November 24, 2005

November 24, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

European intifada?

VENICE, Italy. -- Amid the architectural gorgeousness and the fabulous shopping of Europe, the feeling comes easily that reality is suspended here.

Europeans live in a state of denial about the looming immigrant crisis closing in on their world, despite signs growing harder and harder to miss. Even after the Madrid bombing of a year and a half ago, even after the London subway bombing of last summer, even after last month's riots by disaffected Muslim and other immigrant youth in the suburbs of France, there is a prevailing sense here that bad things happen to other people.

But not everybody is so complacent, and a few voices have begun to articulate strongly the continent's problems. At the annual meeting of the Venice Colloquium, a gathering of conservative and free-market organizations from Europe and the United States, Ferdinando Adornato, head of Fondazione Liberal and a member of the Italian Parliament, issued a wakeup call for his fellow Europeans: "We want to give out an alarm," he said. "The elite underestimate the crisis in Europe, economic and spiritual. To deal with a crisis, first you must recognize it."

The malaise also leads to widespread failure to muster the courage to deal with Europe's immigrant problem. The riots in the French suburbs, in which thousands and thousands of cars were set ablaze along with schools and other official buildings, should not be considered a temporary crisis, in Mr. Adornato's view. "As a continent we have a wrong attitude toward integration. We are scared of immigrants. Social fears are the wrong attitude towards global challenges," he said. The result is a society that produces no opportunity: "Young immigrants have no dreams."

Getting Europeans to deal with the problem of integrating the millions of immigrants in their midst is not going to]U be easy, judging by conversations with Europeans. "It can't happen here" is the repeated response in discussions about the rioting in France, a head-in-the-sand reaction that will not serve them well.
Germans (whose country has 3.2 million Muslims) insist "it cannot happen here" because they don't have ghettoes of immigrants. This despite the fact that schools in inner-city neighborhoods are overwhelmingly immigrant, and despite the fact that the post-unification era in Germany saw ugly racially motivated violence.

Italians insist that "it cannot happen here" because the Italian immigrant population of Albanians, Romanians and Muslims is such a new phenomenon that it has not yet developed a second or third generation in which discontent can foster. Also, some say, as the Italians are nicer than the French, immigrants have less of a hard time. The Swiss maintain that "it cannot happen here," even with 20 percent immigrants. They just don't foresee any problems like the French.
Meanwhile the British, with 1.8 million Muslims, are being held up as an example of a successful multicultural European society. It is true that because of previous race riots in the 1980s, the British system already underwent significant change to become more flexible and inclusive. Yet it is also true that homegrown British terrorists perpetrated the London subway bombings this summer.

Even in France, where problems associated with young Muslim immigrants -- unemployment, isolation, family breakdown and rage -- have broken into full view, recognition has come slowly. Statistics regarding France's immigrant population are highly uncertain, and in fact illegal to collect; estimates vary from 3 million to 6 million people of Middle Eastern and North African origin. It took President Jacques Chirac almost two weeks to talk about the riots in public. Remarkably, though, he did recognize that the French system had broken down as the evidence became overwhelming.

Equally amazing is the fact that even conservative French politicians reject outright the idea that the riots could have had any radical Muslim dimension at all. This is asserted as an absolute fact, and the evidence cited is that France's chief imam has condemned the violence and urged its end. How can anyone be 100 percent sure when the potential for al Qaeda recruitment seems to be so obvious?

Perhaps the French government does have an opportunity here to grapple with the problem before vandalism turns into an organized French intifada. This will take an unflinching, honest evaluation of the problem, however, which Europe so far has shown little inclination for.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times