BERLIN -- A few days ago, the German newspaper Die Welt decided to show its support for freedom of the press by publishing the controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad - on the front page, no less. Germany is home to about 3 million Muslims. And something interesting happened when Die Welt took that risky step: nothing.
That is not entirely surprising. Though the cartoons appeared first in Denmark, the violent protests occurred far away, in places such as Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. Still, the underlying worry about this whole episode is that it offers a dire warning for the fate of Europe.
The growing number of Muslims, it is argued, will eventually lead to the repression of anything critical of Islam. Journalist Mark Steyn speculated recently in The Wall Street Journal's online Opinion Journal that the continent could be under Sharia (Islamic religious law) by 2040. "We're already seeing a drift in that direction," he argued.
Well, it turns out that some parts of Europe already ban the sort of blasphemy at issue here - under laws written to protect Christian sensibilities. Denmark, as it happens, provides up to four months in jail for anyone "who publicly offends or insults a religion." In Germany, reports the broadcast outlet Deutsche Welle, one magazine has been sued eight times under an anti-blasphemy law enacted in 1871.
The danger is that Europe's Muslims will be just as intolerant of criticism of their faith as Europe's Christians used to be of theirs. That would certainly be a bad thing. But to assume that more Muslims will inevitably turn France or Germany into a turbaned theocracy brings to mind the bumper sticker that says, "I get all the exercise I need jumping to conclusions."
In the first place, not all Muslims are alike. Saudi Arabia, a model of religious totalitarianism, is the exception, not the norm. Muslim nations vary considerably in their policies on alcohol, women's rights, religious freedom, support for terrorism and the like.
Most Muslims in Germany come from Turkey, which has had a resolutely secular government for about 80 years. The Muslims who rioted last fall in France were angry about perceived police abuses and discrimination, not miniskirts on the Champs-Elysees. To assume that Muslims in Europe universally aspire to rule by ayatollahs is like assuming that Christians in the United States would all love to see the Rev. Pat Robertson elected president.
It's true that vicious extremism does occasionally emerge, as when a Dutch filmmaker who publicly disparaged Islam was murdered by a radical Muslim in 2004.
In Denmark, local Muslims responded to the cartoons in law-abiding ways - gathering petitions, talking to the newspaper editor, filing a criminal complaint, marching peacefully in Copenhagen. Only when the issue got attention in the Middle East did mayhem erupt. Even then, it occurred in only a few places, not all across the Muslim world.
There is no doubt, though, that Europe has a Muslim problem, stemming from its reluctance to embrace immigrants as full citizens. Germany has had large numbers of Turks since the 1960s, but for decades it took the position enunciated by a government commission in 1977: "Germany is not an immigrant country. Germany is a place of residence for foreigners who will eventually return home voluntarily."
Likewise, France has resisted the idea that North Africans could be fully French. As a result, many immigrants have remained outsiders, which discourages them from adopting the libertarian mores that prevail in 21st-century democracies.
Assimilation of foreigners is often a lengthy and painful process, as Americans know from experience. But it can be done, and it offers the best hope of preserving the values of the host country. When foreign arrivals live and work among native-born Americans, they and their children generally acquire a similar view of the world. The same process can work elsewhere.
If Europe wants to remain a free and tolerant place, the answer is not to treat Muslims as a dangerous alien presence. It's to get busy turning them into Europeans.
Steve Chapman is a column for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.