Behind the Burqa Bans

“I don’t want the country of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or for Turkish or Arabic to be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin. If I want to experience that, I can just take a vacation in the Orient.” Enter Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the German central bank and the author of the 2010 “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany Does Away With Itself). His book, replete with “facts” showing how Turkish immigrants are destroying the fabric of German society and “statistics” proving their intellectual inferiority, is just one striking example of a phenomenon that has swept across Western Europe: the spectacular resurgence of nativism. Sarrazin paints a picture of a Germany fighting to preserve a grand national heritage against a modern-day Ottoman invasion of barbarian infidels. He is not alone. Europe, the proud home of classical liberalism, has seen its people and leaders embrace a hard-line nativist stance against minority groups. What is more surprising than Sarrazin’s provocative rhetoric is its widespread acceptance and popularity; His book is, as of this writing, number one on Germany’s bestseller list. Sarrazin’s book is disturbingly popular for a nation with strong anti-hate speech laws and vivid memories of the Holocaust and past racial and religious tensions. As one might anticipate, the publication has generated a storm of controversy at home and abroad. In the late summer of 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the book’s remarks and joined the chorus of (largely non-German) voices calling for Sarrazin’s resignation. For a moment, it seemed as if Europe would not stand for such backwards rhetoric from such a high-powered politician. But in a surprise twist, it was Merkel who found herself the target of international condemnation just weeks later for her ringing declaration that “[in Germany] multiculturalism has failed.”

Germany’s leaders are not soloists in this chorus of jingoist rhetoric: the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands have all expressed similar nativist sentiments. This represents a marked departure from the idyllic progressive toleration often touted by the Old World. Anti-immigrant and pro-nativist speech has become part of the everyday in western European politics.

The ubiquitous yet oft-dismissed Dutch politician Geert Wilders became a surprise kingmaker in the Netherlands after last year’s snap elections, in spite (or because) of his inflammatory rhetoric claiming that Islam is “the ideology of a retarded culture.” His claims have landed him in some legal troubles, but his position in the Dutch government is secure, and that of his young Party for Freedom (six years old and the third-largest player in the Dutch Parliament).

Marine Le Pen, who recently assumed the mantle of France’s National Front from her father (a man who publicly doubted the authenticity of the Holocaust), leads incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in polling for next year’s presidential race. Recent photo ops for Marine have included a visit to a repatriation center to lecture soon-to-be deported North Africans on French values. Le Pen’s action cuts to the core of the issue: the belief that these immigrants are not only illegal but also un-European. As such, they must be instructed in “French” values to assimilate into French society and abandon the un-European ideals of their native cultures.

Even the cozy Scandinavian welfare states are not immune: Sweden saw the Sverigedemokraterna, a party rooted in opposition to immigration, take a high of 20 seats in the most recent parliament.

The list goes on and on. Far-right and anti-immigration parties, once doomed to languish on the fringes of a societies that condemned their radical views, have seen a meteoric rise in their political fortunes. Furthermore, this rise has happened virtually overnight, rapidly moving to the mainstream of political discourse. Coupled with a traditional backlash against outsiders in times of economic hardship—recall Weimar Germany’s Jews or Italy’s Albanians—where immigrant groups are characterized as relying on welfare (pilfering hardworking Europeans’ tax dollars) and stealing “European” jobs, nativist sentiment has been magnified and translated into political power.

This has been readily apparent both in recent political discourse and at the polls. One German TV survey (N-TV) found that 95 percent of its respondents agreed with the arguments expressed in Sarrazin’s book.  But this many Germans did not spontaneously coalesce around the idea that “Islam is detrimental to German society.” The popularity of Sarrazin’s rhetoric reflects a deep-seated distrust for non-German cultures and speaks to a reflexive need to reaffirm a national identity in the midst of a perceived cultural onslaught by “non-European” groups. To varying degrees, this national identity has been equated with race. In short, western Europe is having an identity crisis. Unfortunately, governments are responding to this crisis not by increased inclusivity but rather by a militant defense of the idea of a “western Christian” Europe, a Europe that is quietly disappearing.

In the words of the German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany confirms to the “western Christian origin of our culture.” In his view, the country has little room for those who choose to follow practices outside the pervading “western Christian” milieu. This was the feeling echoed by Chancellor Merkel in her recent condemnation of multiculturalism in Germany.

In the US, where the idea of the national melting pot has become part of the national mythos, Merkel’s words seemed ignorant at best and racist at worst. However, Europe has seemingly clasped onto its “Western Christian” identity with a jealous grasp. 2010 saw the French president’s forced deportation of Roma “squatters” from France and the passage of the now infamous burqa ban, which was recently put into effect. Both of those actions were popular domestically—only one legislator voted against the ban in the French National Assembly.  February saw British Prime Minister David Cameron echoing Merkel’s comments, stating that “state multiculturalism” was a mistake and advocating “a stronger national identity,” followed by an announcement of increased visa restrictions on foreigners seeking to study in Britain. These leaders have all assumed strong pro-nativist stances that are well-received by their respective electorates—69 percent of French surveyed supported the Roma deportation, and 54 percent agreed that immigration posed a problem for Britain.

To be sure, the racial makeup of these countries is changing quickly. The population of European Muslims will increase by about 35 percent by 2030, a demographic shift that will alter the makeup and feel of Europe as we know it. Given that the “native” European populations have declining birthrates, the Europe of tomorrow will not be the predominately white Christian Europe of yesteryear. Britain, due to its colonial past, already has a sizeable percentage of minorities (albeit not on par with the percentage of minorities extant in the United States). However, France, Germany and other European countries have only begun to experience the arrival of ethnic minorities en masse relatively recently. The reason for the upsurge in nativist rhetoric must lie in part with this development. Europe is changing, and “native” Europeans are not happy about it.

Similar nativist policies proliferated in American history in the nineteenth century. Xenophobic immigration parties and laws (such as the Know-Nothing Party and the Ku Klux Klan) were reactions to immigration that challenged the more established Anglo-Protestant order. However, there are several key differences between the events throughout American history and the contemporary predominance of nativist rhetoric in western Europe.

The firestorm over immigration in Arizona sparked the most recent large-scale American dialogue on domestic racial tensions. Although many would characterize the Arizona immigration debacle as racist, Governor Jan Brewer and other proponents of legislation aimed at active deportation by making it a crime not to carry immigration documents at all times explicitly denied a racial basis for the law. Whether or not racism played a role in its passage, the rhetoric used by the law’s proponents denotes a sensitivity towards race issues and a need (nonexistent in European discourse) to avoid explicit racism. Furthermore, the Arizona debate hinged on illegal immigration, while the European one focuses on all immigration and the assimilation of these groups. Regardless, a federal court ruled that the law unavoidably invited racial bias and struck it down: American sensitivities towards race prevailed. Contrast this with France’s burqa ban, which prohibits face veiling in general, but in practice targets only Muslims. This differentiates the American integrationist dialogue from that occurring in Western Europe, which privileges the preservation of an ethno-cultural national identity.

However, the debate over the alleged “cultural Islamic threat” represented by the so-called “ground zero” mosque and the “Muslim congressional hearings” held earlier this year by US Representative Peter King (R-NY) have recently challenged America’s position as a more accepting society than its counterparts across the pond. Like Germany and France, the US is not immune to the politicization of Islamophobia.

Yet the American experience with Islamophobia is distinct from that of the Europeans. Although a majority of Americans opposed the “ground zero mosque,” polls have shown that a still larger majority of Americans (69 percent) would be fine with having a mosque built in their neighborhoods. Beyond that, more Americans today hold positive views of Islam than negative (46 percent compared to 26 percent). Nativist rhetoric does not dominate the debate here. And as for Representative King, his anti-Islamic remarks and hearings represent an isolated case of Islamophobia that was condemned by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Furthermore, he is just one of 435 members in the House of Representatives.

The American Geert Wilderses and Sarrazins have failed to achieve mainstream political prominence. Politicians advocating the superiority and racial of cultural groups do not exist at the highest levels of government today. However, a cursory glance into our recent past shows us that this was not always the case. Something changed. No longer overwhelmingly Northern European and Protestant, the US is now one of the most diverse nations on earth, representing a mind-boggling mix of races and religions. This has resulted in a population that is accustomed to diversity, a trait which is itself American. Virtually every American can trace his or her lineage back to immigrants. This is in stark contrast to the “native” Europeans who have no such immediate migrant roots. While issues of race and cultural superiority in America have boiled over several times in the last century, the unique perspective created by America’s youth and perpetual immigrant experience has led to fundamentally less angst and identity crisis than Europeans have shown in the face of the increasing and incredibly diverse immigration of recent years. This is to say that American identity is built on civic principles rather than shared ethnicity and is thus more adaptable to demographic change.

Still, the ethnic homogeneity of Western Europe is changing—huge movements of Muslims and eastern Europeans into the West are challenging traditional perceptions of identity and place. Western Europe is no longer solely the realm of the white Christian. This state of affairs has resulted in a backlash against immigrants, institutionalized by immigration quotas and nativist rhetoric by prominent politicians—witness the ongoing squabbles within the European Union over who has to deal with the thousands of North African political refugees. This should not come as a surprise. The notion of the nation-state, whereby an ethnic group claims a fixed geographic territory as its sole domain, grew from the roots of European countries—France has always been its paradigm. In essence, nativism is in direct response to perceived “attacks” on the nation-state by growing numbers of non-nationals clinging to foreign ways.

These tendencies are not endemic to Europe. Times of economic or demographic crisis have been shown to exacerbate existing racial tensions. But the demographic changes occurring in Europe will not slow down anytime soon, and it will be vital for the continent to come to terms with its new multiracial composition and the attendant new values of these new citizens. In time, the power of nativism in politics may fade in the face of this increased diversity and contact between natives and immigrants, as it has in America. However, fears of increased racial tensions will persist for the time being, generating more burqa bans and royalties for bigoted authors. Leading politicians will engage in brash nativist rhetoric for the foreseeable future. The week this publication went to press, the True Finns, an anti-immigration, anti-EU party, grabbed power in Finland, one of Europe’s most politically stable countries. It would seem that Europe fancies itself the home of progressivism and liberalism, but only so long as those progressives find themselves within a comfortable majority.