By Jonathan Power
Was the cultured and sophisticated Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, speaking for the large numbers of working-class people who end up being the ones who usually play host to immigrants, when she wrote in a leading liberal newspaper, Corriere della Serra, of her experience of trying to get rid of Somali immigrants living in a tent, performing all their bodily functions next to Florence’s cathedral? “I don’t go singing Ave Marias or Paternosters before the tomb of Muhammad. I don’t piss or shit at the feet of their minarets. When I find myself in their countries I never forget that I am a guest and a foreigner. I am careful not to offend them with clothing or behavior that are normal to us but inadmissible to them. Why should we respect people who don’t respect us? Why should we defend their culture or presumed culture when they don’t respect ours. I want to defend our culture and I say that I prefer Dante Alighieri or Omar Khayyam. And the sky opens. They crucify me ‘Racist, racist’.”
Of course she sounds like that. Nevertheless, her thoughts, if not so elegantly expressed, are shared by probably hundreds of thousands of Europeans. (In Eastern Europe, it is probably millions.)
When Muslim leaders publicly burned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, or youths in Marseilles burnt down synagogues and school buses, or a Kurdish father murdered his daughter in Stockholm because she was dating a young Swedish man, or when young immigrant males were allegedly involved in fondling women in a public celebration outside Cologne Cathedral, or when migrants are participants in rising crime levels, it is difficult even for hardened liberals not to let such similar thoughts cross their minds.
Needless to say, there has been a lot of prejudice on the host countries’ side. There has been a tendency to blame immigrants for crime. In reality, the crime levels of the first generation have been significantly below that of the host population. But policing practices often work to make the prejudice self-fulfilling. Moreover, they help lay the conditions for the second generation to embrace crime. Persecuted and hounded for what they hadn’t done, policing has led, in the past, to political militancy on the one hand and a devil-will-take-me attitude to the binding constraints of society on the other. Coupled with poor achievement at school and, too often, closed doors in the job market for those who–unlike their parents–would not settle for dirt, docility, and low pay, the ingredients for a tormented and unfruitful life were well mixed.
There is no doubt that the violence against immigrants came first–the turds through the letter box, the gang attacks, the knifings, the shootings, and the firebombing of immigrants’ shops and home. First, there was action and then reaction. Indeed, if anything the reaction was slow to materialize. The first generation of immigrants was essentially passive, but the second, particularly if they were jobless, were ripe not for revolution–that did not much interest them–but for spite and mayhem, perhaps even revenge.
There is not much reason to believe today that much of this will not be repeated as immigrant refugees pour in. In northern England and in parts of London, around numerous French, German, Italian, Greek, and Spanish cities, in the suburbs of Amsterdam, large numbers of immigrants–partly out of comfort, partly out of misplaced housing policies–have been thrown together in concentrated heaps. While in some cases it satisfies an urge to live close to one’s countrymen, more often it has led to a social segregation from the host country that allows the immigrants to cut themselves off from the rather rapid evolution of contemporary European societies. Many of the new refugees will be naturally drawn to such places.
Oriana Fallaci overstates it in an unpleasant way. But she bites on a bitter kernel of a truth of human experience–not to adjust to the norms of a host society is narrow-mindedness.
The refugees now pouring into parts of Europe must realize that they come not just to a job (hopefully), a school, a hospital, and a social security system, but also to an organic society with its own long history, beliefs, and strong traditions. They can ask for freedom of belief for themselves, but they cannot try to impose their views on the society around them, whether it is religious values or political persuasions–especially if it means breaking the more important conventions of the host society.
Immigrants should be offered education and information (as in Finland, which runs compulsory courses). This must be included as part of the process of formal admittance.
Many European governments have been generous in allowing in refugees. But they must look at these hard facts if they want to maintain a stable and peaceful society.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov]