EUROPE: Wrong way to integrate
Alaa Bayoumi

There is an increasing tendency in Europe to seek to assimilate Muslim citizens by capping the number of Muslim clerics allowed in, deporting refugees, and forbidding Muslim girls from wearing the veil in school. But the potential consequences of such regulations suggest Europe is taking the wrong route to integrate its Muslim populations.

Last month Anders Rasmussen, Denmark’s prime minister, announced immigration rules that would curb the number of Muslim religious leaders allowed into the country. The bill, which parliament is expected to rapidly pass into law, is the result of a deal reached in September between Denmark’s Liberal-Conservative government and its far-right ally, the Danish People’s Party (DPP).

“In theory, these rules concern all clerics from all religions. But in practice, they target the imams,” DPP spokesman Peter Skaarup said.

Also in February, the Dutch lower house voted to deport up to 26,000 failed asylum seekers within three years. Many of these are Somalis, Afghans, Chechens, and stateless persons who have been languishing in the asylum process for years.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch described the move as a violation of international standards.

“[It] signals a serious departure from the Netherlands’ historic role as a leader in human rights’ protection in Europe… [because] sending people back to places where they could be in danger not only jeopardizes their safety, it is illegal.”

The big issue that gained world attention, however, was the adoption of a bill by the French Senate early this month to ban the hijab (head scarf) and other religious apparel from school. Jacques Chirac, the president, is expected to sign the legislation into law within days.

Large Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and other religious symbols would be included within the sweeping ban.

“No one here [in France] pretends the target is anything other than the hijab in a Europe showing growing discomfort over its burgeoning Muslim population,” said the US Boston Globe newspaper in an editorial.

Politicians in Belgium and Germany are debating similar head scarf bans.

Not only do these regulations infringe on the civil rights of Muslim citizens, they also disregard the historical and contemporary Muslim contributions to Europe’s advancement. In colonial times, the Islamic world provided a large source of cheap labor and natural resources to industrial Europe. After World War II, France and Britain turned to their former Muslim colonies in North Africa and South Asia for a work force to help in their economic recovery. The Germans, likewise, sought help from their former allies, the Turks. Today, more than 15 million Muslims work at the heart of Europe. Some are highly educated immigrants and converts to Islam, while most hold down blue-collar jobs.

Many face discrimination in the post 9/11 era. In Britain, home to 1.6 million Muslims, a London-based Islamic human rights group reported 344 incidents of violence against Muslims in the year after 9/11.

Extreme right wing political parties in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Holland, Norway, and Portugal have gained much ground.

The political right has also fed on public frustration arising from Europe’s difficult political and economic integration, the worldwide economic recession, and the inefficiency of some European leftist governments.

But the extreme right is also profiting from Europeans’ economic and cultural fears, especially toward Muslim immigrants. Rather than provide a solution to the difficulties of multiculturalism in Europe, however, the proposed laws are likely to make scapegoats of Muslims and hinder their integration into society, thereby damaging Europe’s image in the Muslim world.

European countries should instead seek creative approaches to fully engage their Muslim communities in the struggle for economic reform and ideological moderation.

Alaa Bayoumi is an Egyptian writer