It's a bitterly cold night and the centre of Dortmund is deserted. On weekdays, says our taxi driver, everything closes by ten o'clock. It is not easy to find a place to eat. Eventually, he drops us at the Cava restaurant in Lindemannstrabe. Just one couple punctuate the ultra-chic of this postmodern bistro. We sit near them and order our food. Dortmund, Germany is the first port of call on my journey through the industrial heartland of northern Europe. After the terrorist attacks in London and the riots in the French suburbs, I want to assess the racial divide, the fear and the loathing that permeate so much of our European continent.
Christoph Simmons is an insurance broker in his forties; his girlfriend, Baneta Lisiecka, is a Polish immigrant. They invite us to join them for a night out in their "green metropolis". We drive in Christoph's sports car to Limette, "the only pub in Dortmund open till 6am". Dortmund is a multicultural city integrated into the global economy, explains Christoph; this former mining town is now a thriving base for high-tech research. "Our immigrant communities are well integrated," he says. Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Poles live in proverbial perfect harmony with Germans. There is only one problem: the Turks - "they don't integrate". Baneta thinks they are "mostly criminals" and she is afraid of them. Christoph also says: "They are conservative; their women cover their heads. The Koran tells them to murder Christians." Has he ever met a Turk, I ask. "No," he says. "They stick together and never come into our pubs." I talk to other people in Limette. Jasmine, a Catholic from Corsica, sums up the overall feeling. "I don't like Turks. I don't know why. I just don't like them."
And yet I discover that these open manifestations of racism do not seem to be reciprocated by German Turks. At the Orhan Narghile Grill Cafe, in the Turkish part of Dortmund, I meet Suniye Ozdemir, a single mother born in Germany. "I don't know," she says with genuine amazement, "why the Germans hate us so much. I don't know why they are scared of the Turkish people. Maybe they're jealous. May-be they're afraid we will steal their jobs." She introduces me to a group of girls from the Helmholtz Grammar School. Aged between 16 and 18, these girls are confident and articulate, and they speak good English. They want to become professionals and to succeed. Gulsum, who wears a hijab, says they experience racism every day - at school from their teachers, on the bus, on the streets. Her friend, who does not wear a hijab, says: "We were born in Germany and we are Germans. We stick together for protection, to avoid hostility."
Throughout my journey, from Germany to the Netherlands, onwards to Belgium and finally into France - the object of much recent attention - I meet people all too ready to describe Muslims in the colours of darkness. Islamophobia is not a British disease: it is a common, if diverse, European phenomenon. It is the singular rock against which the tide of European liberalism crashes.
There are common themes but also subtle differences in the way each nation's history influences its people's present attitude to immigrant communities. Much of this is rooted in the various colonial histories. Germany came late to nationalism and colonialism, and caught a bad case of both. In the 1880s it scrambled briefly and brutally for colonies to prove its importance as a nation. The roots of its ethnic problems lie deeper, however, in its history and cultural psyche. Many of the erstwhile principalities and tiny statelets that formed Germany were part of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, a unity forged under siege and in reaction to the perceived threat of Muslim civilisation. The Germans embraced the Crusades with great vigour: the first, infamously, commenced at home with pogroms against the Jews. The crusading motif is as important to the German self-image as it ever was; the hatred of Turks I heard was often expressed in crusading language - even if couched in liberal terms.
Germany's present ethnic-minority population is the legacy of its wartime military alliance with Turkey. Under the gastarbeiter ("guest worker") policy, the Turks were good enough to be imported en masse to rebuild war-torn Germany but not good enough to be given German nationality. They existed outside the ambit of German identity. It was the continuation of racial purity in another form. Now that they are issued with national identity cards, now that Germany has liberalised, is the concept of what it is to be German, I wondered, still a matter of ein Volk - one people, the Nazi notion of racial purity?
"I am afraid it is," says Wolfram Richter, professor of economics at the University of Dortmund. There are many factors why the Turks are hated, Richter says. He cites social factors such as Turks shopping only in Turkish shops, cultural factors such as their women covering themselves, language problems such as the older generation of Turks still not speaking German. They are seen as disloyal. Then there is the "Anatolia bride syndrome": German Turks tend to go back to Anatolia to get married and bring their wives to Germany. But the overall factor in the fear and loathing of Turks, Richter says, is old-fashioned racism. "I am afraid we have not learned from our history. My main fear is that what we did to Jews we may now do to Muslims. The next holocaust would be against Muslims."
Across the border into the Netherlands and to Eindhoven, a lively cultural city with a young population, where fear of Muslims is equally evident. There are fewer than 5,000 Muslims in Eindhoven and they are all hidden away in the Woensel district. But try to get a taxi driver to take you there. Kim de Peuyssenaece, our driver, is adamant: "It's a dangerous area where you could get killed," she says. She has a Moroccan boyfriend, whose picture she displays on her mobile phone, yet she dismisses Moroccans as "mostly criminals" who are "ruining our country". She drops us in front of a Moroccan bar next to the new, clinically structured red-light district, a kind of John Lewis-meets-porn. Inside the Safrak Bar and Cafe, the atmosphere is thick with smoke. Old men sit playing backgammon, chequers and dominoes. "We are not part of the Dutch community," says the bar owner, a tall, aggressive Moroccan who does not want to give his name. "They don't treat us with respect and dignity. They think we're separate. So we are separate."
That the Dutch see Muslims as a separate community is not all that surprising. Holland has a brutal colonial history just as long as Britain's, and the jewel in its crown was the most populous Muslim nation on earth: Indonesia. The Islamist insurgency in Aceh is a legacy of the people's long war with the Dutch, a war the colonisers never won and never ended. Slavery and compulsory labour on Dutch plantations underpinned a strict system of separating the rulers from those they ruled. The Dutch were interested in categorising and neatly arranging the Otherness of those they ruled, the better to maintain their separateness and dependence. Colonial policy now reverberates at home.
In another part of Eindhoven we meet Jamal Tushi, an IT consultant in his thirties. "They treat us like colonial subjects," he says. "For them, all Muslims are terrorists." Tushi was born and bred in Eindhoven and speaks perfect Dutch, yet finds it hard to get work. "If you are a young Moroccan, forget the idea of getting a job," he says. During job interviews, the much-acclaimed Dutch liberalism evaporates. "They want to know what kind of Muslim you are. Do you pray? Do you go to the mosque?"
Dutch liberalism was meant only for the Dutch. Today it extends to prostitution and drugs, but not to Muslim immigrants. It's like the "ethical policy" Holland developed for its colonies. The policy was about Dutch superiority; it had little to do with the reality of life for the people they ruled, and made little difference to their condition. The colonies served the metropolis, regardless of how they were spoken of and discussed. The language of ethics was always about the colonising "Us" and not the colonised "Them", just as all discussion about multiculturalism in Holland is at base about what kind of country "We" are, now that we have let "Them" in. Inclusion, then or now, was not the point. Dutch liberalism is about how good and open "We" are - not an open negotiation about what liberalism means to and for minority communities.
We take the train to Antwerp. Belgium is an interesting case of multiculturalism, split as it is between the Dutch/Flemish-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons. There is also a religious divide, between Catholics and Protestants. In 1994 a revised constitution introduced devolution in an attempt to tackle the long-standing division between the communities, recognising three provinces and language groups. However, dealing with its own fractures of multiculturalism does not mean opening up to immigrant minority communities.
In downtown Antwerp we come across Noor Huda and her friend Fatimah Zanuti. Huda, in her early twenties, is a medical technician at a hospital in the city. "Multiculturalism in Belgium is meant for the Belgians," she says. "We are not considered Belgian." Huda was born in Antwerp, as were her parents. "But being a third-generation Belgian is not relevant. We are still colonial subjects." Racism and hatred of Muslims are so endemic in Belgium, she says, that "you have to constantly guard what you say. We are always afraid to speak our mind. You do not have the right to say what you want to say."
The barriers in Belgium, as elsewhere in Europe, are born of colonial history and attitudes. And Belgium has one of the most vicious and inhuman of all colonial histories. Conrad's Heart of Darkness and its picture of Kurtz in his stockade surrounded by severed heads is based on reality, not the allegory or metaphor of fiction. In Belgian colonies such as the Congo, the natives were a problem - and the problem was that they were not working hard enough, not producing enough rubber for the metropolis. So armed police would invade villages, round up women and children, imprison them, and murder groups of them until the required amount of rubber had been delivered by the men.
Armed police are much in evidence at the police station in Lange Nieuwstraat. An officer wastes no time in pointing out that Muslims are a problem. "It's a one-way street," he says. "We are waiting for them to come towards us the way they should and we want them to." But should you not also be moving towards them, I ask. "No," he replies without hesitation. "We are not a problem. Islam is the problem. Anything is possible where Islam is concerned." He expects a riot to take place, sooner or later.
A riot, or rather a series of riots, did take place in Lille, the last stop on our journey. A northern industrial town in France, Lille experienced some of the worst of the recent unrest. Emmanuel Peronne, a fashion designer from the suburb of Roubaix, has no doubt what caused the riots. "It's economic injustice and inequalities that successive generations of Moroccan and Algerian Muslims have suffered in employment, housing and educational opportunities, as well as downright racism at the hands of French society," he says. "They have no means to survive. It is all about survival." Roubaix, scene of the most violent uprising, is a dilapidated holding area. "They call us immigres," says an angry halal butcher. "But we were born here. We have no standing in the ideals of 'liberte, egalite, fraternite'."
Indeed. The ethos of the French revolution was never meant to be pluralistic. Its essential proposition was based on totalitarian uniformity - the scourge it unleashed as the ideological underpinning of modernity and European nationalism. It was also the bedrock of French colonialism, which created parallel universes: the superior French and the inferior others. Assimilation into Frenchness and indirect rule over difference were the twin tracks of French colonialism. So, officially, because France recognises only Frenchness, it claims to be colour-blind and non-racist, yet it is both highly racist and attuned to a colour bar.
In Lille as much as in Paris and elsewhere in France, there is a neat parallel that demonstrates the continuity of the colonial ethic. In North Africa, where most of the French immigrants come from, the medinas, ancient cities with a Muslim culture, were encircled in their separateness. The medinas were seen as chaotic, confused and not fit for modernity - the physical representation of what the French thought of the medinas' inhabitants and their culture. Around these old indigestible cores were built modern cities on the French model, where the colonisers lived and from which they dominated. Today, Lille has its own traditional core, a bounded city whose limits are jealously guarded. Around this inviolate core circle the depressing banlieues: modern slums of the grey, inhospitable and inhuman hutches built to house the indigestible population of migrant workers. The rationale of the colony is neatly reversed and brought home to the metropolis. It is a metaphor for all that has not changed.
Throughout our journey, we were surprised at how openly prejudiced people were against Muslims. Each country has its own extreme-right party, led by figures such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France or Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in Holland in 2002. In Belgium, the draconian right is represented by the Vlaams Blok, a Flemish nationalist party founded in 1977. Philippe Van der Sande, its spokesman in Antwerp, declares that "immigrants do not adapt. They don't want to learn the language. They are not interested in our culture but just winning easy money." Well, we would expect him to say that. Yet the people we spoke to were ordinary citizens who saw themselves as liberals and enlightened individuals.
European liberalism today may be a consequence of decolo-nisation. But it seems more like a denial of uncomfortable, unanalysed traits than a genuine overcoming of the past. Europe is post-colonial but ambivalent. Even among individuals with more relaxed attitudes to interracial relationships, racism is unashamed and upfront. In practice, now as in the past, such relationships make little difference because they require subordination of the partner who is from an ethnic minority. Indeed, they can work to increase the sense of superiority and separation. It means less emphasis on race, but more on culture as the quintessential dividing line.
Everywhere I went, the thought that the nation might change in the process of accommodating its minorities was conspicuous by its absence. Minorities are fine as menial workers, a subordinate class. It is when minorities seek to be upwardly mobile, to live the modern liberal dispensation in their own, distinctive way as self-assured, equal members of the national debate - and that was the desire of all the young Muslims I met - that the problems start and latent prejudice comes to the fore.
The central mosque in Lille is located in the Wazemmes area. It is a rather unremarkable structure: three houses seem to have been knocked together and a dwarf dome and minaret added rather crudely. The mosque also serves as the first Muslim school in France. It is named after Averroes, the great 12th-century Spanish rationalist philosopher and humanist. It is a pity that Europe appropriated his rationalism, but jettisoned his pluralistic humanism. Ibn Rushd, to use his Muslim name, would demand that the established order that calls itself honourable and ethical, liberal and tolerant, offer an appropriate explanation to those whom it continues to discriminate against, dehumanise and demean.