October 12, 2003


Receive or take rights? Belgium¹s Arab European League: An ambitious movement led by a charismatic young leader is shaking Belgian political life. Not the anti-immigrant, Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok, but a confident mobilisation of people of Arab descent. How will the Arab European League (AEL) reshape understanding of diversity and multiculturalism in 21st century Europe? (Dirk Jacobs, 10/09/2003, OpenDemocracy)

In several European countries, immigrants have been confined to a status as the object of discussion rather than themselves participating in the debate. In the Belgian political arena, for instance, non-European Union ethnic minority groups went almost unheard until very recently. The latest round of federal, regional and local elections altered this state of affairs to some degree when several politicians of non-EU immigrant origin were elected. But the high-profile boost given to the ethnic minority voice in Belgian politics by the sudden rise of a controversial and ambitious immigrant organisation called the Arab European League (AEL) is of an entirely different order.

This remarkable organisation, which actually combines a pan-Arabic nationalist ideology for the Arab world with an outspoken multicultural vision for the European arena, became a key player in the debate on immigrant integration in Belgium almost overnight. Its influence spread rapidly as far as to Belgium¹s neighbour, the Netherlands. Nor do the ambitions of the AEL stop there. Claiming members in as many as twelve European countries, the AEL does not rule out further expansion. Indeed it has targeted France for the launch of its next, major chapter. [...]

The press has been puzzled and fascinated in turn by its combined pan-Arabic and Muslim identity claims; its promotion of a new concept of Arab-Europeanness (inspired by the African-American identity); and its flamboyant style and discourse. For their part, the political establishment has been Œtricked¹ into making the AEL one of its main adversaries in the Belgian immigration debate, thereby inadvertently granting it increased legitimacy.

After 9/11, both Belgian and Dutch politicians and journalists have been tempted to label the Arab European League (AEL) an Islamist or radical Muslim organisation. The evidence for this is slight. Invocations of Muslim identity do play an important part in AEL mobilisation, but Arab nationalism is at least as strong an ideological influence on the AEL leadership. Indeed, Muslim claims only became prominent in AEL discourse after the 9/11 attacks.

In fact, the AEL wins loyalty neither on Arab nor Muslim grounds. Rather, most of its followers are attracted mainly by an unwavering emphasis on the opposition between the excluded and the included. The AEL champions the "underdog": the excluded Muslim immigrants. In essence, it is less a transnational Arab nationalist or Muslim organisation than a local radical immigrant organisation demanding equal opportunities.

This is revealed in the way the AEL pleads for the recognition of ethnic diversity. Its multicultural approach calls for Arab language and culture to be fostered in Europe and emphasises the opportunities this might open up for the continent's "Arab community". It argues that this community should be considered a "European minority" (or in the context of European nation-states as a "national minority").

In the terminology of Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, the AEL insists on the "Arab community" being entitled to "multinational rights" (special rights for "historic" communities) and not merely "polyethnic rights" (special rights for immigrant communities). The AEL argues interestingly that due recognition and indeed strengthening of the culture of origin, is a precondition for the successful integration within and even loyalty to the host societies of Europe. [...]

The AEL's stance on multiculturalism may be radical and unconventional. But, simply because its confrontational style unsettles the general public, no genuine liberal democracy worth the name can ignore the practical issues it raises. The problems of discrimination or of structurally unequal opportunities will not disappear on their own. When the policies of states across Europe do not live up to the secular, colour- and culture-blind principles they espouse, hard debate is necessary. Neglecting the issues
raised by radical movements like the AEL - or merely "shooting the messenger" - might only fuel their radical mobilisation.

Of course liberal democracies shouldn't ignore such issues; they should crush those who advocate such anti-assimilationist ideas. In the description of a Willmoore Kendall-esque character in his novel Redhunter, William F. Buckley characterizes the idea behind his initial support of McCarthyism as follows: "A vital democratic society has two functions, one is inclusive--bring in the new ideas, assimilate them. The other is exclusive, reject unassimilable ideas." Immigrant groups should be welcomed to precisely the extent that they are willing to conform to the existing society, which society will, in the process, incorporate the best of the traditions and ideas those immigrants bring with them. The notion that immigrant groups should be able to maintain their own culture unchanged is a recipe for divisiveness and social breakdown. It should be rejected utterly. The hard question for Europe is whether it needs the young workers who immigratioon brings more than it values its own societies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2003 7:07 AM

If the Europeans weren't a variant of Homo Invertebriens, they would be emphasizing the AELs Right to Leave.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 11:29 AM

Mr. Judd;

What in the AEL's program is "radical" or "unconventional" in terms of multiculturalism and European policy? It seems that the AEL is simply taking existing EU-lite beliefs to their logical conclusion.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 12, 2003 11:44 AM

I'm amused, and concerned, that the writer finds it unexpected that they "actually" combine pan-Arab nationalism with multi-cultural rhetoric.

Posted by: Timothy at October 12, 2003 12:01 PM

There are probably lots of Europeans who would agree with Buckley's wise words in theory. The problem is that, being very confused as to what their socities now stand for, they have no reference point for deciding what constitutes an "unassimilable" value. They don't even ask the question until immigrant numbers are large enough to appear menacing, by which time it is too late, as they have alienated the immigrants by then by not welcoming and integrating them the way North Americans generally do.

It is all well and fun to scorn the Europeans, but how do they get out of this mess? Having self-immolated twice, and being haunted by too much blood and never-ending ancient feuds, it is not surprising many of them look to a "value-free", supra-national society that eschews national pride and avoids war at all costs. They are wrong, but I don't think deserving of contempt. Harry made an extremely perceptive point a while back when he pointed to the huge advantage the US has in not having many neighbours and not being in any way threatened by the ones you do have. I can certainly understand the nervousness of the average decent European in looking to culture and tradition for guidance. Which Founding Fathers should they be studying? Napoleon? Charlemagne? Bismarck?

The only answer I can see is a reassertion of faith, but to command faith up for political reasons is dicey. Also, not to hassle you Jeff, but the problem there is too many ordinary Europeans have been persuaded by the left and the secular education it controls to buy into your and Harry's theory of the Church being responsible for all the bad things in European history, of which there were many to say the least. They have been stripped of any notion of a glorious past worth conserving and emulating, so where do they go on this one?

Caught between secular, pessimistic, effete decline and the likes of LePen. Not pretty.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 7:00 AM