By NOAH FELDMAN
Published: June 22, 2008
No country is wholly free of anti-immigrant prejudice, whether it is the United States, where illegal immigration was a hot-button issue in the Republican primaries, or post-apartheid South Africa, where economic migrants were recently burned to death. But in many Western European countries today, something new and insidious seems to be happening. The familiar old arguments against immigrants — that they are criminals, that their culture makes them a bad fit, that they take jobs from natives — are mutating into an anti-Islamic bias that is becoming institutionalized in the continent’s otherwise ordinary politics.
Examples abound. The Swiss People’s Party sponsors ads in which three white sheep push one black sheep off the Swiss flag — and wins 29 percent of the vote. In Belgium, the Vlaams Belang deploys a clever variation, publicly praising Jews and seeking their support against Muslims, whom it tellingly describes as “the main enemy of the moment.” Meanwhile, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture.”
Even Britain, which has afforded Muslims a more welcoming environment, has had some worrying moments. A few years back, a Labor M.P. called for an end to “the tradition of first-cousin marriages” among Pakistanis and other South Asians in Britain. The basis for her suggestion was the claim that Pakistanis in Britain were more likely than the general population to suffer from recessive autosomal genetic disorders. Of course, so are Ashkenazi Jews, but you can hardly imagine an M.P. proposing to limit Jews’ marriage choices for this reason, especially given the historic Nazi allegation of Jewish genetic inferiority.
What is so striking about these forms of prejudice, which go beyond ordinary anti-immigrant feeling, is that they are taking root in otherwise enlightened, progressive states — states where the memory of the Holocaust has often led to the adoption of laws against anti-Semitism and racism. The reasons, therefore, must surely go beyond economic or cultural insecurity.
One factor that cannot be ignored is the threat of terrorism, so closely associated today with radical Islam. In London, Madrid and Amsterdam, terrorist acts have been perpetrated by Muslim immigrants or (more worrisome still) their children. Yet it must be remembered that Europe has also suffered homegrown terrorist attacks, motivated by everything from national liberation (in the cases of the Irish Republican Army or the Basque E.T.A.) to radical leftism (Baader-Meinhof and the Brigate Rosse). Europeans are, therefore, to a degree acclimated to terror, undercutting its power as an explanation. And in the U.S., which on Sept. 11 suffered much greater terrorist damage than any European country ever has, anti-Muslim bias does not have the political weight that it does in Europe.
Well-meaning Europeans sometimes argue that unlike the U.S., their countries are traditionally “homogeneous” and have little experience with immigration. Generalized anti-immigrant feeling, they suggest, has come to rest on Muslims simply because they are increasingly visible. In France, the specter of the “Polish plumber” undercutting French workmen’s wages played a role in recent votes, suggesting the possibility of an equal-opportunity bias. But hostility to Eastern European migrants, though real enough, still does not run as deep as corresponding hostility to Muslims.
The perception of cultural difference may help explain this disparity. Muslim immigrants are depicted in European political rhetoric as not merely backward but also illiberal, contradicting Europe’s now-prevalent commitment to tolerance of homosexuality and sex out of wedlock. At the same time, Muslims are thought to be forcing their children to maintain practices like the head scarf, which is banned in many French schools.
Certainly it is reasonable for free societies to encourage immigrants to adopt their own liberal values. A Dutch requirement that potential immigrants view a film depicting topless bathers and gay couples may seem a little childish, but it is not a human rights violation, and it may even help prepare immigrants for the different world they are poised to enter. Schools should teach the values of the surrounding society, including respect for different lifestyles. Nevertheless, a hallmark of liberal, secular societies is supposed to be respect for different cultures, including traditional, religious cultures — even intolerant ones. There is something discomfiting about a selective respect that extends to the Roman Catholic Church, with its rejection of homosexuality and women priests, but excludes Islam for its sexism and homophobia.
This leaves another, more controversial explanation for anti-Muslim attitudes in Europe: even after 60 years of introspection about the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, Europeans are not convinced that culturally and religiously different immigrants should be treated as full members of their societies. European anti-Semitism between the world wars featured accusations of criminality, religious backwardness, genetic inferiority and, above all, the impossibility of assimilation. And it is no coincidence that significant numbers of the Jews in Western Europe were immigrants or children of immigrants from farther east.
The U.S. had its own terrible legacy of legalized racism in the form of the Jim Crow laws, which Hitler imitated for his own purposes. In the aftermath of World War II, however, we began slowly and agonizingly to come to terms with this past. Racial bias is still with us, but so is self-consciousness about our problems and how they must be overcome.
In Europe, by contrast, Hitler’s horrifying success at killing so many Jews meant that the burgeoning postwar societies of the continent never had to come to terms with difference, because it was to a great extent eradicated. Today, as the birthrate for European Muslims far outstrips that for their neighbors, it is as if Europe’s discomfort with difference is being encountered for the first time. In theory, Europe remembers the Holocaust. But the depth of that memory may be doubted when many Europeans seem to have forgotten that their continent was home to other outsiders well before the arrival of today’s Muslim minority.
Noah Feldman, a contributing writer, teaches law at Harvard and is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.