Gone are the days when European Parliament debates ranged from the proper curve of cucumbers to distribution of structual funding in outlying regions of Greece. Religious issues are enjoying the kind of political currency in our corridors of power unheard of for most of the twentieth century. A fact which is used to further various political ends, bóth electoral and ideological.
Fearmongers from the left of the political spectrum warn of the retreat of secularism in Europe and the abandonment of our humanist heritage. Cultural relativism and weak defence of enlightenment values by government and the media, they claim, has resulted in the birth of new forms of totalitarianism whether in the guise of Islamic extremism or papish plots to ban abortion and demonise homosexuals.
For many MEPs, their aim - thinly veiled, if you'll excuse the pun - is to sideline the 'backward' forces of religion and promote their own aggressive brand of secular humanism. Abolition of religious education in schools, bans on religious symbols in public spaces, and an emphasis on civic ethics is their endgame, and one which exhibits as much exclusivity as your average religious fundamentalist.
On the other side of the bench, conservatives and ultra-nationalists point to the revival of 'Judeo-Christian ethics' - exemplified by the heated debate over the place of God in Europe's tentative Constitution and Polish attempts to put 'values' firmly back on the political agenda - as an example of the EU reclaiming its heritage from the mistakes of multiculturalism and liberal neutrality. In their version of reality immigration is responsible for the widely cited 'breakdown' in European society, providing a pretext to forcibly assimilate or deport non white citizens.
Both are allied against liberal apologists whose 'flabby' thinking is supposedly handing the field to Islamists prepared to misuse the discourse of human rights and religious freedoms to undermine the very values liberals seek to protect. In reality, of course, many critics of liberalism dislike the freedom from social conformity which is its corollary and are more than happy to seize on reasons for curtailing individual rights which they deem in opposition to necessary state control and surveillance.
In all versions, the demonised Muslim minority is used as a lever to force political change. So pervasive has the motif of mad mullahs on the streets of Europe become that the stereotype has been normalised - a fact which constitutes simply one more example of the mainstreaming of far-right policies in the political life of our continent which has taken on an increasingly xenophobic and nationalist streak.
Liberals, of course, are wrong not to condemn political islamists of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir persuasion and deserve all the pummelling they currently receive for lying down in the face of would be theocratic despots. Equally, their opponents are wrong to tar all Muslims with the same brush, By synthesising the programme of Political Islam with religion in the public mind, anyone who declares themselves to be a Muslim (whether Salafi, Reformist, or downright secular) is deemed a suspect, a traitor, and the antithesis of all things European.
Just yesterday two far-right politicians - Frank Vanhecke and Filip Dewinter of the Belgian Vlaams Belang - were arrested outside the European Commission for protesting against the Islamisation of Europe. Shouting 'No to Sharia Law' and 'Democracy Not Theocracy' supporters clashed with the police and bemused immigrants in the EU quarter of Brussels.
Their numbers may have been small - in the hundreds rather than thousands due to a ban on the grounds of maintaining public order issued by the mayor - but they hit the headlines big time. Not allowing them to demonstrate may prove a major mistake by the authorities as it rallied the supporters of free speech to the side of people who are fundamentally racist, misguided, or both.
What I saw in the parliament today did nothing to dissuade my fears for the future. It is time politicians and the media (who don't generally have strong theological backgrounds) started to put much greater distance between the jihadi rhetoric of extremist political groups and ordinary followers of the Islamic religion. Likewise, governments must have the guts to institute formal bans on all Islamist groups and their cover organisations which promote violence and undermine democracy. It is frankly outrageous that leading lights from organisations like the Hizb, having been expelled from Muslim countries, continue to enjoy the right to speak out against a Western way of life that they do not respect and in many cases wish to destroy. That way alone lies compromise and a return to a middle ground that too often seems to have been abandoned.