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A Counter-narrative on Integration in Europe

Integration, the bringing of people of different racial or ethnic groups into unrestricted and equal association, has become one of the premier concerns of Europe. A 2009 Gallup poll on 'interfaith relations' established that a quarter of the British non-muslim public felt that 'different religious practices' threatened its way of life, notably more than, but comparable to, the 18% and 11% registered in Germany and France. Higher immigration into Europe, now at a figure over 18.5 million non-EU citizens, and the recent economic recession have placed it at the very forefront of people's minds.

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Photo: Jonasm (cc-by-nc)
Young Europeans present an image of cultural cohesion rather than the conventional view of conflict.

This article's working title was "The battle for Europe's soul", reflecting the fear that integration was in fact leading to a form of cultural annihilation, or at best, a division of the nation into distinct groups. Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University has succinctly pointed out that Europeans are asking themselves "In a globalizing, migratory world,... 'What will our future look like?,' they see around them new citizens, new skin colors, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed."

Nurtured by the 'war on terror' and exacerbated by a long European presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, newspapers present integration as a fundamentally divisive issue. Headlines such as  'Britain turns Halal' and a completely false story of a 'Muslim plot to Kill Pope' are twisting a real concern into a set of stagnant caricatures wheeled out to sell newspapers.

Public fear has consequently grown and taken hold of national politics too, explaining why each of the respective governments of France, Italy, Belgium and Britain are currently embroiled in legal, social or political disputes over the wearing of the burqa in public spaces. The European Commission especially is finding itself at odds with the French Government over a recent clampdown on the movement of the Roma, originally from Bulgaria or Romania.  Sarkozy, who national polls agree will have a hard time being reelected in 2012, saw his ratings rise by two points after the start of the forcible 'repatriation' of over 1,000 of these immigrants.  

E&M's investigation into the second generation, young Europeans born in Europe with strong cultural and familial ties from elsewhere, highlights that the actual experience of integration is fundamentally different from the image in the public's mind.  Rather than a trend towards disintegration, these stories suggest a slow but palpable shift to a new form of social cohesion based on compromise.

Next page: Shayan, a British Asian, tells E&M her experiences of growing up in Europe...

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