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Challenges of Multiculturalism

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There is a spectre haunting Europe. It is the spectre of multiculturalism. And for some Europeans nostalgic for the global divide of ‘East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet’, this is not an all too comfortable situation. The impact of globalisation other than delivering junk food and bad TV programmes to areas never reached before, is migration on a global scale. There are now around 200 million international immigrants, more than double the over thirty years ago. Which means that one out every 35 people on earth is a migrant.

One of the current destination of choice is Europe. In his paper ‘The Future of Europe: Islamophobia’ Dr Burak Erdenir, a European Union Expert at the Secretariat General for the EU Affairs of Turkey (2005) wrote ‘today about 23 million Muslims accounting for 4.5 percent of the total, live in whole of Europe (not including Turkey) compared with only 800,000 in 1950. Each year around 1 million immigrants mostly from the Muslim countries are flowing into Europe. Birth rates of European Muslims are more than three times of those of non-Muslim Europeans. It is estimated that Muslims will comprise at least 20 percent of Europe’s population in 2050. This would be the outcome of not only the increase in Muslim population but also the decline in general European population. In other words, your regular Europeans would just as sooner go by the names of Mahmoud and Aisyah as well as Paul and Emily.

One of the current destination of choice is Europe. In his paper ‘The Future of Europe: Islamophobia’ Dr Burak Erdenir, a European Union Expert at the Secretariat General for the EU Affairs of Turkey (2005) wrote ‘today about 23 million Muslims accounting for 4.5 percent of the total, live in whole of Europe (not including Turkey) compared with only 800,000 in 1950. Each year around 1 million immigrants mostly from the Muslim countries are flowing into Europe. Birth rates of European Muslims are more than three times of those of non-Muslim Europeans. It is estimated that Muslims will comprise at least 20 percent of Europe’s population in 2050. This would be the outcome of not only the increase in Muslim population but also the decline in general European population. In other words, your regular Europeans would just as sooner go by the names of Mahmoud and Aisyah as well as Paul and Emily.

Seen in this context it is only understandable that inflammatory films such as Geert Wilders’ Fitna should ever see the light of day. And it is testimony to Europe’s degree of tolerance and respect for other people’s right of self-expression, however objectionable (or perhaps due to fear of deadly retribution ala Theo van Gogh or Pim Fortuyn) that there haven’t been more such open spouting of malice. Muslims in Indonesia, therefore, have no need to add fuel to the fire by taking offence for we too have had and continue to have our periodic descents into darkness when we persecute our fellow neighbours when the strain of multiculturalism is tearing at the seams of our security and sense of identity (whether against the Chinese, the Ahmadiyah, the Christians, the Rich, the foreigners etc.)

As a matter of fact, with increasing global economic downturn, frictions stemming from the negative impacts of multiculturalism will continue to test Europe’s fundamental values of liberalism, democracy and culture of tolerance. Together with the number and the pace at which immigrants come and their capacity (or lack of) to assimilate with the prevailing values, a sense of economic insecurity easily translates into xenophobia by the local population against the immigrants.

Hate crimes rose steadily in Germany throughout the 1990s and early 2000s with the country’s economic downturn following reunification and the arrival of some 15 million immigrants mostly from Turkey. From UK to France racial violence marks areas that are economically depressed and seen recent influx of new immigrants. When jobs are scarce and the future is bleak right wing extremism is an attractive refuge for diminishing status and threatened identity. In Eastern Europe right wing youth groups are experiencing a renaissance.

Conversely lack of economic, political and social participation in an increasingly insecure Europe result in the exclusion and marginalization of the immigrants whether by choice or forced. For the disgruntled immigrant youths they too can find consolation in their difference and sense of alienation in espousing rightwing views.

So what does this have anything to do with Islam as a religion? The average European is secular and leaves God out of their every day life. Islam as a religion in itself is not a threat, but a culture of otherness and difference that Muslim immigrants bring to the European identity is. To quote Dr Erdenir, ‘It is a fact that Muslims face difficulties in integrating with host societies… the integration problem is linked to the issue of compatibility of Islam with liberal values and institutions such as tolerance, gender equality, democracy, civil rights, citizenship and secularization… According to 62 percent of the French people, the values of Islam are not compatible with those of the French Republic… as they are perceived as a challenge to the very identity of Europe.’

Clearly, as the face of Europe is rapidly changing there has to be compromises and a change of attitude by both the European and Muslim immigrants if they were to live in harmony and to have political and social stability. For no longer is there a question of Islam and the West. Muslims are now very much a fabric of the western world and there is no turning the clock back without the society unraveling itself. Wilders’ film and the plethora of hateful words that proliferate the internet space merely reflect the anguish that the new reality brings.

We in Indonesia are familiar with the blessings and the challenges that diversity and multiculturalism bring. We too struggle with our prejudices, suspicions and discriminations. They make up the constant reality that continues to gnaw at our sense of identity and unity. But they also teach us the importance of tolerance and understanding if we desire a peaceful existence. We should therefore spare our indignation but instead ensure that we do not fall into the trap of intolerance and narrow-minded prejudices whether in the name of religion or otherwise.

 

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