Europe’s “Islamic Dilema”

by Emy Matesan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s first visit to Germany in the beginning of February illustrates the “Islamic dilemma” Western European countries currently face. In front of a predominantly German audience, Erdogan had emphasized the need to better integrate the Turkish minority. He stunned Chancellor Angela Merkel when he suggested that Germany build Turkish high schools and universities in order to help the integration process.

But when he visited Cologne, thousands of Turkish immigrants from all over Germany and Western Europe traveled there and enthusiastically waved their Turkish flags. Kurdish protesters called Erdogan a murderer while German police officers stood in the middle, trying to maintain order. Before this riled-up crowd the message of integration was slightly altered. According to The Economist, Erdogan urged the predominantly Turkish audience to stay aloof from the German society. He denounced assimilation, calling it a “crime against humanity.” The Turkish minority in Germany should proudly maintain its identity, and Turkish children should be able to study in Turkish, he said.

Needless to say, Erdogan’s visit aroused uproar among the Germans, raised more suspicions about Turkey’s prospects of integration into the European Union, and left Western Europeans ever more puzzled about what to do regarding their Muslim minorities. If integration means that the majority should dedicate resources to protect a minority and subsidize a segregated education system for a segment of the population that refuses to adopt the German lifestyle and Weltanschauung, then it should come as no surprise that it’s a tough sell.

But just because it’s a tough sell doesn’t mean that it’s a bad sell. While Erdogan might have an interest in promoting Turkish nationalism in order to maintain a devout constituency and a significant support group within a Western European country (whose “club” Turkey wants to join), integration doesn’t have to exclude assimilation. In fact, a sensitive combination of integration and assimilation could be the only hope for a European Union whose demographics are shifting so rapidly and dramatically, that according to Savage the Muslim population might become the majority by mid-century.

Of course the big pink elephant in the room (or perhaps the big green elephant), is the question of what threat Islam actually poses for Europe. Assuming that the worry here is not caused just by xenophobic fears of “the other” outnumbering “us,” it is important to evaluate what types of threats Islam poses, and how they can be countered. Savage, for example, suggests that

The European-Islamic nexus is spinning off a variety of new phenomena, including the rise of terrorism; the emergence of a new anti-Semitism; the shift of established European political parties to the right; the recalibration of European national political calculations; additional complications for achieving an ever closer EU; and a refocusing, if not a reformulation, of European foreign policy.

Bawer sees a threat emanating from “creeping Sharia,” especially in Western Europe. Judging by firestorm set off when the Archbishop of Canterbury said in February that adoption of some aspects of Sharia in UK law was “inevitable,” this thinking is not unusual . There are two sets of issues underlying these concerns: Challenges to established democratic norms and practices, and challenges to the stability of the state/political system. Thus, the rise of Islamism in Western Europe, and in particular the propagation of extremist views are of great concern to secularists that support the strict separation of church and state, to human rights activists that support gender equality and minority rights, and to special interest groups such as the Jewish community or the gay and lesbian community, who are direct targets of much Islamic extremist diatribe.

Yet religious extremism and conservative movements exist in virtually all democracies, and democratic politics is supposed to emerge out of the bargaining process among groups with divergent world views and divergent interests. The key to democratic politics is that all interest groups accept the rules of the game, and seek to redress their situation through the political system. When groups with extremist views reject the democratic system, resort to violence and seek to undermine the state as a whole they become an issue of domestic terrorism.

In Western Europe the threat of “Islamist terrorism” is real and immediate, as evidenced by the Madrid bombings in March 2004, the London bombings in July 2005, the assassinations in the Netherlands and various violent demonstrations. Kilcullen reports that European police and security services have foiled 20 major terrorist plots in the past 5 years. Savage reports that between 250,000 and 500,000 European Muslims are involved in “some type of extremist activity,” and that more than 20% of the detainees at Guantanamo bay are citizens of European countries.

So why are European Muslims prone to extremism and terrorism? On one hand, the issue is that European Muslims maintain (or establish) links with extremist leaders in other countries, who are more than happy to expand their audience into the West. But why does anybody in the West buy their messages? Why do secular young immigrants turn to these messages and develop religious extremist views? Time and again studies show that the Muslims in Europe are economically and politically disadvantaged and that they face increasing discrimination. They have developed what Savage refers to as “isolation and self-encapsulation.” Thus, the problem seems to be one of representation and access to political power: Groups that might pose a challenge to democratic norms are excluded from the democratic process, so they resort to practices that challenge the political system as a whole.

From this perspective it becomes evident that in trying to solve its “problem” with the Muslim community, European countries need to start believing in the power and virtue of the democratic process they so adamantly defend, and actively promote the inclusion of the Muslim population in this process. This implies both undertaking domestic reforms that improve the social, economic and political conditions of the Muslim population, and allowing the voices from the Muslim communities to be heard in the public forum. While it is certainly discomforting to think that “undemocratic” or extremist views might enter the public debate, the alternative—clandestine groups manufacturing extremist interpretations of Islam and promoting their agenda outside of a public sphere, through avenues that are difficult to detect—is even more worrisome. In certain respects then, the way to deal with the “threat” of Islamist extremism is to give Muslims an equal seat at the table and allow their voices to “compete” in the so-called free market of ideas. This way, at least the Europeans will know who and what we are dealing with, and have a better chance of striking a deal.

Does that mean Germany should follow Erdogan’s suggestion and sponsor Turkish high schools and universities? The major problem is that he proposes an almost autonomous parallel education system, with teachers “imported” from Turkey. These types of concessions towards the Turkish minority are likely to only foster further segregation and reinforce the existing social cleavages. Incorporating more of Turkish history, literature and culture into the curriculum and offering Turkish language classes or German as a second language classes is one thing, but fomenting Turkish nationalism is another. Yet if the broader socio-economic and political integration of the Turkish population fails, and the Muslim minority starts promoting private schools sponsored by mosques, then the danger of separatist, nationalist and extremist views being propagated through such an education system is much higher. Against that alternative, having Turkish schools that nevertheless follow the same national curriculum (only most classes would be taught in Turkish) doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Some of the Eastern European countries provide instructive examples. Romania, for example, has German and Hungarian elementary schools and high schools. Romanian is considered the teaching language, Hungarian or German are considered the mother tongue. Other than some additional Hungarian/German literature and grammar courses (which often make these schools in fact more demanding and competitive), the curriculum follows the national education curriculum, and all exams are standardized. Thus, the German and Hungarian minorities are given the right to have the mandatory levels of education in their “mother tongue,” while also being assimilated into the Romanian culture and being raised into the collective norms of the Romanian system.

Such a model of integration might prove just right for Germany, if push comes to shove, and if the alternative is an emergent Turkish schooling system sponsored by fundamentalist mosques and extremist groups. To prevent such a separate system form emerging in the first place, Germany and the rest of Western Europe needs to accept its changing national character, redefine its collective identity to include Muslim minorities such as the Turks, and make a concerted effort to integrate these minorities into existing social, economic and political structures.