Call it Europe’s best kept secret. As Europe struggles to cope with the arrival of almost a million refugees, and Europeans tie themselves in knots over how to deal with the desperate – mainly Muslim – newcomers, it’s worth underlining: Islam has always been part of Europe, and it will be part of Europe’s future.

Europe and Europeans have no choice. Far right groups and many Eastern European leaders may rage and rant against Islam and the “Muslim invasion”, with some politicians even recommending shooting the refugees or allowing their boats to sink, but Europe has never been and will never be a fenced-in land for “whites and Christians only”. As such, it will be long, difficult and at times painful, but sooner or later, like it or not, Europe and Europeans will have to come to terms with Islam and Muslims. Also, if they are to live fulfilling and productive lives, Muslims, whatever their origin and their sectarian affiliations, will have to get used to calling Europe their “real” home. Many do so already and so will most of the refugees currently settling into their new lives. There is no other option. Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived side-by-side, in peace, in Europe in the past. Despite the shrill headlines of a clash of cultures and conflicting values, they also do so today – and will in the future.

Europe’s focus is on Muslims as terrorists, refugees, foreign fighters, criminals and misfits. Often lost in the conversation is the fact that these represent a miniscule minority of the twenty million or so European Muslims. Damagingly, mainstream European political parties are emulating the strident anti-refugee and anti-migration rhetoric of the far right, allowing Europe’s current debate to become increasingly toxic. This increasingly hysterical conversation leaves little space for intelligent arguments and reasonable discussion. When they do speak out, the voices of Europe’s cities, civil society, universities and business leaders, who are doing their best to welcome the refugees and believe in an open Europe, are drowned out by the loud clamour of demands for tougher actions.

Make no mistake; while extremists of all ilk may decry multi-cultural Europe, the process of adaptation, accommodation, integration, of Europe and Islam is already well underway. For one, the economy demands it. As European economies stagnate, Europe’s ageing society needs refugees and migrants – skilled and unskilled – to pay taxes and do the jobs that no one else wants to do. But it’s about more. There is an interesting story to be told about migrants’ economic contribution to their host nations, especially the fact that many migrant entrepreneurs are actively fostering the revitalisation of impoverished urban neighbourhoods by creating jobs, bringing much-needed skills and prompting innovation in products and services. As many in Germany have recognised, diversity brought about by migration can be a competitive advantage and a source of dynamism for European economies.

To ensure that these facts and arguments get a better hearing and are fully understood, Europe needs a new narrative on immigration – and it needs it urgently. Forging a new and sensible European conversation on refugees, migration and integration will require determination and vision, good arguments backed up by facts and better – much better – communication. That means building an environment where people move from talking about “us and them” to a more inclusive language of living in a shared space, with shared concerns and interests and, yes, even shared values, because living together means abiding by certain ground rules. Integration is a two-way street, requiring adjustment efforts by migrants and by host societies.

Newcomers must live according to existing rules and values so that they can become active participants of citizenship. In exchange, they should be accepted as fully fledged members of society. It also means tackling the concerns of people who feel anxious about the economic effects of migration on themselves, their families, their jobs and their towns and cities. It is important to confront and talk about the pressure and benefits that refugees and migration bring. The discussion must be inclusive, however. Further polarisation between the anti-immigration groups and those favouring a more open Europe will not be helpful. The voices and concerns of migrants must also be heard. Extremists must not be allowed to hijack a debate which concerns all of us.

The stakes are high; Europe’s global reputation and hopes of playing a stronger international role depend on its internal conduct and policies. The tone and content of the refugee and migration debate have repercussions on Europe’s internal cohesion, economic dynamism and societal harmony, but also impact strongly on EU foreign policy and international standing. The harsh reaction of some European governments to those fleeing war in the Middle East colours global views of Europe, eroding the EU’s efforts to promote human rights worldwide. When Muslims are targets of racist attacks and discrimination, the EU’s role and influence in helping to stabilise a very volatile Arab and Muslim world is diminished. To see young Africans drowning in rickety boats in the Mediterranean raises questions about the effectiveness of EU development policy.

The environment is more favourable to changing the narrative than many believe. Recent tragedies in Paris and elsewhere as well as the current focus on European “foreign fighters” who have joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria have spotlighted the malaise and disaffection felt by many young Europeans of Muslim descent. Europe’s once solely security-focused approach to dealing with Muslims has been replaced with a more balanced view that includes an integration agenda and migrant outreach programmes. Government and business recruitment policies are being gradually changed to increase the employment of migrants. For their part, migrant groups are becoming significantly more active in demanding equal rights as fully fledged citizens, organising themselves into pressure groups and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural icons.

European politicians face the challenge of engaging in an intelligent debate on immigration and integration that is not about accusatory interventions or the adoption of populist rhetoric but does not shy away from discussing the real challenges of living in a multi-cultural and diverse society. Business leaders, for their part, must become less timid in pointing out that ageing and skills-deficient Europe needs foreign labour. Given the present sorry lack of representation of people of migrant backgrounds in national governments, parliaments and EU institutions, some form of affirmative action in the guise of support for higher education, recruitment and facilitation of job promotion is needed to encourage minorities to become active social participants.

Europe’s most serious refugee crisis since World War II is certainly ripping the continent apart, stretching economic resources, radicalising politics and straining political institutions. But it need not be so. This is also a period of profound transformation, change and renewal. It is true that Europe will never be the same again – it could be better.

Further reading

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Ilias Bartolini