The challenge of social and cultural diversity to contemporary European society is not new. But in the last decade, it has again become a sensitive political issue. The permanent presence of significant groups of immigrants in particular what the Canadians call visible minorities has led to new questions about the inclusion (or exclusion) of citizens and foreign residents, and the public recognition of religious (often Muslim) practices and badges of identity.
At the start of the 21st century, managing the multicultural, multifaceted reality of our societies, together with these attendant issues of inclusion and exclusion, seems likely to be increasingly the most difficult task politicians throughout Europe will face.
A vehicle of protest
In several European countries, immigrants have been confined to a status as the object of discussion rather than themselves participating in the debate. In the Belgian political arena, for instance, non-European Union ethnic minority groups went almost unheard until very recently. The latest round of federal, regional and local elections altered this state of affairs to some degree when several politicians of non-EU immigrant origin were elected. But the high-profile boost given to the ethnic minority voice in Belgian politics by the sudden rise of a controversial and ambitious immigrant organisation called the Arab European League (AEL) is of an entirely different order.
This remarkable organisation, which actually combines a pan-Arabic nationalist ideology for the Arab world with an outspoken multicultural vision for the European arena, became a key player in the debate on immigrant integration in Belgium almost overnight. Its influence spread rapidly as far as to Belgiums neighbour, the Netherlands. Nor do the ambitions of the AEL stop there. Claiming members in as many as twelve European countries, the AEL does not rule out further expansion. Indeed it has targeted France for the launch of its next, major chapter.
The Arab European League mobilises behind such slogans as You do not receive rights, you take them. It adopts a clearly confrontational stance in the debate on the treatment of immigrants a stance which never fails to attract a lot of attention, although hardly the appreciation of either the political establishment or the general public, to put it mildly.
The pictures of the intifada on its website, the aggressive tone of most AEL press releases, the bodyguards of its Belgian-Lebanese leader Dyab Abou Jahjah at public gatherings, the civic patrols set up to monitor the police, the numerous veiled threats of imminent riot, demonstrations and riots actually taking place to a background chorus of supporters chanting AEL, Abou Jahjah, or Hamas, Jihad, Hezbollah all this fuels the AELs aggressive image. Much of this is pure bluff; if the AEL has done little to counter its image of a strong, radical and aggressive organisation, it is because it helps it secure street credibility in the most underprivileged urban areas where immigrant communities are inevitably concentrated.
A significant proportion of second-generation Moroccan immigrants who have always faced structural disadvantages will no longer settle for the more docile forms of enlightened self-interest and representation typical of their elders. For a number of citizens of immigrant origin, the AEL has become the number one vehicle for radical protest.
In addition, the AEL soon learned that an aggressive style was effective in gaining political advantage through media attention. Its rapid growth fed off the strong negative reactions of a political establishment which itself was pressured by the vehemently anti-immigrant Vlaams Blok party, which currently has 33% of the vote in the harbour city of Antwerp and 15% throughout Flanders.
Moreover, the media discovered a fascination for the subversive style of the AEL and the charismatic Abou Jahjah, whose magnetic screen presence and facility with juicy quotes secured the group a dramatic impact on the Belgian immigration debate. Attempts to criminalise the organisation in response have only transformed what was once a mouse into an elephant.
The problem: not immigration, but exclusion
The AEL has succeeded in gaining the sympathy of various important groups of immigrant youngsters by combining direct street-level confrontation, clear multicultural demands, and a flexible approach to identity politics which divides its appeal between the Muslim affiliations of some of its followers and the Arab pride of others
The press has been puzzled and fascinated in turn by its combined pan-Arabic and Muslim identity claims; its promotion of a new concept of Arab-Europeanness (inspired by the African-American identity); and its flamboyant style and discourse. For their part, the political establishment has been tricked into making the AEL one of its main adversaries in the Belgian immigration debate, thereby inadvertently granting it increased legitimacy.
After 9/11, both Belgian and Dutch politicians and journalists have been tempted to label the Arab European League (AEL) an Islamist or radical Muslim organisation. The evidence for this is slight. Invocations of Muslim identity do play an important part in AEL mobilisation, but Arab nationalism is at least as strong an ideological influence on the AEL leadership. Indeed, Muslim claims only became prominent in AEL discourse after the 9/11 attacks.
In fact, the AEL wins loyalty neither on Arab nor Muslim grounds. Rather, most of its followers are attracted mainly by an unwavering emphasis on the opposition between the excluded and the included. The AEL champions the underdog: the excluded Muslim immigrants. In essence, it is less a transnational Arab nationalist or Muslim organisation than a local radical immigrant organisation demanding equal opportunities.
This is revealed in the way the AEL pleads for the recognition of ethnic diversity. Its multicultural approach calls for Arab language and culture to be fostered in Europe and emphasises the opportunities this might open up for the continents Arab community. It argues that this community should be considered a European minority (or in the context of European nation-states as a national minority).
In the terminology of Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, the AEL insists on the Arab community being entitled to multinational rights (special rights for historic communities) and not merely polyethnic rights (special rights for immigrant communities). The AEL argues interestingly that due recognition and indeed strengthening of the culture of origin, is a precondition for the successful integration within and even loyalty to the host societies of Europe.
Dont shoot the messenger
If it is clearly difficult to view the AEL itself as a constructive debating partner, the belatedly active involvement of non-EU immigrants in the Belgian immigration debate is surely to be applauded. Dyab Abou Jahjah the Belgian Malcolm X (New York Times) is a fine example of an agile political entrepreneur, able to raise a rumpus about a whole range of pressing issues, from the huge problem of discrimination to access to work, decent housing and good schooling for poor immigrant communities. Indeed, at times the AEL rocks the boat so violently that the vessel runs the risk of capsizing.
The AELs stance on multiculturalism may be radical and unconventional. But, simply because its confrontational style unsettles the general public, no genuine liberal democracy worth the name can ignore the practical issues it raises. The problems of discrimination or of structurally unequal opportunities will not disappear on their own. When the policies of states across Europe do not live up to the secular, colour- and culture-blind principles they espouse, hard debate is necessary. Neglecting the issues raised by radical movements like the AEL or merely shooting the messenger might only fuel their radical mobilisation.
Many establishment Flemish-Belgian politicians, however, seem to be trapped. They worry about the strength of the anti-immigrant and far right Vlaams Blok. At the same time, they are finally acknowledging that the situation in disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods with high numbers of citizens of foreign origin is intolerable. But they are unable to tackle these two problems simultaneously.
The development of policies aimed at improving the position of immigrant groups is constantly hindered by the fear of a white backlash. In turn, lack of sufficiently drastic policy measures to address urban deprivation perpetuates the kind of social problems that give immigrants a bad name. The existence of a radical immigrant organisation like AEL does not make anything easier. But whose fault is that?