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Otherness In the Welfare State

Opinion | February 10, 2015

The recent terrorist attack at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has put a spotlight on the Muslim community within Europe. Attitudes towards this community—which was already facing persecution and religious intolerance—have only gotten worse in Europe in the days and weeks since the attacks.

In countries where state-run social welfare programs are the norm, these communities are viewed as a drain on public resources. A recent Pew Study found that around a third of the French population holds an unfavorable view of the Muslim minority.

A full-scale project of economic integration must occur in Europe to alleviate this cause of Islamophobia and also protect the long-term viability of the welfare state. Any solution must start by addressing the problem of immigration from the Middle East. As long as violence remains in the area, immigrants will risk their lives to travel to safety. European leaders must take action to make sure these new communities are successfully incorporated into the society at-large.

At the heart of this problem is the sacred European welfare state. The vast majority of countries in the EU have some sort of universal social welfare, with services like unemployment insurance, universal healthcare, and retirement assistance. It has long been the conventional wisdom that extensive social welfare programs are rooted in cultural homogeneity. In other words, a single group pays into a system their entire life with the trust that everyone else in that same group will pay their equal share, thus ensuring that everyone has earned the benefits they receive.

It is obvious to see how Muslim immigration and their perceived “otherness” conflicts with the traditional understanding of the welfare state. European leaders must confront this problem if they are to successfully protect their treasured welfare systems.

There are several constraints limiting Muslim participation in the European labor market. One factor is the aforementioned cultural homogeneity so prevalent in these societies. These tight networks make it difficult for outsiders to find jobs and opportunities.

Another factor is the fact that immigrant Muslims do not receive the same level of education as many of their European peers. Consider that the vast majority of Europe’s recent Muslim immigrant population hails from war-torn areas of the Middle East and North Africa, like Syria and Libya. Many arrive in Europe with few of the advanced skills necessary to participate in competitive modern European economies. Thus, they are extremely limited in the kinds of occupations they can pursue.

Perhaps because of this lack of success in the labor market, it has been estimated that around 50% of the French prison population is Muslim. Even more troubling, the recent European economic downturn has placed a greater strain on national budgets, highlighting the unsustainable nature of a Muslim population that isn’t properly integrated into the economic system and thus cannot contribute their fair share to the welfare system. An increase in Islamophobia in Europe during the recent economic crisis can be at least partly linked with the view that Muslims are unfairly taking away valuable resources that could otherwise be used to help so-called “real Europeans.”

The suddenness of the Arab Spring and the unforeseen arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, by means both legal and illegal, caught European leaders by surprise. They were wholly unprepared to incorporate these new residents into their social and economic systems. But the time has come where they can longer shirk their duties to the residents of their countries.

The European Union as a whole must step up border safety initiatives in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, where the majority of immigrants travel to Europe. Besides securing their borders and making sure the number of needless immigrant deaths decreases, the EU must work to remedy the initial suffering that prompted so many of these immigrants to seek asylum. While humanitarian aid helps, a more thorough approach to creating lasting peace in Syria would go a long way towards stemming the tide of immigrants coming to Europe.

The problem of integrating Muslims into the larger European society is a multifaceted one. Root issues of intolerance and racism are prevalent in Europe and cannot be solved easily or quickly. There is a long history of religious intolerance that cannot be easily undone; however, a basic approach towards resolving some issues of economic inequality could prove to have a tremendous impact.

Classes targeted at giving both immigrant and native-born Muslims the sorts of skills needed to compete in developed economies would help resolve the education gap these populations experience. There has even been discussion in some countries of starting imam training programs at secular universities, so as to assimilate future community leaders into the regular European education system. Government programs or laws designed to place underrepresented groups into the workforce would also help lower the taxpayers’ burden, or government assistance could be tied to attending job training programs. While these plans would cost money in the short term, the long-term benefit of creating a larger tax base would be well worth the cost.

While it may seem like a tough pill to swallow for traditionally homogenous European societies, now is the time to begin integrating Muslims into the workforce. The rise in Islamophobia and economic doldrums make the issue of Muslim separation in Europe more pressing than ever.

Of course, this is a two-way street. Muslims in Europe must show a willingness to integrate and become fully functioning members of economic society. But once they show that willingness, programs must be ready to begin the process. Integrating Muslims into the workforce has the potential to create a melting pot effect in European societies. The future of the welfare state and civil peace rides upon the success of European leader’s efforts to open their societies and create welcoming states for all.

Cover image by looking4poetry (Flickr via Creative Commons).