Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about “othering” and the Middle East. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Stephen Szabo is executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, based at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.

Europe is in the midst of an identity crisis — one that is coming to a head thanks to a rising fear of the “other,” namely Muslim immigrants and a flood of Syrian refugees.

For most countries in Europe, the tendency to “other” results from a fear of being overwhelmed by Islam both demographically and culturally. Most of these countries are in demographic decline and fear that Muslims will engulf their current residents and corrode Western values.

This fear reflects larger concerns about the decline of Europe and a loss of European self-assurance a feeling that stands in contrast to the civilizational self-confidence and arrogance of Europe during the Imperial Age. The standard of living in Europe has declined, with the European Commission forecasting that by 2023, Europe’s standard of living will be only 60 percent of the United States’. At the same time, the continent is also grappling with the Greek financial crisis and a long-term challenge from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But the refugee crisis is a more concrete threat, as it directly impacts every European country, town and village. Unlike with the trouble in Greece and Ukraine, refugees are not abstract or far away, and they are a particular challenge to countries that have ethnically based identities and definitions of citizenship.

This sudden flood of refugees appears at a time when the golden years of economic growth are in the past and globalization seems to be undermining European prosperity and the social welfare state. Religion and the Church are no longer the anchors they once were. The European Union and its bureaucracy in technocratic Brussels seem beyond national control, but still want to impose refugee quotas on every member state.  

Writers like Walter Laqueur or the German Thilo Sarrazin emphasize the cultural dread — shared by right-wing populist parties that Muslim immigrant populations will swamp aging European nations. The disinclination — or in some cases, outright refusal — of central European countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to take anyone except Christian refugees from the Middle East illustrates the extremity of this fear. Yet the latest wave of refugees is only a new phase of an ongoing influx of “others” into European states.

The scholar Edward Said pointed out in 1978 that the imperial powers of Europe purposefully held the the West in contrast with the inscrutable and childlike “Orient” of the Middle East, justifying colonial rule as part of a civilizing mission — a taking up of the “White Man’s Burden.” Even before the refugee crisis began in earnest, the former colonial empires — particularly Britain and France — had seen their civilizing mission turn inward thanks to immigration. The Muslim population in Europe has grown from 30 million in 1990 to 44 million in 2010. By 2030, Muslims are expected to comprise 8 percent of the population.

European countries have regarded themselves as more progressive than the home countries of their Middle Eastern immigrants, due in part to their secular orientation. They claim to be more progressive than Islamic countries on women’s rights and civil rights. Muslim minorities living in the West are expected to integrate into the mainstream Western culture and accept its “civilized” values. Yet in much of the West, religion has been replaced by individualism. Many Muslim immigrants contrasting these modern cultures with traditional values see them as decadent and hostile, creating among many a sense of the Western Other.

The Charlie Hebdo shootings represented the fallout from these dueling senses of cultural superiority, as did the 2005 controversy over the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Both were Western secularist organizations openly denigrating Muslim symbols in the name of free speech, displaying a sense of superiority over those who used religious belief to justify what they saw as retrograde behavior.

This did not make either Charlie Hebdo’s editors or those attacked in protests against the Danish cartoons deserving of violence. Yet both the cultural arrogance on display by Western representatives and the resulting reprisal from Islamic extremists highlighted and deepened the cultural rifts between many Muslim immigrants and the Western nations in which they now reside.

Today, streams of Muslim refugees continue to enter Europe. Most are happy just to be out of the Syrian war zone. But how long will it be before they begin to feel estranged from societies that offer protection but seem alien in so many other ways?

In order for Europeans to redefine their relationship with the “other,” they will need to redefine their sense of self. Meanwhile, Muslims in Europe will have to do the same.

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