Arab Immigration (especially North African) faced with European anxieties

Arab Immigration serie 1/3

By Professor Bichara Khader
Director of the Center of Studies and Research on the Contemporary Arab World
Catholic University of Louvain



Official figures of the EU of foreign Arab (mainly immigrants from the Maghreb countries) estimate the total number to be around 3 millions. Given that European states rarely carry out ethnic surveys, the official figure does not take into account the Arab immigrants who already have acquired the nationality of the receiving countries.  Moreover, the irregular migration is not included in the statistics because it is supposed to be « hidden migration ». Taking into consideration these two facts, I have estimated   m the total number of immigrants of Arab origin (naturalized and non-naturalized, regulated and unregulated) to bearound 6 million, in 2010. In venturing this estimate, I took into consideration high increase of immigrants of North African origin (mostly Moroccans) in Spain between 1997 and 2010 (since the number of Moroccans in Spain rose from nearly 100,000 in 1997 to 725,000 in 2010): a sevenfold increase. The Spanish case may be exceptional, but it is symptomatic of recent migration trends, especially in Italy and to a lesser extent, in Greece.

The extreme right in Europe uses the figure of millions of Arabs living in Europe for political ends, to create a social alarm.  But these 6 million represent just over 1% of the total population of the 27 countries of the European Union, estimated at 500 million. But if this percentage is so insignificant, why do we witness such a condensation of hostility against Arab migrants?

The answer seems clear. Because of its ethnic, religious and national differences, Arab immigration, and Maghreb immigration in particular, has become the privileged object on which operates a fantasy projection of the problems of European societies (social, economic, cultural, political, demographic), that projects on immigration, and especially Muslim immigration, fears, anxieties. One must not forget that 3 out of 4 North African immigrants live in France and that France, no more than 50 years ago, was a colonial power in North Africa.

With the appearance of Beurs (2nd, 3rd or 4th generation), the installation of Maghrebis becomes a reality. However, for the French, the new settlers are not so much French, butformer colonised people and their children. They have access to parity and civil equality. Broadly assimilated, despite the occasional bouts of tension, they only want one thing: to be recognized as normal citizens, not marginal ones. As a result, they are perceived as  posing  a double threat: a social threat for not remaining in an inferior status, and a national threat by being French without identifying themselves to the French nation. It is in this dual threat that the hostility and racism manifested towards them find their source.

A process of exclusion thus stems from this situation. Barriers are erected. The first is the barrier of the skin. A customs officer stops a driver because of his Maghrebi face. A nightclub doorman denies access to a young Moroccan because he looks « dark-skinned ». And a business leader denies the application of an Algerian for a salesman position « because he has black and curly hair » and « customers do not like it »; an application for a job is not taken into consideration simply because the signature displays the name of « Mustafa » or « Karim ».

Curiously, such racism of the « skin » and « name » affects in particular 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants. Culturally assimilated, young North Africans who are neither immigrants (since often born in Europe) nor foreign (as often naturalized), feel socially excluded. In fact, the more cultural barriers fall, the greater the need to invent others: face (he is not like us),origin (he is not of European origin), religion (for the extreme right and part of the European right, Islam is incompatible with secularism).

The persistent refusal of the Maghrebi otherness, combined with a disdain for their religion and culture of young North Africans, push these people to fall back on their culture and heritage, creating, consequently, identity clashes between a community of origin they are distancing themselves from (that of their parents) and the recipient country that does not like them .

In a sense, if the assertion of identity takes passionate forms amongst certain youth of immigrant origin, it is due to the fact that they are too often faced with the refusal of recognition of their dignity. Thus, racism is born when difference narrows and distances are shorter. In fact, « North Africans are perceived as a threat even more when they are integrated into French society, when they become visible and claim their right to break away from anonymity. »

It is then that racists of all sorts begin shelling their grievances: foreigners cheat in their access to social rights (social security, family allowances, etc.), they worsen the problem of unemployment, they bring down the cost of local labour, and they feed crime and disturb the life of ordinary people. To these social and economic grievances are added cultural arguments, of ethnicist nature: they are non-European and therefore non-integrable (they have a strange way of eating, dressing, treating their women, etc.) and non-controllable (they may work for foreign interests, establish terror cells for the benefit of foreign powers). Then, there is the demographic argument (they make children like rabbits, wrote, unashamedly, Oriana Fallaci) and represent, therefore, a threat to the very identity of European nations. Some resort to the religious argument (Islam is the antidote for Judeo-Christianity). To top it all, there is the security argument that, since 11 September 2001, leads analysts and politicians to read everything linked to immigration through the distorting prism of the « terrorist threat ».

All these arguments do not withstand a serious analysis. Many books and monographs have demonstrated the weakness of these arguments and the poverty of these presuppositions. Thus, the delinquency of immigrants is often proportional to their percentage in the country. And if it tends to develop in urban areas, it is often because it is in cities that pockets of poverty and unemployment exist. Similarly, the demographic argument is irrelevant. Muslim immigrants do not flow over Europe like « wild hordes » and Europe will not need a new Charles Martel t o stop them at Poitiers and elsewhere. It is true that birth rates in countries of origin are higher than the EU average, reaching 2.0 to 2.5% per year, but they are tending to fall drastically. Today the fertility of an urbanized Moroccan or Tunisian woman does not exceed 1.8% and young women of the Maghreb have little more than 2 to 3 children while their mothers raised 6 or more children. It is true that Europe, « wrinkled and old » (according to Alfred Sauvy’s nice formula), has less and less children, but these findings do not allow us to postulate an invasion of Europe by 50 million Muslims in 2025, according to the « apocalyptic » assumptions of some, or to pose as irreversible the current demographic trends, or, let alone advocate, incorrectly so, the need to compensate for the demographic deficit of the North with new immigration flows of young people from the South.

As for the association between immigration and terrorism, it leads to the demonization of an entire community because of the wrongdoings of certain fanatical factions within it. EU leaders may be multiplying warnings against the abuse of stigma of Muslim communities established on European soil. But it is clear that, at a popular level, everything that comes from the outside, especially from the Muslim world, is now suspected to pose a risk or threat.

However, it is appropriate at this stage to make two important points:

  1. Islamophobia is popular in Europe; it is no longer a secret. From there to say that Europe is racist, there is here a limit that I will not cross. European legislation can in no way be described as discriminatory, or even racist. Certainly there were some excesses in some countries that suggest a negative trend (referendum in Switzerland in November 2010 concerning the expulsion of delinquents, or the proposal for the withdrawal of nationality to a French national of foreign origin following the aggression of an agent of the State (2010)), but it remains marginal.
  2. As I have demonstrated in many of my writings, popular racism exists and this has been evidenced by opinion polls in all European countries. This racism has its roots inthe fear of a close neighbour, perceived as a threat to identity, society and the very notion of community. This fear is fuelled by present social difficulties and the uncertainties of the future, in a context of uncontrolled and badly governed globalisation, but is increasing in the aftermath the terrorist attacks in Europe and as a result of images of violence in many Arab and Muslim countries projected daily on television screens. All this is true, all so true that European populations have the feeling that the welfare state, in place since the Second World War, is disintegrating with the economic crisis and the European project itself seems derailed and unable to extract European countries of the doldrums.

However, what is less often recalled is the responsibility of certain immigrant groups in the degradation of the image of the Arab and Muslim.  Bad schools throw on the street hundreds of thousands of young people, many of whom, to survive, will engage in petty crime or drug trafficking. Self-representation as « victims of discrimination” encourage isolation and decline: some groups of immigrants engage in a deliberately confrontational relationship with the host society. All this is not likely to facilitate the exchange and interaction.

And, moreover, it is unhealthy as the immigrant spends his life with his own people, no longer interested in what is happening around him, and prefers to stay connected on Arab satellite channels. Physically, he lives in a European country, but the news he hears are not those of his country of residence. He votes but does not know any of the electoral programmes. The satellite channels keep him in touch with the Arabic language and his country of origin( which is good in se )  but participate, indirectly, to his isolation and alienation from local politics.

There are certainly objective social or cultural reasons, which can explain this communitarian withdrawal, but the real question is to know whether the immigrant wishes to continue to live apart or become a full-fledged citizen.