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Maha Akeel is the Director of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s information department
Banners with phrases including “white Europe”, “clean blood”, and “pray for an Islamic Holocaust” were unfurled at a protest in Poland last month. It is dangerously symbolic of Europe’s current condition that one of the countries that has benefitted most from EU freedom of movement would now denounce the Union’s immigration policies.
Poland’s GDP nearly tripled within a decade of joining the EU, but this doesn’t appear to be enough to insulate its citizens from pan-European concerns around immigration, jobs and prosperity. But Europe has an ace up its sleeve. If the continent plays it right, it will gain cultural enrichment, demographic reinvigoration and economic growth. The “ace” is immigration – particularly non-EU immigration, often from countries that happen to be Muslim-majority.
Europe’s far-right, high on success in the UK, Germany and now Austria, are lying to their own populations. Europe can benefit from migrants just as migrants can benefit from Europe. Each immigrant on average creates 1.2 jobs for locals, and migrants provide the labour force that can sustain Europe’s ageing native population.
We are witnessing an ideological arm wrestle between xenophobia and Islamophobia on one side, and development and openness on the other. It appears that in many cases the former is winning, resulting in a nativist “cultural anxiety” that is, ironically, thoroughly foreign to Europe.
Europe can benefit from migrants just as migrants can benefit from Europe
Immigration into – and within – Europe is older than the name Europe itself. In Greek mythology, Europa is a Phoenician (modern-day Syrian) woman. The continent named after a Syrian mother can rejuvenate itself by accepting her descendants, and others, who are hungry for safety, security and prosperity.
Europe’s success in the latter half of the 20th century was made possible by immigrants, and the 21st century will be no different. The continent’s cities that have been most open to immigration and cosmopolitanism now and historically are those with the strongest economies today: London, Berlin and Amsterdam. Immigration comes at a price paid out of absolute cultural homogeneity and effortless social cohesion. But immigration pays – and in more than just euros.
It is understandable, maybe even predictable, that the pace of change – with rapid intra-EU migration, a loss of economic autonomy to Brussels, and the lifestyle transformations that come along with that – would lead to blowback a couple of decades later. Even if the blowback was predictable, though, the severity and sheer mainstream acceptability of it has been anything but.
Islamophobia is a staple of the press in many European countries. Certain EU heads of state such as Viktor Orban proudly proclaim that “Islam has no place” in his country. And Czech President Miloš Zeman claims that integrating Muslims is “practically impossible”. Austria-Hungary, of which the modern day Czech Republic was a part, recognised Islam as a state religion in 1912. But we are entering ahistorical territory.
Europe’s very existence as a contiguous continent disproves bigotry at the theoretical stage
All this puts Europe in the ironically tragic position of rejecting the Europeanism that has made the continent united, peaceful and prosperous, and pivoting towards the negative values that almost destroyed us. The irony is made worse by the fact it is often the countries that suffered most under Nazi occupation in the 20th century where Nazi-lite ideas have now taken hold.
One of the things that makes Europe special is that its very existence as a contiguous continent disproves bigotry at the theoretical stage. The diversity within one continent of skin tones between so-called ‘indigenous’ Swedes and so-called ‘indigenous’ Spaniards leaves no room for racism. Similarly with religion, an Icelandic Lutheran’s practice will bear almost no resemblance to a Greek Orthodox believer’s. They both have faith, of course, in the same God and in Jesus, but the same could be said of a Catalan Catholic and a Morrocan Muslim.
And perhaps that is exactly what must be said of the Muslim immigrant in relation to “Christian Europe”. The continent can only thrive by renewing its commitment to the universal values that have served Europe so well in recent times, and then expanding those ideals to welcome those with origins beyond its borders.
What a tragedy it would be if, less than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe’s cities, towns and villages erected a thousand Berlin walls within themselves. Walls between native and immigrant, rich and poor, brown and white, Christian and Muslim.
Change is here to stay and if Europe embraces it, it will benefit from it.
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