The Real Crisis of European Multiculturalism

The Real Crisis of European Multiculturalism

The Culture Veil

The real crisis of European multiculturalism.


On the fast train from Brussels to Paris a few years ago, I met a young woman from the Philippines who was taking a weekend holiday from her job in Belgium to visit France for the first time. As the train entered the outskirts of Paris, she turned to me and said in surprise, “I didn’t realize the French were a black people.” It was my turn to be surprised, until I looked out the window and saw that we were in the banlieues, the segregated neighborhoods consisting largely of West and North African “immigrants” that ring the city. I put “immigrants” in scare quotes because many of these people are long-term residents of France; indeed, many of them are citizens. The word is nonetheless regularly used in France to distinguish them from the Français de souche—the legitimate (white) members of the nation.

“Immigrant” has become a kind of epithet these days, and not only in France. Everywhere in Europe, and also in the United States, immigrants are blamed for all manner of problems: crime, unemployment, disease, the deterioration of public services, the exhaustion of public funds, threats to liberal culture and mores. Right-wing populist politicians in nearly every country of the Western Hemisphere appeal to voters with plans to cleanse the national body of these impure invaders, to expel them, to build walls to keep them out. References to a “crisis” of immigration have become a convenient way to talk about many other things as well: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and, especially, the human costs wrought by global capitalism and the growing inequalities it has engendered within and across the nations of the world.

These references to an “immigrant crisis” antedate the arrival of waves of refugees fleeing war and violence in Africa and the Middle East; the recent refugees have only heightened the discourse. Three new books attempt to see beyond the contours of the current crisis and to tap into a deeper set of economic, political, and cultural anxieties. Rita Chin’s The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe offers a comparative history of the ways in which politicians in several Western European nations have dealt with growing numbers of non-Western immigrants from the 1950s to the present. Sara R. Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights examines the unlikely convergence in recent years among right-wing nationalist political parties, neoliberals, and certain feminists around the question of “emancipation” and non-Western—particularly Muslim—women in France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Rafia Zakaria’s Veil shifts the balance away from white secular Europe toward the experience of Muslim women, mapping the stereotypical representations of the veil in Western culture and then reflecting, in an intensely personal way, on the many meanings that the veil can have for the people who wear it.

Despite their differences, these three books illuminate how Western liberal democracies, since the 1950s, have struggled to develop strategies to manage diversity in societies once considered homogeneous—secular, white, and Christian. Although some of the nations of the West were long used to assimilating other Europeans, the arrival of former colonial subjects was a different matter. Viewed through the racist lens that had justified imperial conquest, these brown, mostly Muslim people were seen not only as different but as inferior. Their difference was also seen as a threat to European national identity. It was one thing to tolerate their presence as a temporary solution to shortages of labor; it was quite another to consider them and their families as permanent residents with the equal rights of fellow citizens.

In her well-researched volume, Rita Chin, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, provides detailed information about the different policies developed in the countries she studied: France, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. By comparing them, she highlights not only their different policies but also their overarching similarities: Cultural racism is the underlying stance taken in the face of increasingly diverse ethnic and religious populations.

Chin calls this diversity “multiculturalism,” a term that—despite a whole chapter devoted to its various definitions—remains confusing in her various usages. It is Chin’s word for describing an objective reality and for invoking the policies that developed in response to this reality. It is also an epithet employed by European politicians in the 1990s to distinguish their policies from the reviled American ones, which viewed multiculturalism as a positive respect for ethnic and racial differences. By using the same word to denote the nature of diverse populations and the discourses about them, Chin’s study loses a certain analytic acuity. Still, it offers a rich historical account of the continuities and changes in immigration policy in the countries she studied.

Chin’s account begins with labor recruitment. She notes that guest-worker programs took off after World War II and flourished in the expanding economies of the 1960s. When European laborers were scarce, men were recruited from the former colonies: “The twin concerns of empire and labor…drove the emergence of multicultural societies.” For these newcomers to Europe, programs were set up by their hosts that encouraged expressions of religious and cultural difference as a way of maintaining the workers’ attachments to their countries of origin and in the expectation that when the jobs were done, they would return home. For example, religious leaders were imported from these workers’ home countries. The policies had little to do with multiculturalism, in the sense of positively recognizing the plural nature of European nations. In fact, it was quite the opposite: They sought to ensure the disposable and replaceable nature of the migrant labor force as a “reserve industrial army.”

When guest workers were no longer needed during the economic downturn of the 1970s, Western European leaders moved to close their nations’ borders and end the recruitment of foreign labor. But they were faced with a dilemma they couldn’t easily resolve: These workers had been bringing their families in the preceding decades with an eye to settling on European soil, and they had been living in Europe in communities that had been encouraged through various state-sponsored programs to express their religious and cultural differences. Now Western European countries had to come to terms with their own labor and cultural policies, having inadvertently brought the empire home. “The nearly twenty-five year scramble to procure foreign workers,” Chin writes, “had resulted in the permanent settlement of transient labor that was increasingly nonwhite, non-Christian and non-
European.… Communities of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions increasingly lived side by side with the British, French, Dutch and Germans, spawning multicultural societies throughout Western Europe.”

An aspect of this story that Chin doesn’t emphasize enough is the vast economic problem posed by the presence of these now unemployed or underemployed surplus laborers and their families, who found themselves doubly disadvantaged by their cultural difference. But she does describe in detail the various strategies that national leaders developed to deal with the presence of these guests who had now overstayed their welcome. The strategies included policies that promoted views of ethnic and racial groups as separate, balkanized identities and euphemisms about improving “race relations” that denied the structures of discrimination that poisoned them.

These strategies also included calls for assimilation and integration that placed the burden of religious and cultural accommodation on the migrants themselves. For the most part, Western European countries did not want to acknowledge “how radically their societies had changed,” and many politicians sought to depoliticize a situation that would soon explode, despite their best efforts, into furious debates about race, immigration, and national identity in the late 1980s and 1990s.

For many countries in Western Europe, 1989 seems to have been a turning point: the moment when a series of developments focused new attention on immigrants, especially Muslims. In France, the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution coincided with an important electoral victory for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (attributed to the success of his anti-immigrant campaigns) and the first of the affaires du foulard (the attempt to prohibit girls wearing Muslim head scarves from attending public schools). The Berlin Wall also came down in the fall of that year, opening up discussions on the meaning of democracy (free markets and sexual liberation included), as well as a flood of cheap immigrant labor from Eastern and Central Europe. These new immigrant workers were considered a problem, but nowhere near as much as Muslims, especially after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against the novelist Salman Rushdie, creating an international cause célèbre and hardening many liberal Europeans’ views on the subject of Islam.

Chin points out that the fatwa was particularly decisive for many Europeans who were already worrying about the growing number of Muslim immigrants and citizens within their countries. “For many Western Europeans,” she writes, “this was the moment when Muslim immigrants with diverse national origins merged into a single, distinctive category. This was also the moment when Islam was first identified as unbending, an intolerant religion that explained Muslim immigrants’ failure to properly integrate…. [T]his was the pivotal juncture when Islam itself came to be seen as a central threat to ‘liberal values’…across all the major Western European powers.”

As many celebrated the victory of liberal democracy over communism, commentators also began to point to the “failure” of multiculturalism and its policies of recognition and appreciation of diversity. But what they meant by “failure” was not that the policies failed to create more welcoming societies, but rather that Muslim culture simply wasn’t compatible with the national traditions of European countries. Throughout Europe, “their” culture was defined as antagonistic to “ours.” In what some critical scholars came to call “the new racism,” culture became a byword—and not only among the European right. As Chin notes, it had “supplanted biology as the key marker of incommensurable difference.”

Chin cites comments by Margaret Thatcher in 1978 as an example of what she characterizes as this new wave of “cultural nationalism.” Reacting to a report that projected the arrival of millions of people from Pakistan in the United Kingdom by the end of the century, Thatcher observed: “Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture. The British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”

This increasingly politicized fear of European culture being “swamped” soon became a “clash of civilizations,” a term coined by the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis in 1990 and then popularized in a 1993 article by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. The term deliberately evoked the religious wars of the medieval period in order to rally the forces of contemporary Western Christian secularism in a crusade against the Muslim enemy. To disarm this foe, the states of Western Europe enacted laws and regulations that ranged from criminalizing certain individual displays of religious affiliation to limiting the height of the minarets on mosques. In their attempts at containment (euphemistically referred to as “integration”), these European nations tightened the eligibility requirements for entry and naturalization, as well as proposed tests of cultural literacy and linguistic mastery for migrants from Muslim and other non-Western countries. In effect, as the sociologist Sara Farris points out, immigrants were expected to possess knowledge of their new country “before the actual contact with [it] begins.”

Farris’s In the Name of Women’s Rights is more theoretical in its approach, offering a supplement to Chin’s historical narrative that focuses on the specific question of non-Western women migrants, most of whom are Muslim. Whereas Chin offers one chapter on women and gender, Ferris devotes her entire book to that subject.

Beginning in the 1970s and ’80s, Farris argues, non-Western immigrant women “became the object of political scrutiny and stereotyping. Typical orientalist gendered dichotomies began to be applied to them: if migrant males were usually depicted as brutes and uncivilized, women were portrayed as passive and submissive.” By contrast, Western European women were deemed autonomous and empowered by, among other things, laws that now permitted divorce and abortion and addressed discrimination in education and the professions, as well as cultural practices defined as “sexual democracy” or “sexual liberation.”

Many of these new feminists and nationalists turned their attention to the veils worn by Muslim women, arguing that they were the very symbol of the immigrants’ purported backwardness, the sign of an intolerable gender inequality alien to the West. The push to rescue Muslim women, Farris argues, was the result of what she terms the “ideological convergence” of calls for gender equality with xenophobic anti-immigrant campaigns—the “femonationalism” mentioned in the subtitle of her book. Femonationalism, she explains, “describes, on the one hand, the attempts of Western European right-wing parties and neoliberals to advance xenophobic and racist politics through the touting of gender equality while, on the other hand, it captures the involvement of various well-known and quite visible feminists and femocrats in the current framing of Islam as a quintessentially misogynistic religion and culture.”

Farris argues that the political anxiety about Muslims in general took the form of advocacy for the emancipation of Muslim women in particular because of “a specifically economic logic”: Whereas Muslim and other non-Western migrant men were viewed as a “reserve army of labor”—that is, a supplemental labor force to be employed only when needed—their female counterparts, working in the domestic-service and care industries, were seen as a part of the “regular army of labor,” constituting an indispensable, irreplaceable labor force that could not otherwise be found. This labor force was needed, Farris notes, to secure the social reproduction of the population itself.

The importance of this migrant female labor force to the social and economic well-being of Western nations was evident in the state policies of the countries that Farris studied: France, Italy, and the Netherlands. These countries provided a variety of subsidies to families for domestic service and elder and child care, sometimes in the form of cash payments, sometimes as tax credits. In this way, they at once commodified and privatized social services, for which Muslim and non-Western migrant women provided “the lion’s share of supply.” This work was defined by government agencies as necessary and vital; it was also considered a permanent feature of the job markets of these countries, a way of helping Muslim women to integrate socially and culturally.

Since they did not compete with native women workers, and as a result of what Farris notes were the “neoliberal reforms in welfare regimes in the direction of the so-called commodification of care [and]…the feminization and racialization of specific labor markets,” migrant women workers were critical to the economy, and so they became defined not as a liability but as victims to be saved. Nationalists turned to the language of secular feminism in order to criticize the way in which these women were oppressed by their cultural and religious norms—as embodied by their veils. Likewise, many European feminists insisted that it was precisely “care” work that would “save” Muslim women by providing them with wage-earning labor that was inherently emancipatory.

There is an irony in this, as Farris observes. The European feminists’ insistence that migrant women’s autonomy would be furthered by the work of domestic service defined as liberating the very household drudgery that these feminists had long sought to escape. There is both a racist and a sexist element to this, Farris says, because “they reinforce the conditions for the reproduction at the societal level of Muslim and non-Western migrant women’s segregation, traditional gender roles, and the gender injustice they claim to be combating.”

Veil, the highly personal meditation by Rafia Zakaria, a journalist and philosopher of Pakistani origin, provides a voice from the other side of the story recounted by Chin and Farris—a voice that is rarely listened to by the politicians and feminists who associate unveiling with the liberation of Muslim women.

In a series of chapters that reflect on her own personal experience (wearing a full-face veil at her traditional Muslim wedding in Karachi; watching her grandmother drape a veil around her face when men got too close to her in the market; observing women at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London), Zakaria explores the many meanings of the veil as it is worn and observed. Each chapter has a different theme, among them submission, purity, rebellion, feminism, and subversion. Zakaria’s style is associative, not linear; no single line of argument is developed. The aim is to appeal to personal experience as a way of establishing authority for her assertions, and also as a way of evoking sympathy in the reader (who is presumed to be Western).

Veils, Zakaria argues, offer a range of subjective and objective meanings that depend on the “particularities of person and politics and context.” Indeed, one of the many meanings of this piece of cloth is that it can be a form of empowerment for the women who choose to wear it. “Independent of context, it does not have much meaning,” but in specific settings (within and outside the Muslim community), the veil can have many positive ones: as a sign of submission to one’s faith, or an individual’s purity, or her desire for collective, communal identification. It can also, Zakaria argues, give a certain sense of pleasurable power: that of seeing without being seen. Its wearing can sometimes signal rebellion—a challenge to the Western European “aesthetics of the public sphere”—and even a certain strain of feminism, allowing women to express their individual autonomy.

Zakaria’s approach also differs from Farris’s and Chin’s in its scope. Chin has a chapter on how veiled women became, in the 1990s, evidence of Islam’s cultural incompatibility with the West, and Farris, expanding on this, examines how, for European nationalists and feminists, the veil became a symbol of how Islam denies Western liberalism’s ideal of sexual democracy. Zakaria’s explanation is at once narrower and more directed to the present. She is less interested in the deep historical roots of the immigrant question; instead, she frames her argument within the context of the so-called War on Terror that began in the early 2000s. This draws her readers’ attention to the present political implications of the veil. “The fully veiled Muslim woman,” Zakaria explains, “once imagined as singularly exotic and repressed, an emblem of the harem of old, ripe with forbidden sexual possibility, did not fit into [the] rhetoric of the War on Terror. That War could no longer be based simply on the demonization of the Muslim man; it required an extension of suspicion to the Muslim woman, particularly the Muslim woman who was not willing to do away with the veil.”

If Chin offers us history and Farris sociological theory, Zakaria’s more personal, philosophical approach is intended to contest the singular meaning that the veil has acquired in much of the West. By exploring the subjective experiences of the veil, we begin to see how both wearing it and not wearing it have profound psychic resonances for those who make these choices, as well as for those who regard it with hostility or even just curiosity. In one notable example, Zakaria writes of the desire of white women in the days of empire to unveil “other” colonized women, a desire that established their superiority as representatives of a higher civilization. Or, referring to the work of the Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat, Zakaria notes the startling message conveyed in a photograph of a fully veiled woman pointing a gun at the viewer: “A veil is revealed then to be not just fabric but a partition and a boundary…. To put the veil back on, to retreat into feminine space, is a wish for reclamation.”

These psychic resonances of the veil—“desire,” “wish”—deserve more attention in analyses of Islamophobia in general and of the place of veiled women within it in particular. But the representation of Muslim women as sexually repressed is key to understanding these resonances, and it is underexamined by all of these authors, including Zakaria. In the course of the 21st century, sexual liberation (the individual’s ability to sleep with whomever she chooses) has come to be equated with gender equality and with freedom more generally, eclipsing all of the other measures of equality that might be used. A certain form of sexual desire (that experienced by the autonomous individual of liberal political theory) is presented as universal and natural, not as a culturally produced artifact of the West. This view of things elicits a visceral repugnance to the alleged perversions of Islam: “We” project our experience of thwarted desire onto “them.”

As a result, the stark contrast between Islam and the West on the question of sexual liberation confirms the West’s sense of its own superiority in the matter of gender equality, even as it conceals the vast discrepancies in wealth and status. In this way, the binary that many liberals, feminists, and nationalists invoke—sexual freedom versus sexual repression—translates discrimination (based on economics, race, class, or religion) into a moral virtue that quarantines the bad influences these immigrants bring with them. It is not the poverty or exclusion they experience in our societies that defines “those people” as unacceptable, but rather their retrograde beliefs and behaviors, especially around issues of sex. At the same time, the belief that “our” system of gender relations is universal and natural while “theirs” is perverse soothes the anxieties and uncertainties that haunt the relations between the sexes on “our” side.

In France, as I have suggested elsewhere, the veiled woman is perceived as deeply disquieting because her veil suggests that sexuality presents a problem for social relationships that must be addressed by declaring sex off-limits in public space. This is a challenge for a republican political system that, on the one hand, promises equality for all and, on the other, has historically excluded or subordinated women because of the difference of their sex—a difference that has to be openly displayed as justification for their different treatment. If gender equality is defined only as sexual emancipation, then all of the other inequalities faced by women in France—political, social, and economic—are made to disappear, and existing gender norms are held firmly in place. The fantasy of freedom is sustained by comparing uncovered French women with those Muslim women covered by the veil. Although political cultures vary in the countries of Western Europe, something similar operates in all of them.

There is clearly a crisis of immigration in Europe. It is evident in the deadlock between an increasing insistence by politicians on the homogeneity of cultural nationalism, on the one hand, and the presence of diverse populations within national borders, on the other. It has only intensified in the wake of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn and economically devastated countries of the Global South. We are at a turning point (one of the meanings, after all, of the word “crisis”): Will those “black people” that we glimpsed from the train, and who are sequestered in the banlieues, ever be accepted as fully French? Will the day come when I would react not in surprise but in affirmation to that young woman (“Yes, some French are black”)? And what of Western feminism? Is there a path away from the binaries of “West/East” and “sexually liberated/sexually repressed” that might yield a more genuinely inclusive vision of what emancipation and gender equality could mean?

A glimmer of what might be possible on this last question came from a collective of women in France—Muslim and non-Muslim, religious and secular—that was formed during the debates over the head-scarf law in 2003–4. These women declared that they were opposed to all forms of domination, whether patriarchal, capitalist, or state-imposed: no forced wearing of the veil, no forced removal of the veil. By focusing on domination as the common denominator, the women found a way out of all those other politically and culturally divisive binaries—not by denying their power, but rather by offering a way to place them in their proper context.

On the subject of refugees and the masses of migrants pouring into European cities from Africa and the Middle East, these authors offer different perspectives. Chin suggests that, on the ground, there is more genuine integration than the politicians would care to admit, and that this provides hope for the future of multiculturalism. Zakaria offers her book as an “object lesson” (the name of the series to which it belongs) on the multifaceted nature of cultural signs, as a way of trying to influence, and so change, stereotypical representations of the veil. Both seek to bring ideas more fully into compliance with reality, as if the two were distinct realms, even as they recognize their interdependence. For Farris, too, material interests and rhetorical expression are inextricably entwined; she emphasizes how the structures and ideologies of discrimination are at once productive of and deeply rooted in economic interests. Her reading of “femonationalism” as a symptom of neoliberal capitalism gives little hope that a quick or effective solution is possible for the crises at hand.

So we are left without certain answers, and that’s as it should be: The goal of these books is not prediction but critique. And in that regard, they are useful and important, providing needed insight and detail to deepen our understanding of how we got here—a necessary step for thinking about whether and how we might be able to move to a better place.

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