Accommodation or assimilation?


Muslim girls in French state schools may no longer wear their full-length abaya dresses when they return to school in September. The schools reopen in September after the summer holidays in Europe. This announcement was made this week by Gabriel Attal, French Minister of Education.

The decision provoked a fierce reaction in Muslim ranks. They see it as directly aimed at them and as calculated discrimination against Muslims. “France is now in the same class as Afghanistan and Iran because France is one of the few countries in the world that dictates to Muslim women what they may wear,” said one aggrieved Muslim parent.

I visited Europe several times before 1994. I remember the arrogant and omniscient superiority with which the Europeans, and especially the French and Dutch, attacked me and had easy answers for South Africa’s racial and other problems.

Recently I was in Europe again. On this visit, the political discussions were different. There is a mutedness about Europe’s problems as well as a concern about their own immigration problems. The immigration problems led to the fall of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government last month.

Many single immigrant men continuously enter the Netherlands illegally. Soon after they have been granted asylum or temporary residence, they try to bring their extended families to the Netherlands. Rutte wanted to place restrictions on this while his left coalition partners opposed it as “inhumane”.

Rutte was popular as a prime minister who cycles to work with two bodyguards riding along. Now 75% of Dutch people have indicated in an opinion poll that they prefer Rutte to step down. Most of them support stricter immigration controls.

During our visit to Amsterdam, the guide shows us the canals, the neat narrow four-storey dark brown houses with a few medieval churches in between. He explains that more people in the Netherlands visit a mosque weekly than a Christian church service. Not because the Muslims are so numerous in numbers, but because the majority of Dutch people describe themselves as “non-religious”. A few decades ago, more than 80% of the Dutch were still Christians, divided between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

In my Dutch political discussions, it is first about the Ukraine war and a fear that a desperate Putin could plunge Europe into a nuclear war. The conversation then quickly turns to their immediate problem which turns out to be immigration. I struggle to understand how Muslims, who are only 5% of the population, can be such a big problem.

In South Africa we work with much larger majorities and minorities. They respond vehemently by telling you that the 500th mosque is being built in the Netherlands this year. They are particularly indignant that Muslim countries provide the financing for the construction of new mosques in the Netherlands.

I ask why this is a problem? No Dutch tax or other money is used. The outrage is because these donations slow down and actually stop the assimilation of the Muslim population in Dutch society, explains an expert.

Now I understand. The European immigration model is failing. The European model for peaceful coexistence was to make the new immigrants fully French or Dutch by assimilating them and thus swallowing their culture. The problem is that in practice it does not happen as I predicted to them in previous conversations. The fact that immigrants, and especially Muslims, retain their culture and religion and even dress frustrates the Europeans. This is the situation in most Western European countries with perhaps the exception of Poland and Hungary. Everywhere in Europe are complete neighborhoods with almost exclusively Moroccan or Turkish or Muslim citizens. There they have their own mosques, their own shops, their own community institutions and even their own media.

It is clear that the Europeans do not know how to deal with two or even three peoples and cultures in one country. Banning the abaya dresses in schools is a desperate attempt to force Muslims to become completely secular French. This is not going to solve the problem.

I think back to the superiority with which the French and especially the Dutch in the past showed no understanding for South Africa’s multi-ethnic society. How my arguments of how the different languages, cultures and religions can be managed to create space for everyone and their culture, were dismissed as racism and apartheid.

My advice was accommodation instead of assimilation with international examples of cultural and territorial self-determination, federalism, autonomy, and so on. From my conversations with the worried Europeans, I see how in the future they will still come knocking on the Afrikaners for tips on how to survive in a multi-populated society.