European leaders are attacking 'multiculturalism' in a transparent ploy to appeal to far-right voters. But they're threatening decades of progress in reaching out to Muslim minorities.
One by one, the leaders of Europe's three biggest immigration destinations have stepped up to solemnly repudiate a policy that has long ceased to exist. In recent months, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have let it be known that multiculturalism shall no longer be the continent's doctrine of immigrant integration.
"The multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and be happy about one another, utterly failed," declared Merkel in a speech in October 2010.
"Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong," said Cameron on February 2011.
"Multiculturalism is a failure. The truth is that in our democracies, we cared too much about the identity of the migrant and not sufficiently about the identity of the country that welcomed him," Nicolas Sarkozy announced on French TV later that month.
These unusually convergent statements would seem to signal a dramatic turning point in Europe's relations with its Muslim populations, who are the target of these putative reforms. The speeches were designed to convey the image of political leaders fully in control of their national destiny, boldly charting a new course for their societies. The reality, however, is far less grandiose. Merkel, Cameron, and Sarkozy are playing a catch-up game with the right wing of their constituency by savaging a straw man -- multiculturalism -- and offering precious few concrete proposals behind their new proposed course of action.
They are also ignoring and jeopardizing years of hard work by their own interior ministries to refine and streamline a new generation of demanding yet fair policies toward local Muslim organizations. In the process, these national leaders are feeding the very fire they hope their speeches will contain: a growing far-right populism based on the rejection of Islam.
The anti-immigrant opinions first voiced in late 20th-century Europe increased in intensity during the terrorism jitters of the 2000s and have been reinforced by burgeoning anti-Islam sentiment during the 2010s. What's happening is that the deleterious political impact of the 2008-2009 economic crises is now being felt, and the result is a sizeable populist wave throughout Western Europe.
This wave generally takes the form of extreme right parties -- even though some of them, like in the Netherlands and Britain, incorporate liberal elements like the defense of gay rights and women's rights. (The English Defence League has both Jewish and gay branches.) All of these populist movements, however, have one feature in common: they are explicitly anti-Islam. Just as anti-Semitism was the common denominator of populist movements in the 1930s, the single-minded focus on Muslim immigration has become the defining trait of anti-establishment parties in today's Europe. The logical effect is to push the center-right parties to the right, for fear of losing their constituency.
And tack right they have. In Germany, Merkel's speech was designed to catch up with the national debate sparked by Thilo Sarrazin's bestselling book, Germany Does Away With Itself, as well as with an assertive nativist wing of her governing coalition. Sarrazin, a former Bundesbank board member originally from the Social-Democrat SPD party, has sold more than a million copies of his book, which denounces the dumbing-down of Germany through Muslim immigration. In Britain, Cameron must keep an eye on his populist wing as well as the British National Party. In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is cracking down on headscarf wearing and other behavioral signs of Muslim religiosity among state employees and unemployment check recipients in exchange for the parliamentary support of Geert Wilders's anti-Islam faction. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who successfully courted voters from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in 2007 by broaching the theme of "national identity," kept the flame alive with an official debate on the subject in 2009 and another on the wearing of the burka in 2010. This spring, his UMP party announced yet another debate on "Islam and laïcité" -- as France calls its official policy of religious neutrality.
But these leaders are battling a ghost. The much-maligned "multiculturalism," which all three leaders have singled out in their broadsides, is really a political anachronism. Its traditional meaning -- allowing communities to live segregated from society or somehow beyond the writ of the state -- has long been abandoned by European countries.
The current uproar over Islam's "compatibility" with European values made more sense in the early-to-mid 1990s, when lambs were still being slaughtered in bathtubs, foreign imams arrived on tourist visas, and sidewalk prayers were the only option many Muslims had. Back then, the religious practices of Muslims in Germany -- much like elsewhere in Europe -- were still filed under foreign affairs, not domestic politics. Germany, Britain, and France, which together are home to around two-thirds of Europe's 16 million Muslims, have worked over the past two decades to bring the practice of Islam into line with that of other major religious communities, while cooperating with Muslim groups to marginalize violent extremists. After years of leaving Islam outside domestic institutions, public authorities began to treat the faith as a domestic religion, encouraging Muslims to embrace national citizenship, and bringing Islamic organizations into the fold. Dozens of high-level national politicians -- including Sarkozy -- expended significant resources and political capital overseeing this process in the 2000s, and no one could mistake their solutions for multiculturalism. Still, Europe's leaders want to shake off this shadow. What exactly do they propose changing?
It's long been common practice for center-right parties in Europe to lift far-right platform planks on insecurity, immigration, and Islam -- the "LePen-isation" of French politics, for example, has been denounced by the left for decades -- but this latest populist turn presents several practical and political problems. A key difference between the anti-Islam backlash and earlier waves of anti-immigrant sentiment is that the communities concerned are no longer immigrants, but citizens, and the influx of new immigration has been dramatically reduced. The old far-right rhetoric that blamed foreigners for social or economic woes ("two million unemployed = two million immigrants," went Le Pen's 1983 slogan) doesn't work anymore because its logical consequence -- deporting them -- is legally impossible.
But does the milder language European leaders are using now work any better? Cameron's rhetoric, for example, slips between his prescription for what "a genuinely liberal country does" -- i.e., promote "freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality" -- and the engagement test he proposes for Muslim organizations, e.g. "do they believe in universal human rights?" Clearly "to belong" in Britain does not require promoting either gay rights or feminism, as many native groups would fail this test. Indeed, this was the direction several German states took in 2007 by adding several short-lived questions to naturalization procedures that probed Muslim candidates' attitudes toward shari'a law, Israel and same-sex cohabitation.
Today's vocabulary represents a step back in time to when governments preferred to wear blinders rather than take history by the hand. "Islam does not belong to Germany," is today's rendition, courtesy of new German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, of the old Christian Democratic saw that "Germany is not a country of immigration" -- ideological obstruction in the guise of dispassionate observation. The policy prescriptions are not much more inspiring. David Cameron offers two specific ideas: withdraw public subsidies from illiberal Muslim organizations and withhold a "ministerial platform" from those whose values we don't like. The former already has already taken place as a side effect of last October's budget cuts, and the latter -- break off counter-radicalization efforts in cooperation with nonviolent Islamist groups -- is an internal coalition disagreement over the question of whether nonviolent extremism is a gateway to or a stopgap against terrorism. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrat Party argued in response to his boss's speech that "If we are truly confident about the strength of our liberal values we should be confident about their ability to defeat the inferior arguments of our opponents.... But you don't win a fight by leaving the ring. You get in and win."
Clegg's statement is strikingly similar to the logic Sarkozy used in 2003 when he rejected criticism of his engagement with Islamic groups while at the interior ministry: "If you find Islam to be incompatible with the Republic, then what do you do with the five million people of Muslim origin living in France? Do you kick them out, or make them convert, or ask them not to practice their religion? With the French Council for the Muslim Religion, we are organizing an Islam that is compatible with the values of the Republic." Incidentally, Sarkozy's highest favorability ratings, 58-59 percent so far), came between January and May 2003, at the height of his involvement with the French Council for the Muslim Religion.
The understandable urge of European leaders to watch their right flank has the potential to backfire politically. Government leaders have amplified the anti-Islam discontent by making it official and respectable. The "national identity" and burqa debates in France were blatant overtures to the National Front electorate. But as Le Pen himself once observed, voters tend to prefer the original to the photocopy. Sarkozy's strategy, far from containing the far-right challenge in France, appears to have vindicated the National Front's long-time insistence on the Muslim threat to French identity. For example, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie's daughter who has recently taken over leadership of the party, now leads in some polls for the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. She recently quipped, "A little more blah-blah about Islam and laïcité, and I'll soon be at 25 percent" in the polls. This is exactly what happened.
Nor is scare-mongering about Islam a winning formula for domestic tranquility. Muslim citizens may well tire of being singled out not only by far-right parties but also by centrist governments themselves. That may wind up giving common cause to disparate and diverse Muslim populations, now divided by ethnicity and national origin, as well as sectarian and ideological orientation. In other words, imposing restrictions on religious freedoms without ensuring basic institutional equality for Islam could eventually lead Muslims to rally in defense of religious values -- exactly the outcome governments are hoping to avoid.
The current posturing of Merkel, Cameron, and Sarkozy may also set back the successful efforts of the last decade to integrate Muslim communities, creating new rifts and unraveling the more subtle policy evolutions of recent years, when states secured guarantees from Islamic groups that they would respect the law of the land and adapt their practices to the local context. Muslim religious leaders may now legitimately ask themselves, to take just one example, what purpose is served by a council convened by the Interior Ministry if one minister says "Islam is part of Germany" (as Wolfgang Schäuble did in 2006) only to have his successor say, "No it's not"?
Those in government face a choice, and it is the same choice they've faced for years: Roll up your sleeves and help mediate between religious groups, or keep your cuffs buttoned and let foreign governments and transnational movements handle it for you. These issues are not going to go away. Recent demographic projections published by the Pew Forum foresee an overall increase of Muslim minorities in Europe from 6 percent of the total population to 8 percent over the next 20 years. Italy, Britain, Belgium, and Sweden are all likely to see their Muslim populations double by 2030. These Muslims will increasingly be native citizens, born and raised in their respective societies. They will no longer be the mere object of policy debates, but will increasingly participate in them as full voting members of society, albeit still as a minority. The kind of citizens they are encouraged to be will matter more than their sheer numbers.
Will political parties actively seek out Muslim participation? Will school and university planners rise to the challenges presented by an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged minority? Will there be an ambience of religious freedom and efforts to punish illegal discrimination? Or will the forces of intolerance and mutual suspicion win out? The past decade provided some heartening examples of "state-mosque relations," but the new decade is off to an inauspicious start. Many non-Muslims are clearly worried about their future in a changing Europe. But the prospect of failed integration should be far more frightening to all concerned.
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