The problem of muslim presence in the west is often presented as a problem of religions, values, and cultures that should be addressed through theological arguments, legal measures, or by highlighting some indisputable principles and values. It is wrong, however, not to take into account the psychological tensions and emotional environment that surround and sometimes shape the encounter between the West, Europe, and Muslims and Islam. Critical debate over systems of thought, values, and identities is a necessity and it must be carried out scrupulously, critically, and in depth, but its omnipresence on the European scene conceals other preoccupations that must be taken into account to avoid going after the wrong target.
Western societies in general and Europeans in particular are experiencing a very deep, multidimensional identity crisis. Its first expression stems from the twofold phenomenon of globalization and—in Europe—the emergence of the European Union, beyond reference to the nation-state. Former landmarks related to national identity, the country’s memory, or specific cultural references seem to be wearing away: everywhere tensions can be felt, structuring national or regional identities are being reasserted. In addition, migratory phenomena, already mentioned above, intensify the feeling of being carried away and trapped in an irreversible logic: Europe is getting older and it needs immigrants to maintain the strength and balance of its economy; the United States, Canada, and Australia are facing similar needs—with, in addi-tion, a long tradition of immigration. Yet, those immigrants threaten cultural homogeneity, which is already endangered by the globalization of culture and communication. This is akin to squaring the circle: economic needs are in contradiction with cultural resistances and obviously those resistances will never be strong enough to prevail. This is the second dimension of the identity crisis: here, onslaughts from outside weaken traditional landmarks. But that is not all: within societies themselves, new kinds of citizens are emerging. They used to be Asians, Africans, Turks, or Arabs, and now they are French, British, Italian, Belgian, Swedish, American, Canadian, or Australian. Their parents used to be isolated and had come to earn a living (probably intending to go home), but now their children are increasingly “integrated” into society and more and more visible in streets, schools, firms, administrations, and on campuses. They are visible through their color, their dress, and their differences, but they speak the country’s language and they are indeed French, British, Italian, Belgian, Swedish, American, Canadian, Australian, or New Zealander. Their presence from within disrupts representations and gives rise to sometimes passionate identity tensions ranging from puzzle-ment to sectarian or even racist rejection. Another phenomenon “from within” has emerged in recent years: not only has insecurity or violence been found to increase in some areas or suburbs because of poor social integration, but a global phenomenon threatens national securities. From New York in September 2001 to Madrid in March 2004 or London in July 2005, the Muslim presence now imports international demands through violent, extremist Islamist networks that strike out at innocent citizens. Terrorism strikes from within, since most of the perpetrators of those attacks were either born and raised in the West or immersed in Western culture. The experience of this violence completes the picture of this deep identity crisis: globalization, immigration, new citizenships, and social and terrorist violence have palpable effects on Western societies’ social psychology.
Doubts and fears are visible. Some far right political parties take advantage of those fears and use reassuring, populist arguments stressing nationalism and the need to revive and protect identity. Their main points are rejecting immigrants, enhancing security, and stigmatizing the new enemy that Islam stands for. Populations naturally respond to such rhetoric and all parties have to take position over those sensitive issues. This phenomenon brings about strategic shifts within former political groups: tensions emerge on right and left between those who refuse to respond to the identity crisis with stigmatizing, sectarian, or racist discourse and those who f ind no other means to have a political future than responding to people’s fears. Lectures, debates, and books are increasingly numerous: people everywhere try to define French, British, Italian, Dutch, American, Australian identity, to identify the roots and values of Europe, America, or Australia, to find out whether cultural pluralism and multiculturalism are viable, and so on. Those questions reveal fears as well as doubts.
Similar questionings can be observed among Muslims. The identity crisis is a reality that also takes on multiple dimensions. On a global level, numerous, far-reaching questions emerge: in face of globalization, of global culture perceived as Westernization, the Muslim world is undergoing a profound crisis. Muslim majority societies mostly lag behind economically, they are generally undemocratic and when they are rich, they fail to contribute to intellectual and/or scientific prog-ress. It is as if the Muslim world, perceiving itself as dominated, cannot live up to its claims. Moreover, the experience of economic exile adds the concrete dimension of tensions and contradictions to this vague general feeling. The fear of losing one’s religion and culture at the core of Western societies has led to natural attitudes of withdrawal and self-isolation. All immigrants have gone through similar experiences in terms of culture, but for Muslims religious questionings are also often mixed with such cultural considerations. The first genera-tions (who were usually from modest social backgrounds in Europe, though not in the United States or Canada) experienced deep tensions, and still do: the feeling of loss regarding their original language and culture, being torn between two languages, uneasiness with the Western secular environment where religious values are so little referred to (except in the United States), relations and communication with their own children who are steeped in the Western environment, and other tensions. The identity crisis runs through generations. Here again it has to do with fears and sufferings: the fear of self-dispossession, of losing one’s landmarks, of colonization of the inner self, and of daily contradictions, with all the personal and psychological suffering this experience entails.
One must also add to this the direct consequences of the tense climate that has developed in the West. Repeated, accel-erating crises include the Rushdie affair, the “Islamic headscarf ” controversy, terrorist attacks, the Danish cartoons, the Pope’s remarks: the list is getting longer and longer and each country also has its share of political instrumentalization, sensational news items, and juicy stories reported in the media. Many Muslims experience a feeling of stigmatization and constant pressure: they feel those criticisms and this obsession with “the problem of Islam and Muslims” as aggressions, denials of their rights, and sometimes clearly racist and islamophobic expres-sions. They experience this daily: being a visible Muslim in the West today is no easy matter. In such an atmosphere, a crisis of confidence is inevitable: some have decided to isolate them-selves, believing that there is nothing to hope for in a society that rejects them; others have decided to become invisible by disappearing into the crowd; last, others have committed them-selves to facing the problem and opening spaces for encounter and dialogue. Caught amid the essentially negative media image of Islam and Muslims; the populist, sectarian discourse of some parties; the fears and reluctance of their American, Australian, or European fellow citizens; and, to crown it all, the crisis of confidence and the doubts assailing Muslims themselves, the challenge is a momentous one.
Such psychological data must be taken into account when starting this discussion: people are afraid; they experience tensions and doubts that often produce passionate, emotional, sometimes uncontrolled and excessive reactions. The consequences of those interacting crises can be observed everywhere: under the effect of emotion, one listens less, deafness sets in; reflections become less complex and subtle, they are expressed in binary terms and subtlety is perceived as ambiguity. Essentialized stories serve to justify final judgments about the others (one person’s behavior is seen to represent all of her or his society or community). High-sounding philosophical or political arguments will have no effect if one does not take into account the real and sometimes devastating consequences of psychological tensions, of mistrust, fear, emotion, deafness, binary thinking, or of focusing on essentialized stories that serve as indisputable evidence to reject or condemn. To run against the tide of those phenomena (which once again similarly affect all parties), we need an educational approach relying on a pedagogy that takes people’s psychological state into account, without trying to make them feel guilty (nor to stigmatize them) and which strives to explain, qualify, and think in mutual terms. The evolution of fear and doubt must be answered with a revolution of self-confidence and mutual trust. Emotional rejection and deafness must be answered by intellectual empathy through which negative emotions are kept at bay and subjected to constructive criticism. This requires a long-term, demanding, dialectical approach that can only be developed at the grass roots. It can only be achieved through proximity, and I believe at least fifty years will be necessary for people to get accustomed. That is a long time . . . and yet it is so short on a historical scale.