Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The New Inquisition Pt. 2

Swiss Propaganda Image in support of a ban on minarets (2009)

The New Inquisition (cont'd)

By Laila Lalami via the Nation

"Although a large proportion of Europe's immigrants are not Muslim, and although the continent has faced serious economic, political and social challenges at various times over the past fifty years, European Muslims are held to blame for the rise in crime, violence against women, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and homegrown terrorism. For instance, Caldwell examines rates of incarceration in Europe, finds them proportionately higher for Muslims and attributes this finding to their religion and their culture, neither of which, in his view, equip them with the necessary tools for succeeding in the West. Missing from this grim assessment is the stubborn fact that Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be prosecuted for minor offenses. In France, where judges and prosecutors have large discretionary powers, noncitizens are significantly more likely to be forced into pretrial detention while their case is being investigated. The sociologist Devah Pager, who teaches at Princeton, also found a strong correlation between crime-control strategies in French local jurisdictions and the ethnic heterogeneity of these jurisdictions. To put it more plainly, crime is not policed in the same way for everyone. Researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands found a similar pattern; they recently published the result of a study showing that Moroccans sit in jail for lighter crimes than ethnic Dutch.

At no time was the question of crime in Muslim neighborhoods debated more hotly than in the fall of 2005, when the Parisian banlieues erupted in riots that lasted three weeks, leading then-President Chirac to declare a state of emergency. The riots were triggered by the deaths of two teenage boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who, while fleeing the police, hid in a power station and were electrocuted. Initially, Sarkozy, at the time Chirac's interior minister, claimed that the boys were suspected of robbery, but there was no solid evidence that they committed a crime--they had been playing soccer in a field when they saw police officers and fled to avoid a lengthy process of interrogation. In interviews after the riots, the people of the banlieues often described the teenagers' deaths as a spark but cited as fuel discrimination, isolation and joblessness. The banlieues are ghettos, and as James Baldwin once wrote, "To smash something is the ghetto's chronic need." Though Pascal Mailhos, the head of the French national intelligence services, flatly stated that religious beliefs played no part in the riots, several French politicians blamed, persistently and exclusively, Islam. So does Caldwell: "Even if they did not believe in Islam, they believed in Team Islam." The point here, I suppose, is that Muslims are acting collectively even when they tell you they're not.

Caldwell also suggests that Muslims are far more likely to commit violence against women. Under the heading "Virginity and violence," he writes that "there were forty-five [honor killings] in Germany alone in the first half of the decade." Since the argument here is that Muslims are more inclined to commit homicides against women in the context of "some trespass against sexual propriety," it would have been helpful if Caldwell had included, for the sake of contrast, the number of ethnic German women killed in incidents of domestic violence, as well as numbers for an entirely distinct and recent immigrant group, such as Eastern Europeans. Without such empirical comparisons, it is difficult to see how he can reach the conclusion he does, which is that "such acts make law. They assert sovereignty over a certain part of European territory for a different sexual regime." The label "honor killing" makes violence against women and girls sound like an exotic import rather than the pernicious and all-too-frequent reality that it is. Caldwell doesn't mention that domestic violence has been treated as a criminal problem in Europe thanks to the work of European feminists in the 1960s and '70s, and that now European Muslim feminists are working to create a similar zero-tolerance level about honor killings. Encouragingly, a recent Gallup study found that Muslims in Paris, Berlin and London disapproved of honor killings and crimes of passion about as much as the general French, German and British populations.

One of Caldwell's frequent arguments is that Europeans should be worried about the Islamization of their continent because Muslim women are having children in greater numbers than non-Muslims. As proof for this claim, he cites a working paper from the Vienna Institute of Demography. But recent studies show that birthrates among European Muslim women are declining sharply; for instance, the fertility rate in the Netherlands for Moroccan-born women fell from 4.9 to 2.9 between 1990 and 2005. Turkish-born women had 3.2 children in 1990 and 1.9 in 2005. Similar patterns have been observed in France and Germany. Martin Walker, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, points out that, "broadly speaking, birthrates among immigrants tend to rise or fall to the local statistical norm within two generations." Moreover, the Financial Times, the newspaper for which Caldwell is a columnist, recently published an article that belied all the alarmist claims about Muslim birthrates, concluding, "in short, Islamicisation--let alone sharia law--is not a demographic prospect for Europe."

The fundamental problem with Reflections on the Revolution in Europe is that Caldwell focuses exclusively on the problems with Muslim immigrants without stepping back to assess the general status of the European Muslim community. While he frequently denounces idleness, urban separation and crime by Muslims, he does not see fit to devote any space to the discrimination they face in employment, housing or the justice system, or the successes they have had in fields like science, sports, arts and entertainment. The French even have a term for this wave of young successful Muslims; they call it beurgeoisie. (The word beur is French slang for "North African.")

This flaw in Caldwell's approach is, unfortunately, entirely intentional. Reflections, he writes in his introduction, is a book about Europe, immigration and the place of Islam and Muslims in it, not "a book about the difficulties faced by immigrants and ethnic minorities." He stresses that he will use the term "native" to refer to those of European blood and "immigrant" to refer to those who are from outside Europe, even when they have been citizens of European countries for two or three generations. But by simplifying his terminology and focusing exclusively on the problems immigrants cause, not on those they face, Caldwell has tilted the scales: he does not present a complete view of the relationship between immigrant and native. On the rare occasions (I counted two) when he does mention discrimination, it is to minimize it: "There was certainly measurable discrimination in the European job and housing markets, although it was mild alongside what one might have found in the United States four decades ago." How easy it is to dismiss discrimination when one is not on the receiving end of it. But the statistics on job discrimination defy minimization: while 27 percent of beur university graduates are unemployed in France, the overall unemployment rate for university graduates is just 5 percent.

In effect, this lack of context mirrors the way Muslim immigrants (even those in second and third generations, or those who are probably Muslim in name only) are talked about in newspapers and magazines, on the radio and television: their religion is at the center of any discussion, as if the only thing that defines their political convictions, their votes, their relationship with their neighbors, with people of other religions or with members of the opposite sex is their ability to tell their nisab from their khums.

The thesis that only Islam is to blame for Muslims' supposed inability to assimilate in Europe is far too simplistic to stand the test of reality. In fact, it's just as simplistic as the argument peddled by the Muslim right wing, which is that Islam is the only cure for whatever ails Muslims. When one looks at Muslims on another continent (America, say) the pattern that Caldwell insists has been replicated throughout Europe (ghettoization, crime, violence against women, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, homegrown terrorism and demands for accommodation) does not obtain. In fact, income and education levels of Muslims in America mirror those of the general public. But save for two paragraphs, which appear ten pages before the end of the book, Caldwell avoids this comparison, presumably because it does not fit with his theory.

Caldwell does contrast Muslim immigration to Europe with Latin immigration to America. "The cultural peculiarities of Latin American immigrants," he argues, "are generally antiquated versions of American ones. Latinos have less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates, more frequent church attendance...lousier diets, and higher rates of military enlistment than native-born Americans." This, he says, makes Latino culture "perfectly intelligible to any patient American who has ever had a conversation about the past with his parents." But intelligibility did not prevent Glenn Beck from claiming that immigrants were "trying to conquer our culture" or Lou Dobbs from suggesting that the "invasion of illegal aliens" was responsible for a huge (and undocumented) rise in leprosy cases in the United States. The scholar Anouar Majid has cataloged many similarities between the treatment of Latino immigrants in the United States and Muslim immigrants in Europe in his book We Are All Moors. Ironically, Caldwell behaves much like a new convert to a religion: having found an ideology he agrees with, he looks only for the evidence that confirms his beliefs and disregards everything else.

Not surprisingly, Caldwell's assessment of Europe, like his assessment of European Muslims, leaves little room for nuance or complexity. He portrays the continent as a racially, culturally and politically homogenous place and its natives as extremely tolerant, respectful of human rights and largely secular. In his view, Europeans naïvely believed that Muslim workers who came after World War II would not stay. They welcomed the immigrants and muted their own concerns because they were afraid to be called racist. Caldwell makes the entire process of immigration seem like a giant hoax devious Muslims perpetrated on innocent Europeans. "European natives," he writes, "have become steadily less forthright, or more frightened, about expressing their opposition to immigration in public."

But the truth is that Europeans, particularly of the right-wing persuasion, have not been shy at all about opposing immigration. Anti-immigrant sentiment is as old as immigration itself, and Europe is no exception. Over the past few decades, immigration policy has repeatedly been a major theme of general elections in several European countries, including France, Italy and Spain. Still, the typical European one encounters in Reflections is ashamed of his country and unable to stand up to immigrants. Caldwell writes, rather preposterously, "The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans." Elsewhere, he argues that European natives have become so enamored with the idea of multiculturalism that they "know more about Arabic calligraphy and kente cloth" than they know about "Montaigne and Goethe." Of course, this is hyperbole. But strikingly, Caldwell does not wonder how much European Muslims, a great many of whom are graduates of European schools on the continent or outside it, know about these subjects.

While Caldwell blames Muslim immigrants for a range of problems, he reserves part of his scorn for "the spiritual tawdriness" of Europe--which, in his estimation, may be the "biggest liability in preserving its culture." The increasing secularization of Europe caused it to lose its bearings and gradually become vulnerable to "colonization" by "primitive" cultures. "Along the road of European modernization," he writes, "lie the shopping mall, the pierced navel, online gambling, a 50 percent divorce rate, and a high rate of anomie and self-loathing. What makes us so certain that that Europeanization is a road that immigrants will want to travel?" But in fact polls show that attitudes of European Muslims vary from country to country and often display the same regional differences seen among various European publics. For instance, Gallup polls show that Parisian Muslims are more likely than Muslims in Berlin or London to consider adultery "morally acceptable," a pattern that mirrors the larger proportions of native French who find adultery acceptable when compared with Britons or Germans.

For Caldwell, there is a quality of "Europeanness" that, on the one hand, is in danger of being lost because of the mass immigration of Muslims, and, on the other hand, is so idiosyncratic that it is not easily passed to new generations of European Muslims. He appears to suggest that this quality is innate: "[EU expansion] raised hopes that Western European labor needs could be filled by people who more or less thought like Europeans (say, maids from Hungary and machinists from Bulgaria) rather than people who did not (say, maids and machinists from Pakistan and Algeria)." The emphasis is his.

Caldwell argues that intra-European immigration had a higher degree of success because the immigrants who moved within Europe shared religious and cultural beliefs with the natives. Such an optimistic view leaves out inconvenient facts of history. In the early decades of the twentieth century, France brought thousands of Polish workers to its factories and its mines; many lived in suburban ghettos and, despite being Christian, were deemed by the natives to be too attached to their culture and too religious (they were referred to as calotins, or "Holy Joes"). Some French intellectuals and politicians began speaking of "invasion." (Similar accusations were made about Spaniards, Italians and Belgians who later migrated to France.) When the recession of the 1930s put a crunch on the French economy, the government forcibly put Polish immigrants on trains and sent them back home. So the process by which immigrants integrate in European societies has historically been a slow one, even when immigrants "think" like Europeans.

This undiscerning approach leads Caldwell to severe errors of judgment. It is exceedingly disturbing to find so many right-wing leaders receive one form or another of rehabilitation in Reflections. The British conservative politician Enoch Powell--who famously warned that if Britain didn't stop letting in nonwhite immigrants, it would soon be "foaming with much blood"--is described as "morally" wrong but "factually" right. Elsewhere, Caldwell decries the Dutch media's portrayal of the far-right leader Geert Wilders as a "paranoid and sinister bumpkin," while those who speak more conciliatorily about Islam are "spared ridicule." Wilders once compared the Koran with Mein Kampf and proposed that it be banned. This past September, he argued that a tax of 1,000 euros should be levied against Muslim women who wear a headscarf because they "pollute" the landscape.

Pim Fortuyn, the notorious Dutch far-right leader, "was not a racist," Caldwell informs us, "and his colorful repartee about the Moroccan men he had slept with was adequate to place him above the suspicion of being one." By the same logic, should one forget that Strom Thurmond supported racist laws just because he had a black child? Caldwell writes wistfully that "Fortuyn could well have become prime minister had he not been shot dead days before national elections in May 2002, by an animal rights activist who claimed to be acting to protect Dutch Muslims." Even though Muslims had nothing to do with Fortuyn's murder, this formulation suggests that, somehow, they did.

Not coincidentally, several of the loudest forecasters of European doom were previously best known for their anti-Semitic views. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, once called the Holocaust an "extremely profitable lie." Nowadays, he asks that Muslims be prevented from flying into or out of Britain and runs ads with the slogan Enoch Powell Was Right. Vlaams Belang, the Flemish far-right party, has also had Holocaust deniers in its leadership, though now they seem most preoccupied with preventing Muslim women who wear the headscarf from working for local councils. And Le Pen, the founder of the French National Front, once described gas chambers as "a mere detail of history" and called a political opponent named Michel Durafour "Durafour crématoire" (the pun can be loosely translated as "Michel-hard-to-cook-in-a-gas-chamber"). Now he warns that it is only a matter of time before the mayor of Marseille will no longer be Mr. Gaudin but Mr. "Ben Gaudin." Recently it emerged that the Vlaams Belang and other far-right groups have formed a coalition called "Cities Against Islamisation." Europe has gone down this road before, and it did not emerge the better for it.

The societies of Europe are undergoing demographic changes, which have economic, social and educational consequences. So far, the debate on these changes has focused exclusively on Islam in Europe. Yet no one in the chattering classes seems to have noticed that the voices of European Muslims are seldom heard. This is a debate about them--not with them. And indeed Reflections on the Revolution in Europe has been reviewed in the American press mostly by people who are not European, much less Muslim. Not surprisingly, the argument that Muslims are collectively trying to "conquer" Europe "street by street" in order to turn it into an outpost of Islam has been taken at face value. But this argument is not serious criticism because it is not based on thorough empirical evidence; it is racism.

When European Muslims are heard from, it is often on the topic of religion, and usually immediately after some disaster caused by one of their co-religionists. Political leaders, eager to show that they are in dialogue with the "immigrants" (large proportions of whom are second- or third-generation citizens), quote from the Koran or invite some imam to tea at the presidential palace. The conversation turns into a battle over religion, over who has the right interpretation of what verse, instead of being expanded to the issues most relevant to the integration of European Muslims--issues like jobs, housing, education and civil rights.

The current debate places far too much emphasis on Islam as a set of codes and on the Koran as a literal text, rather than on Islam as it is lived and the Koran as an experienced text. A Moroccan man may be very devout and yet work as a sommelier in a restaurant in Paris. A Turkish teenager may not be particularly faithful and yet keep Ramadan because it is the only time of year she gets to connect with her community. An Algerian elder may be the imam of his mosque and yet carry credit card debt. Islam is not just its texts; it is millions of people, each one of whom has found an idiosyncratic way of adapting faith to modern life. Our religious beliefs are not the sum total of our lives. To discuss them as if they were puts our very lives up for debate.

The challenge of immigration is not Europe's alone. In our increasingly globalized world, immigrants are moving in all directions, across large distances and at faster rates than ever before. What Europeans--what all of us--need to face is the unavoidability of living together. Caldwell has culled two tercets from W.H. Auden's "The Quest" as the epigraph for his book:

Could he forget a child's ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He'd tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father's house and speak his mother tongue.

Yet when I read Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, I was reminded of another poem, one Auden had written a year earlier, at the onset of World War II; and though the poet came to look with disfavor on the line, its truth is the one I would rather cling to: 'We must love one another or die.'"

Laila Lalami, the author of Secret Son, is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside

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