Looking for levity to lift a veil of distrust

There’s a veil hanging over Europe — one that’s going to be hard to dispel.

Everything on the Continent is in a super serious key, with folks variously suspicious of one another or downright irked by behavior different from their own. Consider the big issue of the day: Muslim women insisting on wearing the so-called niqab, or full-face veil, in public.

Some Arabs, including a sizable number of Muslim women, insist that we all wear veils in a certain sense, and that theirs is simply an outward sign of their rejection of consumerist, sexually explicit Western society.

But Europeans retort that wearing such coverings is a symbol of women’s subservience to men and their social isolation. (The secular French have even passed a law forbidding all conspicuous religious symbols — be they headscarves, Jewish skull caps or Christian crosses — from public schools.)

To my mind, one simple thing that would help to dissipate this pall is laughter: The Continent sorely needs, probably in this order of irreverence, a localized “Cosby Show,” an Islamicized version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and a “Borat.”

A recent incident in the U.K. involving one defiant headscarf-wearer occasioned unusually tart reaction from British authorities.

Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons, complained that full headdress made community relations with Muslims “more difficult.”

Tony Blair also chimed in, calling the covering a “mark of separation,” though he stopped short of calling for a ban.

“No one wants to say that people don’t have the right to do it,” the prime minister intoned. “But I think we do need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly with our society.”

Moreover, newspapers and talkshows across Europe are full of pious pontificators discussing how to strike a balance between integration of immigrants into society and respect for their diversity.

This is all heady stuff, and people are getting quite huffy. But an infusion of laughter could bring this all down a peg or two, and perhaps make for better community relations.

Comedy done right also could point up — even shed new light on — the underlying seriousness of the issue.

The question is: At what point, if any, should tolerance for diversity end and the call for adherence to a higher value take precedence?

Perhaps because there is no easy answer, a larger, more figurative veil of disquiet has settled over European society.

In the early ’90s, the big debate was how the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist regimes to the East would impact old Europe, especially how the integration of East and West Germany would proceed.

No one, though, seemed concerned with the underbelly of western Europe, one made up largely of Third World, particularly African and Arab, immigrants. These folks have been isolated in their own enclaves, ignored by the media, invisible in the popular imagination and in official policy.

But since 9/11, events have heightened Europe’s unease about its newcomers, especially its Muslim population. They include last year’s riots in France, protests over cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Denmark, the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, terrorist attacks in Madrid and London and the latest foiled attempt to blow up trans-Atlantic planes, which was hatched in Britain.

There is, in short, rising skepticism about Islam in Europe, and in some quarters a belief that there’s a clash of cultures, if not civilizations, between Islam and the West.

The pendulum now seems to be swinging toward less accommodation and less tolerance for the more extreme practices of immigrant groups: It’s fine for Muslims to protest a staging of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in Berlin (because of a scene depicting the severed head of Mohammed — as well as Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon) but guess what, the opera is going to go on nonetheless.

Now they need to bring in the clowns, to poke a little fun at everybody.

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