Europe, immigration and the Arab-Muslim world

Josep Borrell
Wednesday 20 Feb 2019

Dialogue with the Arab-Islamic world has great importance for European security and sustainability as well as for promoting a true understanding between cultures and civilisations

Although Brexit and the Venezuelan crisis, both seemingly insurmountable problems, dominate the headlines, the world has not stopped turning, and other issues require our attention in a more structural manner.

For example, in Brussels we recently held a ministerial meeting at the EU Foreign Affairs Council with countries from Southeast Asia that are ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members, and another with those from the African Union.

And we are now preparing another such meeting in February between the EU and the Arab League, which will be followed in Egypt by a summit of heads of state and government, the first of its kind involving both regional organisations.

Clearly, for Europe and particularly for Spain, the Arab-Islamic world has great importance for security, energy, climate change, and migration, but also for understanding between cultures and civilisations, and therefore as regards the policy dimensions of our relationship.

Although until now we believed ourselves to be immune to these dynamics, even Spain has begun to see the emergence of political parties seeking to reap benefits at the ballot box by depicting immigrants, especially those who are Muslims, and Islamic civilisation in general as a foreign enemy and one to be battled or expelled.

The phenomenon of migration forms part of this aversion. However, like it or not, demographic imbalances are going to make this something that we will have to learn to live with.

By 2050, the world will have 9.7 billion people, and Europe, which will still have more or less the same number of 500 million, will represent five per cent of the global population.

Africa, on the other hand, will have 2.5 billion people. In other words, in 2050 there will be five times more people in the neighbouring continent than in Europe. This is why it is so necessary to address the socio-cultural dimension of migration.

Migration can be an asset for offsetting population loss and for revitalising the workforce, as well as for ensuring the sustainability of pension systems and building a multicultural, dynamic society, unless we want to close our doors and be a continent of (not very many) white, elderly, and dependent people.

But let us not fool ourselves: identity management is a highly complex task, much more so than that of euro governance, which can be solved with money and institutional reforms.

If this task is not undertaken with the right approach, and also from the viewpoint of channelling migratory flows to favour legal over irregular migration, the populist far right’s exploitation of the issue could become a corrosive factor undermining European integration.

This is especially true when people try to present East and West, as the late US political scientist Samuel Huntington did with his “clash of civilisations” theory, as polar opposites in everything from religion to political systems, including secularism and the role of women.

Such an approach inevitably leads to considering these two spaces, Europe and the Arab-Muslim world, as being homogeneous blocs. But in each one there is a broad diversity of attitudes towards faith, democracy, and modernity in general.

In Europe, for example, the right to terminate a pregnancy is not universally accepted, nor is marriage between persons of the same sex. And in a sociologically Islamic country such as Tunisia, as its foreign minister recently told me, a secular democracy is being built, undoubtedly with some difficulties, with a constitution that enshrines equality between women and men.

These two examples could be considered extreme and as exceptions to the rule of a liberal Europe and an authoritarian and theocratic Arab-Islamic world, but generalisation should not lead us to simplifying what is complex either.

Quite the opposite is the case: it is important to approach and support the political and cultural currents that in Muslim lands seek precisely to show that there is nothing in their culture that inexorably leads to establishing faith-based dictatorships or to terrorism.

This approach is also fundamental to combating the radicalisation of certain young people of Arab origin who are lacking opportunities and not only in Islamic countries.

Spanish Identity

According to data from 2017 (from the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain), there are 1.9 million Muslims in our country, ie approximately four per cent of Spain’s population. 

This figure disproves any notions of Islamisation that some would have us believe, and not only in our country. Personalities such as the xenophobic Dutch politician Geert Wilders seek to perpetuate this myth, when in the Netherlands today barely seven per cent of people in fact practise Islam.

Nevertheless, given the importance that the identity debate has assumed in European society, we would do well to cast our gaze upon the role of Arab culture as part of Europe’s heritage and, naturally, of Spain’s heritage as well.

Is Islam, or rather, the Arab-Islamic world, an integral, constituent part of Europe’s culture and historical experience, or, on the contrary, is it an alien, imposed, and, in any case, circumstantial and eccentric, element? In other words, is Islam a religion that has reached Europe in a rubber dinghy and should leave by the same means, as some might wish? Or, on the contrary, is it a religion, and, above all, a culture with age-old roots in Europe, one that enriches us all, as it has for centuries?

This question harkens back to the debate we engaged in during the negotiations of the European constitution that never came to fruition earlier this century concerning Europe’s Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian roots. Of course, that also led us to other questions: would we forever leave Turkey outside that essentialist Europe, and would we integrate Christian Russia up to Vladivostok?

If we are talking about the Caucasus, is Christian Armenia a natural candidate for inclusion in the EU, but not Azerbaijan whose population is predominantly Muslim? Should European Union citizens who profess the Islamic religion be, therefore, seen as second-class citizens because they are not “pure-bred Europeans” in race, religion and culture, so to speak?

In Spain, this debate is particularly relevant. After all, together with southern Italy and part of the Balkans, although much more intensely in our case, our country is the part of Europe where the presence of Islam has left the greatest and most enduring imprint.

And we are not talking about a dead imprint, but a live one alive in our language, in our place-names, in our cuisine, in our architecture and in our city planning. Therefore, it should not be considered as something alien to our society, and much less as an antagonistic factor.

The presence of Islam in Spain during seven centuries is precisely the principal element that sets our country apart, the element which Spaniards and foreigners refer to when they speak of Spain’s supposedly “exceptional nature”. Spain is “the East of the West”, according to a romantic version.

In this respect, it is interesting to recall the “historians’ quarrel” of the middle of the last century regarding the place of Islam and of Arab culture in Spain’s historical experience. I am of course referring to the debate between historians Américo Castro and Sánchez Albornoz.

In short, the former sees Spain in the co-existence of the three cultures, while the latter identifies the national essence of Spain with the mediaeval Visigothic kingdom. The pertinence of this debate to today’s Europe is plain to see.

The question we might put to the “albornozistas” is whether we can consider seven centuries of history to be a mere deviation. The question we might put to the “castristas” is whether they have exaggerated the Islamic influence beyond its actual contribution to our history as a whole.

Either way, what is important and necessary is that we accept our historical experience in its totality: understand it; grasp its meaning; make it intelligible for ourselves and others; and determine to what extent it is useful to Europe and the West at the present juncture.


To do this, we need to understand and, where applicable, integrate this Islamic component, to the appropriate degree, into our history, and, therefore, into European history as a whole. 

We can only reply affirmatively to the question concerning the Arab pillar of European culture if we accept its existence in our own Spanish culture.

In certain historical eras, this pillar has not only been fundamental to our country’s historical trajectory, but, due to the presence of Islam in Spain, also fundamental to the growth and maturity of a Europe that had for centuries looked inward upon itself until the recovery of the classical legacy thanks to Arabic translations and reinterpretations that reached the rest of the continent through the Iberian Peninsula.

For all these reasons, the Arab-Islamic influence in Europe is not solely due to the recent influx of immigrants into our societies as a result of decolonisation or the recent flows of refugees.

Rather, Islam and the Arab world have historically formed part of our cultural heritage. Having accepted this premise, our next step should consist in analysing to what extent that early imprint might enable us to find solutions to many of the current dilemmas facing the West.

The Alliance of Civilisations, a Spanish initiative that the United Nations has adopted as its own and whose high representative, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, is a former foreign minister of Spain, is undoubtedly a political embodiment of this approach.

The 5+5 Dialogue in the Western Mediterranean, or the Union for the Mediterranean, to which Spain is particularly committed, could also play an important role in the mutually beneficial management of migration and of regional public goods such as water or trade and in rediscovering the culture that we share on both shores of the Mediterranean.

For all these reasons and faced with the sometimes narrow-minded and xenophobic views of society, we must support a society that is open to ideas and influences, to knowledge, to technology transfer, to goods and services, and also to people, through safe, orderly and legal channels, as proposed in the Marrakech Global Compact.

Finally, the imprint of Al-Andalus as part of the essence of Spain and of Europe offers us a great opportunity to implement not only significant cultural diplomacy initiatives, but also to strengthen our political dialogue with the Mediterranean, Arab and Islamic world, a dialogue that we must do our utmost to promote.

* The writer is the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Europe, immigration and the Arab-Muslim world

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