European nations must embrace change if they are to progress
Europe’s identity crisis is not confined to the ceaseless squabbles among Europeans over the EU, Brexit or football. It goes much deeper, reaching sensitive and dangerous territory, including that of culture and religion. Once more, Muslims stand at the heart of the continent’s identity debate.
Of course, Islamophobic sentiments are rarely framed to actually appear anti-Muslim. While Europe’s right-wing parties remain committed to the ridiculous notion that Muslims, immigrants and refugees pose a threat to European nations’ overall security and unique secular identities, the left is not entirely immune from such chauvinistic notions.
The right’s political discourse is familiar and is often condemned for its repugnantly ultranationalistic, if not outright racist, tone and rhetoric. The left, on the other hand, is a different story. The European left, notably in countries like France and Belgium, frame their “problem” with Islam as fundamental to their supposed dedication to the secular values of the state.
Leftist politicians and intellectuals were just as eager as the right to prevent Ihsane Haouach, a Belgian government representative who wears a hijab, from serving as a commissioner at the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. The two sides joined forces, although without an official declaration of unity, to ensure Haouach had no place in a public-facing role in the country’s civil service. This is similar to a scenario in France in May, when Sara Zemmahi was removed from the ruling En Marche party’s list of candidates for seemingly violating France’s “values of the republic.”
These are just two examples, with others not restricted to French-speaking countries. There are many such disquieting events that point to a deep-seated problem that remains unresolved. In Britain, Rakhia Ismail, who was celebrated as the country’s first hijabwearing mayor in May 2019, resigned as a Labour Party councilor less than a year and a half later, citing racism and marginalization.
These cases are all the outcome of an overriding phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice, coupled with a wave of racism that has plagued Europe for many years, especially in the last decade.
Though Europe’s official institutions, mainstream media, sports clubs and so on continue to pay lip service to the need for diversity and inclusion, the reality is entirely different. A recent example was the horrific outcome of England’s defeat in the Euro 2020 football final against Italy. Gangs of white English, mostly male, supporters attacked people in the streets and black players were racially abused online.
Various officials, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, condemned the widespread racism. However, many of these officials have said or done very little to combat
Islamophobic hate and violence in the past.
Of course, Islamophobia must be seen within the wider context of the toxic anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments, which are now defining factors in modern European politics. It is this hate and racism that served as the fuel for the growing popularity of political parties like National Rally in France, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Freedom Party of Austria, and the League in Italy.
And where is the left in all of this? With a few exceptions, much of the left is still trapped in its own intellectual hubris, adding yet more fuel to the fire while veiling criticisms of Islam as genuine concern for secularism.
Oddly, in Europe, as in much of the West, the wearing of a cross or Star of David as a necklace and Catholic nuns’ head coverings, let alone kippahs, religious tattoos and many other such symbols, are all part of everyday culture. Why do we never hear of a Jewish man being tossed out of a public building because of his kippah or a white French woman being expelled from university for wearing a cross? The matter has less to do with religious symbols in general than with the religious symbols of races and peoples who are simply unwanted in Europe.
Limiting the discussion to refugees and immigrants may give the impression that the debate is mostly concerned with the non-European “others” who are “invading” Europe’s shores, determined to “replace” Europe’s original white Christian inhabitants.
This is hardly the case, since a sizable percentage of Belgians and French, for example, are themselves Muslim (estimated at 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively). These Muslims are European citizens.
Haouach, Zemmahi and Ismail wanted to be a part of — not break apart from — these societies by honoring their countries’ most cherished political traditions, but without erasing their own cultural heritage and religious identities in the process. Alas, they were all vehemently rejected.
And, when Muslim communities try to fight back, they are once again rejected. In June, Belgium’s constitutional court resolved that prohibiting the wearing of the hijab does not constitute a violation of freedom of religion or the right to education. And, only last week, the EU’s top court ruled against two German Muslim women by stating that private employers can ban people from wearing religious symbols, including headscarves, “in order to present an image of neutrality.”
It is time for European countries to understand that their demographics are fundamentally changing, and that such change can be beneficial to their nations’ health. Without true diversity and meaningful inclusion, there can be no real progress in any society. But while demographic shifts can offer an opportunity for growth, they can also inspire fear, racism and, predictably, violence too.
Europe, which has fought two horrendous wars in modern times, should know better.
official institutions pay lip service
to the need for diversity and inclusion, the reality is entirely
The UK remains
bitterly divided, which
was both a cause and a symptom