. against 50% of non-Muslim British, and 40% of German Muslims identifying with their country against 32% of the wider German public.
The backlash also risks hurting relations with other countries. In Turkey, which applied to join the EU in 1987 and which Britain is courting as a secular Muslim state, statements by European politicians against membership have garnered wide attention.
With each headline, "doubts emerge as to whether the EU has ever been sincere on membership," said Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst at Istanbul Analytics.
—Stacy Meichtry in Rome and David Gauthier-Villars in Paris contributed to this article.
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