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.