Posts Tagged 'cultural'

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

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Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.

Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”


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