By Shahid Javed Burki
November 30th, 2015
How the West views Islam will be determined to a large extent by the attitudes Europeans develop to the followers of this faith. According to Pew Forum, the total number of Muslims in Europe in 2010 was about 44 million. A significant number of these were in the European part of Russia. The number living in the European Union (EU) was estimated at 19 million or almost four per cent of the total. The proportion will increase once the refugees who poured into the continent are absorbed.
The flow of refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan exacerbated what many in Europe view as a problem — the presence of Islam in the continent. A suburb in northeastern Paris in an area called Department 93 is a good example of the tension that the presence and arrival of more and more Muslims is creating for Europe. George Packer’s essay in The New Yorker of August 31, 2015 described the situation — in fact a crisis — that is taking shape. “To many Parisians, the 93 signify decayed housing projects, crime, unemployment and Muslims. France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieus, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentration of poverty and social isolation.” One of the several residents of the suburb Packer interviewed for his article said that the highway called the Periferique that encircles Paris is a schizophrenic dynamic that separates the Muslim suburbs from the city. “For all their vitality, the banlieues feel isolated from the city, and from France itself. Parisians and tourists rarely visit them, and residents claim that journalists drop in only to report on car burnings and drug shootings.” Being from the area was a serious impediment; school graduates apply for jobs but don’t get called.
The Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015 worsened the situation for Muslims in Europe. They widened the divide between them and the rest. Following the attacks, Francois Hollande, the French president, declared war on radicalism. He undertook a whirlwind tour of several Western capitals as well as Moscow to drum up support for his initiative. While President Barack Obama was cautious in pledging what his country was prepared to do, Russia’s Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity for his country in the French overtures. Long shunned by the West, in Hollande’s war against radicalism, the Russian president saw a way of getting his country back into Western Europe.
The east-west divide in the EU — in particular with reference to the continent’s attitude towards Islam and Muslims — was laid bare by the refugee crisis of 2015. When joining the EU, nations were asked to pledge support to a raft of so-called European values, including open markets, transparent government, respect for an independent media, open borders, cultural diversity, protection of minorities and rejection of xenophobia. The former East European nations accepted the conditions when they became EU members, but changed little in the behaviour or attitude. This was in part because they were considerably more homogenous than the countries in the western part of the continent. Poland, for instance, was 98 per cent white and 98 per cent Catholic. Also, East European countries had no history of colonialism. Unlike France, Belgium, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, their people have not lived and worked with people of different colour, creed and religion. As The New York Times’ Rick Lyman reported from Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban had “taken a particularly uncompromising approach, demanding more help from Brussels in dealing with tens of thousands who continue to enter his country while insisting that Hungary is under no obligation to endanger its traditional Christian values by accepting large numbers of Muslims”.
He was not alone in voicing that sentiment. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said his country will accept only Christian refugees as it would be “false solidarity” to force Muslims to settle in a country without a single mosque. “This refugee flow has outraged the right wing,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “If you scratch the surface, why are they so upset? It’s not jobs or the ability to manage them or social welfare. What it is really about is that they are Muslims.”
These negative attitudes may ease with time. As the mostly young and well-educated refugees begin to contribute meaningfully to the economies of their adopted countries, their presence may get to be less resented. The EU in its twice-yearly economic forecast released in late November 2015 estimated that it will receive an additional three million persons over the next three years, bringing the total to four million. The Commission estimated that overall migrant flows would add additional regional growth of 0.2 to 0.3 per cent of GDP by 2020. Extra public spending to help the refugees settle in their new homes will increase GDP in the short term, while medium-term growth should be boosted by an increase in labour supply. Germany is set to benefit the most. Where the new arrivals are highly skilled, the country’s GDP would increase by 0.2 per cent this year, rising to 0.4 to 0.5 per cent by 2020.
Shahid Javed Burki is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank