Tag Archives: immigration

Immigration and Identity in Europe

(originally published in 2002)

The assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch politician, provides food for thought. Fortuyn was “a politician who rejected multiculturalism, called for an end to immigration and excoriated Islam as a ‘backward culture’ for its intolerance of homosexuals, attitude to women and more” and “argue[d] fiercely that immigrants should integrate more wholeheartedly with the host nation.” (The Economist, May 9 and April 25, 2002). Fortuyn raised valid questions about immigration and cultural identity, questions that European countries urgently need to answer.

Due to low birthrates, there is a shortage of “native” European babies, and Europe faces a demographic decline which will lead to a disproportion between the number of people being paid state pensions, and the number of people in the workforce paying the taxes to pay those pensions. Europe needs an inflow of young people to fill the demographic gap, and to do the menial jobs that native Europeans consider beneath them. There is demand for labor, and it is supplied, both legally and il-, by economic migration from poorer countries.
Yet immigration worries many Europeans. The ugly side of these fears is expressed in support for extremists like Le Pen in France. Balanced thinkers like Fortuyn, however, deserve a hearing. He posed important questions about the mutual rights and obligations of immigrants and their new home countries.

The big question is integration: How much should immigrants be expected to adopt the values and mores of their new countries? The issues are thorny when people from more repressive cultures immigrate to liberal ones (and the Netherlands’ is one of the most liberal in the world!). Which practices can or should be defended on the grounds of culture and tradition?

Some obvious lines are drawn. Clitoridectomy (“female genital mutilation“) is illegal in European countries; some women have successfully bid for political asylum to avoid being sent back to countries where they would be forced to undergo it. But other cultural conundrums run the gamut from arranged marriage, to Muslim girls covering their heads in school.

There are even culture clashes between first- and second-generation immigrants, sadly illustrated by the case of Fadime Sahindal. She moved with her Kurdish family to Sweden when she was seven, and attended Swedish schools. So she grew up between cultures, a third-culture kid, neither wholly Swedish nor wholly Kurdish. Her parents nonetheless expected that she would behave as Kurdish girls traditionally do, e.g. submit to a marriage arranged by them, with a Kurdish man. She defied them by falling in love with a Swedish man, and was murdered by her own father for “dishonoring” her family. (More)

“European populations are aging, and cannot maintain their welfare states without massive immigration; immigration from Islamic countries threatens to change European values inalterably.” (Rod Dreher, National Review Online)

Pim Fortuyn had reason to fear such changes. He was flamboyantly gay – not a problem for most Dutch, but anathema to many conservative Muslims, even those living in Holland. His murder just before the elections may already have changed the Dutch political mindset: “Mr Balkenende [expected to be the next prime minister] repudiated the country’s multicultural approach to immigration and said newcomers should assimilate with Dutch culture.” (The Economist, May 16, 2002)

Jan 28, 2007 – Revisiting this article nearly five years later, it’s hard to say that much has changed for the better. The Netherlands is having an identity crisis, spurred on the one hand by a tradition of tolerance, on the other by events like the religiously-inspired murder of director Theo van Gogh.

Italy has had its own “honor” killing. Last summer a twenty-year-old woman of Pakistani descent, raised mostly in Italy, was murdered by her father and uncle for dishonoring the family by refusing an arranged marriage and living with an Italian man. Her relatives slit her throat and buried her in the garden.

A colleague told me of a friend of hers, a north African woman in her 30s who has been in Italy for many years and lives with her Italian boyfriend. But now that her family is coming to visit from the home country (yes, I am being deliberately vague), she is going through an elaborate ruse to hide the real facts of her life, for fear that her family would literally kill her were they to find out that she is living in sin. This woman must either submit to the will of her family (marry a Muslim man of their choosing) or live in subterfuge and danger forever. Or renounce her family, but it’s possible that this would not save her life, should the family consider itself dishonored by her behavior. How is an open, tolerant society like Italy’s supposed to deal with this? What can we do to help her and others like her?

Your thoughts?

see also Integration of Muslim Students in Italian Schools

The “Real” Italy

^ Of course, some people in Italy actually do sing opera for fun (and/or for a living).

To bring people to my site, I hang out in online forums about traveling and living in Italy, answering questions where I usefully can. It’s been an education for me as well, in American attitudes towards Italy.

One young woman bemoaned the fact that in her travels in Italy, and especially in Rome, she had not found the “real” Italy that she expected. Her vision of the real Italy apparently included (only) beautiful people beautifully dressed, spotless streets, and women who make pasta from scratch every day while singing along to Verdi and Puccini. She was sadly bewildered to find Rome full of immigrants (“Bulgarians and Chinamen,” as she phrased it), rude people, and young people kissing on park benches (she was of the opinion that this sort of behavior should be heavily fined – really, what planet was she from?).

Come to any country looking for a stereotype, and you’re bound to be disappointed, especially when your picture is based on the rose-colored memories of emigrant grandparents, or the more recent “live the good life in Italy” stereotype created by well-heeled foreigners who move to Tuscany, renovate a villa, and then write a book about it.

A recent post on Zoomata.com bewailed the removal of crucifixes from Italian classrooms (due to a court challenge by the Finnish mother of an Italian child); another on Fodors.com was upset over a bit of news reported in the US, that in Treviso a school’s nativity play was replaced with “Little Red Riding Hood.” Said the Fodor’s poster: “I love Italy. I thought I knew Italians, being American Italian myself.”

These two people, a Canadian and an American, both mourn Italy’s “becoming” secular rather than remaining Catholic. As second- or third-generation emigrants, they have skipped over several generations of Italian history, and apparently don’t realize that the separation of church and state in Italy was established in the Constitution (strongly modeled on the American one) in the early 1950s.

The Catholic Church still has influence in Italian life and politics, but that influence is waning (though not going down without a fight, I admit). The Church’s presence in daily life is nearly non-existent. Most Italians are still baptized etc. and would claim to be Catholic if you asked, but only about 10% (I’m guessing) are practicing Catholics.

There are still devout Catholics of course, but even they are puzzled by the attitudes of their non-practicing compatriots. One of my colleagues who is very active in his diocese told me: “These people show up wanting to marry in the church or baptize their kids. We’ve never seen them before and it means nothing to them, so we have to wonder why they bother.” If forced to think about it, these people might answer that it’s traditional, and/or that they want to please an older relative.

Italy still maintains many of the outward forms of Catholicism, but even those are being challenged, as in the above-mentioned cases of the classroom crucifixes and nativity play. Like most modern nations, Italy is wrestling with large-scale immigration and how to integrate new people, religions, and cultures into the existing culture and society. These are not easy issues, and the best answers differ even from community to community within a country. Some parts of Italy have found effective and interesting ways to bring their newly-multicultural communities together, others are still working on it. In most cases, the result will not look like the Italy that many Americans think they know.