The triple crisis of terror attacks, refugees, and Brexit (Britain’s possible exit from the European Union) show that the EU’s original dream of a unified “Christian Europe” is over. But a truly Christian vision could be key to building the kind of future these crises call for.
PARIS--As the French government this week extends France’s state of emergency for two more months, the tension persists in this city following two major attacks in 15 months.
As my bus approached Charles De Gaulle Airport last week, the driver announced a “bomb alert” that forced him to skip my terminal (A shuttle train and lots of walking got me back). Airport security was also a good deal more rigorous than usual. The day I flew authorities announced that last month’s Brussels attacks were originally aimed at two Paris locations--specifically, the commercial center at La Defense and an “unnamed Catholic association.” And one restaurant owner acknowledged that his business had dropped dramatically since the attacks, as tourists traffic is down.
Yet mostly Parisian life remains remarkably normal. Clusters of Tourists toting smart phones on selfie-sticks still trudge up and down the Champs Elysees. The famed monuments are still open and still attract long lines. The streets and subways are still laced with pickpockets, panhandlers, and the homeless. The Metro itself displays no obvious extra security beyond measures dating from the 1995-1996 subway bombings. On Friday night in the Latin Quarter, at the same hour as the November attacks, young people still jam outdoor cafes and line up outside clubs.
Some parks had extra security (the Jardin du Luxembourg was briefly locked down), as did the University of Paris (no entry to the Sorbonne’s courtyard without a student ID), but all that was for the most Parisian of reasons: widespread student street protests (this time, over a new work law threatening to alter their future working conditions).
On the surface, then, Paris carries on largely as if nothing has happened--but everyone knows that things will never be the same. Parisians persist in their routines lest they hand victory to the terrorists by allowing them to dictate how Paris lives. But they also know that a future fraught with constant tension and risk is not acceptable.
So what is next?
No one here talks of banning or restricting Muslims. The Muslims I spoke to feel accepted, not stigmatized-- but I spoke to people already assimilated into the core of French life: shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and servers. And obviously many Muslims in Europe have not been assimilated--not because they are Muslims, but because they are Arabs or Berbers or Turks, who carry a culture that does not match European ways. And clearly some places--like Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that proved a breeding ground for both the Paris and Brussels attackers—have become deep pockets of isolation, alienation, and resentment. This has left some young people easily influenced or even “inspired” by those who justify violence by fraudulently invoking Islam
What has gone wrong? Why is that resentment and anger bubbling over now?
One opinion I heard came from a woman with decades of experience observing policymakers in both France and Europe. Her connections include high level academic and business institutions, NATO, the EU, and the UN.
Her response to my questions: the process of decolonization was badly managed, or even bungled.
As she spoke I recalled my own school days in the late 1950s when every addition of “My Weekly Reader” (a current events newspaper distributed in my elementary classes) contained another story about a newly independent nation. These included, of course, many former French Colonies, especially along the Mediterranean coast of Africa and the Middle East which the French call “The Maghreb.”
According to my French commentator, the long-term effects of ending colonialism were never really thought through. Most Europeans agreed that independence for their former Colonies was necessary, though the mechanisms and timing were controversial and provoked both polarization and violence in France, including assassination plots against Charles De Gaulle.
But the long-term consequences were not understood or prepared for--probably because they were never considered. In the former colonies, this led to conflict between those content to maintain the previously imposed colonial (i.e. European) culture, and those insisting on a return to traditional, pre-colonial ways. This included returning to a reliance on traditional religion--Islam--in lands where French-styled secularization (“laicité”) had been established for decades.
For the colonizers, the process also brought profound change: a steady influx of formerly colonized peoples into the home country. In France, this meant a huge influx of both blacks from central and western Africa, and an even larger influx of Arabs and Berbers from all over the Maghreb. This process began around 1960 and continues today, accelerated by the disruptions of Al Qaeda, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring, and the rise of ISIS.
The effects on France cannot be overstated. France has been a unified state longer than any other European country. For centuries its monarchy worked long to impose the French language and national identity on the country’s regions. Thus the Celts in Brittany, the German speakers in Alsace, the southerners who spoke Occitan or Italian, and even the Basques, all acquired a single official identity. This veneer of homogeneity survived the Revolution and remains a cornerstone of French Life. For most French, the nation’s unifier is the state itself--whether that means Louis XIV or Napoleon or De Gaulle or the current leadership.
The assumption was that such unity would apply even to migrants from former colonies. After all, France considered all its colonies part of France itself, and brought the French language, culture, and religion to every colonial outpost. (To this day, residents in the remaining French possessions vote in French elections.)
But 60 years into decolonization, France has millions of residents with colonial origins who are too young to remember colonial days. They cannot say if colonial life was good or bad--they only know that they continue to be considered and treated as outsiders. They learn French in school but speak Arabic or a tribal language at home and among their peers. They have their own food, music, and customs—and their own religion.
All this has broken through France’s veneer of homogeneity. For all the public rhetoric about recent arrivals “becoming French,” the fact is that decolonization has introduced social, cultural, and religious pluralism into a country that is neither experienced with nor committed to the kind of pluralism we already know in the U.S.
The failure to develop an adequate process for integrating the post-colonial peoples means that many of them remain unassimilated into “the nation.” Decolonization gave them juridical freedom, but it did not give them a place in French life (much like Emancipation failed to give U.S. blacks their rightful place in American Life).
One further problem: since 1905 France has been officially a secular nation, where religious practices are subordinate to public policy. There is no premium on religious liberty, as in the U.S. Over the last century, the Roman Catholic Church has learned to accept this restriction, but Muslims might naturally contrast this with the open or even established practice of Islam in their lands of origin.
What can be done?
As I explained in CrossCurrents #350, the European Union has its roots in a Catholic, personalist vision for a peaceful, unified, Christian Europe. My recent trip confirms that it is time to recast that vision before Europe breaks down. This will take several steps.
First, the problem must be acknowledged. The legacy of colonialism is that Europe is no longer simply a “Christian continent,” even in its cultural underpinnings (let alone its actual religious practice, which has long been in decline). Personalism can still ground a vision of European unity and peace--but not by presuming a “Christian” system. While Europe’s heritage is undoubtedly Christian, its culture is now largely secular, and its population is now both religiously and ethnically diverse. A new vision must include them all. Failure to do this will perpetuate violence.
Second, public expectations of migrant populations must change. Unlike the U.S., Europe has not been a land of immigrants--but it is now. Not only must Europe find out how to welcome them into their midst, it must also find ways to help them belong and give them a stake in the dominant culture around them. If they see no benefit in that culture, they will have nothing to lose by attacking it. Thus Europe must not only accept newcomers, but also make them feel at home.
Third, integrating new peoples will be neither easy nor simple. The New York Times, profiling the Molenbeek neighborhood, distinguished two groups of Muslims. The Turks feel little connection to Belgian culture but also expect little, and lived in stable, mostly peaceful isolation. But the Berbers from Morocco inherit the effects of French colonialism, speak French, understand the prevailing customs and culture, but do not feel welcomed or accepted. So their isolation is resentful and dangerous—and the attackers come from this group.
In their recent book Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies, scholars Claire Adida, David Lattin, and Marie-Anne Valfort argue that “anti-Muslim discrimination is a significant social phenomenon,” in France, Belgium, and the rest of Western Europe. It will take new, different policies to correct the situation.
Fourth and finally, this all means that recasting the new vision for Europe will require careful and creative planning about how to promote better integration of these new people. This will have to include altering attitudes on sides, creating opportunities for disaffected people to invest in the surrounding culture, and inviting these people to identify as Europeans. This in turn challenges traditional Europeans to simultaneously acknowledge their Christian heritage but then demonstrate radical Christian hospitality by welcoming their “Muslim neighbors” with open arms into a new, pluralized vision of a shared and peaceful future.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016