In Germany last month, the debate over Europe’s growing Muslim population reached a fever pitch. More than 100 robberies and sexual assaults were reported in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, and the city’s police chief said the majority of the perpetrators were of “Arab or North African appearance.”
Widespread protests against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generally welcoming policies toward refugees fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan quickly followed. Germany has taken in more than a million people in the past year, many of them raised with a religion that the Western world has come to associate with extremism and violence. And, like most countries in Europe, Germany still hasn’t figured out the best way to bring them into the mainstream of society.
For some Europeans, the only solution is xenophobia: “Islam not welcome” and “Rapefugees not welcome” have become two popular slogans. But other Europeans recognize that the vast majority of incoming Muslims are not violent extremists or criminal threats, and policies cannot be based on those assumptions. So how can countries balance a need to protect the citizens who already live there and also make newcomers feel welcome and capable of contributing to their new homes?
In advance of the February 4 Zócalo/Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft/NPR Berlin event, “What Does Muslim Integration Look Like?,” we asked experts in European politics and culture: What changes in planning, policy, and attitude does Europe need to better integrate Muslims?
Debates about Muslims in Europe usually assume that integration has failed and that the Islamic religion poses unique (and potentially insurmountable) barriers to integration. There are two problems with these debates.
First, it is not clear that the main problems for Muslim integration are about Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are either immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants. Many of their problems are common to all immigrants who become more integrated in a host society over time. For example, recent research I conducted with political scientist Erik Bleich suggests that the most important predictors of whether Muslims in France have strong national identification are whether they were born in France, have French citizenship, and are fluent in the French language. This challenges the conventional wisdom that the best way for Muslims to integrate is to become detached from their religion.
Second, how do we know that Muslim integration has failed? If we look to history, the integration of new immigrant communities has never been smooth. When Southern and Eastern Europeans migrated in large numbers to Western Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century, the racism and discrimination was explicit and intense in ways that would be unthinkable today. Moreover, it could be considered a success that large numbers of Muslims moved from around the world and became integral members of new European societies. Especially since many of these Muslim immigrants came from countries that had been European colonies and fought brutal wars of independence against Europeans.
I do not want to minimize the many real challenges to Muslim integration in Europe. But the Muslim integration glass is both half full and half empty, and we need to be clearer about what we are examining in order to better understand the process.
To integrate Muslims, European countries will need to change their idea of what makes somebody a true member of the nation. At the moment, countries from Sweden to Greece have a deeply mono-ethnic and mono-cultural notion of what it is to be a “true Swede” or a “true Greek.” Only those whose ancestors have lived in the country since time immemorial, and who are of Christian descent (though not necessarily of Christian faith) fully belong. All others are seen as welcome guests at best, and dangerous impostors at worst.
Transforming Europe’s self-conception in this way is going to be a long and difficult process. Its success is uncertain. But if it does succeed, it will be in part because most immigrants and refugees manage to support themselves and their families. And that, in turn, requires a loosening of the manifold bureaucratic obstacles they now face.
Perhaps the most important example is the labor market. In most of the continent, it is extremely difficult for people with qualifications they gained outside the European Union to find a job in their field. This is true of elite professions, like medicine or the law. But it is also true of many middle- and working-class jobs, from teaching to plumbing. In all these areas, migrants have to spend years to acquire skills through formal programs—even when they already have those very skills, and have already completed equivalent programs.
Whether Europe can ever manage to adopt a more inclusive notion of who truly belongs on the continent is an open question. But some of the practical steps that politicians can take to maximize the likelihood of success are low-hanging fruit. Allowing migrants with much-needed skills easier access to the labor market would be an important first step.
The other, the different, the unknown, the alien … these are still concepts that separate us. Being afraid and wary of the unknown might be useful as a primeval self-preservation instinct, but it’s also our biggest obstacle to mutual understanding, acceptance, and coexistence.
A lot has been done over the last decades to facilitate integration, yet what about our attitudes, on both sides, have they changed? Are we really open to a mutually beneficial, equal relationship, or are we just coexisting warily, at best tolerating each other?
Even the best integration policies won’t work if we perceive each other as threats to the other’s way of life, or cultural and religious identity. Is a German father happy to see his daughter marry a Turkish guy? Does a Moroccan mind if her children choose German spouses? Easy questions, right? A bit superficial even? When my German mother married my Turkish father, both families were strongly against it; neither of their parents attended the wedding. How much has changed?
Let’s just leave political correctness to one side, and be brutally honest—about our prejudices, about our fears. And from there, let’s start the dialogue, get to know each other, really talk, show genuine interest, and venture into the unknown. We have to find ways to see our differences as enriching assets, not separating liabilities.
And since this discussion is about “Muslim” integration, and we still seem to love building walls around our religious identities, the only solution I see is through education. Let’s get educated about Islam, Sufism, Christianity. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of fighting each other’s belief systems, we could learn to actually pray together? One week in church, the next in the mosque, then in the temple, like the Catholic and Protestant ecumenical services. What do you think?
After Charlie Hebdo and the November 13 attacks on Paris, some have held that French integration policy—with its ban of headscarves in public places, “laicity,” and generally exclusive (if not discriminatory) approach to Islam and Muslims—is responsible for Islamic terror. Mind you that similar attacks had previously been inflicted on Spain and Britain, not to mention on the “Great Satan” itself, as America has been referred to in some Iranian foreign policy statements. But Spain and Britain each have pursued very different integration policies, and the U.S. tends to be praised for its successfully integrated Muslims. If Islamic terror happens irrespective of a country’s integration policy, and also in countries whose Muslims are well integrated, the logical conclusion is: Islamic terror and Muslim integration are separate things, and we’d do well to keep them separate in analysis and policy.
Europe doesn’t need more “multiculturalism,” public recognition of Islam, etc. That is all fine for intellectuals. Ordinary Muslims, who are Muslim mostly not by religious practice but by external labeling, have other things to worry about. What Europe needs to do is simple:
1. Reform schools and higher education, so that “Muslims,” as a conspicuous category, disappear by boosting their numbers in elite universities, and subsequently in the professional world, top management, and parliament.
2. Reform extra-protective labor markets, to make it less costly for employers to hire and fire employees (a problem especially vexing in France, where not only Muslims, but too many other people, are out of jobs).
3. Perhaps even reconsider conscription, to give guns and discipline to youngsters who have an apparent need for both.
These changes only incidentally affect Muslims; other socially vulnerable groups (in particular, young people) would profit too. No better “integration policy” is needed. To make Europe fit for the global age, focus on reforming non-immigrant institutions and their chronic production of idling underclasses.
Often, in order to achieve integration, Western Europe’s political elites lay the responsibility for change upon Muslim groups themselves. This represents precisely what is wrong with Europe’s current approach to integration.
Despite the immense challenges Muslims face in terms of racism and discrimination, research on alienation and marginalization persistently confirms that they do make considerable efforts to integrate. They obey the laws of the land, take part in the politics of the nation, and behave as upright citizens.
However, intermittently, a small number of Muslims fall out of the bottom of the system. Theirs is a route into criminality, extremism, and radicalization. The prevailing discourse around radicalization habitually concentrates on the idea that radicalization is a function of religion, yet a considerable body of literature recognizes it is more a function of politics and racism.
Directly and indirectly, states encourage those already living there to vent their frustrations towards immigrant and minority groups—in the current climate, that usually means visible Muslim communities. In response, targeted communities may turn towards more conservative forms of Islam, which offer communities a safe haven that protects them from the deleterious consequences of anti-Muslim rhetoric. They also feel shielded from social problems affecting the wider community, such as alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and violence towards women.
Conservative Muslim groups may begin to embrace their religious identities in more observable ways. This has the unfortunate consequence of reaffirming the prevailing notion that Muslims are somehow refusing to adjust to the Western way of life and may even threaten the very existence of liberalism in secular Western nations.
To address the imbalance, political elites need to understand their own role in pushing away these populations, while Muslim groups need empowerment, opportunity, and equality. It is a two-way process. Unfortunately, advantaged groups hold all the power and resources, and they show no interest in distributing it among the many or few.
In 2014, the Federal Statistical Office counted about 16.4 million inhabitants in Germany with an immigrant background, 3.4 to 4.3 million of them Muslim. According to a survey conducted by the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees in 2009, those Muslims originate from various countries—mostly from Turkey, Southern Europe, and North Africa. Many of them consider themselves not very religious. (These data have not taken the latest migration movement into account.)
In spite of the fact that Muslims cover only a small fraction of the enormous number of migrants, and come from a variety of backgrounds—some more pious, others less so—the current integration debate focuses disproportionately on Islamic religious identity. This aspect of culture is over-emphasized in many discussions on assimilation. As a result, integration is being overloaded with religious concerns when social problems occur among those regarded as “Muslims,” such as educational dropouts, spousal violence, criminality, and now terrorism. These problems are mostly discussed as problems of Islamic religion, instead of approached with the usual social strategies for solving them.
This religion overload is being mirrored in the defensive attitude of many young Muslims and their growing religious-based explanation of their own behavior. Moreover, an increasing rejection of perceived foreigners in European societies, Muslims in particular, has been determined in empirical studies to seriously threaten social harmony. Thus, we need less exploitation of Islam in debates about the social integration of immigrants and more new concepts of how to cope with the growing number of newcomers of all kinds in European societies. All in all, we need a more inclusive and civil-rights based understanding of national identities.
It cannot be said that European politicians have not addressed socio-political integration of Muslims. Judging by the numbers of young people of Muslim background that still lag behind, more is probably needed. But no improvement of material conditions will be successful without symbolic integration. The latter refers to the inclusion of Islam into the history and shared memory of each national community and this has yet to be acknowledged as a political priority.
The lack of symbolic integration has translated into increasingly discriminatory policies towards religious practices, from wearing the hijab and the building of minarets, to circumcision and halal food, all deemed “illiberal” and not “civic-minded.” This discrimination leads a lot of Muslims, even the secular or educated ones, to think that they are not accepted as full members of European societies. This feeling is amplified by anti-Islamic discourses that portray Islam as the enemy of the West.
Such discourses are no longer the monopoly of extreme-right-wing movements, but have come to be shared by politicians from the right to the left. Islam is seen as an outsider religion that threatens the core liberties of European democracies and therefore needs to be limited or circumvented. Such a perception is also shaping the public discourse on Muslims in America.
It is never easy to change national narratives. It requires not only altering existing political discourse but most importantly creating new education policies where Islam and Muslims are integrated into the emotional memory of all citizens. It requires politicians to display courage and a long-term vision, both sorely missed in the current debates over Islam in the West.