Clash of Civilizations or Crisis of Integration?

A Muslim youth in the garb of a suicide bomber protests the Muhammad cartoons outside Denmark’s embassy in London. The chilling image appears in the next day’s newspapers. The same young man then apologizes on television for offending the families of the July 7 bombing victims with his wrong, unjustified and insensitive behavior. It emerges that 22-year-old Omar Khayam comes from the English midlands, has a criminal conviction for dealing drugs and, despite his remorse, is to be sent back to prison for breaking his parole.

Europe is gripped by social conflict, but is this a clash of civilizations? Islamic fundamentalism is clearly present in Europe, and the Iraq war has certainly stirred up tensions; but the unrest in France in late 2005, which had no religious overtones and occurred in a country that had opposed the war, suggests that the grievances held by Europe’s immigrants and their descendants are more substantial than a cultural conflict between Islam and the West. The real problem seems to be the Old Continent’s failure to integrate its new minorities by giving them an economic stake and a political voice.


Khayam’s story is like that of many young would-be terrorists and urban warriors of immigrant origin in Europe today. The young people raised by parents of one culture are trying to figure out their place in another cultureand many are suffering a huge identity crisis, says Henk Dekker, an expert in ethnic relations at the University of Utrecht, Holland. For a few, the rallying cry of violent Islamism provides an attractive alternative to crime and unemployment.

Goaded by Europe’s populist, anti-immigration parties, governments have responded to recent events with mostly cosmetic measures. Citizenship and language tests for new immigrants have been ridiculed in the United Kingdom for trying to define the vague notion of Britishness and condemned in the German state of Baden-Württemberg for asking values-based questions that seem designed to exclude Muslims. Their main problem, though, is that most of the young men involved in recent troubles are not immigrants themselves, but the sons and grandsons of immigrants. Even after two or three generations in Europe, many are economically and politically disenfranchised. Religious militancy offers a powerful way to affirm themselves and at the same time spurn the society that they feel has rejected them. If people believe they are deprived of their rights or the opportunities held out to others, they will respond with aggression, says Dekker.

Identifying Europe’s immigrants

Grasping the scale of the problem is made difficult by unreliable statistics. Some countries, notably France, do not collect data about ethnic origin on the egalitarian principle that it will lead to some citizens being treated differently than others. Most countries know their residents’ country of origin, but naturalization rules often require immigrants to renounce their original citizenship, so the problems faced by ethnic minorities after obtaining citizenship go statistically unnoticed. In the poorest neighborhood of Brussels, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, for instance, authorities claim the number of Belgian inhabitants is increasing just as most white residents have left. Recent amnesties in Spain and the United Kingdom suggest that undocumented seasonal workers and immigrants’ relatives, who are usually left out of the statistics, are more numerous than was imagined.

Bearing these caveats in mind, it is estimated that up to 10 percent of the French population is Muslim, with more immigrants from other backgrounds. In Britain and Germany, immigrants of various origins make up 8 percent to 9 percent of the population. The proportion elsewhere in northwestern Europe is roughly the same, but in the east and south the number of documented immigrants is much lower. To these numbers can be added refugees who do not intend to stay in their host country but often end up settling there.

Immigrant communities tend to cluster in certain places. Former colonial ties brought South Asians to Britain and North Africans to France. Guest worker schemes in the 1960’s focused on immigrants with a particular socio-economic profile, attracting Turks to Germany and Portuguese to Luxembourg. Migrant workers from the former Soviet bloc are now making a big impression on countries like Ireland, once sources of emigration themselves. Such diversity compels caution when generalizing about Europe’s immigrant minorities. Britons of Pakistani origin who come face-to-face with the war on terror when visiting their relatives in the subcontinent have a different experience of the cleavage between Islam and the West, for example, than Turks in Germany, whose homeland wants to conform to the liberal norms of the European Union.

Caught in an Economic Trap

Many Europeans of immigrant origin nevertheless share a common sense of alienation from European society. The biggest economic barrier to their integration is the very reason that they or their parents came in the first place: to fill a gap in the local labor pool, usually doing the menial work that Europeans are no longer willing to do. Immigrants who wish to move into more skilled, higher-earning activities find it difficult to do so. They may face prejudice from prospective employers or clients. They may lack the education necessary or live in an area where informal social segregation and lack of demand or commitment from the state have left poor schools and inadequate alternatives for self-improvement. They may even lack the family support to pursue further education or more rewarding job opportunities. Restricted economic and social mobility of this kind set the scene for the riots in France.

Language is a major problem. Newcomers might already speak some English or French, but most have to learn Danish or Dutch from scratch. Given that many economic migrants come from rural areas, where literacy rates tend to be lower than average, the challenge of mastering the language of their host countryor several in the case of Belgium and other multilingual countriesis even greater. Because of clustering some find themselves living and working only with compatriots, which makes it more difficult to learn their host country’s language, and multicultural efforts to ensure access to public services by providing information in their mother tonguebe it Urdu or Punjabi in northern England or Portuguese in Luxembourgcan backfire by removing the incentive to do so.

Failure of Representation

While economic disadvantage contributes to a sense of grievance, the failure to integrate immigrants better into the European body politic denies them the conventional channel through which to express their grievances. This leaves a space in which Islamism and other forms of extremism can flourish. Very few of Europe’s established political movements explicitly represent immigrants’ interests, with the complex heritage of church-state relations making it particularly difficult for those who subscribe to a religiously oriented worldview. The liberal left is often hostile to religion as a motivation and form of expression for political action and regards the chauvinistic social attitudes that it sometimes inspires as anathema.

The mainstream right in Europe, meanwhile, is struggling with its Christian Democrat legacy. While some center-right parties now neglect the Christian part of their identity in favor of a secular conservative ideology, many still explicitly defend Europe’s Christian identity. One major conundrum for the European People’s Party, the umbrella grouping of center-right parties, has been whether to admit Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Partyalso center-right but of Islamic inspiration. A few center-right parties, such as the French-speaking Christian Democrats in Belgium, have consciously changed from a Christian movement into a pluralist one, renaming themselves the Humanist Democratic Centerin 2002 and running in the subsequent elections with many Muslim and other ethnic-minority candidates.

The Cartoon Fiasco

This three-way clash among secular liberalism, the remnants of Christian Democracy and immigrants’especially Muslims’religious conservatism was evident in European reactions to the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Europe has been spared the violence that has afflicted other parts of the world, but the threats made by some protesters shocked other Europeans and were counterproductive to their co-religionists’ efforts at integration. On the other hand, the decision to commission the cartoons displayed intolerance and insensitivity toward their religious convictions. The liberal justification for doing this on the grounds of an unconditional right to freedom of expression ignored the terms in which the right is enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that the exercise of this freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities making it subject to a host of conditions.

In many European countries, however, the cartoons were republished by right-wing media wholike Roberto Calderoli, the Italian minister forced to resign after wearing a T-shirt displaying one of the cartoonswere motivated by a desire to resist perceived overindulgence of immigrants and their cultures. Ordinary Muslims offended by the cartoons might well claim there was hypocrisy in these European attitudes, for Europe has plenty of its own taboos. Many media outlets in Islamic countries have pointed out the European sensitivities over the Holocaust, but in January a far less controversial poster campaign to mark the launch of Austria’s presidency of the European Unionincluding an image of three people simulating sex while wearing masks of George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and Queen Elizabeth IIwas withdrawn after sparking a storm of lively but peaceful protest.

The Place of Religious Leaders

The political disenfranchisement of many immigrants and their offspring is compounded by the tendency to see religious leaders as representative of the whole community. In supersecular France and Belgium, for example, national councils of mosques have been set up as interlocutors of the state. Yet while religious leadersIslamic, Christian and otherscan guide their followers, they cannot represent them in a democratic sense. Failing to recognize this distinction is especially dangerous when, as a report commissioned by the Dutch Parliament in 2004 revealed, Islam in Europe is affected by the same trend of religious privatization that is emptying Christian churchesmoving away from formal, organized religion toward spirituality based on individual choice. The report concluded that Islam is nevertheless a strong cultural identifier, becoming even stronger as immigrants’ grievances increase. So while moderate Islamic leaders proclaim harmony in high-level dialogue with politicians and other religious figures, groups within the community who do not feel represented by them seek potentially more destructive channels to express those grievances. This, it seems, played a significant role in the motivation behind the bombings in London on July 7, 2005.

Conflict of Generations

This crisis of religious cohesion is part of a wider conflict within Europe’s immigrant communities, often pitting generations against one another, and rooted in Europe’s failure to agree on a model of integration: whether to promote multiculturalism, insist on assimilation or let informal segregation take hold. Older generations, perhaps recalling a time when the issue did not even merit debate in Europe, tend to accept the unresolved status quo. Younger generations, as they grow more distant from their roots, face a more difficult choice. The multiculturalism favored in Britain and the Netherlands, amalgamating immigrants’ cultural identity with citizenship of their new country along the lines of Irish- and African-Americans, is far from being achieved. Europeans still hold to the idea, rooted in 19th- century nationalism, that everyone must have a single nationality, which is taken to be synonymous with a homogenous culture. Even this author, a relatively unproblematic blend of British and Irish, finds himself frequently pushed to declare for one side or the other.

Many immigrants and even more of their descendants have opted to assimilate into European society and customs, which has become much easier as discrimination according to skin color is less tolerated. The accompanying rejection of traditional culture is understandably difficult for their elders, though, and has been the theme of several recent films both comic and tragic. It also leaves little middle ground. For the descendants of immigrants who do not want to lose their heritage, especially if this would lead to conforming to the norms of a society that has discriminated against them, the attraction of the other end of the integration spectruma fundamentalism that offers a more emphatic assertion of their own identity by differentiation from the otheris clear.

As long as Europe continues to neglect the lasting economic and political integration of its immigrant minorities, the attraction of such radical alternatives as Islamic fundamentalism will remain strong. By misdiagnosing Europe’s recent problems as evidence of a clash of civilizations, we end up treating the symptom rather than the causeand inadvertently encourage the extremists whose aim is to stoke that very clash of civilizations.

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