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By Jenn Piatt, Global Peace and Security Issue Analyst on US-Muslim world relations

The ban on the face veil in a few European countries, has received wide spread attention. Justifications for the legal bans vary; yet, seem to be centered on three key concepts: national security, the oppression/liberation of women, and the promotion of secularism.

Setting aside the legal and secularist arguments that each of these countries face within the context of their domestic laws, is banning the veil really accomplishing what they set out to? Does removing a face covering achieve national security, liberate women, or enhance the secularist perspective? I’ m unpersuaded by the arguments.

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The governments of Belgium, France and Denmark have now forbid (or are in the process of forbidding) Muslim women to wear the burqa in the public sphere. Brendan O’Neill, journalist with Spiked Online, writes that these bans are alienating Europe from the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, the very ideas that have laid the foundation for tolerance in Europe. France has presented this ban as a continuation of the ideas of the Enlightenment, in a way to protect its own values instead of the old fashioned religious ones, when in reality, this ban will only hinder the human right to express one’s religious beliefs, which is contradictory to what the Enlightenment was all about.

The problem with this ban is that it is a ban against the symbol of oppression, not the oppression itself. The oppression lies within cultural differences that will not disappear with the banning of the veil. If the European governments want to integrate the very small number of women wearing the burqa or niqab, there are other more efficient ways to do so, rather than to risk that these women will never leave their house again. Proper education, training and suitable jobs are a way to go, but this will require strong political will amongst politicians to achieve, as well as an effort made by the different ethnic communities around Europe. In this case, it may seem easier to just ban the burqa.

A discussion has arisen about whether Europe has lost its tolerance. There is a fear that this ban might increase intolerance towards Muslims, and that the fact that these liberal democracies are legislating what persons can or cannot wear might be a sign that the open and free values of Europe are declining. You do not have to respect the burqa or what it symbolizes, but forbidding people to wear different clothes than you is a far step away from the values of the Age of Enlightenment, which secured the freedom to express oneself for all living in liberal democracies.

What looked as an easy win for the Conservative alliance in the Swedish Parliamentary election, has turned out to become a possible political chaos. To win the election in Sweden your party or alliance needs to win the most mandates. The Conservatives did win the election with 172 mandates, while the Social Democrats got 157, which is more close than anticipated. However, what frightens many is that the Swedish Democrats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweden_Democrats), a party very hostile to immigration and ties to Nazi Organizations, had their best election ever, with 5,8 % of the votes, which is 20 mandates. This means that for the Conservatives to keep their majority in the Riksdag (parliament) they may be forced to join forces with those who have the mandates they need. Officially, the Green party has turned down the offer to cooperate as they belong to the left block of the political spectrum. This is a complicated situation, because if the Green Party refuses to cooperate with the Conservative Alliance, it means that the Swedish Democrats may have some influence on Swedish politics in years to come, and thereby lay the foundations for gaining even greater strength towards the next Parliamentary election in 4 years.

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Two years ago, our nation boiled in rage when Congress attempted to revise immigration policy that had long been in shambles. I was working as an intern then at Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak’s office, taking phone calls from crotchety, disaffected senior citizens about their political concerns and entering their opinions in a crammed database.

When bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate that would, among other things, give citizenship status to 12 million illegal immigrants, phone calls at the office ran off the hook. Complaints ranged in tone from articulate, quiet concern to vitriolic, racist diatribes. I was struck by the utter lack of sympathy displayed by callers who claimed the United States should close its doors to immigrants forever.

Fast forward to 2009.  Revising immigration laws doesn’t seem to be a top priority for the incoming Obama adminstration. In fact, during the election, the topic of immigration mysteriously disappeared from local town hall meetings and presidential debates. Curiously enough, Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullens reported that the financial crisis has prompted a mass exodus of immigrants from the United States. Sparse jobs and waning incomes have taken a toll on remittances crucial to the Mexican and other Latin American economies.

But the flow of migrants from Africa doesn’t appear to have ebbed since the global credit meltdown.

Each year thousands of sub-Saharan Africans cross the treacherous Sahara in hopes of self-sustenance and prosperity in Europe–things they can’t count on in their countries of origin. Along the way, many are attacked by robbers and smugglers. Others die of dehydration, ensnared by desert heat without enough water. Still others fall prey to disease or murder.

Migrants from countries like Niger, Mali, and Chad who manage to safely traverse the Sahara face even more obstacles in North Africa. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, why do African migrants risk their lives each year?

The BBC’s Jenny Cuffe asked Innocent Acabo from Niger why he is saving to embark on a dangerous trip to Spain:

“This country we are not doing anything there is no work…There is no work…There is nothing here. So many people like that we get to Libya see if we get a job…Spain..I don’t know much about Spain..but it’s far better than my own country in terms of working. In my country, we work and work and work and you don’t get what you’re working for. In Spain, but I believe when you get there, you work, you struggle, something will change.”

But the citizens of recipient countries aren’t always so sympathetic. Under pressure from citizens rankled by the influx of undocumented immigrants, many European countries are cracking down on migrants, forcing sub-Saharan and North Africans like Innocent back to their respective homelands. Still worse, many migrants are captured by authorities at North Africa’s borders, and are often sent to languish in putrid detention camps. Those who make it through Africa travel across the Mediterranean in flimsy vessels, often meeting their deaths in stormy seas.

European lawmakers talk of managed migration, whereby African migrants will be permitted to enter Europe to fill in labor gaps. However, African policy-makers worry that such a measure may further stunt the economic growth of the continent.

In 2006, European and African countries gathered in Morocco for the Rabat Conference to discuss solutions to unrelenting migration. Attending the meeting is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who claims that problems of migration are firmly rooted in the conundrum of African under-development.

“I hope that this conference will enable the states of Africa and Europe to formulate cooperative approaches to the challenge of development – approaches which can help us to create the conditions that enable people to migrate out of choice, rather than necessity.”

Two years later, scant progress has been made as rates of migration continue to increase and the developed world persists in ignoring the connection to poverty and global inequality.

The United States may be the great melting pot, with our myriad of
ethnicities, but we are hardly the only country to worry about
immigration.  I’d even say that while we have a lot to work on, the US
does comparatively well on the Immigration Scorecard.  C+, B- maybe.

Europe, on the other hand, has a whole range of immigration policies
from a warm welcome to fire and pitchforks (figuratively of course… I
hope).  We should pay attention to Europe’s response to immigration
because their efforts and complaints mirror many of our own.  So today I
present to you two European countries, one that has a disappointing, xenophobic
policy, and one that I give a full two thumbs up; Switerland and Ireland.

For being in the heart of Europe, and clearly marked by a mix of several
cultures including German and French, the rampantly racist political messages
that are floating around the country shocked me at first.  Three white
sheep stand on one side of the border.  The other side of the border
stands a black sheep, clearly prohibited from crossing that line.  The
message is clear and is gaining ground with many Swiss.  "The message
of the party resonates loudly among voters who have seen this country of 7.5
million become a haven for foreigners, including political refugees from places
like Kosovo and Rwanda." Says the New York Times (10/08/2007).

There are many reasons why so many Swiss are in favor of absurd immigration controls,
such as a required 12 years of residency to even be considered for citizenship
and mandatory identification cards, Researching them gave me an eerie
reminder of my life as an ethnic and national minority in Japan. Much like Japan, the “official” reasons for
xenophobia in Switzerland are security. They claim that immigrants, especially from poorer Eastern Europe or
Africa, are more likely to engage in crime.

This argument both countries give to the world is weak however. Statistically speaking crime is higher in
this demographic, but so is poverty. It
is more difficult for immigrants to find the jobs they need to raise their
positions and become stable members of society, when employers look for
citizenship and exhibit racial preferences.

Looking at Ireland, we can observe how a welcoming society, while not free
of issues, can greatly change the people immigrants become for the better. Time Magazine detailed in their September 17th
issue, the life of Rotimi Adebari, a man straight out of Africa who settled in
Ireland, became a citizen, and recently won the mayoral election in his adopted
town. The full article can be read
here: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1659713,00.html

While even Adebari admits that since his immigration, times have changed in
Ireland, we can see two paths in this debate; segregation and exclusion which
leads to immigrant vilification and increased instability, or we can see
cooptation, where countries make immigrants welcome residents in their own
right, and immigrants respond by adopting patriotism and passion for their new
land.

The United States is stuck somewhere in-between these
two policies. Can we have the fortitude
to get beyond petty apprehensions and underlying ethnic tensions to embrace new
citizens, or will we never see an end to the regulations, the walls, the
attempt at isolation that limits us as a nation?

Russia’s southern republics are Europe’s new* fracture zone, and some are already calling Ingushetia a "second Chechnya" because violence from Chechnya, which is now forcibly pacified under the heel of Kremlin-backed former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, has shifted there. Ingushetia’s ethnically-mixed peoples –Ingush, Russians, Chechens, and smaller minority groups– have historically coexisted peacefully, but a wave of unsolved murders of ethnic Russian and other non-Ingush families in the republic is casting a shadow over the republic’s future –and drawing increased attention from Moscow. 

The guardian has more.

While Chechnya – first a cauldron of separatist sentiment in the Nineties and then a new outpost in the global jihad – boasts safe streets and new apartment blocks, in recent weeks Ingushetia has suffered a wave of brutal executions of people of non-Ingush nationalities.

A poor and rural republic about the size of Suffolk, Ingushetia is now the epicentre of terrorism in Russia. And some analysts are warning of a ‘second Chechnya’ in the making.

The killing began last July when an ethnic Russian schoolteacher and her two children were shot dead in their beds by an intruder. At their funeral a few days later a bomb exploded, injuring several people. Unidentified assailants then murdered Vera Draganchuk’s family on 1 September. Soon after, armed men assassinated a Russian doctor outside her apartment block. A gypsy man and his two sons were the next to be shot dead at home.

There are few signs that the killing will stop and no one can be quite sure who is carrying out the murders.

And locals are skeptical that the killers are actually from Ingushetia. As is often the case when conflicts characterised as "ethnic" break out anywhere in the world, you can pretty safely bet outside interference is involved.

‘My parents were born here and so was I,’ says Vera, 52. ‘I’m a native ethnic Russian and I have no enemies.’ Neighbours of the other victims say that they had no conflicts with local Ingush people.

That may be the point. Since the spring, policemen and soldiers have been killed or injured almost daily as their vehicles or offices come under fire from Islamic militants, based in the mountains of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

It would be absolutely horrible if Ingushetia went the way of Chechnya. Chechnya itself is struggling to recover from two brutal wars in the span of roughly a decade, and though it is a republic at peace, its government is anything but democratic and human rights-respecting.

Tears were shed all over the world when Sarajevo was laid siege to, but Grozny was literally leveled with almost no coverage by the international media, and little attention from the international community. Anna Politkovskaya, one of the few brave voices bringing attention to human rights abuses in the Caucasus, was gunned down last year.

If the worst happens, and Ingushetia does explode, let’s hope the media and the international community do not simply look away.

*Not really "new" if you consider that the first Chechen war began in 1994, but newly "discovered" by the media.

Whenever Turkey is in the international news (as it is now because of elections), otherwise calm, reasonable people lose their heads entirely. Because I don’t have much time, here, briefly, are my thoughts on the general "Turkey issues."

  • So, the Justice and Development Party (Turkish initials "AK") won. Don’t pop a blood vessel, people. Most news sites refer to AK as an "Islamist" party, and while that may be nominally correct, the term itself has a connotation, especially in the West, of violent, intolerant radicalism, which has definitely not been a hallmark of AK’s time in power so far. It is not the Near East’s answer to Hamas. It is not the Muslim Brotherhood. In reality, AK is not even the Muslim equivalent of the Poland’s Catholic fundamentalist party, the League of Polish Families, as some more generous commentators have asserted. A more apt characterization might be the Islamic equivalent of the EU’s conservative Christian Democrat parties. According to its history of governance, and many, many statements by its leaders, AK has no intention of imposing Sharia law on secular Turks or anyone else, as the more hysterical pundits have suggested it does.
  • Turkey’s first lady wears a hijab. So what? If that sends you into a fit, you need to grow up and start acting and thinking like an adult. Judge the woman based on what she says and what she does, not the piece of cloth she chooses to wear on her head.
  • You are entitled to hold the personal opinion that Turkey is not European. But ask yourself, what is European? Defining Europe as a solely Christian makes little sense. Many European countries have more atheists than practicing Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians. Furthermore, defining Europe (and thus Europeans) by Christianity relegates Europe’s millions of indigenous and immigrant Muslims to an undefined and permanent second-class status –quasi-European? Not European? What?
  • Turkey is a transcontinental state. The currents of the world’s major faiths and empires met and bled together in the Mediterranean, Southeastern Europe, and the Caucasus, creating cultures, nations, and (much later) states that fit uneasily into simple categories like "European" "Asian" "Christian" and "Islamic." In the end, however, for practical and political purposes, we must categorize them. And the rules are neither set nor universal. There is wide acceptance of Georgia, which is geographically in "Asia," as a "European" state, Armenia likewise, but the verdict is still out on Turkey and Azerbaijan. And to muddy the waters even more, think about this: an ordinary Cypriot, in many ways, has more in common with an ordinary Lebanese than a ordinary Swede, yet both Cyprus and Sweden are members of the EU and categorized as "European." If it were up to me, I would define Europe as anything now in the Council of Europe. Within that sphere, I would let the question of near or distant future EU membership remain open –not guaranteed, mind you– but open.
  • Making hysterical statements about how Turkey is now an "Islamist-run state" on the verge of becoming Saudi Arabia is alarmist, dishonest, and ridiculous. It distracts from Turkey’s real problems of repression of minorities, too much power held by the military, human rights abuses by the police, rural poverty, and simmering inter-communal conflict.
  • Dredging up atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire from the 1800s back is unhelpful (note: I am not including the Armenian genocide here.) The Ottoman Empire overran what is now Bulgaria, OK, as a student of history I know that’s fact. But Britain overran and ruled Ireland for far longer, and Germany and France both spent much of their histories attacking their neighbors and bloodying the fields of Western Europe. Anyway, the Ottoman Empire was no worse than any of the other empires of its time. In a few respects, such as its treatment of Europe’s long-persecuted Jews, it was better. Europe as a whole has been the most violent place in human history, with no country capable of claiming innocence. But, again, that shouldn’t be the point at all. Turkey has problems today, especially in the area of human rights, and those should be the focus of reasoned, balanced, and unemotional discussions of Turkey’s politics and EU candidacy.
  • And finally, anyone who says "But Turks aren’t ethnically European!" does not deserve a response, and should be ignored.

AN IDEA

People like yourselves know better than most how severe and pressing the global problems of today are. Although the consequences of ignorance are dire, awareness of these problems still eludes too many. Nevertheless, I believe that there is an enormous amount of latent interest in global action on the part of our generation. As you surely know through your efforts with AIDemocracy, there is so much untapped human potential in this world that is just waiting to be put to efficient use in order to come up with alternative solutions to the challenges of humanity.

What I am trying to say is, THE TIME IS RIPE FOR CHANGE.

In this context I think one cannot stress enough the crucial role AIDemocracy is playing in encouraging young people to join its movement. And as a European I believe I can do my part in creating global change by applying the idea that guides AIDemocracy to Europe.

A PROJECT

I understand that Europe is in many ways different than the United States and I think it is crucial to create a new and independent European counterpart to AIDemocracy. This organization’s ultimate goal will be to become a valuable partner to AIDemocracy in advancing global human commitment to informed democracy. I envision an independent, autonomous, self-sustaining and professional European organization, EUforIA -Europeans for Informed Action-, affiliated with AIDemocracy. EUforIA will promote a distinctly European approach to the vision it has in common with AIDemocracy, appealing to values and ideas intrinsic to European culture, in order to give Europeans a movement of their own with which they can identify.

Its ambition will be to serve as a platform for motivated and enthusiastic people who collectively want to dedicate themselves to sensitizing and informing the public about the present and future challenges of humanity, thereby consolidating and further increasing the strength, capability and scope of a newly emerging global youth movement.

Therefore I need to find young Europeans who are willing to collaborate with me in working on an intellectual framework for EUforIA that will outline the fundamental principles and ideas which will guide future national and local chapters in their informed actions. I need to find eloquent, charismatic, intelligent and euphoric young Europeans who are willing to dedicate themselves over the next months (years) to this project and who are willing and able to represent what EUforIA stands for.

AND I NEED YOU

If you can imagine yourself participating in this project or if you want me to send you a more precise outline of my idea, I would be pleased to hear from you. You can contact me via email (rjc@bu.edu). Also, if you know people who might be interested in EUforIA, I would appreciate it if you let them know about it and encourage them to contact me.

Finally, I would like to ask you to send me any kind of feedback you consider helpful and to spread the message to all of your friends, and I hope that some day in the near future I will be able to offer internship opportunities in Europe for members of the AIDemocracy community on this very same weblog!

Thanks for your interest and time,

Jeronimo, Swiss-Bolivian exchange student at Boston University

First, thank you all for your comments regarding my last posting.  Usually, I don’t like to be a downer, but discrimination is a major problem in Hungary.  I’d like to hit home this idea though: it’s not just an Eastern European thing.  Acts of discrimination has happened to be all over Europe.  In November 2003, I was assaulted in Belfast over how I looked.  In December 2004, I managed to get some taunts in 4 different countries for my appearance: France (where I was even spit on), Spain, Portugal, and Italy.  In Romania, I was refused a taxi four times, each citing that ‘they wouldn’t take Chinese people’.  In Copenhagen, I had problems 6 times in 6 months.  Of course nothing beats my personal record: 2 weeks, 5 experiences in Holland.

What I’m trying to drive home is that it happens in places where one would not think (e.g. liberal democracies), but it does.  Many of these governments stress tolerance.  When I think of tolerance, I think of ‘I’ll put up with your existence, despite my overwhelming disdain for your kind’.  What these governments and many others should be shooting for is acceptance, a concept surprisingly very tough to foster.

I’ll give you an example:

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a course on Constitutionalism and Democracy.  Basically, we discuss various aspects of constituion-making in societies around the world, especially ones in democratic transition.  We had a discussion on minority rights and protection.  Things were fine at first, but then the topic of the ‘gypsies’ – the Roma – came up.

Then thoughts that many of my progressive colleagues had went from egalitarian openness to closed-minded bias.  I heard comments like, ‘they don’t want to integrate because they’re different people.  They are criminals anyways’.  What they did not know was that one of our colleagues in the room is Roma, secretly because of fear of discrimination and judgement.  I find it really sad that he has to conceal his background because of reprisals and that he cannot feel pride of his culture, instead of shame.  ‘Doesn’t that hurt?’  That’s what I always ask him.

FYI, there are many groups in Budapest that do work regarding anti-discrimination.  The European Roma Rights Centre does some great work.  Check them out.

One last point:

Most of the time, problems I face are happen completely out of the blue like on the metro.  Most of the time, I am not speaking.  So when they see me, they make the judgment.  Depending on their alcohol consumption, they approach me with their buddies.  Depending on the age, they give lewd swears, etc. 

Now, when I do open my mouth, they realize that I have an American accent.  Then I get another problem.   There’s this wave of anti-Americanism that’s been around for some time.  And looking the way I do and speaking the way I do seems to be a double whammy.  Despite the fact that many people separate the policies of the United States from the citizens of the United States, some people do not.  And sometimes it’s the same people who hate me for how I look.

If you’ve ever experiences any sort of discrimination for how you look AND where you come from, please drop a line.  Your comments are always welcome.

What we should be striving for…

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has gotten non-stop media attention since she arrived in the US last year and began working for the American Enterprise Institute. Everywhere you turn, she’s on cable news shows, on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and even being interviewed for collegiate social science journals.

There was a time I actually liked Hirsi Ali. Back then, she was a social hero any feminist could root for: a strong woman championing women’s liberation, calling attention to gendered violence, and giving cultural relativism the smack upside the head it so richly deserves.

Then, she jumped from being a critic of misogyny and injustice, to a relentless and unfair disparager of Islam and the Muslims the world over. She was soon thereafter adopted as the darling of the European extreme right, and then the American far right. She began wielding her atheism like a mace, insulting and patronizing  not just her Muslim targets, but people of all faiths. Somewhere on the road to fame and fortune, she lost sight of her original mission to empower Muslim immigrant women in Europe. Now, she spends her days attending posh conferences hosted by AEI and other conservative think tanks and organizations, being fawned over by some of the most unabashedly prejudiced among America’s policy elite.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali could have become a force for positive change, but now she’s the trans-Atlantic poster girl for Islamophobia Inc.

From Newsweek:

Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women. That’s
problematic considering she describes herself in "Infidel" as a woman
who "fights for the rights of Muslim women, the enlightenment of Islam
and the security of the West." How can you change the lives of your
former sisters, and work toward reform, when you’ve forged a career
upon renouncing the religion and insulting its followers? Hirsi Ali
says overhauling Islam is not her responsibility: she just lays out
"the facts" and leaves it to others to go about fixing this supposedly
broken faith. But her facts are often subjective: at one point she
characterizes "every devout Muslim who aspires to practice genuine
Islam" as a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood. That may have been true
in Hirsi Ali’s experience, but it hardly speaks for the globe’s 1.3
billion other followers. It’s ironic that this would-be "infidel" often
sounds as single-minded and reactionary as the zealots she’s worked so
hard to oppose.

How sad. Here’s hoping she fades into obscurity soon, or, at the very least, tempers her rhetoric. What this world needs is a dual dose of liberalism and religious tolerance. And no, the two are not mutually exclusive.

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