Learning to live together peacefully

DUTCH academic and author Paul Scheffer visited a school in the Belgian city of Antwerp, where 70 per cent of the students were Muslim. The teachers called him aside to ask his advice about a problem.

”The teachers told me it was very difficult to talk about the Second World War and the Holocaust because the students didn’t want to hear this, they said it was all lies,” he says. ”In biology class, they didn’t want to hear about evolution. In literature, they didn’t want to hear about Oscar Wilde because he was homosexual. Physical education classes were difficult because they didn’t want boys and girls to be together.

”What does a policy of multiculturalism tell you to do in such a situation? It is a philosophy of avoidance. It perpetuates the first stage of a migrant community, which is living side by side but separately from the wider society. It doesn’t give you a clue about what you need to do next.”

Scheffer, now professor of European studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, agrees with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that multiculturalism in Europe is dead, a failed policy unable to come to grips with today’s social realities. In 2000, he wrote an essay warning of this kind of eventuality, intending to criticise a smug Western elite that he believed was ignoring the social disadvantage of others.

In The Multicultural Drama, he warned that many first-generation migrants and their children lagged behind in terms of jobs and education and that more needed to be done to help them. But he also pointed out many of them were unwilling to accept a liberal society and religious pluralism.

The essay took off like a rocket, sparking some debates in terms that were not of Scheffer’s making and which made him ”pretty miserable”. First it was used to back right-wing rhetoric on race. After the 9/11 attacks, however, it morphed again, with the debate becoming focused on religion. Scheffer says that in Europe, ”9/11 made the question of migrants into the question of Muslims”.

Farooq Murad, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, puts it more strongly: ”Suddenly, this large faith community, which represents one-fifth of the people on this earth, became, in the eyes of the Western world, criminals, or at least [people who were] suspected of harbouring that point of view.”

Murad says 9/11 has made daily life much harder for Muslims in myriad ways. One study found that Asians – in Britain, most of them are Muslim – are 46 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than non-Asians.

”I have lived in England since I was a teenager,” he says. ”Suddenly, overnight, you feel an outsider, you feel suspected, you watch your behaviour. Boarding a train, you feel awful that you might be causing distress to your fellow travellers. On a plane you may need your bag in the overhead compartment but you don’t get it because you don’t want to cause alarm.”

All this, he says, despite the fact that Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terror attacks, and the fact that Muslims were among the victims of both 9/11 and 7/7 (the London bombings in 2005).

He disagrees with Scheffer’s interpretation of multiculturalism; it shouldn’t mean ghettos, or separate school curriculums, he says – and he points out that all major religions, not just Islam, have minorities with rigid orthodox views.

The spotlighting of tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities was not the only aftershock of 9/11 in Europe. As anxious nation-states tried to tighten their security against an amorphous, stateless threat, they introduced new laws, curbed long-standing civil rights, and developed different policing techniques, especially with regard to counterterrorism.

Under the leadership of US president George W. Bush, several European countries, including Tony Blair’s UK, also joined ”the coalition of the willing” in the Iraq war and the military operations in Afghanistan.

Britain and the continent were familiar with terrorism on their own turf in a way that the United States was not, says security expert Tobias Feakin, pointing to the history of the Basques in Spain, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and the IRA in Britain. So Europe did not experience quite the shock America did with the advent of Islamist terrorism, he says, but it was appalled by the magnitude of the destruction on September 11.

Then came Europe’s own Islamic extremist attacks: 191 dead in Madrid in 2004, and 52 killed in London on July 7, 2005. Feakin said Europe had to develop new responses to Islamist terror because it was very different to what had come before: no warning was given before an attack, bombers were willing to die themselves, the aim was simply to kill the maximum number of people as dramatically as possible, and there was no clear political agenda – at least, not one the Western public could understand.

Feakin, who is director of the national security and resilience department of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in the UK, says Britain responded to the London attacks and to several cases of lone terrorists with a raft of measures.

“The law was changed to create a detention-without-charge period, so someone can be arrested but not formally charged to allow police additional time to investigate in order to gather the rest of the evidence,” he says. ”Police were dealing with huge bodies of evidence, sometimes in international languages they didn’t understand, or with encrypted file sources.

”Stop-and-search powers were brought in at a later stage, so that police could stop anyone they felt they had a reason to, and we got control orders to put someone under house arrest and control their movements and communications … even without charge or conviction.

”And counterterrorism policing is very different in the UK since 9/11; counterterrorism police hubs in co-ordination with MI5 have been placed right across the UK.”

This tense atmosphere was further fuelled by the murders in the Netherlands of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the latter sparking more than 100 retaliatory attacks on Muslim targets such as mosques.

Some countries have allowed post-September 11 fears about Islam to rigidify into a determination to resist its symbols. France has banned the face-covering burqa in public and the headscarf in schools, arguing that they were an affront to the nation’s secularism; the Irish have banned the burqa from classrooms; and the Swiss voted for a national ban on minarets (the towers on mosques) in a referendum sponsored by the extreme right but opposed by the government.

The paradox is that while such civil measures have increased, the debate is now looking more critically at initial responses to the crisis.

The former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, last week argued in a public lecture that it was a mistake to have called the response to September 11 ”the war on terror” because it legitimised terrorists as warriors. She also criticised the shrinking of civil liberties, arguing that this was ”handing victory to the terrorists”.

Feakin says Britain is soon to roll back some security measures that were found to be too heavy-handed. Meanwhile, support for al-Qaeda has fallen across the Arab world because of its attacks in Iraq: ”They slaughtered thousands of fellow Muslims. It was an incredibly hardline approach that seemed to go against the ethos of taking the war to the US.”

The Arab Spring might lessen Muslim frustration, too, in a way that siphons off the anger that spurred terrorism, Feakin says. ”Al-Qaeda used to talk about the oppressive governments across the Arab world and now they are gone. If democracy there is successfully allowed to develop in a proper manner, you could see al-Qaeda become completely irrelevant. But if you see another kind of abuse of power develop, that will go with the al-Qaeda agenda.”

It is a view Scheffer shares. If the Arab Spring lessens the sense of grievance about dictatorial regimes supported by the West, ”that might change the equation, especially now that people have seen the genuine effort by France and Britain in Libya. It makes it harder to argue that the West is trying to push the Arab world into a corner.”

Scheffer’s new book, Immigrant Nations, looks at how immigration is changing the world. He says that researching the topic has reassured him that the current tensions between Europe’s 20 million Muslims and their neighbours are to be expected and should ease over time.

”I’m confident that the conflict we are witnessing isn’t a sign of the failure of integration,” he says. ”It’s part of searching for a new understanding of how to be with each other, and that is often painful and difficult.”

He says the history of immigration in the US shows new communities typically go through three phases: avoidance, when they live separately; conflict, as they begin to rub up against the existing community and its different ways; and, finally, accommodation, as both sides learn to live with each other.

But he says that in order to reach the final stage there must be acceptance of mutual values, including religious freedom, freedom of speech, and equality of treatment.

The key is reciprocity: ”If I have a class of boys from a Moroccan background, I ask, ‘Why are you angry?’ They might say it is because they are discriminated against; they want to be treated as equals. ‘But then there is perhaps a question of the equal treatment of women, or of homosexuals; can you live with that idea? Because if you think it’s an important value, you can’t just pick and choose when to apply it.’ They see the fairness of the argument.

”But you are not going to force people to change their thinking through laws or banning the burqa or saying you can’t build a mosque. It’s a matter of explaining that the freedoms you are demanding can only survive if you grant them to people with whom you deeply disagree … If not, you are transforming yourself into an outsider.”

Murad agrees, and points to the need for visionary political leadership to help heal the rifts of the past decade. He says, ”Muslims and Christians and Jews have created great societies together in the past. We share a great deal of common values, and in a shrinking world, [living together peacefully] is not a matter of choice any more.”