Call it Europe’s best kept secret. As the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees hits the headlines and Europeans tie themselves in knots over how to deal with the desperate, mainly Muslim, newcomers, it’s worth noting: Islam has always been part of Europe — and it will be part of Europe’s future.
Europe and Europeans have no choice. It will be long, difficult and sometimes painful but sooner or later, like it or not, they are going to have to come to terms with Islam and Muslims.
It’s also true that if they are to live fulfilling and productive lives, Muslims, whatever their origin and their sectarian affiliations, will have to get used to calling Europe their “real” home. Many do so already and so will most of the refugees currently settling in to their new lives.
There is no other option. Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived side by side, in peace and in Europe in the past. Despite the shrill headlines of a clash of cultures and values, they also do so today and will in the future.
Europe’s current focus may be on Muslims as terrorists, refugees, foreign fighters, criminals and misfits — and extremists on all sides may cry blue murder at the existence of a vibrant multi-cultural Europe — but the process of adaptation, accommodation, integration, of Europe and Islam is well underway.
For one, the economy demands it. As European economies stagnate, Europe’s ageing society needs refugees and migrants — skilled and unskilled — to pay taxes and do the jobs that no one else wants to do.
But it’s about more. There is an interesting story to be told about migrants’ economic contribution to their host nations especially the fact that many migrant entrepreneurs are actively fostering the revitalisation of impoverished urban neighbourhoods, creating jobs and prompting innovation in products and services.
A recent European Commission study stresses that diversity brought about by migration can be a competitive advantage and a source of dynamism for the European economies, whose workforce is expected to decline by approximately 50 million between 2008 and 2060.
But these facts get lost in the toxic conversation being led by the far-right groups. The inconvenient truth is that Europe needs a new narrative on immigration and it needs it urgently.
The stakes are high: Europe’s global reputation and hopes of playing a stronger international role depends on its internal conduct and policies. The tone and content of the immigration debate has repercussions on Europe’s internal cohesion, economic dynamism and societal harmony but also impacts strongly on EU foreign policy and international reputation.
The harsh reaction of some European governments to those fleeing war in the Middle East colours global views of Europe, eroding the EU’s efforts to promote human rights worldwide.
When Muslims are targets of racist attacks and discrimination, the EU’s role and influence in helping to stabilise a very volatile Arab and Muslim world is diminished. Young Africans drowning in rickety boats in the Mediterranean raise questions about the effectiveness of EU development policy.
The environment is more favourable to changing the narrative than many believe. Recent tragedies in Paris and elsewhere as well as the current focus on European “foreign fighters” who have joined the militant Islamic State group in Syria has spotlighted the malaise and disaffection felt by many young Europeans of Muslim descent.
Europe’s once solely security-focused approach to deal with the Muslims has been replaced with a more balanced view that includes an integration agenda and migrant outreach programmes.
Government and business recruitment policies are being gradually changed to increase the employment of migrants. In fact, business leaders are demanding an increase in immigration, including that from Muslim countries, to meet Europe’s skills shortage, and the Lisbon Treaty includes a new anti-discrimination directive that strengthens existing rules on combating racism.
For their part, migrant groups are becoming significantly more active in demanding equal rights as fully fledged citizens, organising themselves into pressure groups and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural icons.
But there are certain ground rules. Integration is a two-way street, requiring adjustment efforts by migrants and host societies. Newcomers must abide by existing rules so that they can become part of the conversation. But in exchange they should be accepted as full-fledged members of society.
European politicians face the challenge of engaging in an intelligent debate on immigration and integration which is not about accusatory interventions or the adoption of populists’ rhetoric but does not shy away from discussing the real challenges of living in a multicultural and diverse society.
Given the present sorry lack of representation of people of migrant background in national governments, parliaments and EU institutions, some form of support for higher education, facilitation of job promotion is needed to encourage minorities to become active social participants.
Business leaders, for their part, must become less timid in pointing out that ageing and skills-deficient Europe needs foreign labour.
Europe’s most serious refugee crisis since World War II seems to be ripping the continent apart, stretching economic resources, radicalising politics and straining political institutions. It need not be so.
This is also a period of profound transformation, change and renewal. It may not look like it because of the ongoing chaos and turbulence. But Europe will never be the same again — it could be better.