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Making Muslim Integration Work

Making Muslim Integration Work

This comment piece by Tony Blair first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday 9th November 2010

Right now, virtually anywhere in Europe, elections can turn on debates over immigration and integration. In Sweden, extreme anti-immigration parties have gained a foothold in parliament for the first time. In Holland, the anti-immigrant and Islamaphobic Party for Freedom is now the third-largest, ahead of the traditional conservative Christian Democrats. In France and Belgium, debate rages over state bans of the veil, and Italy may be next.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that multiculturalism had failed. In the United Kingdom, immigration was a key issue in the last election. Even in Switzerland, voters last year approved a referendum banning minarets, to the surprise of practically the whole European intellectual and political elite.

This is a big and growing issue, and it cannot be understood simply in terms of cultural questions about immigration.

In Pakistan last year, terrorism killed around 3,300 people—more than in Afghanistan. Such violence scars many other countries, including Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and more. In the conflict in Mindanao, in the Philippines, 150,000 have been killed. This violence is bound up with all sorts of political and regional disputes, but it feeds into the European alarm that immigration, terrorism, religious faith and ethnicity are all dimensions of the same problem.

The danger, certainly in Europe, is very clear. Especially in tough economic times, this issue can inject division, sectarianism and even racism into societies based on equality. Traditional political parties get trapped. Either they pander, but of course they can never pander enough; or they seem in a state of denial and condemn themselves to the position of out-of-touch elites. The backlash grows. The center ground becomes diminished.

We have to nail down the definition of the problem. There is no general failure to integrate. In the U.K., for example, we are not talking about Chinese or Indians. We are not talking about blacks and Asians. This is a particular problem. It is about the failure of one part of the Muslim community to resolve and create an identity that is both British and Muslim. And I stress part of it. Most Muslims are as much at ease with their citizenship in the U.K. as I am. I dare say that is true in other European nations too.

However, some don't integrate. But when we talk about this in general terms, without precision, for fear of "stigmatizing" Muslims, we alienate public opinion and isolate the majority of Muslims who are integrating and want to be as much part of our society as any other group. Then, because we won't identify the problem as it is, a subterranean debate takes the place of an open one, and that debate lumps all Muslims together. So in the interest of "defending" the Muslim community, we actually segregate it by refusing to have an honest debate about what is happening.

Most people instinctively understand the right approach to integration. We just have to articulate and enforce it. This approach is to distinguish clearly and carefully between the common space, shared by all citizens, and the space where we can be different. We have different faiths. We practice them differently. We have different histories, different cultures and different views. Some citizens will genuinely and properly not like some of the more liberal tendencies of Western life. We can differ over this.

But there has to be a shared acceptance that some things we believe in and we do together: obedience to certain values like democracy, rule of law, equality between men and women; respect for national institutions; and speaking the national language. This common space cannot be left to chance or individual decision. It has to be accepted as mandatory. Doing so establishes a clear barrier between those citizens of the host community who are concerned for understandable reasons and those who are bigoted.

Concerns about illegal immigration have a lot to do with the notion that the system can be gamed, played, or swindled by some who are hostile to the host community they seek to penetrate. Ensuring that there are rules, strictly enforced—and in Europe's case, these could be pan-European as well as national—is not anti-immigrant. It is, in fact, the only way to protect the idea that immigration, properly controlled, is of enormous benefit.

We will not defeat extremism (and the fear it then produces in our societies) until we defeat its narrative. This narrative is Islam as a victim of the West, locked in an inevitable cultural conflict with it.

This narrative links justifiable sentiments (whether you agree with them or not)—anxiety about injustice to Palestinians, dissent over military action in Afghanistan or Iraq, anger about Kashmir or Chechnya, opposition to regimes supported by the West—with an unjustifiable narrative that defines Islam in a way that is contrary to its true teaching. Those who accept the narrative use their religious faith as a badge of identity in opposition to others. Integration is seen as oppression. Then the backlash is final confirmation that we are indeed in conflict.

This narrative is global. Its ideology is global. It has to be confronted as such. But we are nowhere near doing that. It is funding websites, training its adherents, spreading its message. It is conducting a campaign, occasionally by violence, often by propaganda.

The first step in fighting back is to recognize the nature of the struggle. That is why what is happening in Europe today is not some random eruption of anti-immigrant sentiment that will subside as fast as it has arisen. We have seen many of those before. This is different: deeper, more dangerous than any in recent years, and ultimately connected to what is building in the rest of the world. It is time to wake up.