I’m reproducing the transcript of parts of a talk I gave in Geneva last November at the Latsis Foundation Prize Ceremony on “European Identities.” This excerpt deals with how different European countries have dealt with Muslim immigrant assimilation, and the second excerpt will discuss the lack of identity at a European level.
Let me then move on to the question of European identity and why this has posed a particular problem for Europeans of this generation. As I said, European identity is problematic because the whole European project was founded on an anti-national identity basis. It was intended to get beyond the national selfishness and antagonisms that characterized 20th century European politics. And therefore, there was a belief that there would be a new universal European identity that would supplant the old identities of being the Italian, German or French. But it was also the case that these old identities never disappeared even though politically they are not something that anyone spent much time talking about. Particularly on a popular level, I don’t think that any citizen of a European country during the intervening decades ever forgot that they were indeed German, Dutch, Danish or Swiss.
The ghosts of these old identities really became a problem with the influx of immigrants and the growth of immigrant communities that did not necessarily share traditional European values. I think what the violent terrorism did was to suggest to the people that they are those in the community that do not share basic values that people had grown up with, that they were fundamentally hostile and willing to use violence in order to undermine that sense of community. Therefore, the question of identity and national identity, “what is it that you owe to the community that you live in?” comes to the fore.
There has been, in fact, a tremendous variation in European responses with very different impacts on the degree of integration and success in creating national identity across different countries in Europe.Let me just give you these different examples of France, Germany, Holland and Britain.
French national identity is in one sense the least problematic because there is one republican tradition coming out of the Revolution, a tradition that is laique that treats citizens equally. In many respects, the French concept is the only viable one for a modern society that grounds citizenship not in ethnicity, race or religion but in abstract political values to which people of different cultures can adhere.
French national identity is very much built around French language. I always found very impressive that Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, was admitted to the Académie française back in the 1940’s, something that is indicative of the way French see their identity. If you spoke French and if you could write beautiful poetry in French that qualified you for the Académie française. Therefore, that republican sense of identity has underlined French citizenship.
A lot of people pointed to the riots that occurred in the French banlieues back in 2005 as evidence of an Islamist threat existed in France itself. I think that this is a complete misunderstanding of what happened there. There was an Islamist threat coming out of Algeria in the early 1990’s that was largely dismantled by the French intelligence services. What was going on in the French banlieues was very different. These were people that did not reject French identity; they in fact believed in the goals that the French society set for them but they were not allowed to achieve them. They could not get jobs; they were barred by racism from access to opportunities that white French people had and that was the source of their unhappiness. It was in many ways much more comparable to blacks rioting in American inner cities that has happened on numerous occasions in recent US history. And by the way, I think of all European countries, in many ways, the French are closest to the United States in having a set of political values be at the core of identity. Both of those examples show the way what that could be in a broader European context.
The German case is very different. German national identity evolved very differently from France. Partly due to the fact that the Germans were scattered all over Central and Eastern Europe, the process of German unification required definition of Germanness in ethnic terms. So legally their citizenship law was based on the legal principle of jus sanguinis. You become a citizen not if you are born on German territory, but rather depending on whether you have a German mother. Up until the year 2000, if you were an ethnic German coming from Russia, you could get citizenship far more easily than if you were a 2nd or 3rd generation Turk that had grown up in Germany, spoke perfect German and did not speak Turkish at all. Germans have changed their practice but the cultural meaning of saying I am German is still very different from the cultural meaning of saying I am French. It has a connotation that is more deeply rooted in blood. This means that when Angela Merkel says that multiculturalism has failed in Germany, I think she is only half right. She would be quite wrong to describe that failure one-sidedly as an unwillingness of Muslim immigrants and their children to want to integrate into German society. Part of the failure of integration comes from the side of the German society as well.
Then we have two very problematic places: Holland and Britain. In Holland, national identity has always been defined by the pillarization (verzuilung)of Dutch society, its division into protestant, catholic and socialist pillars. The Dutch are famously tolerant but it’s a strange kind of tolerance. They tolerate people as long as they do things over there but not in my community. In a certain sense, it was a natural thing for Muslims to start arriving in the Netherlands and to create their own pillars, since that’s the way the Dutch themselves were organized. This lead to the emergence so-called “black” schools, in which you have only Muslim students with no opportunities to interact with native Dutch people. I think this has been one of the important obstacles in promoting faster and greater immigrant integration into Dutch society.
The failure of immigrant assimilation has in certain ways been the greatest in Britan – the European country that went for multiculturalism the most whole-heartedly. This was based on a mistaken interpretation of multiculturalism. In Britain there was a belief that pluralism meant you have to respect the autonomy of individual immigrant communities. The government had no role in actively trying to integrate them into a broader British culture. I had a colleague Robert Leiken who wrote a book called Europe’s Angry Muslims, that will be published in the United States very shortly, which gives some fascinating statistics in terms of the number of members of minority groups recruited into extremist organizations. In terms of the number of attempted violent acts by members of this community on a per capita basis he notes that Britain has the highest rate by far – much higher than in France, Holland, or Germany. The reason for that was that the British approach to multiculturalism that simply left radical imams to preach in their local communities without any interference from the authorities and without any effort by the state to actively use the education system to produce people that have allegiance to the British state. Again, the British have changed these policies in the last few years in the light of the subway bombings and other terrorist acts. But there is still a very problematic relationship between that country and its immigrant communities.
Now, if we look across these different examples which one of them is more successful? In light of what I said I don’t it should be a surprise that I think the French have been most successful. It’s a little bit hard to judge these things because it also depends on the absolute size of the immigrant communities. I do think for many reasons that the republican, liberal political identity that France is promoting is the model that needs to be followed by other countries. Bassam Tibi, who is a scholar at Göttingen University, is the inventor of the term Leitkultur, which was then later used by the Christian Democrats in Germany as a definition of what they wanted to immigrants to assimilate to. Leitkultur was misused but he has a very similar idea in the back of his head as French republicanism. By contrast, the British have had the worst experience because in a sense they have not addressed the question of national identity at all and they have not tried to form a political identity that would accommodate people with very different religious and cultural backgrounds.