At the weekend I started reading a book entitled The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman (which can be bought here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Closing-Western-Mind-Faith-Reason/dp/071266498X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327323426&sr=8-1 and is heartily recommended), which has me enthralled - but also worried.
The guy's a serious historian but he writes well for the layman; he's very fluid, and in many ways this book reads more like a novel than like a history book. I haven't finished it yet, but so far he's been covering the mindset of the shifting ancient Greek culture, the alterations made by the Romans, and the backdrop that allowed Christianity to flourish and eventually displace the classical values of intellectual rigour, observation and the right to question anybody, no matter how highly regarded.
To put it in simple terms, the Greeks and later the Romans had no problem at all with the religions of those they conquered, and in many cases were more than happy to incorporate new gods into their own pantheon. Frequently when conquering a new territory the gods of those they defeated would then take a place in the ritual sacrifices and observances, and thus the new subjects would be free to worship their old gods as long as they were happy to play lip-service to the Roman gods too (declaring there were no gods at all could get you into trouble, but we are talking about a very ancient civilisation working with far less data than we have now. And we can't feel smug about it - we're not that different now). Observances on holy days was simply part of Roman culture, and by showing deference to the gods one also demonstrated respect for its values and loyalty to the state.
This all worked fine for a long time because almost everyone back then worshiped a pantheon, a group of gods rather than a single omnipotent deity. To that way of thinking, encompassing a new god or thinking of it as another aspect of one you already believed in was not a problem, and the Romans made a point of being very tolerant of other religions in order to keep the people of their new territories happy. Where they started to run into trouble was with Judaism and then - even more so - with early Christianity. Here was a religion different to every other they had encountered in that it acknowledged only one deity, and in fact condemned Roman society and culture for tolerating multiple gods and goddesses. Some Jews and many early Christians refused to participate in worship to the Roman gods, and many became martyrs to their cause. Early Christianity, through being unfamiliar and alien to Roman culture and religion, was able to at once exploit religious tolerance and condemn those who extended it. Here too, for the first time, was a religion that claimed reward in exchange for simple faith, not for good actions, and which therefore actively promoted the mindset according to which blind faith becomes a virtue and analytical thought consequently becomes undesirable, even dangerous.
I haven't finished the book yet and I think I'll have to read it twice to fully grasp all the nuances and implications, but this to me demonstrates an alarming parallel to what has happened in Europe over the last few decades. In Europe, even those nations like the UK that have a state religion are governed largely by secular values of fairness and equality for all (although no one would deny for a moment that we sometimes fall short of these values). We have experienced centuries of warfare caused directly by intolerance of opposing religions, and as a result we have learned that it is better, safer and more humane to live and let live with people whose beliefs are different than our own. In recent decades, however, we have experienced an influx from the Middle East, which has included a large number of Muslims... and Islam as a religion, by any objective terms, is several centuries behind the moderate and considered religious mores most European Christians hold dear.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam are very similar in fundamental principles - they worship the same deity, although few devout believers would be keen to accept that. However, for most Christians and Jews (not all by any means, but most) religious mores have taken a backseat to secular values, whether the believer appreciates that consciously or not. Ephesians 5:22, for example, states "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord" but even among relatively devout Christians in the UK few would try to claim that women are not equal to men, or do not deserve equal freedoms and rights (the segregation in the Jewish temple is an interesting aspect, but again has become - in most cases, the more orthodox Jews provide exceptions - more symbolic than anything else, as both genders are given equal rights under law). Leviticus 20:10 condemns people who cheat on their spouses to death, and we're all aware of the laws against working on the sabbath and fancying people of your own gender. The point is that almost all Europeans, however strongly they believe in Jahweh and/or Yeshua, are accustomed to the idea that religious law must fit within the secular laws hammered out over centuries largely to protect people against the dogma of others.
Islam, in this respect, has come as quite a shock to Europe. Any woman living in a British city will be familiar with that small number of Muslim men who stare at our bare heads and unhidden figures with a curious mixture of lust and contempt. We ourselves are unnerved and baffled by women in ninja suits, and covertly discuss the implications of this dress; I myself think people should be able to wear whatever they like without endangering the safety of others (so in circumstances under which a balaclava or motorcycle helmet would not be allowed, neither should a face-covering hijab), but I struggle with the definition of "voluntary" in such conditions - can a woman trained from birth to believe herself inherently shameful and inferior ever be considered as "choosing" to cover her entire body? We have been introduced to honour killings, child brides, the sort of sexism we have not seen in centuries, and terror threats on a level we have never encountered before.
And because we have learned through hard experience that everyone's better off if we can all respect one another's values, we've done our best to accommodate all this, to legitimise in the name of "multiculturalism" what we would not accept for any reason other than a basis in religion. We have instituted sharia courts, insisting that they are only there as mediators where people prefer them to conventional law, while failing entirely to consider the fact that under sharia law a man's word is equal to that of two women, and that it will be the man who decides which court a woman is subjected to. We tread on eggshells to avoid offending Muslims, to the extent that we stifle our own hard-earned and vital freedom of expression (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/18/london-atheist-group-accused-of-bullying-after-posting-a-harmless-image-of-muhammad/), and every time someone in the Islamic world kicks off and blows something up or executes a journalist or mutilates a woman we are told - effectively - not to judge Islam by what its adherents do. When a group of Muslim men were prosecuted for grooming and raping large numbers of underage British girls, a peer in the House of Lords tried to tell us their crimes were attributable to Western women, who through showing insufficient voluntary interest in these animals forced them to drug and rape children.
The trouble with this, of course, is that the principle of "respecting others" only works if both sides agree to it - which Islam openly and proudly does not. The more exemptions we grant Islam under our laws, the more they demand.
This is exactly the mistake the Romans made; they extended liberality and tolerance to a group of people who had no problem with exploiting the freedom while sneering at those offering it. There are signs that we are beginning to identify and resist this two-faced abuse of our values - the pigs buried on the proposed site of a mosque in Seville, Draw Mohammad Day etc. etc. - but I don't think it's enough, I think we need more people more willing to stand up and say "no, this is wrong and it's not racist, intolerant or "Islamophobic" to say so". Islam is quite open about its intention of taking over the Western world... last time that happened, Europe sank into the Dark Ages and we lost knowledge and values we have only recently - centuries later - started to regain.