Europe Confronts Mediterranean Mayhem – Part II

In October, Angela Merkel pronounced that Germany’s multiculturalism has failed. Months later – amid massive protests against autocratic North African leaders whose policies long provided a bulwark for Europe – UK’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy echoed her assessment. This YaleGlobal series suggests that Europe cannot bury its head in the sand, and instead must work with Muslim Mediterranean neighbors and improve its own prospects at the same time. Immigrants and host nations share blame for multiculturalism's failure, argues Shada Islam in the second and final article of the series. Integration of European Muslims is crucial. Overlooking immigrants’ contributions and subjecting them to unreasonable policies do not help create a vibrant national identity or aid struggling economies. If anything, harsh policies could invite activism learned from protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Islam argues that Europe must adopt new, civilized mindsets to build essential multicultural bridges – or risk losing influence on the global stage. – YaleGlobal

Europe Confronts Mediterranean Mayhem – Part II

European leaders should embrace multiculturalism rather than call it a failure
Shada Islam
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BRUSSELS: For a change European leaders quickly reached consensus over sanctioning Libya. But that was the easy part. The challenge ahead is refashioning their relations with an awakening Arab world and integrating with minorities from North Africa and Middle East. The upsurge already spurs migration to Europe, and rising democracy in the region could embolden European Muslim minorities in demanding their rights.

Unfortunately, the Middle East revolt burst forth close on the heels of major European leaders admitting their failure in building a multicultural society.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October was the first mainstream European politician to pronounce her country’s attempt to build a multicultural society an “utter failure,” followed in February by British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Like his German and British counterparts, the message from the French leader is that Muslims must “melt into a single community, which is the national community.” He added: “If you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France."

The three EU leaders are right to question the bloc’s patchy history of integration. In many parts of Europe, as Cameron noted, people from different cultures live separate lives, apart from one another and the mainstream. But blame cannot be placed solely on immigrants. European governments have not done enough to promote diversity, enforce anti-discrimination legislation and create a more inclusive labor market. The public admission of failed multiculturalism includes no recipe for correcting past mistakes. It also comes at a time of economic uncertainty across Europe, upcoming state elections in Germany and a national poll in France next year as well as rising popularity of far-right parties. 

As thousands of North African immigrants fleeing unrest and arrive on Europe’s shores, the 27 EU countries must hold an urgent, intelligent debate on immigration and integration. This requires an end to accusatory interventions, a shift in focus away from marginal issues, such as minarets and the sartorial choices of Muslim women, to addressing real questions of discrimination and recognizing that integration is a two-way street, requiring adjustment efforts by minorities and host societies. Throwing in the towel on multiculturalism may help win votes, but such statements risk further alienating the bloc’s 20 million Muslims, increase the threat of radicalization among youths and make it more difficult for Europe to attract much-needed global talent to spur the economy.

Europe’s struggle to build a society which accommodates Muslims and other minorities is challenged by uncertainty about what it means to be “European,” suggestions that national identities should be replaced with a single European one, and the struggle between religion and secular beliefs. In such an environment, Muslims, if they espouse conservative values and customs in the public space, are viewed as “foreigners” who can never be truly integrated as full-fledged European citizens. As Dutch writer Ian Buruma pointed out, “those soaring minarets, those black headscarves, are threatening because they rub salt in the wounds of those who feel the loss of their own faith.”

Europe is uneasy about its future, its mood soured by the economic slowdown, the euro sovereign debt crisis and public anxieties about the impact of globalization on European jobs. More than before, policymakers and citizens are wary of outsiders, whether immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Chinese or Indian exporters and investors.

Far-right politicians such as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and his counterparts in Sweden, Austria and Switzerland – in many ways more vocal and colorful than their mainstream counterparts – capitalize on such sentiments to peddle a simple ideology of hate. Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test,” regarded by many as normal and uncontroversial, warns Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to serve in the British government.

The irony is that while politicians rage against immigration and foreigners, low fertility rates and an aging population mean that Europe needs young foreign workers to fill labor shortages in both the skilled and unskilled sectors of the economy. Immigrants’ incomes and tax revenues are needed to prop up Europe’s creaking pension and health care systems.

The picture is not as grim as Cameron and his counterparts paint it. European governments slowly re-balance a security-focused approach by including an integration agenda and Muslim outreach programs. Changing government and business recruitment policies have gradually increased employment of Muslims and minorities. Business leaders demand an increase in immigration to meet Europe’s skills shortage. The EU has adopted a new anti-discrimination directive in the new Lisbon Treaty, strengthening rules on combating racism.

While the focus is invariably on a minority of Muslims who fall prey to radical ideologies, or demand the establishment of faith-based schools, permission to wear the burqa or segregation by gender at public pools and hospitals, European Muslims are more active in demanding basic rights, organizing themselves into pressure groups, and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural icons. This new generation of European Muslims, energized by developments in their homelands, focuses on citizenship and integration rather than religious identity alone. Europeans must accept “that Islam is a European religion,” says Tariq Ramadan, president of the European Muslim Network, adding “we have to stop asking: where do you come from and ask: where are we going – together?”

This demands a transformation of mindsets. First and foremost, it requires that Europeans recognize the concept of multiple identities. Second, EU governments must ensure full implementation of existing anti-discrimination legislation and actively recruit minorities. There is a sorry lack of representation of Muslims and other ethnic minorities in national governments and parliaments as well as EU institutions. Some form of affirmative action through support for higher education scholarships and job promotion would encourage minorities to become active participants in societies. Third, Europe must find the right balance between combating terrorism and ensuring the integration of minorities.

Mainstream European political parties must refuse to compromise with populist politicians, while bringing minorities into the fold – presenting them as candidates, giving them a stronger voice in shaping political debate. Business leaders must become less timid in pointing out that aging and skills-deficient Europe needs foreign labor.

European governments may need to craft a more balanced foreign policy, including on the Middle East conflict and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally if Europe is to be taken seriously by its Muslims, the argument over Turkey’s EU membership should be conducted in a more rational manner. Reshaping the nature of the debate on multicultural and European Muslims requires sustained effort on many fronts – and action by a myriad of agents on the national, regional and local levels, by governments, civil society and the media. There’s need for a new lexicon that talks about “European Muslims” rather than “foreigners” and “immigrants.”

The stakes are high. Failure to accept difference and diversity will foster further fear and unease, sap Europe’s vitality, exacerbate social tensions and erode European influence on the global stage. Europe needs the drive and talent of all its citizens to work with newly assertive Arab citizens to the south and become a strong, credible actor in an increasingly competitive world. It needs strong leaders willing to take up the challenge of building – rather than denouncing – multicultural Europe. The largely secular uprising sweeping the Muslim world is a welcome development to strengthen such evolution in Europe.


Shada Islam is head of the Asia Programme at Friends of Europe, an independent think tank in Brussels.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization