Pity embattled European Union leaders. Not only are they grappling with tough-guy Russian President Vladimir Putin, striving to prevent the collapse of the ceasefire in Ukraine while also preventing Greece from exiting the eurozone, they now also have the United States — and Israel — grandstanding and haranguing them on how to reduce racism and make Europe a better and more inclusive place.
Europe certainly needs advice on dealing with immigrant communities and the rise in anti-Semitism across the bloc is cause for great concern. But reading the barrage of criticism levelled at European leaders over the last few days I could not help thinking about people in glasshouses not throwing stones at others.
Neither the US nor Israel is in a position to give Europe lessons on dealing with minority communities. Neither, by the way, are any Muslim-majority countries whose track record on dealing with minority populations is quite simply abysmal.
True, Europe needs to engage in some deep soul-searching on just what kind of a society and future it wants: one in which “foreigners” are treated with contempt, where asylum seekers are allowed to drown as they head for European shores, where the Far Right appears to speak for all of Europe or a more open, diverse and multicultural/religious/ethnic place where all people feel at home.
What Europe needs therefore are thoughtful, well-reasoned and lucid advice and counsel on developing new pro-minority policies, ensuring better integration and combating the toxic rhetoric of xenophobic Far Right parties, which currently dominate Europe’s societal and political discourse.
Such advice can come from all sources. But make no mistake: this is a global challenge, not just a European one. Such a debate is necessary in most countries, including the US and Israel — and all Muslim ones. When it comes to accepting difference and diversity, all countries are sinners.
Discriminatory treatment is not just reserved for those who practise a different religion, come from a different ethnic group or just simply look different but also for those with physical disabilities, different political ideas, a different sexual orientation or just who don’t “fit in”. In some countries, just being a woman means being treated as an inferior being.
“Good” countries are aware of the challenges and hammer out — and implement — laws which ban such discriminatory treatment. They develop an inclusive narrative and make sure that criminals are brought to justice. They strive to make everyone feel at home.
“Bad” countries do the opposite. They may be aware of the problem but often pretend that their nation is perfect. They don’t stand up for the victims of racism/discrimination. There is no focus on accountability or securing justice.
Yes, that is an over-simplification. But so is the advice that Europe has received recently. US presidential hopeful Jeb Bush recently told foreign policy experts that America under his rule would welcome immigrants. Unlike Europe, Bush said that “we come in 34 different flavours” and “we have the potential to be young and dynamic again”.
US Vice President Joe Biden told last week’s three-day White House summit on countering violent extremism that Europe was vulnerable to radicalised attacks because immigrants in the EU are less integrated into the local societies compared with the US. “I’m not suggesting … that I think America has all the answers here. We just have a lot more experience,” Biden said and stressed that “inclusion counts”.
Bush and Biden are right in some aspects: America could some years ago claim to be less hysterical about Islam than Europe. But the Tea Party and Fox News are proof that the anti-Muslim diatribes are now the same on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s no surprise given the transatlantic cross-fertilisation of “ideas” on Islam-bashing under way.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile has made a much-publicised call for European Jews to move to Israel after recent terrorist killings in Denmark. Significantly, his views are prompting a backlash from not only European leaders but Jews themselves. Commentators argue that for many Jews, such remarks ignore, and even insult, the acceptance they feel in the countries where they and their families have often lived for generations.
“We are a little confused by this call, which is basically like a call to surrender to terror,” said Arie Zuckerman, senior executive at the European Jewish Congress. “It may send a wrong message to the leaders of Europe.” According to Rabbi Menachem Margolin, “to come out with this kind of statement after each attack is unacceptable.”
Not surprisingly many European Muslims feel similarly irritated when leaders from Muslim countries try and give advice to them.
Better advice has come from Francois Crepeau, a UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, who has said that the EU needs to change its migrant policy as it doesn’t answer to the problems which are emerging. “A common narrative celebrating mobility and diversity, recognising real labour market needs, as well as the needs of migrants, based on human rights guarantees and access to justice, must be developed,” said Crépeau.
The UN Rapporteur is right. European leaders must act urgently to stop the rise in Islamophobia and build more inclusive societies. They should stop pandering to the Far Right. More humane policies are needed towards the endless waves of asylum seekers stuck in Lampedusa and other centres. Above all, attitudes to change.
Proof that this can happen is provided by the new Greek government led by Alexis Tsipras. Greece has seen a surge in racist assaults in recent years, with the Golden Dawn fascist party intimidating immigrants and human rights advocates.
The new government has pledged to close down detention centres for illegal immigrants that have long been criticised by rights groups as inhuman.
Tasia Christodoulopoulou, a veteran human rights attorney who is now Greece’s first-ever minister for immigration, has said Athens has to move quickly to improve the poor reputation it has acquired handling those fleeing poverty and deprivation.
Tsipras may be getting flak from other European leaders when it comes to his eurozone politics. But his EU partners could learn a thing or two about trying to build a better society from Greece.