Strangers in Strange Lands: Tackling Europe’s Challenge of Muslim ‘Otherness’

Written by | Friday, January 6th, 2017

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Professor Mona Siddiqui, University of Edinburgh, UK

EUBULLETIN talked in an EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, about the challenges of integration of Muslim immigrants in the European societies particularly in the light of the protracted migration crisis and a string of terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and other European capital cities.

EUBULLETIN: Talking about the migration crisis and the issue of the integration of Muslim migrants in European societies, although Central and Eastern European countries have only very small Muslim communities that are moreover relatively well-integrated, populist political leaders across the region have been trying to exploit this climate of mistrust towards migrants.

Professor Siddiqui: The issue is, as the Hungarian president said, that he did not want the same what has happened to Western Europe also happens to Hungary – when he blocked off migrants coming in, it was basically him saying we don’t want to have all the Muslim immigrants coming in. Now, you can either accuse him of being extremely Fascist or I can see that he seems to be genuinely concerned about the troubles that Muslim in Western Europe are seemingly creating for their governments. So, maybe he said what he has to say.

EUBULLETIN: However, the great paradox when it comes to populist leaders in Hungary but also the Poland or Czech Republic is that – in contrast to their Western European neighbours – these countries still have largely homogenous societies.

Professor Siddiqui: But the problem with homogeneity is that it’s not static – you will change! And you will have internal issues that will impact on your society. Immigration may be something to handle lots of your own anxiety valves but inevitably Hungarian, Polish and Czech societies will change. Looking at the common heritage of the former Eastern European and Western European countries, there is something within European societies – you see it as a tourist even when you go from one country to another – that binds people.

But there is still something in the society that distinguishes people – in the way they dress, they talk, they relate to one another in one EU country, which is different to many other parts. And you know whenever you nowadays ‘go West’ – ideologically, intellectually – you go to the West, and there is nothing wrong with that. Because look, for instance, many nowadays say, “don’t go West”, but everybody really wants to go West – because there is something about the West that’s appealing to people out in other parts of the world.

EUBULLETIN: Still, even if you accepted only some of the migrants and refugees, I mean those who, so to say it, fulfil certain criteria, there should be certain policies in place designed to facilitate their integration in European societies.

Professor Siddiqui: The people in Brussels should surely get their heads together and work out the badly needed policies and measures needed to integrate the migrants. And surely they can also get their heads around who are those refugees from the war-torn regions who deserve our help and they can also work out whom they might to send back. But the whole debate on immigration and migration is so emotive – you either have to let them all in – and here you have that horrible picture of that little boy on Turkey’s Mediterranean beach – or you let nobody or very few people in.

But actually there must be ways that the European governments can work it out and instead of playing this game ‘I might not be re-elected if I let in more refugees’, which is a stupid game to play and does not do to the refugees any good because they need to have some certainty in the question as to whether they will be away from their home for the next month or for the next few years. Because I think most people in Syria do not want to come here but want to stay behind in Syria as long as it is a reasonably safe place to live in and where their children can get educated.

EUBULLETIN: How would you respond to those voices around Europe who claim that the influx of migrants is being used as a tool by ISIS and other similar groups to spread their ideology and to send their people to infiltrate Europe and commit acts of terror here?

Professor Siddiqui: There would be some inevitably – I mean just like there are not only refugees from war-torn Syria, there are people coming from places where there is no conflict, those who also wish for a better life. I don’t think you can stop people wanting a better life for themselves and one of the key issues about the EU is that it is committed to ‘freedom of movement’ but that freedom of movement isn’t just a legal thing – it is just in a human nature to search for a better life. But it can be managed – it doesn’t have to be either you are taking everybody or you are taking no one. So, I don’t know whether we have had that proper public debate about that.

EUBULLETIN: After the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin and other European capital cities, the consensus among experts is that these attacks will continue unabated. But this goes exactly against the idea of creating a multicultural society and being more accepting towards refugees because people would say ‘look, if we accept more refugees, and especially those of Muslim background, then more similar attacks will happen’. So, how to resolve this conundrum?

Professor Siddiqui: Even if you allow more refugees to come in, I think terrorist attacks will still unfortunately happen because people can work on it from a long distance and whenever people committing the attacks get blown off, it’s always the mastermind who is somewhere else. So, you just need the tool, you just need a couple of volunteers.

I mean Europe is full of angry young Muslim men at the moment, who are anti-West, and there are also angry right-wing guys who are anti-Muslim, so we need to channel this angry young men’s resentment into something. I honestly don’t know whether a lot of these Muslims who are already here will continue to be problematic or after a couple of generations, they will all become more integrated into the mainstream society.

EUBULLETIN: And it is the hijab – a veil traditionally worn by Muslim women – that has somewhat paradoxically become a symbol of this struggle of the mainstream society to have its Muslim community more integrated.

Professor Siddiqui: Because the rise of the hijab that you have now has become the first real expression of the visibility of ‘otherness’ – the Muslim community – but that visibility has not been turned into something fruitful, it’s political, politicized visibility. And I always say to Muslims why has that become such a big issue for you, what about the ethics of terrorism, what about other issues, what about accountability or responsibility that what you are doing has a positive effect on the society around you.

That’s why I happen to be one of the few people who believe that you actually have to buy into the social contract, to buy into a citizenship, to the public space – and not just yours – and in order to share the public space with other people, there are certain aspects of yourself – including culture and religion – that you just keep in the private. And I know that a lot of people don’t like that because they don’t see the logic behind that.



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