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.
Having spent most of the last three months in South Africa, a minor culture shock was to be expected when I arrived back in the Netherlands last week. As beautiful a country as South Africa is, it is still dealing with the aftermath of apartheid; while racial segregation has legally been abolished, it persists in socio-economic terms. This in turn feeds into continuing socio-spatial segregation, as the ability to make use of certain amenities is inextricably linked to income. Moreover, having spoken to a bunch of white and black South Africans myself, it is clear that divisive attitudes are still in place, as a large portion of the black population lament their unrelenting marginalization, whereas many whites are fearing a Mugabe-like policy of land and income redistribution that will ‘rob’ them of opportunities. Thus, in de facto terms, South Africa is still by and large an apartheid-state.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, is internationally renowned for its tolerance towards pretty much everything. From hash to hookers to homosexuality, the Dutch condone seemingly everything and anything. While this is something that I am proud of, it has to be said that this widely held image is often a gross exaggeration. The Netherlands itself has been grappling for decades with issues of immigration and integration, and a growing xenophobia has been reflected my the make-up of the Second Chamber (the Dutch version of the House of Commons). Nonetheless, generally speaking, the Dutch remain relatively tolerant and are dedicated towards multi- or even polyculturalism.
This contrast between South Africa and The Netherlands became particularly clear to me when I was doing some groceries in a quintessentially Dutch store, the HEMA. There I noticed that the store was already full of chocolate and candy for Sinterklaas, a Christian holiday that is held every year on December 5. While the name itself, which is derived from the Dutch for Saint Nicholas, already indicates that this holiday has its roots in Christianity, religious elements have over time been eroded and has become much akin to Christmas in spirit and materialism. Despite this, it is not very common for Dutch Muslims to celebrate Sinterklaas. That is to say, they don’t watch the arrival of Sinterklaas with his steam ship; they don’t put their shoes near the window sill and fill it with sugar and carrots for the saint’s horse; they don’t get presents from a dirty brown bag; and they don’t get candy from the white saint’s helpers, who are called Black Peters (oh, the irony of this if you just spent some months in South Africa).
I spent a large part of today watching Prof. Ian Buruma’s brilliant lecture series at Princeton university entitled ‘No Divine Rights: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents’ which I am posting here. Buruma is a scholar of great versatility. His subjects range from a fictional-biography of an Indian cricketer-prince, to works on European and Japanese history. In this lecture series he tackles the relation between state and religion in America, Asia and Europe, in which he makes extremely revelatory connections between religion and state in different societies. All the lectures here are extremely interesting especially for students of global history.
Buruma’s assessment of how elitism, liberalism and democracy interacted with religion in Europe is particularly informative. Throughout the series he is concerned with the changes affecting Europe, which he addresses directly in his last lecture posted here. His views on the changing meaning of the Enlightenment, the role of language in forming identities amongst immigrants and his examination of the kulturkampf between Europe and Islam is deeply informed, as is evident from the range of his examples, and deeply relevant.
Update: Also posting the other two lectures in the series:
French President Nicholas Sarkozy, aka the husband of Carla Bruni, recently proposed a ban on the burqa, a garment worn by Muslim women, saying that the garment reduced them to servitude and undermined their dignity. In a speech to the French Parliament, the first by a president since the 19th century, Mr. Sarkozy likened the burqa to a prison and said “That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity”. BBC
This radical and provocative proposal comes at a time when Europe is struggling to deal with new demographics and cultural diversity. This proposal has re-launched debates about how France, and Europe in general, would deal with the new cultural trends that large scale Muslim migration to Europe entails. France has previously banned sikh turbans and headscarves from schools. BBC
The key question here are the rights of immigrant women in the French state. The proposal is full of rhetoric about freedom and dignity of women in the face of what Mr. Sarkozy perceives to be an oppressive culture. Western feminists have pointed out the pitfalls that liberal attitudes towards immigrant culture entail for women, most famously Susanne Muller Okin in her essay ‘Is Multiculturalism bad for women?’-
It is by no means clear, then, from a feminist point of view, that minority group rights are “part of the solution.” They may well exacerbate the problem. In the case of a more patriarchal minority culture in the context of a less patriarchal majority culture, no argument can be made on the basis of self-respect or freedom that the female members of the culture have a clear interest in its preservation. Indeed, they may be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture) or, preferably, to be encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women—at least to the degree to which this is upheld in the majority culture
Okin wants the state to intervne in the domestic sphere of immigrant lives, saying that opressive practices usually take place behind closed doors. While I do understand and relate with the Okins concern, I do think that there is a difference between choice and coercion. What I find unaccpetable is Sarkozy’s condescension when he assumes that everyone wearing the burqa is coerced into it.