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30/05/2006

Europe's politics of victimology

Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten and publisher of the Muhammad cartoons, clarifies his position on the conflict he set off.

The worldwide furore unleashed by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that I published last September in Jyllands-Posten (comprehensive press review here), the Danish newspaper where I work, was both a surprise and a tragedy, especially for those directly affected by it. Lives were lost, buildings were torched, people were driven into hiding.

And yet the unbalanced reactions to the not-so-provocative caricatures—loud denunciations and even death threats toward us, but very little outrage toward the people who attacked two Danish Embassies—unmasked unpleasant realities about Europe's failed experiment with multiculturalism. It's time for the Old Continent to face facts, and make some profound changes in its outlook on immigration, integration, and the coming Muslim demographic surge. After decades of appeasement and political correctness, combined with growing fear of a radical minority prepared to commit serious violence, Europe's moment of truth is here.

Europe today finds itself trapped in a posture of moral relativism that is undermining its liberal values. An unholy three-cornered alliance between Middle East dictators, radical imams who live in Europe, and Europe's traditional left wing is enabling a politics of victimology. This politics drives a culture that resists integration and adaptation, perpetuates national and religious differences, and aggravates such debilitating social ills as high immigrant crime rates and entrenched unemployment.

As one who once championed the utopian state of multicultural bliss, I think I know what I'm talking about. I was raised on the ideals of the 1960s, in the midst of the Cold War. I saw life through the lens of the countercultural turmoil, adopting both the hippie pose and the political superiority complex of my generation. I and my high school peers believed that the West was imperialistic and racist. We analysed decaying Western civilization through the texts of Marx and Engels and lionized John Lennon's beautiful but stupid tune about an ideal world without private property: "Imagine no possessions/ I wonder if you can/ No need for greed or hunger/ A brotherhood of man/ Imagine all the people/ Sharing all the world."

It took me only 10 months as a young student in the Soviet Union in 1980-81 to realize what a world without private property looks like, although many years had to pass until the full implications of the central Marxist dogma became clear to me.

That experience was the beginning of a long intellectual journey that has thus far culminated in the reactions to the Mohammed cartoons. Politically, I came of age in the Soviet Union. I returned there in 1990 to spend 11 years as a foreign correspondent. Through close contact with courageous dissidents who were willing to suffer and go to prison for their belief in the ideals of Western democracy, I was cured of my woolly dreams of idealistic collectivism. I had a strong sense of the high price my friends were willing to pay for the very freedoms that we had taken for granted in high school—but did not grasp as values inherent in our civilization: freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and movement. Justice and equality implies equal opportunity, I learned, not equal outcome.

Now, in Europe's failure to grapple realistically with its dramatically changing demographic picture, I see a new parallel to that Cold War journey. Europe's left is deceiving itself about immigration, integration, and Islamic radicalism today the same way we young hippies deceived ourselves about Marxism and Communism 30 years ago. It is a narrative of confrontation and hierarchy that claims that the West exploits, abuses, and marginalises the Islamic world. Left-wing intellectuals have insisted that the Danes were oppressing and marginalising Muslim immigrants. This view comports precisely with the late Edward Said's model of Orientalism, which argues that experts on the Orient and the Muslim World have not depicted it as it is but as some dreaded "other," as exactly the opposite of ourselves—and therefore to be rejected. The West, in this narrative, is democratic, the East is despotic. We are rational, they are irrational.

This kind of thinking gave birth to a distorted approach to immigration in countries like Denmark. Left-wing commentators decided that Denmark was both racist and Islamophobic. Therefore, the chief obstacle to integration was not the immigrants' unwillingness to adapt culturally to their adopted country (there are 200,000 Danish Muslims now); it was the country's inherent racism and anti-Muslim bias.

A cult of victimology arose and was happily exploited by clever radicals among Europe's Muslims, especially certain religious leaders like Imam Ahmad Abu Laban in Denmark and Mullah Krekar in Norway. Mullah Krekar—a Kurdish founder of Ansar al Islam who this spring was facing an expulsion order from Norway—called our publication of the cartoons "a declaration of war against our religion, our faith, and our civilization. Our way of thinking is penetrating society and is stronger than theirs. This causes hate in the Western way of thinking; as the losing side, they commit violence."

The role of victim is very convenient because it frees the self-declared victim from any responsibility, while providing a posture of moral superiority. It also obscures certain inconvenient facts that might suggest a different explanation for the lagging integration of some immigrant groups—such as the relatively high crime rates, the oppression of women, and a tradition of forced marriage.

Dictatorships in the Middle East and radical imams have adopted the jargon of the European left, calling the cartoons racist and Islamophobic. When Westerners criticize their lack of civil liberties and the oppression of women, they say we behave like imperialists. They have adopted the rhetoric and turned it against us.

These events are occurring against the disturbing backdrop of increasingly radicalised Muslims in Europe. Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 ringleader, became a born-again Muslim after he moved to Europe. So did the perpetrators behind the bombings in Madrid and London. The same goes for Mohammed Bouyeri, the young Muslim who slaughtered filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam. Europe, not the Middle East, may now be the main breeding ground for Islamic terrorism.

What's wrong with Europe? For one thing, Europe's approach to immigration and integration is rooted in its historic experience with relatively homogeneous cultures. In the United States one's definition of nationality is essentially political; in Europe it is historically cultural. I am a Dane because I look European, speak Danish, descend from centuries of other Scandinavians. But what about the dark, bearded new Danes who speak Arabic at home and poor Danish in the streets? We Europeans must make a profound cultural adjustment to understand that they, too, can be Danes.

Another great impediment to integration is the European welfare state. Because Europe's highly developed, but increasingly unaffordable, safety nets provide such strong unemployment insurance and not enough incentive to work, many new immigrants go straight onto the dole.

While it can be argued that the fast-growing community of about 20 million Muslim immigrants in Europe is the equivalent of America's new Hispanic immigrants, the difference in their productivity and prosperity is staggering. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 1999 showed that while immigrants in the United States are almost equal to native-born workers as taxpayers and contributors to American prosperity, in Denmark there is a glaring gap of 41 percent between the contributions of the native-born and of the immigrants. In the United States, a laid-off worker gets an average of 32 percent compensation for his former wages in welfare services; in Denmark the figure is 81 percent. A culture of welfare dependency is rife among immigrants, and taken for granted.

What to do? Obviously, we can never return to the comfortable monocultures of old. A demographic revolution is changing the face, and look, of Europe. In an age of mass migration and the Internet, cheap air fares and cell phones everywhere, cultural pluralism is an irreversible fact, like it or not. A nostalgic longing for cultural purity—racial purity, religious purity—easily descends into ethnic cleansing.

Yet multiculturalism that has all too often become mere cultural relativism is an indefensible proposition that often justifies reactionary and oppressive practices. Giving the same weight to the illiberal values of conservative Islam as to the liberal traditions of the European Enlightenment will, in time, destroy the very things that make Europe such a desirable target for migration.

Europe must shed the straitjacket of political correctness, which makes it impossible to criticize minorities for anything—including violations of laws, traditional mores, and values that are central to the European experience. Two experiences tell the tale for me.

Shortly after the horrific 2002 Moscow musical theatre siege by Chechen terrorists that left 130 dead, I met with one of my old dissident friends, Sergei Kovalev. A hero of the human rights movement in the old Soviet Union, Kovalev had long been a defender of the Chechens and a critic of the Russian attacks on Chechnya. But after the theatre massacre, he refused to indulge in politically correct drivel about the Chechens' just fight for secession and decolonization. He unhesitatingly denounced the terrorists, and insisted that a nation's right to self-determination did not imply a free ticket to kill and violate basic individual rights. For me, it was a clarifying moment on the dishonesty of identity politics and the sometime tyranny of elevating group rights above those of individuals—of justifying the killing of innocents in the name of some higher cause.

The other experience was a trip I made in the 1990s, when I was a correspondent based in the United States, to the Brighton Beach neighbourhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. There I wrote a story about the burgeoning, bustling, altogether vibrant Russian immigrant community that had arisen there—a perfect example of people retaining some of their old cultural identity (drinking samovars of tea, playing hours of chess, and attending church) while quickly taking advantage of America's free and open capitalism to establish an economic foothold. I marvelled at America's ability to absorb newcomers. It was another clarifying moment.

Equal treatment is the democratic way to overcome traditional barriers of blood and soil for newcomers. To me, that means treating immigrants just as I would any other Danes. And that's what I felt I was doing in publishing the 12 cartoons of Muhammad last year. Those images in no way exceeded the bounds of taste, satire, and humour to which I would subject any other Dane, whether the queen, the head of the Church, or the prime minister. By treating a Muslim figure the same way I would a Christian or Jewish icon, I was sending an important message: You are not strangers, you are here to stay, and we accept you as an integrated part of our life. And we will satirize you, too. It was an act of inclusion, not exclusion; an act of respect and recognition.

Alas, some Muslims did not take it that way—though it required a highly organized campaign, several falsified (and very nasty) cartoons, and several months of overseas travel for the aggrieved imams to stir up an international reaction.

Maybe Europe needs to take a leaf—or a whole book—from the American experience. For a new Europe of many cultures that is somehow a single entity to emerge, as it has in the United States, will take effort from both sides—the native-born and the newly arrived.

For the immigrants, the expectation that they not only learn the host language but also respect their new countries' political and cultural traditions is not too much to demand, and some stringent (maybe too stringent) new laws are being passed to force that. At the same time, Europeans must show a willingness to jettison entrenched notions of blood and soil and accept people from foreign countries and cultures as just what they are, the new Europeans.

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The article was originally published in German in Der Spiegel on May 29, and in English in Blueprint Magazine on May 17, 2006. We would like to thank Blueprint editor Peter Ross Range for his consent.

Flemming Rose is cultural editor at the Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest newspaper.
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