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Europe

Europe Faces New Integration Challenges

The current wave of violence against Muslims in the Netherlands has forced all of Europe to stop and examine the problems of integration. Many worry that what the Dutch are now facing could soon be an EU-wide reality.

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Integration is not just a Dutch problem

It started with the murder of Theo van Gogh at the beginning of November in Amsterdam. The shooting of the controversial film maker and critic of Islam set off a series of unprecedented attacks in the Netherlands. Mosques were set in flames, churches were desecrated, schools were bombed and alleged terrorists arrested.

Gewalt in der Niederlande Schule brennt

Firefighters try to douse the flames at the Bedir Islamic elementary school in Uden, the Netherlands, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2004.

In the last two weeks, at least 20 arson attacks have claimed the headlines across the country as tit for tat violence escalates. The public is up in arms, while the rest of Europe watches with a combination of shock and worry.

Spiral of violence

Many in the traditionally tolerant society have been quick to point their finger at the spiral of violence and call it a growing trend towards fanaticism. Both the Muslim community, which makes up about 6 percent of the population and has lived side-by-side with the Dutch for years, and anti-immigrant supporters have attacked each other in words and deeds as one act of violence is quickly followed by a counter-act.

Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen recently drew back the illusionary cover of tolerance and integration, laying bare the sentiment on the street, when he said hatred and fear exist between the various ethnic groups.

Recent opinion polls show the majority of Dutch people are uncomfortable with or feel threatened by the presence of foreigners, especially fundamental Muslims, who oppose the openness of Western society. At the same time, support is surging for Geert Wilders, regarded as the heir to murdered politician Pim Fortuyn, whose party surged to second place in a 2002 election on a platform espousing tougher anti-immigration policies.

Meanwhile, Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Gerrit Zalm said his country was engaged "in a war with terrorism." Jozias van Aartsen, parliamentary leader of the power-sharing VVD liberals, echoed that view on Thursday in a parliamentary debate when he said the government's prime focus was seizing militants and dialogue with mainstream Muslims was secondary.

A European problem?

Anschlag auf moslemische Schule in Eindhoven, Niederlande

Women and children wait outside a Muslim school in Eindhoven, Netherlands, Monday, Nov. 8, 2004 after an explosion blew the door off the school and shattered windows across the street.

But if the Netherlands is at war, than it is not going at it alone. European Justice Commissioner Antonio Vittorino warned that the violence the Dutch people are experiencing could break out in any other EU member state. "It's happening now in the Netherlands," his spokesman said Friday, "but it affects the entire Union."

Ulrich Schneckener, political scientist from the Berlin Institute for Research and Politics (SWP), told DW-WORLD he doubts that the Dutch problems will spread to the rest of Europe. "I think the whole discussion about the spread of violence is extremely speculative," the terror expert said.

"Just because one country is being targeted, does not automatically mean terrorism will find its footing at the heart of Europe." Schneckener added.

Nonetheless experts such as the well-known Islam researcher Bassam Tibi worry that similar attacks could soon take place in Germany. "If nothing is done to improve the integration of foreigners, Germany could possibly face the same civil war-like conditions now experienced in Holland," Tibi told the newspaper Münchner Merkur Friday.

System failures

What is certain, though, is that the attacks in Germany's neighbor are the result of the failure to integrate and deal effectively with the challenges of immigration, said Marianne Zepp from the Heinrich Böll Institute, which is funded by the Greens party. "But general conclusions cannot be drawn for all of Europe," she told DW-WORLD.

"However, what becomes obvious is that a strained economic and social situation can further intensify the already tense cultural relations between immigrants and the rest of a society in Europe," she said.

Many other EU member states have difficulties with integrating immigrants. In Germany, France or Spain, even the second and third generation of immigrants struggle with learning the language or finding a job. The results for the rest of society are obvious: unemployment, poverty and criminality rise.

Better cooperation within the EU

Niederlande: Freundschaftskette von Muslimen und Niederländern an der Schule in Eindhoven

Students and their parents of the Tarieq Ibnu Ziyad Islamic elementary school form a human chain in the southern Dutch city Eindhoven, Friday Nov. 12, 2004.

"Europe must focus on giving foreign minorities a better chance to integrate by improving, for example, their education chances," said Zepp. She praised the "Handbook for Integration", which the EU Commission presented earlier in the week at its first-ever conference on integration and anti-racism.

"The EU states must work together and learn from one another," she said. The handbook, which encourages cooperation and the exchange of information and experience among EU countries is an important first step in cross-border cooperation on the issue of integration.

Dutch Integration Minister Rita Verdonk, who opened the EU conference stressed that the goal for the future is not simply finding a theoretical framework, but rather an "approach that really works."

She said the EU needs to ask itself as a whole, "How do we prepare migrants for full participation in society? What are the rights and duties of migrants, and of society? How can we make parents aware of their responsibilities for integrating their children? How can we help them bridge the gap to society?"

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