On the Integration of Immigrants in Society


Laïcité. French secularism as defined by law is at its heart the complete and total separation of the church and state (or to be more comprehensive, of religion and state). In a recent discussion with a French colleague, I descended into heated debate on France’s failure to integrate immigrants into its society - endangering not just France but the whole of continental Europe through the rise of disgruntled and exasperated immigrants with little opportunity to grow. Immigration in Europe has become a hot topic over the last year because of the sudden influx of refugees from Syria, and radical Islamist attacks on European soil in major cities has brought into question the very notion of accepting refugees into the European Union. Policy towards refugees has been varied, from Germany, which has been very open, to a village in Switzerland which paid heavy fines but did not allow refugees to come in.

I had heard and read a lot about France and its seemingly ambiguous relationship with immigrants, especially Muslims of African origin from France’s ex-colonies. I had a lot of my own opinions, but I had never had the chance to discuss with a native about what they thought. I believe in an absolute right to freedom of speech - no exceptions. France, on the other hand, protects freedom of speech with a few caveats. Racist and hate-speech is not allowed (understandably, as in all modern societies) amid other restrictions including the offense of insulting public servants. There is also a double standard at play - French law prohibits Holocaust denial, but a law to criminalise denial of the Armenian Genocide was deemed unconstitutional because it violated freedom of speech. To me, the determination by the state of absolute (historical or otherwise) truths is akin to issuance of the religious edicts. Noam Chomsky wrote on the subject soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

One would naturally ask how France upholds freedom of expression and the sacred principles of “fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” For example, is it through the Gayssot Law, repeatedly implemented, which effectively grants the state the right to determine Historical Truth and punish deviation from its edicts? By expelling miserable descendants of Holocaust survivors (Roma) to bitter persecution in Eastern Europe? By the deplorable treatment of North African immigrants in the banlieues of Paris where the Charlie Hebdo terrorists became jihadis? When the courageous journal Charlie Hebdo fired the cartoonist Siné on grounds that a comment of his was deemed to have anti-Semitic connotations? Many more questions quickly arise.

Chomsky - 2015

I recently got the chance to hear about the other side of this debate from a French gentleman at work. International newspapers are chock full of editorials written by Europeans on how they want immigrants to adopt the local culture of the country they come to if they expect to be accepted by the locals. This is a jab primarily at Muslims in this day and age, who bring their own set of customs and norms with them when they immigrate. The French don’t have a problem with the purely cultural norms as much as they have with the overly religious ones. My colleague at work remarked that it might seem very anachronistic today to be so judgmental of practicing Muslims in France, but French history has made them very sceptical of religious symbolism. They feel that immigrants attack their values when they refuse to identify first as a French and only then as a Muslim. He continued that Muslims are also very in-your-face religious, something which the French detest because of the history with the church before the French Civil War. The church had substantial control over the state, and regularly exploited the masses before the civil war. When the French rose against the nobles, they made sure that religion and state would never mix again. Hence the concept of French secularism - Laïcité. I wondered how this relates to being wary of dark-skinned people coming into their country with a different set of customs and traditions. My colleague said that this goes back to the Laïcité - as long as Muslims have no problem with everything as it is, there should not be a problem. This means things like not wearing the veil if the law prohibits it.

I inquired about hate speech laws and Charlie Hebdo. He reminded me that in France, you have the concept of the right to blaspheme. This again comes from the church’s dominance over the public sphere in French history. The right to blaspheme allows the French public to remind the church that the public is more powerful than the Church and its clerics. This was a spectacular insight for me. For the French, immigrant Muslims who demand that blasphemy should be punished are insulting French tradition by disrespecting the history of France that makes the right to blaspheme so important, and in doing so they are alienating themselves (and also anyone who harbours similar opinions) from the mainstream French society.

It is important to understand why certain opinions exist. My conversation with my colleague explained a lot of the on the ground situation in France to me. My colleague also mentioned that he did not agree with a lot of things they do in France. Unlike other European countries like Britain and Germany, he said, the French education system has failed to make a more tolerant and inclusive society.

While this might be true, I was also drawing parallels with how Pakistanis, who protest against ‘atrocities against Muslims’ anywhere in the world, are hypocrites when it comes to their own country. After the large Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) exodus from Waziristan following the military operation there, the province of Sindh decided to seal its borders in fear of a large influx of refugees coming in. This move wasn’t just unconstitutional (barring free movement of citizens within the country), it was also completely out of the spirit with the ideals of the nation. We are all hypocrites when it comes to welcoming ‘outsiders’, probably an evolutionary caution against strangers. Given the rhetoric everyone is willing to spew when it comes to debating this topic, it is a good idea to ask oneself one question - if need be, will you give space in your home to a total stranger who might have different beliefs or customs?

We should all do some soul-searching before pointing fingers. In an increasingly destablised world, we should be more welcoming to refugees escaping violent war-torn regions, not just because basic principles of humanity demand us to do so, but also because history demands us to take responsibility for the mayhem in the world today due to the policies written by our ancestors (Sykes-Picot agreement for the state of the middle-east today, or the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s). Incorporating the principles of inclusivity and tolerance into the educational system must be given paramount importance, both in the developing and developed world.

-Taha


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