Toon mess: immigration and integration

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 18 2006, 05:30am hrs
The snowballing controversy over a series of cartoons in a Danish newspaper may well go down in history as one of the most needless and unforeseen controversies of recent times, a confrontation that covered no side with honours. As Bernard-Henri Levy, a respected French scholar on Islam, said in a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, the cartoons travelled around the globe and ignited a form of planetary intifada. Reminding us all of the ambiguous impact of modern technology which allows information, images, reaction, rumours, slurs and propaganda to travel unfettered at warp speed, it has injected a very dangerous and new edge to two crucial items on the post-9/11 agenda, namely immigration and cultural integration.

Plus, in one shot, this controversy has upset already fragile dynamics of the Mideast peace process, Iraq reconstruction and stability in Afghanistan. In effect, it has been a disaster all round, as much for Europe and the US as for Islamic and Arab societies that wish an end to their vilification in western minds.

It would be an unusually wise and prescient sage who can clearly see a right and a wrong side of this mess and, in fact, it is difficult to find a good guy in the picture. The same western media swearing by the sanctity of free speech, in actual fact practices a measure of self-censorship and restraint on a daily basis on issues likely to offend public sensibility, and not just to do with the Holocaust.

Most western newspapers and TV channels shy away from gory pictures of rotting corpses, body parts, four-letter curse words, hate-inciting slogans or semi-pornographic images. That is not censorship but sober judgement, sensitivity and common sense, part of a long-accepted tradition of softly defined limits on free speech. Why in the world was that sober judgement not practiced in this case

However, Europe is understandably outraged at the level of street violence, threats and murderous pronouncements against western targets that were condoned if not inspired by Muslim leaders in many countries, and it has only stiffened the resolve not to surrender in any way, or seen to surrender, to Islamic pressure at this stage. At this late stage, being sensitive to Islamic concern would amount to submission, a clear no. As Robert Menard, director of media rights group, Reporters Without Borders, an organisation that usually promotes a very liberal and multicultural view of the world, said in an interview to AP: It is modernity at stake now. We must explain the distinctions between church and state, and between the press and the state, to our colleagues in the Arab world.

The massive and incendiary street protests have come across as particularly vile to most Europeans, many of whom are still too dazed. The Danes and Norwegians, in particular, are in a state of numbness and cannot comprehend how they, of all people, a most benign and charitable presence in global affairs, could become the bad guys, even overtaking the US. Even Europeans, who concede that the cartoons were insulting and in awful taste there are many who represent this view, want their governments and media to show spine and fight.

As a Dutch politician wrote: Civility and respect are important, but now less so than standing up to the danger of censorship through fear. Right across Europe, an overwhelming majority of commentators, letter-writers and bloggers have blamed a policy of cultural separatism and politically correct multi-culturalism that has fostered fragmentation rather than integration. There is clearly a sense of righteousness on both sides, and stakes have been raised. Beyond anyone expected or wanted.

The full political and cultural impact will take time to work its way up, but an early casualty could well be the European embrace of multi-culturalism which, of course, has now been thrown into conceptual and practical disarray. European immigration policy until the 1990s has been largely liberal, despite unfair and bizarre rules in some countries, like requiring a certification of ethnic descent for German citizenship. In the main, there has been a tradition of showering immigrants, even illegal and unwelcome ones, with a surfeit of welfare privileges. That, of course, has created its own vicious cycle of dependency and alienation between host communities and newcomers, but at least it could be said that the policy mindset was paternalistic and not antagonistic.

However, since 9/11, a milestone event in relations between Islam and the West, there has been a very significant hardening of stance. Giving voice to anxieties over cultural integration of a growing Muslim population in Europe, currently estimated at 20 million, there has been rising demand in the past few years for tighter controls and stricter cultural norms.

This has been across the political spectrum, from Silvio Berlusconi in Italy to the assassinated Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn, to eminent Guardian intellectuals such as Hugo Young and Polly Toynbee.

The current crisis will further lower the welcome gates for immigrant to Europe. However, given the inverse and shrinking demography of most European countries, this will create a whole new set of dilemmas.

The writer is editor, India Focus