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Europe’s refugee crisis

As Europe discovers, there’s no ignoring the clash of values that comes with a refugee influx

Mike Rowse says the rise of the far right in Europe must be understood against the real problems of integration engendered by the flood of Muslim immigrants into the continent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 12:02pm

As I look back to the continent where I was born and grew up, I cannot escape a deep sense of foreboding. Everywhere, parties of the far right, some eerily reminiscent of fascist organisations of the distantly remembered past, are on the rise.

Far right and hard left the big winners in European Parliament elections

In France, the head of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, continues to poll strongly and may well make it to the run-off round in the presidential election due next spring, as indeed her father did before her. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party is now represented in eight of the country’s state parliaments and, at present levels of support, will definitely pass the 5 per cent threshold for a presence in the Bundestag itself at the next election, also in 2017. In just over two weeks’ time, a member of the Freedom Party of Austria will compete in the second round of voting for the post of president, having come top in the first round. Similar parties are on the rise in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Sweden, and so on.

European countries are turning away from refugees after being overwhelmed by the scale of crisis

A major factor behind the increasing popularity of these political movements is growing public concern about immigration, in particular – no use beating about the bush – of Muslims. Watching the appalling events unfolding in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, no one could fail to have sympathy and understanding for those fleeing to sanctuary to save their families. Yet they bring with them religious practices and beliefs that do not fit easily with modern lifestyles in Western Europe.

No European government would outlaw a change of religion, but what if some followers take the law into their own hands?

Last December, there was a Post column calling on us to “better understand Muslim views”. It was written by a humanist and a local university professor. Although it was no doubt well intended and made some good points, I did not find the content altogether reassuring. For example, there is a massive gulf between the faiths on the subject of apostasy. In the West, one is free to pursue any religion or none at all. There may be frowns from neighbours and even some degree of ostracism, but at the end of the day you can do as you wish. Muslims take a different view. If you are born of that faith, many – including a majority of those from the Middle East – believe there should be punishment and even the death penalty for those who renounce it. No European government would outlaw a change of religion, but what if some followers take the law into their own hands?

While most Muslims say “honour” killings are not justified, clear majorities in both Iraq and Afghanistan condone extrajudicial executions of women who engage in what men from those countries believe to be unacceptable sexual behaviour but which would not raise eyebrows in the West.

Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, is not part of Islamic faith. Nonetheless, some refugees now arriving in Europe, some of them Muslim, do practise it, and in the popular mind, it is often erroneously associated with Islam because of that religion’s emphasis on female chastity.

So here are three obvious areas where what is supported by most or some Muslims would actually constitute a criminal offence in the Western countries to which they are fleeing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes impassioned defence of immigration stance before state elections

Some readers may wonder why someone with no discernible religious faith is dwelling on these issues. The answer is simply that the difficulties host nations will face in absorbing large numbers of people with very different value systems – and the difficulties those people will have integrating – cannot be ignored. They must be acknowledged and addressed if the tide of neo-fascism is to be turned back.

What triggered this column was a recent news item from Switzerland. The practice in that country is for schoolchildren to shake hands with the teacher as a sign of respect. Two young refugee boys declined to do so, apparently because it was not allowed for a male to touch a female who was not a family member. This was interpreted by locals as “Thank you for taking us in and saving our lives at great cost and inconvenience to yourselves. But now we’re here, you must change your ways to accommodate us.” It might have been better if a local mullah could have found a more flexible approach. Understanding is, after all, a two-way street.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk