The last couple of months have seen intense debate on European society’s openness towards Muslim immigrants. Following the Swiss ban on minarets and the French proposal to ban the burqa in public life, fears have been expressed over the exclusion of Muslims from European social and political life. Politicians have gained enormous capital by channeling fears over Islam and immigrants, and populist measures such as the burqa ban in France.
Which begs the question: does Europe have a problem with Islam? Are European politics and society inherently at-odds with the values of their Muslim citizens? One thing is clear: European politics has become increasingly obsessed with controlling and regimenting its Muslim citizens. The successful campaign in Switzerland to ban minarets, as well as the growing influence of far-right politicians in Austria and the Netherlands are testimony to the popular appeal of anti-Islam populism in Europe.
Alarmist cries of ‘Eurabia’ have been raised in recent years warning us that, if nothing is done to check it, European civil life would be overwhelmed by Islamic values due to the increasing number of Muslim immigrants. A lot of this is classic ‘they-are-outbreeding-us’ anti-immigrant polemic. However, a recent book by Christopher Caldwell, a U.S based writer and journalist, refers to the lack of a European sense of self that would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the European way of life: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture meets a culture that is anchored, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”
Having lived in Western Europe for a couple of years, I would say that European culture, far from being insecure and malleable,is marked by a rather strong, historic, sense of identity. At the same time Caldwell does touch on another important point in his book. The cosmopolitan aspirations of what he calls the ‘European project’ and a wariness in using strong symbols of national and cultural identity, made national politics seem elitist. Far-right politicians like Le Pen, and more recently, Strache and Wilders took advantage of the growing gap between the growing gap between national politicians who were trying to contribute to the project of building a pan-European government, and their identity conscious electorates. This has led to attempts to define European identity and values, including calls for a reassertion of Europe’s religious identity, such as the one made by the Italian Foreign Minister to the European parliament recently.
The second explanation would be that Europeans are generally not favourably disposed towards religion.
An older Austrian gentleman whom I met in Vienna told me that his greatest fear was to see a minaret in the town that he lived, and a muezzin calling out to prayers five times a day from there. He went on to add that the church bells tolling in the evening everyday already cause him enough sorrow. Unlike the US where religion and public life are often very interlinked, secularism is an integral part of the national identity of countries like France, and the overt display of religion simply does not go well with them.
Muslim immigrants from Asian, South-East European and North African countries make up the maximum number of immigrants to Europe. They arrived originally as temporary workers to feed the post WW2 industrial boom in Western Europe. The term for these early immigrants in German is perhaps most descriptive: Gästarbieters, Guest Workers, or people who were expected to leave one day. It also meant that their integration into society was not a priority for the governments. European politics and society for the longest time refused to substantially engage with thousands of immigrant workers within their territory. Neither was European society as conformist, or inclusive, as that of ‘melting pot’ US. It is hence no surprise that European governments find themselves in a fix over how best to integrate millions of immigrants into their societies.
Europe’s engagement with Islam is definitive for both cultures. Europe is one of the greatest forces for social justice and human-rights on the world stage, and it would serve it well to avoid populist measures that are ultimately discriminatory against its own population to uphold that image. A consensus between European and Islamic values would go a great distance in bridging the gap that seems to have opened up between the Islamic and Western world in the past decade. It would be presumptuous to say that Europe has a problem with Islam. The problem, rather, is an internal to European political culture: how European nations deal with the pressures of globalization and manage to avoid the populist trap and reassert themselves as vibrant, multicultural democracies.