Behzad Yaghmaian is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Although he is coming from an Iranian descent, he has lived in the States for many years. Recently, his two articles published in Refugees Deeply. The latest one, “To Protect Refugees, We Must Confront Anxiety Over Muslims in Europe” was very fruitful to discuss. So, we prepared a number of questions reviewing the article. Here are the answers he sent.

 

1) You highlight the image of a Muslim “invasion” through refugees and migrants, that cause to the rise of xenophobic movements across Europe. What’s more, there is also term “economic invasion” referring to the discourse “they are stealing our jobs”. Considering these points, what would Behzad Yaghmaian suggests for counter-xenophobic arguments opposed to such discourses?

Behzad Yaghmaian : To counter the argument of “invasion” it is crucial to engage the public in an open, fact-based, and honest conversation about the economic, socio-political, and the cultural aspects of migration, and in particular Muslim migration. Meaningful ethnographies, and telling truthful narratives of Muslim experiences in Europe also play an important role in separating facts from misinformation, and weakening the far right’s campaign against Muslim migrants and refugees.

One the economic front, it is important to tackle the argument that migrants and refugees steal jobs while they are also a drain on scarce public resources. Recent research shows “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term” in the United States. Similar results are found in Europe.

Things are somehow more difficult on the cultural front. Cultural differences between Muslims and non-Muslims do exist. They are real. The age of globalization has changed life, cultural practices, social norms, and other aspects of life across the world. Migration of Muslims with varying cultural practices is only one aspect of globalization and the changes it produces.

To narrow the social fissure and ease the cultural anxiety it is pivotal to address the dividing issues with honesty and openness. A criterion is needed to judge the acceptable and unacceptable practices in this changing world.

I suggest accepting cultural practices that are not harmful to others and the society, no matter how appalling or distasteful they may be to some.

For example, like one’s color of underwear, the choice of swimwear in public beaches should be left to the individual. Seeing a woman in burka in the streets of Paris or Berlin may be shocking, a sign of losing one’s national identity to some. But the burka, even if it is worn because of family pressures, does not impede anyone else’s freedoms or negate their rights.

Meanwhile, forcing one’s daughter to leave school to marry should be condemned and made subject to legal repercussions. Hate speech, by Muslims or others, should be criminalized. Where and when they occur, the physical and psychological torture of the young Muslim woman by her brothers or other male family members for reasons of disobeying or dishonoring them should be widely condemned and severely punishable by law. The court system must actively interfere to protect the abused women.

All, including the followers of Islam, must loudly condemn the murder of innocent people under the name of Islam or any religion. However, the collective punishment of refugees and migrants should be avoided.

Cultures evolve over time. Social practices change with sustained contact and understanding. Honest and clearheaded discussion of these issues will not be an easy task. But there is no other solution to the current divide.

 

Behzad Yaghmaian
Behzad Yaghmaian with the Blind Street Musician

2) Do you think that the struggle movements like #refugeeswelcome are enough to overcome far-right tendencies in Europe? Do you think which party will be more popular in the dispute on the Migration Crisis?

Behzad Yaghmaian : The civil society in all its manifestations, including Refugees Welcome, can and will play a crucial role in overcoming the far right in Europe and elsewhere. Such organizations help raise awareness of refugees and migrants’ realities and counter the false information dissimilated by the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant groups. More so, as we have seen in Greece in the past two years, civil society institutions play a significant role in supporting the vulnerable, providing services, and creating cross-cultural and cross-religion solidarity movements.

Solidarity is essential in narrowing the existing social fissures, giving a real sense of ownership and belonging to the migrants (Muslims and others), and helping them in the difficult process of dealing with challenges of the new society. Solidarity movements pave the way for a more tolerant society and the peaceful coexistence of different cultures and religions.

The growth of pro-refugee organizations and their widespread participation in the debate influences the party that will potentially succeed in the dispute on the “migration crisis.” We do have hopeful signs everywhere in Europe. We also have worrying trends.

The continuing obsession with Austerity and policies of neoliberal globalism, and the resulting inequality and the marginalization of the middle and working classes in Europe will empower the far right in their campaign against migrants and refugees. As I argued elsewhere, we can overcome this through addressing the economic grievances of the anti-immigrant middle and working classes with a solidarity-based globalism.

 

3) You have also criticized European liberals for “leaving the front open for misinformation”. This is one of the popular criticism raised by different researchers and scholars. Actually, we have a serious problem, the lack of reliable news sources. But is it fair to pin the whole responsibility just on liberals? Isn’t it a general problem of the whole Europe and even the world?

Behzad Yaghmaian : The liberals’ failure to engage in this conversation is NOT the main source of the problem. Staying out of the fray leaves the far right in charge of framing the discussion and affecting public opinion. That is my point.

The far right is vocal and aggressive. It has succeeded in intimidating the liberals and others, silencing them, and gaining the upper hand in public discussion of the issue. Silence in this case only aggravates the already existing anxiety about Muslims.

We can change what you call the lack of reliable information through direct and open participation in the public discussion with real and truthful information. Far right’s near monopoly in this case needs to be broken. The Internet provides us with a powerful instrument to reach a very large and diverse population with a different message, and confront the far right with real information.

 

4) While talking about the burkini ban of France, I understand that you are arguing that liberals are on the fence: secularism or liberalism. Which part seems more powerful, you think? Is it a big challenge if liberals cannot give up their secularist obsessions in favor of liberties of newcomers?

I think we need to make a distinction between shallow and deep secularism here. Deep secularism is a belief in protecting public policy, education, and the state from religion and religious beliefs. The principle of separation of church and state is an example of deep secularism. It is a fundamental principle that safeguards state policies that impact the public, including the education of children, from religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, what we are witnessing now is a process of turning deep secularism on its head. Shallow secularism is replacing deep secularism in many parts of Europe. A focus on symbols of religiosity is replacing concerns with the effect of religion on policy and education.

The burkini crisis in France was a perfect example of this inversion. A ban on wearing religious symbols in schools, in my opinion, is another example of shallow secularism. Secularism in education should be concerned with the protection of school curriculum from all religious influences. How students attend school should be inconsequential.

In the case of burkini, in my view, the liberals largely succumbed to shallow secularism.

In countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, two illiberal theocracies, women are forced to cover themselves in public, albeit in varying forms and degrees. In France, a liberal and secular state, women are forced to remove their chosen cover in public. In both cases, the state control of women’s body politics and choice of clothing is illiberal.  

 

5) Do you think that European countries have a good grade in the “integration test”? Would you say that the integration policies ( remember “guiding culture” debate in Germany) are successful, in a way?

Behzad Yaghmaian : European countries do not have a uniform track record on integration. The terrorist attacks in France, England, Belgium, and Germany have also hardened the public attitude towards integration and multiculturalism. The recent revival of Leitkultur or the “guiding culture” in Germany is an example of this backlash and the difficulties of real and meaningful integration of Muslim migrants and refugees and their descendants.

I have been spending the past few months in Europe looking into the life experiences of Muslim immigrants and refugees I first encountered in 2003 while conducting field research for my book Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. France is a perfect example of the failed promise of integration. Its systematic geographic warehousing of Muslim and Arab speaking immigrants and their descendants defies real integration.

In France, a large number of Arabic-speaking Muslims and African migrants are ghettoized in overcrowded and eisolated suburbs with very high rates of unemployment.

Certain poor French suburbs have become centers of high youth unemployment, disproportionate school dropout rates and all the ills of a life on the margin. Employers prefer not to hire people with an address in these places. Landlords demand a full-time and regular job contract. Trapped in these ghettoes, many residents have no choice but to rely on social services and live on the margins of what is deemed “real” French society.

“Once there, you cannot escape. You are there to stay,” one Sudanese refugee told me about Les Minguettes, a suburb of Lyon where she has lived for the past seven years.

She was a math teacher with a college degree in Sudan in 2002, the year she left her home for Europe in search of a better and safer life. I met her a year later in Istanbul. After a couple years of living in Turkey and Greece, she reached France with her family and received protection. Her dreams of a safe and normal life in Europe were eventually realized, she thought.

She even found a job in a school, but not in teaching – she helped in the kitchen, and watched the napping children in the afternoon. Five years later she left her job and joined the welfare roll.

“I am happy for my children. They will have a better life here. But I am sad for me. My development stopped when I came to France,” she told me when we met again in Les Minguettes. The Sudanese teacher is trapped in Les Minguettes with other Arab speaking Muslims. She has very little contact with the other France, the non-Arab speaking, and non-Muslim France.

Les Minguettes and the experience of its residence are common in France. Across the country you will find Muslim and Arab speaking migrants and their French born children in isolated clusters outside city centers. Similar situations are also found elsewhere in Europe.

 

6) You claim that bans on Muslim women make their guards ineffective against traditional patriarchal norms. It seems contingent but do you think the policy makers are not aware of that you say?

Behzad Yaghmaian : This is a curious issue. I am not sure. My cynical answer would be that the policy makers are mostly aware of the consequences of their actions.  In the case of headscarf ban, I am inclined to think that policymakers have succumbed to pressures from the anti-Muslim and xenophobic forces in Europe despite what seems to be an obvious consequence of the policy. The far right seems to have succeeded in affecting policy and the approach to Muslims.

This brings me back to one of the earlier questions and what I argued in my article about Muslim anxiety. European policy-makers must address cultural and political anxieties about Islam and refugees head on, rather than ceding the public debate to the far right and their self-defeating policies.