25 August 2016

Europe And The Islamic Veil: Why It’s Fair To Ask Immigrants To Follow Host Nation Values

August 22, 2016

The world needs to acknowledge that it needs immigrants, but immigrants also need to understand that they need to assimilate in a society in order to benefit from it. 

Nothing stops them from observing their culture or religion even while integrating themselves with their host nation. 

Both cultures benefit from this deal which promotes syncretism and compromise.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party— the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)— is moving towards greater policing of immigrants, surveillance of public areas and a partial ban on women wearing the face veil in some public spaces. ACNN report quoted German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere as saying that “full-face veils” are not on, adding, for good measure, that the ban may include “not just the burkha (but) any full face veils that only shows the eyes of a person.” The idea is to ban veils in places where identification is required – in registry offices, schools, government offices, while driving, etc.

France banned the wearing of the Islamic niqab and burkhas and religious symbols in schools and public places some years ago— an action that has been upheld by the European human rights court. After the recent bout of jihadi outrages in several French cities, from Paris to Nice, several French cities have also banned the wearing of body suits while swimming, the “burkini” so-to-speak.

America and the UK, with their multi-cultural backgrounds and different interpretations of secular rights, have not done so. But they are, in fact, moving towards curbing immigration itself, one more for economic reasons (Brexit) and the other for both economic and cultural reasons bordering on xenophobia.

It is easy to dismiss this new fearfulness of Muslim refugees, or immigrants in general, in the west as just xenophobia (which it surely is bordering on), but it is more than that. There is no society on earth which does not value its current culture or worry about it being diluted or ruined by people who don’t share their values. When this fear is universal, it is foolish to dismiss this fear with the negative term xenophobia. A mild form of it is part of being human.

In the context of the growth of jihadism and the accompanying cult of death and destruction, one can hardly blame Germany or Europe to try and preserve what is dear to them from a civilisational point of view.

The problem is Europe both needs those immigrants (given its declining birth rate), and dreads what this will do to their open societies, evolved after much bloodshed and warfare. Islamism is Europe’s worst nightmare. It represents the worst aspects of fascism multiplied several-fold, but without a locus (like Hitler’s Nazi Germany) that can be fought and defeated.

One can also generalise that all societies see the problem of immigrants coming from different cultures bring in a similar way. Europe worries about Muslim refugees, Britain worries about Poles and Asians, America worries about the explosion in the Hispanic and Muslim population, and Indians (especially in Assam and eastern India) worry about Bangladeshi immigrants. (Those who think this is all about Hindutva are wrong; the Nagas and Mizos worry as much about non-Christian immigrants as the Assamese worry about Bangladeshis, Hindu or Muslim, and the Church in Nagaland is as xenophobic as they come). Remember how an Indian Muslim was lynched to death by Naga mobs for allegedly raping a Naga woman?

What is the way out? The obvious answer, it seems to me, is this simple one: liberalise immigration, but with strict conditions attached. Every host country can guarantee equal treatment, but should get a written and legal commitment that the new refugees, while free to practice their religion or culture, will follow the rules of the host nation, whether it is about not wearing the niqab, or not demanding Sharia, or following a uniform civil code, or learning the official language and respecting the symbols of nationhood. More important, work permits should be easy to get, but citizenship should be based not only on length of domicile but effectively meeting the conditions prescribed.

One example from our past is the conditions imposed by the Hindu King Jadi Rana who allowed the persecuted Zoroastrians (today’s Parsis) to settle in his kingdom in Sanjan (Gujarat) provided they observed four conditions: they should adopt the local language, the women would wear what was locally worn, they would not carry weapons, and marriages should be performed only in the evenings. The Parsis kept their part of the bargain even while retaining their beliefs and customs, and today one should consider them model immigrants. No Indian would ever deny the Parsi his unique contribution to the nation. In fact, the Churchillian statement, “never was so much owed by so many to so few”, applies uniquely to Parsis in India.
A Parsi wedding, 1905 (Wikimedia Commons)

Closer home, Indian Hindus working in the Gulf are model citizens despite sometimes being exploited and treated unfairly and despite the fact that they almost never get citizenship.

The world needs a new compact on immigration that can be a win-win for everybody: those emigrating only for work and better prospects, and those seeking refuge and, thus, seeking both asylum and work. One category of immigration would be for work only which need not convert to citizenship ever; the other category is asylum and citizenship at some point. Conditions should attach to both, especially the latter category.

The world needs to acknowledge that it needs immigrants, but immigrants also need to understand that they need to assimilate in a society in order to benefit from it. Nothing stops them from observing their culture or religion even while integrating themselves with their host nation. Both cultures benefit from this deal, which promotes syncretism and compromise.

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