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Europe must accept its Muslims

"Culture" has become an important mask used to hide a racist agenda at home and an expansionist policy outside.


[Islam] In the name of culture, George W. Bush's wars have become a noble mission to bring democracy to the culturally hostile Middle East. Blair's harsh attack on civil rights became a necessary defense of "British values" against cultural and religious aggression.

There is one dichotomy that has dominated Western political discourse since the Enlightenment, and which has been driven by Europe's economic and military expansion. The dichotomy between "us" and "them" – with "we" as Europeans or Westerners, permeated by the light of rationality and progress, and "them", still resting in a darkness of superstition and cultural stagnation.

This colonialist discourse from the right is once again on the rise in Europe. That is why the Chirac government in the French school history curriculum could shamelessly redefine the bleak decades of French colonization in Africa into a "civilization mission".

11. September 2001 could have driven European governments to create more open relations with the ethnic and religious minorities who are not only institutionally marginalized but also socially part of the underclass. It was an event that could also reassess their line of illegitimate military expansion. Instead, have 11. September has become an excuse to dispute a right-wing, aggressive agenda at home, and an arrogant interventionism out there.

The root of all evil

In this climate, multiculturalism has been portrayed as something that haunts Europe and is the root of all the evils of Europe. As one writer said: "Time is over for sophism ... our country needs to rethink its values".

In other words, minorities are the cause of all social, political and economic problems in Europe. The cure is to strangle them with strict legislation and relentless practices – surveillance, arbitrary searches of people with minority backgrounds, the ability to keep suspects in custody longer, and the police being ordered to shoot to kill.

They and their beliefs have become a security issue that must be addressed by the intelligence authorities alone. No matter how much the Muslims of Europe try to prove their loyalty to the nation-state, in the eyes of the national strategists they become a threat to the security of the kingdom.

The critics of multiculturalism should think about the following: Whether we like it or not, Europe is a multicultural continent. It is not possible to turn back time and use a narrow understanding that national identity should be based on equality.

Countries such as France, which are still striving to reverse this trend in the name of "religious neutrality" and in line with "republic values", are in deeper crisis than any other European country.

It seems that the critics of multiculturalism have stumbled upon the panacea that can cure our problems – in the French principle of integration, in fact a euphemism for cultural and social assimilation. Looking at the suburbs of Paris, which are marked by ghettos, social hardship, unemployment and crime, it is more likely to condemn this form of integration than to recommend others to imitate it. The recent riots in the French suburbs are proof of this.

Not represented

There is no denying that Europe has a diverse set of cultures in its midst. However, cultural diversity is not the same as cultural pluralism.

Pluralism also means that there are many who are equal in the public sphere. The presence of many groups is not enough in itself. The important thing is whether the state treats them as equals.

This is clearly not the case in Europe, where ethnic minorities have poor housing and several health problems; they fall behind the others in the education system and are more often unemployed than their white peers.

In France and many other European countries, the Muslims, the continent's largest religious minority, are still not represented in any of the political institutions. They are forced to exist completely outside the public sphere. Culture and ethnicity now form the basis of social team formation. Religious and ethnic minorities are Europe's new underclass.

Greater responsibility

The integration of the Muslim minority has lately been the subject of a public debate that has been very tense and marked by simplified arguments. It would be difficult to find things to criticize about the concept of integration – if it only meant greater openness from the Muslim minority in its cultural environment, or the need to acquire the necessary language skills to enable such communication.

However, openness to culture and way of life is a mutual, not a one-sided, affair. It places greater responsibility on the majority culture, which has more power and better structural conditions. It is committed to meeting the cultural minorities around it.

Last year, a survey conducted by the UK Commission of Racial Equality showed that 83 percent of white Britons say they do not have friends who are practicing Muslims and that 94 percent say they do not have friends from outside their own ethnic communities.

The overwhelming presence of untrue stereotypes about Muslims is further proof that the majority live in isolation from minority groups, and that they need to be more effectively integrated into today's European society, which is ethnically and culturally diverse. Rejecting multiculturalism has become a way to breathe life into the tradition of cultural essentialism, with its belief that European culture is superior, with its myths about the white man's burden and his civilizing mission. In this context, the enormously diverse and complex Islamic culture, which has given life to some of the most cosmopolitan and open societies throughout history – in Baghdad, Damascus, Córdoba and Istanbul – has now been reduced to a set of vulgar stereotypes.

On the head

These are stereotyped perceptions of women's subordination, arranged marriage, fanaticism and religious despotism. The arguments often reveal great ignorance and a lot of prejudice.

Most importantly, they overlook the fact that all cultures are interpreted in different ways and that no culture is homogeneous or absolute. Reducing the Islamic culture of these phenomena is like seeing Abu Ghraib Prison, Guantanamo Bay and the fiery corpses of "hostile combatants" as examples of American culture.

Some liberals particularly like this question: How, they ask, is it possible to be tolerant of the intolerant? The recent attacks on civil rights and the tendency to control public space and intervene in the privacy of Europe and the United States show that this misunderstood question has turned heads.

What we have to ask ourselves is: To what extent are those who preach liberalism today really liberal? To what extent are those who call themselves tolerant really tolerant? Can we still claim that we live in an open society?

The text is published on Al-Jazeera's website.

Soumaya Ghannoushi is researching the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London

Translated by Gro Stueland Skorpen

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