Europe's 'immigration' problem

Georgie Anne Geyer

December 18, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Brussels THE MAIN problem is Islam." With those simple but provocative words, Belgium's pre-eminent political commentator, Dirk Achten, demolished all the pat answers and prejudices in the big immigration conflict now tearing at this country.

"Our immigrant problem here is at heart a problem of the Islamic immigrants not accepting the division between state and church -- and then getting involved in politics," said this moderate young journalist with the prestigious newspaper DE Standaard. "We tried to talk to their political leaders, but they are organized within the mosques, and their 'political' leaders are the imams. So that didn't go very far.

"Then there is the violence -- the gangs and the rioting. We had four days of rioting by immigrants in Brussels last summer. What was it all about? Nobody ever knew. It went on for four days, and then there was a negotiation between the various gang leaders -- and it stopped."

At this point, Achten, one of the many men in the middle in Belgium, shook his head. "This is a major problem."

There are fewer moderates over immigration these days not only in Belgium, but in all of Europe. Even while the continent is moving steadfastly toward integration within its borders, in every country the reaction against foreign immigrants is growing more intense and sometimes even violent. But Belgium has become a case in point.

In elections this fall, the traditional parties lost significantly to the far-right Vlaams Blok, which vociferously campaigns for the nearly 1 million mostly Moroccan and Turkish immigrants just to leave. Vlaams Blok controls 25 percent of the vote in the important city of Antwerp, for instance, and has a clearly delineated program for moving immigrants back home.

To the left, and in particular to the environmentalist Greens, the Vlaams Blok is the direct descendant of old fascist -- or, more used, "neo-fascist" -- parties and attitudes here. A recent cover story in the important magazine the Bulletin screamed typically in its headline: "This Isn't about Immigration. This is about Racism."

But the European "immigrant situation" is far more complicated than all these simplistic -- and misleading -- cries of "racism."

In terms of the political scene, the anti-immigrant vote begins with a general disenchantment with mainline politicians. Polls and analyses show that Belgians increasingly believe that politicians have become so distant and removed that they have little understanding of ordinary citizens.

But in terms of the immigrant scene, there are also real grievances. Belgians are particularly threatened by Moroccans and other Moslems bringing in all of their families, living off welfare and scorning the deeply rooted society that originally welcomed them as much-needed in the 1960s and '70s. "They hate us; they are most definitely anti-Belgium," is a commonly heard plaint here about the immigrants; and it is often made by people who remember the perfervid Islamic marches against the United States and the West at the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

"Basically, there are two attitudes about immigration," explained Peter Corterier, director of the Atlantic Assembly. "The first believes that European countries should be more open-minded, that multicultural is what we should aim for. The second believes that the masses from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe will lead to an impossible situation in these densely populated countries. And the culture shock with the Islamics is just too deep."

Europe is going to have to make up its "minds," because a year ago nine countries signed an agreement called the Schengen Agreement, named after a town in Luxembourg, by which all border controls will end in January 1993. After that, somehow, immigration control will have to be done on the outer borders of all of these countries.

While Europe is moving on the economics of unity, this crucial issue of immigration control remains frozen in legal and bureaucratic terms, and so it is open to the fears and hatreds of the continent's far-right parties. The difficult truth is that uncontrolled immigration is a threat to European societies today, particularly when the immigrants come from religions and political systems that are actually antithetical to European values.

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