Jan 29, 2010

Muslims in Europe

Dr Masooda Bano

Europe and UK are faced with a difficult question, namely how to accommodate their Muslim populations. The British and European government has, in recent years, been investing increasing amount of resources in research on Muslim migrants. Though the concerns are common, that is, how can the Muslim be better assimilated and prevented from developing sympathise for radical Islamist groups, the level of tolerance towards the Muslims varies considerable across these countries. UK indeed is the most tolerant of its Muslim population, with the discourse of multi-culturalism being most dominant. In rest of Europe, the tolerance level is much lower, with higher demands for assimilation with the dominant culture.

The French have been the most open and vocal in their refusal to be tolerant of visible expression of Islamic identity. The debates over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear headscarves in public places have been most controversial in France. Before the debates were focused more on whether a Muslim woman wearing headscarf should be allowed to hold a government post, such as be a teacher in public school. Now, the debates have become even less tolerant. A 200-page long report produced by a French parliamentary committee has proposed a ban on women who wear the Islamic veil (covering the face) in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transport. The report also argues for denying residence cards and citizenship to anyone showing visible signs of radical religious practice.

At a cursory level, it appears to an unfair suggestion. Religion in an integral part of the identity of the believers, who are at the same time national of the country, the participation in both should not be exclusive. One's national identify should not come at the cost of sacrificing one's religious identity. After all, freedom to adhere to one's religious beliefs is one of the fundamental human rights. If Islamic radicals are intolerant then such recommendations suggest intolerance on the part of the seculars too.

However, despite its apparent unfairness, there is legitimate ground for such reasoning. It cannot be denied that most European countries and the UK have to be credited with having developed a fairly democratic system of governance. True, racism still prevails, and occasionally expresses it self in very violent ways, but once legally allowed into the country, the state extends legal protection and basic social services to most of the immigrants. The UK again is quite good even in providing nationality. Though now there are attempts to tighten the rules, but still with five years of tax-paying status, one can qualify for indefinite stay and a British nationality.

Now when these countries absorb the immigrant population, it is only legitimate if they also expect the immigrants to attempt to assimilate with the local population. This does not imply giving up one's culture or religious beliefs and practices, rather not opting for extreme expressions of one's native identity. Veiling, covering of the face, is an extreme visible expression of one's Islamic identity. From individuals and families with such predominant Islamic identity, it is legitimate to ask that why do they leave Muslim countries to opt to live in western value systems that are so alien to their beliefs. It is on one level hypocritical to show such strong religious adherence but rather than trying to reform Muslim countries, opt out to enjoy the comforts of the west.

For those Muslims, who object strongly to the western governments' demands for some basic levels of assimilation, the question is: would they be tolerant if women from a growing immigrant population in a Muslim country start to walk around the town in mini-skirts. How many will be tolerant of such immigrants and their values, which are so alien to the Muslim beliefs? Would they not move quickly to ban these women in public places because of the immorality they will spread and possible influence they can have on their own wives and daughters?

The fact is that tolerance in any context cannot be expected to be one-sided, in the long term both parties have to show flexibility. The Muslims who choose to migrate to western societies, do so for clear economic incentives. If the western countries have allowed them that opportunity then they should also make an attempt to assimilate. If, however, their interpretation of the religious texts requires extreme rigidity then it might be good for them and for the Muslim countries if they stay in their native countries and work to establish a just state. Opting out of the system in favour of material comforts offered by the west and yet refusing to assimilate with the western population is a bit hypocritical.

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