GUESTVIEW: European liberals – stand up and speak out in Islam debate
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Dr H.A. Hellyer is Fellow of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick, author of “Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans”and Director of the Visionary Consultants Group.
By Dr H.A. Hellyer
The real inheritors of European liberalism need to stand up and make themselves known because the struggle to maintain pluralism in Europe is only going to get tougher from here on in.
People will differ as to when they started, and why, and who is to blame. But one thing is for sure. The problems in Europe around the Muslim presence are not going to go away – they are going to intensify. And real European liberals are going to have make their voices be counted, or say farewell to a Europe that fought so hard to ensure civil liberties and freedom could find homes on the continent.
It did not have to be this way, but the tell-tale signs have been there for a very long while. For years now, there have been two main set of trends that have been increasingly worrying, and which now have intersected with each other to produce a scenario that people should have tried to avoid. The first was the movement of the political spectrum towards the far-right. Let’s be clear – it is not that the far-right suddenly became a lot more popular, and a lot of votes were cast in their favour. That, in one respect, would have been more manageable.
The real success of the far-right has been to affect the national agenda itself, and make elements of their own political program more palatable to voters in mainstream political parties all across Europe. We see it in the UK, in how a lot of mainstream political discourse has changed, in order to keep votes away from the far-right like the British National Party (BNP). We see it in France, where mainstream politicians now openly say things in regards to immigration and Muslim minority groups that years ago only far-right politicians would ever utter.
There are many examples across the board and in this regard, mainstream political parties have a lot to answer for. Instead of dealing with the issues that the far-right brought up, which stirred up fears (often baseless, but fears nonetheless) of huge swathes of the local populations, they chose to focus more on their political survival, and allow populism to disproportionately influence national debates on the Muslim presence. And that Muslim presence is now the test Europe must face in order to decide once and for all – is this a continent for all, or are some more equal than others?
The second trend has also been strategically rather abysmal. Muslim communities in Europe, by and large, originate (not exclusively though) in migrations that took place in the 1970s and since then. For very normal political and historical reasons, the left-wing focused on getting their support, and the Muslim community was naturally more endeared to parties that spoke to their rights as members of the labour class. All well and good, particularly when the left wing began to swing back into power in the 1990s. But no party stays in power forever.
Towards the beginning of the 21st century, one could see the right wing coming back, and the influence of the far-right impinging disproportionately on national discourse across Europe. Muslim communities had not, for normal reasons, vested a lot of time and effort in building coalitions that focused on the right-wing. As a result, Muslim voices are rare and few, making their influence understandably insignificant in directing the debate, even when it is about them.
These trends are continuing, and their intersections are going to continue to erupt like little earthquakes for years to come – hence the ban on minarets in Switzerland. But herein lies a great opportunity. Real European liberals, if they understand what is going on, can make a real difference, if they move quickly. The situation in Switzerland caused consternation among so many different sectors of society, within and without Switzerland. The political elite and the media were broadly against the ban. If an organised movement of Swiss citizens can make the argument that this is bad for Switzerland, ethically and morally, and create a coalition that reaches all sectors of societies, including Muslim Swiss, it could make a real difference.
The ban itself is immaterial – another referendum can simply cancel out the one that just took place. But it is important that be done as the final move in a campaign that seeks to co-ordinate elements in civil society, political life and the grassroots that support a Switzerland for all its citizens. And ultimately, a Europe that we can all be proud of, regardless of our race or creed.
The reality is that this could be quite easy – huge swathes of public opinion all over Europe are shocked at what happened. But the case needs to be made that this is not an isolated incident, but a sign that not all is well and good in Europe. There are fears, perceived or otherwise, and there is the need for liberals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to take advantage of the situation by really offering a better alternative to the fear-mongering and scare tactics that we saw in the run up to this minarets vote.
Or indeed, to the now emerging discourse in France, where it seems this small and relatively powerless religious minority is being accused of having the ability to bring down the Republic. Just recently, the French President told the Muslim community in clear terms that they would have to be less ‘visible’ in order to be integrated. What citizen is ever told that?
Religion does cause many in Europe to have second thoughts – and Islam in particular. In that regard, Muslims are a bit unique (although probably only a minority even practices Islam regularly). But Muslim Europeans are Europeans, and they do not appear to be going anywhere. We Europeans have to make our choice now, and decide whether we are going to go down the path of intolerance, or if we are going to carve a fresh future for ourselves, our children and generations to come.