In the ethnic mix of many modern and open cities, the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville reflects a cosmopolitanism of shared spaces and the everyday need to just get on with the demands of life — working, school, shopping.Yet as Simon Kuper points out in his very interesting article, “The myth of Eurabia”, not all Muslim life in France or Europe resembles Belleville. There are other parts of Paris where you can grow up into adulthood without ever encountering a face-to-face dialogue with a fellow French citizen who happens to be white. Of course, such exclusion is true in many societies, whether segregated by race, religion, or language. Kuper reviews those making the argument that a religious Muslim majority will run the continent of Europe — “Eurabia”. He convincingly squashes this, citing the scope of historic Muslim immigration and integration in France; no real prospect of Muslims becoming a majority in any western European country (as Muslim women have similar childbirth rates as non-Muslims here); and that most Muslims in France call themselves “French”, with concerns like the rest of their French countrymen and women. This is not to deny the pockets of Muslim unemployment, disadvantage, and geographic isolation within France. But encouragingly, their concerns for redress are no different than many other such disenfranchised groups — more job opportunities, access to education and training, more engagement to influence the future. One Muslim demonstrated this with an example of his local newspaper, listing the prayer times for the mosques as well as the churches:
“[Local Muslims] won’t wear Salafin clothing or beards. But they will go to prayer. They want to have halal food at schools, but they don’t want Muslim schools.”
Two particularly important points here.One, the local paper caters to a broader local readership; it’s able to earn more revenue by making its advertising available to a wider audience. Two, these local Muslims seek cultural respect for their integration into wider society; specifically, not ethnic segregation. This is crucial. This reminded me of an absurd case in Northern Ireland. Representatives of the Muslim community sought support from government (civil service) officials to be able to use public (state-funded) school facilities for afternoon extracurricular, cultural-based activities. The response was (sic), “We have no provision for that, but we may be able to facilitate an appeal to establish a separate, Muslim-based school.” Egad! Multi-cultural public policy to encourage greater segregation — how depressing. France has a very long tradition of integration via assimiliation, assisted by a heavy imposition from above — witness the banning of the veil in its schools. The UK could revise its failed policies of multi-culturalism with its own form of assimiliation policies — the privilege of parliamentary sovereignty. But Northern Ireland will require a principled approach, fit for its own circumstances. One vital lesson of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is that no nation or people in this place shall dominate any other. Yes, we’re still figuring out how to exercise this in practice. The trouble with assmiliation policies in Northern Ireland is the obvious question, “Assimilate into what?” A British citizen? An Irishman? An Ulsterman? A Northern Irelander? And who to enforce such policies? Instead, I reckon most people from ethnic minorities in Northern Ireland are much like the local Muslim in France — with about the same number of children attending the local school, perhaps socio-economically disadvantaged/perhaps not, wanting to get on with neighbours and everyone else in society, but feeling vulnerable and/or ignored. Far from fearing an ethnic takeover, a better response would be to sincerely recognise and advance the role that those from ethnic minorities — indeed all of us — have in realising a shared and more prosperous future.