- - Wednesday, May 11, 2011

BERLIN — A train from Italy with a few dozen North African immigrants crossing the border with France set off an uproar among the nations of the European Union.

In Paris, Muslim women wearing veils were arrested after a ban on burqas took effect.

Anti-immigrant populist parties continue to win votes across the Continent while their leaders intone: “Multiculturalism has failed.”

On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI urged Italy to welcome immigrants fleeing turmoil in North Africa, and more refugees crowded into rickety boats to set sail for Europe.

Europe is in the grip of an identity crisis, as many cling to what some analysts say is a myth about their nationalities. Europeans continue to believe that their countries are not nations of immigrants.

“They can’t say that with a straight face anymore. It’s absurd,” said anthropologist Ruth Mandel of the University College London and author of the book “Cosmopolitan Anxieties.”

“The reality is they are all immigration lands. If you look at the histories of any of these countries, it is a history of movement [of peoples].”

She said that Europeans have “an ideology of sameness” that includes viewing themselves as cohesive and homogenous. Recent immigrants are thus more “marked” or noticeable in these types of societies than in self-defined immigrant lands such as the United States or Canada.

That has been particularly true since the Sept. 11, 2001, Islamist terrorist attacks on the United States. In Europe, Muslims suddenly became more visible, and the fears of Islamic extremists and their terrorist acts grew. Populist politicians have capitalized on this to strengthen their anti-immigration credentials and win votes.

Train of Tunisians rattles EU

When Italian authorities authorized temporary residency permits for thousands of Tunisians fleeing unrest in North Africa, those documents also gave some of the immigrants the right to travel throughout the 27-nation EU.

French and Germany complained that Italy, the former colonial power in Tunisia, was trying to fob off their immigration problem to the rest of Europe.

But Italy had been pleading for help from member states for months.

“No member state wanted to touch this, to admit there is a real problem with these refugees pouring in, and take a coordinated, rational approach to handle it,” said one EU official who works with immigration issues. “That would have been seen as too soft on immigration.”

French border guards stopped the Italian train with its Tunisian refugees last month on the same day that the anti-immigrant True Finns party won almost one-fifth of the seats in the Finnish parliament. It was the latest breakthrough by a populist party in liberal Scandinavia.

In September, the far-right Sweden Democrats won their first seats in parliament. They are inspired by the Danish People’s Party, which campaigns against the “Islamization” of Denmark, the country’s third-largest party.

Norway’s anti-immigrant Progress Party won 23 percent of the vote in the last elections in 2009.

“The new trend is that these parties are attractive to the middle class, especially in Scandinavia,” said Florian Hartleb, who specializes in populist politics at the Center for European Studies in Brussels.

“People fear [the deterioration] of their rich welfare states, and the populists play on these fears, even though there is an actual low rate of immigration.”

Legacy of guest workers

On the Continent, meanwhile, immigration has a longer legacy — people migrated from former colonies or came as invited “guest workers” from the 1960s on to fill labor shortages in booming economies.

The problem is, Europeans expected them to return home, said Ms. Mandel. Political leaders never talked openly about integrating them, easing citizenship laws for them or what that meant for their societies until relatively recently.

As a result, mainstream voters, feeling left out of the process, are shunning the establishment parties for more radical choices, Mr. Hartleb said.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, leader of the staunchly anti-immigrant Freedom Party, remains on trial for violating hate-speech laws for anti-Muslim comments. He has pushed for a ban on the Koran, and his party is the third largest in the Netherlands.

“Eurabia and Netherabia are just a matter of time,” he has told the Dutch parliament in a warning of the growing Arab population.

The Swiss People’s Party has been part of the country’s governing coalition since 2007. It is responsible for the 2009 minaret ban and others targeting immigrants.

Some of their campaign posters show white sheep on a Swiss flag kicking out a black one: “Promoting security,” they read.

In Austria, the ultra-right Freedom Party won 26 percent of the vote in local Vienna elections in October.

In the nearby Styria district, the party distributed a video game called “Bye, Bye Mosque” during the campaign in September’s state elections. Players could win points by putting a target over mosques set on a typical bucolic Austrian landscape and clicking “stop.”

The party more than doubled its share of the vote over previous elections and won seats in the state parliament.

Widespread fear of Islam

“There is the fear of Islam in the entire population,” said Mr. Hartleb. “As a result, the winning political formula in some countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands, has been basically an anti-Islam [platform], playing on the fear of immigration since the terrorist attacks of 2001.”

These parties’ successes have radicalized the mainstream political discourse and are forcing establishment politicians to tilt more to the right, he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, always tough on immigration issues, is now trying to outdo the far-right National Front as it makes electoral gains, observers said.

Mr. Sarkozy also is trying to portray himself as the defender of “Frenchness,” of French values, which is a key component of these immigration and integration debates.

In April, France’s ban on burqas and niqabs, the full-face veils that are worn by extremely devout Muslim women, took effect. A few women have been arrested and are subject to fines of $186 or lessons in French citizenship. France has 6 million Muslims, the largest population in Europe, and about 370 women wear the veils, according to French security officials.

The debate over burqas, which started last year over women’s equality issues and Islamic fundamentalism, changed into one over national identity and values.

“A veil that hides the face is detrimental to those values,” Mr. Sarkozy said in May 2010.

But Kenza Drider, 32, of Avignon in southern France, and a French national of Moroccan heritage, said the “dictatorial” law violates the French value of liberty in order to win votes.

“I will continue to wear the niqab, and nothing — I repeat nothing — will stop me,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Belgian lower house of parliament overwhelmingly approved the ban on veils on April 28.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel made headlines worldwide in October when she said, “Multiculturalism has failed.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed her remark.

What Mrs. Merkel said was that the notion of separate communities coexisting had failed. She called for a more integrative approach from both communities.

“Islam is part of Germany,” she said in March.

Scholars say that many in the EU reject the notion that second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe are, indeed, Europeans.

Some Muslim leaders, meanwhile, say their communities need to do more to integrate into European society.

“We need to adapt and adjust to the host society better, not push for minarets or ninjas [burqa-clad women],” said Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Educational Center of Oxford and a British imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation. “We also need to acknowledge that self-segregation is not a way forward.”

European societies have a responsibility to fight “Islamophobia” and to show European Muslims they are a valued part of society, some European leaders have said.

“We have failed to provide a vision of society to young Muslims to which they feel they want to belong,” Mr. Cameron told the Munich Security Conference in February.

“Instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone.”

German politician Cem Ozdemir, a child of Turkish immigrant parents, agreed.

“What we need to tell people is to adapt to mainstream society, get an education, get into the ‘German Dream,’ ” said Mr. Ozdemir, co-leader of the opposition Green Party and a member of the European Parliament.

“On the other hand, we need to develop a constitutional patriotism, one that everyone can take part in.”

He said many still question whether one person can be both German and Muslim.

“If my name were Hans,” he said, “I wouldn’t get tons of emails questioning my loyalty to this country when I speak on television on national issues. It is clear where my loyalties lie, but there are always questions.”

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