To the mainstream press ‘integration’ is a theme which represents the most divisive and destructive issue in Europe. Here, E&M talks to young Europeans and argues that an entirely different narrative is now needed to understand the reality of the integration question.

A counter-narrative on integration in Europe

Integration, the bringing of people of different racial or ethnic groups into unrestricted and equal association, has become one of the premier concerns of Europe. A 2009 Gallup poll on ‘interfaith relations’ established that a quarter of the British non-muslim public felt that ‘different religious practices’ threatened its way of life, notably more than, but comparable to, the 18% and 11% registered in Germany and France. Higher immigration into Europe, now at a figure over 18.5 million non-EU citizens, and the recent economic recession have placed it at the very forefront of people’s minds.

Young Europeans present an image of cultural cohesion rather than the conventional view of conflict. | Photo: Jonasm, Licence: CC-BY-NC

This article’s working title was “The battle for Europe’s soul”, reflecting the fear that integration was in fact leading to a form of cultural annihilation, or at best, a division of the nation into distinct groups. Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University has succinctly pointed out that Europeans are asking themselves “In a globalizing, migratory world,… ‘What will our future look like?,’ they see around them new citizens, new skin colors, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.”

Nurtured by the ‘war on terror’ and exacerbated by a long European presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, newspapers present integration as a fundamentally divisive issue. Headlines such as ‘Britain turns Halal’ and a completely false story of a ‘Muslim plot to Kill Pope’ are twisting a real concern into a set of stagnant caricatures wheeled out to sell newspapers.

Public fear has consequently grown and taken hold of national politics too, explaining why each of the respective governments of France, Italy, Belgium and Britain are currently embroiled in legal, social or political disputes over the wearing of the burqa in public spaces. The European Commission especially is finding itself at odds with the French Government over a recent clampdown on the movement of the Roma, originally from Bulgaria or Romania. Sarkozy, who national polls agree will have a hard time being reelected in 2012, saw his ratings rise by two points after the start of the forcible ‘repatriation’ of over 1,000 of these immigrants.

E&M’s investigation into the second generation, young Europeans born in Europe with strong cultural and familial ties from elsewhere, highlights that the actual experience of integration is fundamentally different from the image in the public’s mind. Rather than a trend towards disintegration, these stories suggest a slow but palpable shift to a new form of social cohesion based on compromise.

Shayan’s perspective

People often ask me what it’s like to live as a human manifestation of two cultures fused together. These two identities are simultaneously with me, always. At times, they can produce a tangled mess of contradictions and at other times they can be a source of great fun, adding a richness to my life that I would not otherwise possess.

Shayan | Photo: Shayan

I was born in Britain and have lived here my entire life. My parents, however, were both born in Pakistan. So, as far as labels go, that makes me a British Pakistani. I have lived in Cambridge for most of my life; it’s a predominantly Caucasian area unlike more diverse parts of the UK such as Peterborough, or Manchester in the North West of England. My family were known as the ‘Pakistani family’ in our village, but it was not a source of alienation, just an interesting fact about us. Of course, we weren’t hugely different from them because our family tend to wear Western clothes and of course use English when out in public.

I am aware though that in more culturally and religiously diverse places the term ‘Pakistani’ is symptomatic of division. There it represents people to be avoided because of their unfamiliar ways and clothes. More culturally diverse places tend to become segregated because in such areas the differences are much more obvious, for example women wearing the burqa, and therefore divisive. It’s simply a case of living the way you know how to. I don’t think that many of these Muslims have made a conscious decision not to integrate – rather, they find solace in familiarity.

European drinking culture may be a persistent problem for young Europeans, or their parents. | Photo: 5sensesphotography, Licence: CS CC

I didn’t perceive myself as hugely different from everyone else, for me nationality is simply feeling like one belongs in a country, feeling pride in its achievements and sorrow for its failures. Some British Asians would label me a ‘coconut’; brown on the outside, but white on the inside. I feel that they are missing the point. One can be British and at the same time be Asian, or a devout Muslim. Nationality transcends mere ancestry and I enjoy being privy to two cultures. I think that the reason why I have been able to reconcile the two cultures has been my family’s inherent open-mindedness; we were eager to try new things rather than stick to tradition for tradition’s sake.

Identity conflicts

Any conflicts I have felt about possessing two identities have been relatively minor and pretty universal. The culture of one’s Asian parents colliding with the lifestyle of a British teenager, for example, is a common problem. When it comes to socialising, clubbing and drinking is largely foreign to our parents and mostly frowned upon. If strict discipline is enforced this can result in those young people becoming frustrated, unhappy, and isolated. Others may agree completely with their parents’ values, and frown upon these integral activities of European socialising. This inevitably leads to them forming friendships only with other Asians and Muslims, by their own choice.

European Asians tend to have difficulty reconciling the dictates of their religion with European culture, which is often seen as too liberal. The consequences are that they see no middle ground between the two cultures, and feel that they must follow one at the expense of the other. Feeling torn between the extreme stereotypes – of the Muslim who associates only with other Muslims, or as an unrestrained Brit, leading a hedonistic life without regard for authority – they may find themselves becoming caricatures of their true selves, merely stereotypes of the identity they choose.

Mistrust and ‘otherness’ is… a slippery slope that grows ever more slippery as we leave compromise and diplomacy behind us.

The problems ahead

Any aura of mistrust and ‘otherness’ is not conducive to a healthy, connected society and will lead to more abuses of minority rights as the leaders politically posture to gain support. The 42 day detention law that the British Government attempted to introduce in 2008 would inevitably target Muslims the most because of their perceived association with terrorism, eroding their civil liberties, and alienating them further. This was, according to human rights groups, merely to keep the majority of the population ‘satisfied’ that something was being done in the interests of national security. Likewise, stories of Asians and Muslims living on benefits tend to spark indignation that people are taking advantage of the State’s social security and not giving anything back, whilst ignoring non-Asians and non-Muslims who also live on benefits. It is a slippery slope that grows ever more slippery as we leave compromise and diplomacy behind us.

It can be frustrating sometimes feeling like I’m ‘half-and-half’, especially as my parents still identify themselves as ‘Pakistanis’. Although they see Britain as their home, Pakistan is where they derive their identity from. Young Europeans may find reconciling two identities impossible, depending on their situation. As a consequence, such people can feel as if they are outside of society. But I am personally grateful for this double identity. For me, Pakistan symbolises my family history, my roots. Britain symbolises my present and future, the home I live in day-to-day. I am able to speak and understand two languages, two worlds. In the eyes of society, I am a British Asian and Muslim. Accepting this is the best way I’ve found to tie the two identities together and derive the benefits that they both can provide.

The norwegian-pakistani experience

On the recent Transnational Adventure, E&M travelled with a Norwegian-Pakistani whose family had moved from Mehmand Chak in the 1970s. Over the 250km journey, Afshar told us how passionately he objected to the unreservedly negative stereotype of Muslims in the media based on scapegoating for social ills such as unemployment and crime. He was, according to his own work colleagues ‘very well integrated’ and whilst clearly a devout Muslim, described the morality of society as stemming from a common point of spiritual faith. His parents did not have a problem with his state Protestant education and he planned to vote in the elections.

The top three non-religious actions for integration: mastering the national language, finding a job, and getting a better education.

Afshar had fufilled what the Gallup coexist index labelled the top three non-religious actions for integration: mastering the national language, finding a job, and getting a better education. And yet, by his own admission, he had no friends with an ethnically Norwegian background. This revelation brought into sharp focus what had seemed like a joke when he said, ‘Norwegians are bastards and wouldn’t help anyone but themselves.’ His cultural and religious attitude coloured his experience of life in Norway. He completed his five daily prayers after work and remained repulsed by a drinking culture that seems integral to wider European socialising. Furthermore, he was afraid that those Muslims who allowed themselves to be influenced by such a pastime were contravening Islam’s strict prohibition of alcohol. In the short time we spent talking to him he seemed to show how members of the second generation may become inconclusively integrated into their home society, highlighting the point of tension where two cultures meet.

The promotion of diversity

Harvard’s Jocelyne Cesari argues that Europe must “completely rephrase” what European and national identity means to accurately reflect the multicultural population of Europe. Both stories seem to corroborate this line and to this end the European council has adopted the principle that “Integration is a dynamic, two-way process of mutual accommodation by all immigrants and residents of Member States.” It is thus accommodation over destruction which defines Europe’s needs in the modern world. Just as Germany, France and Britain now also share common points of recognition, it is recognised that national boundaries are no longer defined by culturally distinct groups.

Anti-Islamic poster in Switzerland against the building of minarets. | Photo: Dreamer7112 (by permission)

The problems ahead are clear, 44% and 46% of the German and French public believed that ‘headscarfs’ were associated with ‘fanaticism’, and when asked if they associated them with oppression, these figures increased to 60% and 53% respectively. Shayan doesn’t wear one and says ‘It can be either a symbol of oppression or freedom, depending on whether the woman chooses to wear it.’ Considering that a mere 14% and 16% of those nation’s muslims associated it with ‘oppression’, it seems that the majority of people’s impressions are based on a lack of cultural understanding. To weaken the damaging force of ignorance which would ‘undermine the purported liberalism of Europe’ (Shayan) fostering discourse and understanding should be the utmost priority in social and future immigration policy.

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) report of 2006 listed a number of ‘best practice’ initiatives to aid integration, recommending that local authorites were best placed to implement these specific and targeted social cohesion programmes. The “Open Day at the Mosque” initiated by the central organisaton for Muslims of Germany every October 3rd since 1997 encourages the majority population to meet Muslim communities under key mottos such as “Muslims: Partners for Security.” Approximately 1000 mosques took part in 2004 and this project has been mirrored in other European localities. The highly significant creation of dialogue in schools was addressed by our partner, the Körber foundation, with competitions based on “Learning from each other: Forum School and Islam” in which schools present their own concepts on how to best accommodate Islam within the school framework.

Language is often cited as the main issue in integrating immigrants and their families. Although this is true, it stands to reason that as long as the second and subsequent generations are educated, as the EUMC recommends, in joint classes in the native language and are therefore not restricted to their parents’ cultures alone, then this, increasingly, will cease to be an issue. It is these young Europeans who will be the future fully-integrated citizens of Europe. The trend suggests that if social cohesion projects are maintained and improved, if education shifts to view member states as the fundamentally multicultural entities they are, then Europe will slowly develop into an even more diverse and integrated continent.

Islamic graffiti at the Islam Expo in London 2008. One of the main aims of the event was to introduce the British public to Islam as a global culture, as well as promoting multicultralism as an enrichment of British identity. | Photo: iMuslim (By permission)


Putative actions such as banning the Burqa may in the short term prove politically beneficial, playing on people’s cultural insecurities to gain votes, but do little to support the integration of young Europeans of all faiths and backgrounds. After all, such policies are built on the false narrative that minority populations are in the process of challenging the established cultural hegemony. In reality, the interconnectedness of the world has already done this and has already cross-pollinated Europe with a diversity which was unthinkable a generation or two ago. Rather than highlighting the few whose puritan streak generates social discord and strife, it would be better to look at the second generation who in their daily lives attempt to deal with the realities of multiple identities.

All seem to agree that integration can be encouraged through language, education, and social projects directed at both sides of society. The long term outlook for their success depends very much on the narrative followed. Far from the ideologues and nationalists of the last century, one could argue that as the second generation grows within the institutions of European states, we will see a greater degree of social harmony, as the press’s cry of cultural conflict and isolation will ring increasingly more hollow. The process is not complete, not even secure; but it is taking place and a greater awareness of it would act to quell the fear, loathing and turmoil currently stifling Europe’s public mind.




Cover Photo: Reeham Hakem from Crooked Rib Art (By Permission)

The Gallup Coexist Index 2009 (Sec 2:19 fig 13,14,43,44.)…/Gallup-Coexist-Index-2009.aspx
The EUMC report, ‘Muslims in the European Union – Discrimination and Islamophobia’ 2006
Council of Foreign Relations article
France/Roma/Poll Ratings
Headlines from:—tells-public.html

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