- - Saturday, July 30, 2011

BERLIN — Europeans are debating immigration and multiculturalism with new urgency after the massacre of 77 people in Oslo, victims of a mass murderer who says he wanted to ignite a crusade against Islam.

Anders Behring Breivik, who has confessed to the slayings but has pleaded not guilty to the crimes in court, said that multiculturalism is ruining Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October and British Prime Minister David Cameron in February said it had failed.

What’s more, anti-immigration and anti-Islam political groups have made gains in parliaments across Europe, while countries like France and Belgium have banned Islamic attire such as burqas, headscarves and veils — moves that challenge the European ideal of liberal, tolerant society.

“There is a lack of open and honest debate on immigration issues, and it would be [wrong to dismiss] this man [Mr. Breivik] and his unhappiness with immigration pertaining only to someone on the margins of society,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst in the London office of IHS Global Insight, an international economic analysis think tank.

“Society itself [must] face this issue and deconstruct the often scare-mongering arguments that the right wing bring,” she said.

German political scientist Florian Hartleb notes that populist right-wing groups using anti-Islam rhetoric are making gains in European governments, including famously tolerant Scandinavia. He says “multiculturalism has [offered] a certain kind of vision” for Europe over the years.

“But there has been a very negative debate on this topic - especially combined with Islamism,” says Mr. Hartleb, who specializes in populism at the Center for European Studies, the Brussels-based think tank of the center-right European People’s Party. “This anti-Islam topic is a winning formula for right-wing groups.”

Cultural divide

Though multiculturalism has taken on a generally negative connotation in Europe, it’s meaning differs according to the political perspective of the person using the term, analysts say.

“Left of the center or center-right governments like you have in [Great Britain] are all converging on the same point, which is that multiculturalism … has got out of hand,” says British author Alana Lentin, who co-wrote “Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age.

“The liberal approach is that this has caused separation between different groups of people, which is negative and we need more integration — which is a code word for assimilation — and the rightist version of that is that we need a return to very strong national values, away from cultural diversity and so on.”

Muslims are the focus of these debates. According to the Pew Foundation, Muslims number about 16 million in the European Union and account for about 2 percent to 4 percent of the populations of most Western European countries.

In countries such as France, Germany and Britain, they migrated from former colonies or came as “guest workers” since the 1960s to fill labor shortages in booming economies. Countries such as those in Scandinavia have taken in refugees from Iraq and other trouble spots. Recently, Italy and France have faced increasing immigration from Tunisia and Libya.

Many have accused Muslim immigrants of not doing enough to assimilate to their adopted countries. Flashpoints between immigrant and host communities have centered on wearing veils and building mosques, obvious symbols of a non-Christian culture in Europe.

But some say the drive for assimilation is unrealistic due to discrimination against immigrants and inequalities in education, housing and the labor market. “On the one hand, people were being told that they have to assimilated, while on the other hand, they were being told, well, ‘You’re never going to actually get the same rights as everyone else, no matter how hard you try,’” says Ms. Lentin.

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