You might have thought the ability to drink alcohol and shake hands was essential for the smooth running of the EU, but you’d be wrong.
Last week, female European diplomats did not shake hands at a meeting with Iranian parliamentary delegates. And EU head of foreign affairs Javier Solana served up only coffee, fruit juice and water.
“The Iranians do not shake hands with women. It’s their personal decision and they are our guests,” a spokeswoman for Solana said.
The Belgians were not so happy. Anne-Marie Lizin, the president of the Belgian upper house, cancelled her meeting with the Iranian delegates over the hand-shaking issue. And the speaker of the lower house, Herman de Croo, cancelled a lunch when the Iranians insisted that there should be no alcohol.
But while it is one thing to have cultural difficulties with visitors from outside your country, it is quite another to have them within your borders.
The EU has difficulties over immigration that go far beyond the issue of hand-shaking.
Holland, which for long prided itself on its liberal, tolerant society, is perhaps the country in most turmoil. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of the Dutch parliament, is demanding that the Dutch intelligence service investigate the ‘honour killings’ of Muslim girls, and that the health authorities examine schoolgirls for evidence of genital mutilation.
Hirsi Ali has reason to feel aggrieved. As a six-year-old in Somalia, her mother and grandmother forced her to undergo female genital mutilation.
After her father was forced to flee Somalia, the family went to Saudi Arabia, where she and her sister were veiled and kept indoors. Her chance for freedom came when travelling overland to Canada to an arranged marriage with her cousin. She fled her relatives in Germany, and caught a train to Amsterdam. After completing a degree in politics, she began to work for the Dutch social services.
She met women who had been locked inside their homes for years and she interviewed others who had been raped and beaten. She heard about girls who had been killed for holding hands with non-Muslim boys and she was outraged to find that the Dutch authorities chose not to interfere in such family conflicts. She says that multiculturalist policies aimed at protecting ‘culture’ often end up repressing women and children.
She opposes the Dutch policy of subsidising more than 700 Islamic mosques, schools and clubs and argues that these are used to perpetuate negative ideas about gender and sexuality.
Hirsi Ali is not the first liberal in Holland to take a harsh view of Islam.
Three years ago, in May 2002, the country had its first political murder in 300 years with the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a homosexual sociology professor who won elected office in Rotterdam on a platform of opposition to Muslim immigration. Fortuyn’s labelling of Islam as a ‘backward’ religion and his anti-Muslim rants led to his own murder. But his comments also triggered a series of attacks on mosques and caused other Dutch parties to adopt more right-wing views on immigration. Hirsi Ali was not deterred by Fortuyn’s assassination but instead stepped up her offensive, controversially attacking the Prophet Mohammed. And as in Fortuyn’s case, her outspoken campaigning has had shocking consequences.
Eight months ago, a Muslim fanatic ritually slaughtered Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker who collaborated with Hirsi Ali in the making of the film, Submission, which criticises Islam’s treatment of women. The murderer used his knife to stick a five-page letter to the corpse promising the same treatment for Hirsi Ali and another Dutch politician.
The murder sparked dozens of attacks on mosques and schools. But is Islam to blame? “I don’t think male violence against women, a phenomenon known to every society in history, can be explained by a few Koranic verses,” says Annelies Moors, an anthropologist in the University of Amsterdam.
Karima Belhaj, director of the largest women’s shelter in Amsterdam, says Hirsi Ali plays into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists by saying that Muslim women must give up faith and family if they want to be liberated. Belhaj also stresses the problem of hatred towards Arabs and Muslims in Dutch society.
But Hirsi Ali is partly right about the problem. Many Dutch women live in segregated ‘parallel societies’ where Islamic social codes are enforced.
Muslims make up 5.5% of the Dutch population, but more than half the women in battered women’s shelters are Muslims. Muslim women have far higher suicide rates than their non-Muslim counterparts. And some Muslim women from African backgrounds are being genitally mutilated.
Germany has similar problems. Parts of east Berlin are made up entirely of Turkish immigrants who are neither integrated into the host community nor able to speak German. One solution is to make pre-schooling compulsory. And the German state of Hessen has become the first to require that children pass a language test before getting into primary school.
Is this the Europe of the future? Erstwhile liberals joining with right-wingers in opposing immigration? Attacks on mosques and Muslim schools? Retaliatory strikes and murders by extremists within the Muslim community? And what happens as the host population declines, and the proportion of Muslim immigrants rises? For example, in Germany, where the population is expected to drop from 80 million now to just 55 million in 2050?
According to Norwegian journalist and human rights activist Hege Storhaug, women are the key. Some Muslim communities oppose integration by controlling marriage, she says. “Families are under tremendous pressure to bring relatives from the home country to Europe. Relatives are willing to pay a lot for those residency visas. Especially with young immigrant brides, they become completely dependent on their husbands and in-laws.”
Denmark solved this problem by bringing in new rules for those bringing spouses into the country from overseas. Both parties must be at least 24 years old and they must demonstrate that the marriage is voluntary. Muslim groups opposed the measure, but Storhaug argues that it has freed immigrant parents from family pressures to use their children as ‘human visas.’ Young Muslims, she says, can continue their education without fear of being married off.
One thing is certain: these challenges are going to give many European governments second thoughts about the admission of Turkey into the EU. Last November, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that Turkish integration would be “a historic opportunity to build a bridge to the Islamic world.”
But now Schroeder is heading for defeat in the German elections and the person likely to replace him as chancellor, Angela Merkel, takes a different view. She wants ‘privileged partnership’ status for Turkey which probably means free trade but no open borders. Some might call this policy racist or right-wing. But given the problem which European countries are already experiencing, does it really make sense to admit a country like Turkey which has 90 million people and a democratic and human rights culture that is, at best, a work in progress?