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Is Europe Unable to Assimilate Its Growing Islamic Minority?

Is Europe Unable to Assimilate Its Growing Islamic Minority?

Peter O'Brien suggests that liberalism leads to xenophobia when it finds it cannot reshape people to its model of life.

By Leslie Evans

"Muslims irk the European liberal because they refuse to convert."

"We are none of us tolerant in what concerns us deeply and entirely." Peter O'Brien opened his remarks on the rise of anti-Islamic movements among mainstream Europeans with this quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He then went on to explore contemporary relations between Muslim immigrants and the mostly Christian mainstream of Europe in a May 24 talk in the Public Policy building at UCLA. O'Brien is a professor of political science at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas. His visit to UCLA was sponsored by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the Center for Near Eastern Studies. It was cosponsored by the Southern California Consortium on International Studies.

Antiforeign Extremists on the Rise

"A wave of xenophobia has washed across Europe in the last decade," O'Brien said. He cited a poll in which 33% of Europeans described themselves as "racist." And he pointed to the large and growing voting blocs now going to right-wing extremists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Joerg Haider in Austria, and Umberto Bossi of the Northern League in Italy. "No longer making up a lunatic fringe, the xenophobes now garner a fifth or a fourth of the popular vote. Lithuania elected a Le Pen clone, and a woman Haider supporter in Austria got 47.6% of the vote."

Peter O'Brien dismissed the claim that either economic hard times or a response to 9/11 could explain the hostility to immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, in Europe. Unemployment was worse in the 1970s and it did not generate xenophobia, but the xenophobia did begin before Al Qaeda's attack in 2001.

The Liberal Basis of European Culture

O'Brien's explanation is that the European liberal tradition from the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century has rested on a credo of conversion to a common set of secular rationalist values. When it runs into a population that just won't convert, it reacts with hostility.

The doctrine of liberalism, O'Brien postulated, assumed "that all persons properly exposed to liberalism will in due time embrace it. Opponents are expected to convert to the universality of liberalism. The failure of Muslims to convert leads to a loss of faith in liberalism and adoption of illiberalism."

The liberalism that O'Brien sees at the heart of European culture is that of Bacon, Newton, Descartes, and Locke. That is, a faith in reason, science, and a pragmatic empiricism. "The concept of free agency lies at the heart of liberalism. Free persons will necessarily perceive and assent to the truths of these great thinkers." But what if they don't? "Critics were defined away as irrational and unfree."

Because these assumptions permeate European -- and American -- society, much of the instrumentality of the state, including its educational institutions, is devoted to inculcating these values in a system O'Brien calls "technocratic liberalism."

"Opponents' minds needed to be properly molded," he said. But Muslim communities have resisted this. "Muslims irk the European liberal because they refuse to convert, even after generations. They congregate in ethnic ghettos, form their own exclusive organizations. They forbid their children to attend public schools or attend Quran schools to unlearn what is taught in the public schools. They wear distinctive clothes."

Peter O'Brien conceded that there are fundamentalist fanatics among Europe's Muslims, but charged that the media concentrates on these and does not discuss more reasoned Muslim critics. These are of two sorts: those who criticize hypocrisy and a double standard in the treatment of Muslims, and a deeper critique that rejects a nonreligious view of life.

A Double Standard toward Muslims

The first type charges that Muslims do not get the same basic rights and privileges as non-Muslims.  O'Brien cited a British Muslim who says, "Islam is never allowed to speak for itself. They see only terrorism, arranged marriage, political despotism." Another asks if the persecution in Bosnia would have been tolerated if the victims had been Christians. Another complaint is that domestic violence is more tolerated by authorities in Europe in Muslim families than in Christian families. Or: "A French woman with a scarf is chic, but a Muslim woman with a scarf is a threat to civilization."

Throughout Europe, O'Brien pointed out, "Christian churches receive generous public subsidies but only in Belgium do mosques share in this." There is also frequent hostility by public agencies to approving plans for constructing new mosques. "There are 13-15 million Muslims living in Europe, but most mosques in Europe are cheap storefront places." Another example is that European laborers get smoke breaks but there are not prayer breaks for Muslims.

The Muslim Critique of Liberalism Itself

The above examples challenge European liberals but not liberalism. Peter O'Brien next turned to more fundamental criticisms. "Some Muslim critics contend that the free market has not liberated human beings but has enslaved them to consumerism. They say Western society has produced unprecedented violence and brutality, that Western man is spiritually empty and alone." He quoted a British Muslim leader as saying that "The Western civilization's highest value is its standard of living, it has no other value," and that "when aid is given to the poor it is only to allow the rich to export more at higher prices." Other phrases in circulation in Muslim communities include "institutionalized greed for mass consumption," "a sexually greedy civilization," and "the Western civilization is not a civilization, it is a disease."

Defining Nonassimilation as a Pathology. . .

O'Brien criticized secular liberalism for framing the discussion of adopting its values as one that has only one right answer. "Liberals focus on things that obstruct the Muslim way to liberalism. Many studies concentrate on migrating from traditional to modern societies. They argue that being transplanted overnight from villages to modern cities leads to disorientation. They see an unnatural defensive reaction from transplantation: 'frozen clock syndrome,' culture shock, psychotic overload. Such analysis divides Muslims and Europeans into two categories: rational Europeans and not yet free and rational Muslims."

. . . and Refusing to Be Liberated

Government policies have been formulated on the premise that full assimilation is the goal and resistance arises from failures to understand modernity. "There have been extensive governmental campaigns to integrate Muslims into society throughout the 1970s to the 1990s. Social welfare programs were expanded to include resident aliens as well as citizens. Some of these went so far as to offer free Islamic education in the public schools to undercut the Quran schools.

"These initiatives assist but do not empower their targets. Muslims are largely excluded from designing programs aimed at them. The Europeans know best what is good for the Muslim immigrants," O'Brien said. If the Muslim immigrants accept the assistance, "they accept the image of themselves as nonliberals. If they refuse they are seen to need further treatment. So many refuse to be liberated. Such resistance alarms liberals. Europeans see differences with Muslims as entrenched and possibly immutable. If they resist integration, their undesirable qualities musts be eliminated. Hence the turn to openly illiberal politics."

Some people in Europe, O'Brien said, have begun to cite the internment of Japanese in the United States in World War II "as a good precedent for dealing with European Muslims."

Four Possible Solutions

Peter O'Brien concluded by presenting four possible resolutions to the cultural split between secular liberalism and Islam in Europe.

1. Technocratic liberalism. "Europe can persist with what is has been doing in the hope of resocializing Muslims. This has not succeeded well for three long decades."

2. Pure liberalism. "They could extend immediately to Muslims full rights of citizenship with the understanding that the Muslims may use such rights to promote illiberalism."

3. Fortress liberalism. "Along lines of Samuel Huntington and the clash of civilizations, silence, sequester them, make them second-class citizens without the same rights as full citizens." O'Brien said this approach would mean embracing liberal Muslims while taking action against those who refused to change. Most advocates of this view also call for suppression of far right and racist Europeans. "The German government seems to be heading in this direction," O'Brien said.

4. Postmodern liberalism. This was Peter O'Brien's preferred course. "It presumes insurmountable diversity where no single metaphysical world view can be dominant," he said. "You cannot convert or contain Muslims, but don't worry about it. A rudderless Europe may not be a worse Europe."

Center for European and Eurasian Studies