News coming from Europe over the last few weeks shows a rising trend within several European countries to seek the assimilation of their Muslim inhabitants through new laws forcing Muslim women to give up their Islamic attire in public schools, sending Muslim refugees back home, and limiting the number of new Muslim clerics. A closer look at Europe’s current economic and ideological circumstances and at the consequences of the latest regulations on European Muslims shows that Europe is taking the wrong route to integrate its Muslim populations.
On Feb. 17th, Danish PM Anders Rasmussen announced various changes to immigration policies aimed at curbing the number of Muslim religious leaders allowed into Denmark. The proposed changes, which parliament is expected to rapidly pass into law, are part of a deal reached last 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," a DPP spokesman Peter Skaarup told journalists in September.
On the same day, the Dutch Lower House voted to expel up to 26,000 failed asylum-seekers over the next three years. Many have been in the asylum process for years, and include Somalis, Afghans, Chechens, and stateless persons. The New York-based Human Rights Watch described the move as a violation of international standards that “signal 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.”
On March 3rd in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population (four to five million), the French Senate approved an internationally controversial ban on headscarves worn by Muslim women, known as the hijab, from public schools. The new legislation, which is expected to be signed by French President Jacques Chirac within fifteen days, would ban other religious symbols, including large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps. “But no one here [in France] pretends the target is anything other than the hijab in a Europe showing growing discomf! ort over its burgeoning Muslim population,” thought The Boston Globe. Politicians in Belgium and Germany are debating similar headscarf bans.
The new regulations unjustly infringe on the civil rights of millions of law abiding Muslim immigrants by: forcing Muslim women and girls to choose between their religiously mandated attire and available public educational opportunities; sending Muslim refugees to countries where their lives may be endangered; and limiting Muslims access to religious leaders and education.
They also disregard historical and contemporary Muslim contributions to the advancement of Europe. During the colonial area, the Islamic world provided major springs of cheap labor and natural resources necessary for the advancement of industrial Europe. After WWII, France and Britain turned towards their former Muslims colonies in North Africa and South Asia to seek a badly needed workforce to help their economic recovery; while the Germans sought the help of the Turks, their former allies.
Today, more than 15 million Muslims create an integral part of Europe. Some of them are highly educated immigrants and converts. While many are underprivileged workers who help fill blue-collar jobs, have little political access, if any, and face frequent discrimination, especially in the post 9/11 era. In Britain, where 1.6 million Muslims live, a London-based Islamic human rights group reported 344 incidents of ant-Muslim violence against Muslims in the year after Sept. 11, including the stabbing of a Muslim woman.
Instead of confronting the post Sept.11 anti-Muslim phobia, these new laws will scapegoat Muslims for the real problems dwindling Europe’s ability to build on its traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance; its need for economic and political reform; and the rise of the extreme right.
In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Portugal, center and extreme right-wing parties have recently gained great ground. Europe’s difficult political and economic integration, the worldwide economic recession, and the inefficiency of several European leftist governments are all possible causes for the rise of the European right. But what is certain is that Europe’s extreme right-wingers are prospering by amplifying Europeans’ economic and cultural fears, especially toward their Muslim immigrant neighbors.
Europe’s proposed anti-Muslim laws will create a false solution for serious problems impeding Europe’s multiculturalism. This will hinder Muslim integration into European society, as well as damage Europe’s image in the Muslim world. Instead, European countries should seek creative approaches to fully engage their Muslim communities in the struggle for economic reform and ideological moderation.