The ongoing encounter

9 March 2006
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Faced with increasing immigration, will Europe manage to integrate or will it resort too hastily to isolationist tactics and expulsion? Just how much contradiction can we and our culture take before we manufacture enemies and terrorists to protect what we feel is under threat -- our civilisation, our values, our way of life and our identity? Our freedom is contingent on social dumping, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and Third-World labour, and on military supremacy. Where will the battle for Europe be in the future?

What do we mean by “integration of the Other – the foreigner”? What is to be integrated? And into what? What is integration? As a word or concept, is it in the slightest bit constructive?

Let’s begin with the familiar, with what we know.

Even after several years of a close and flourishing relationship, a serious disagreement can abruptly turn a former lover, female friend, or companion into someone detestable. So repulsive has she become to us in fact that we cannot even bear to be in the same room as her; we damn each other to hell. We can hardly bear the sight of her. Is this because we have seen a new and especially disagreeable side of her, of which we had previously been unaware? Does she, in her newfound ascendancy, threaten my integrity? Or is it my own reaction which, erupting like a dark force during the disagreement, I cannot stomach or bear to be reminded of? Regardless, our reaction is the same: get rid of her, remove the cause of my anxiety, and give me peace!

Analogously, bitter conflicts – in the workplace, voluntary organisations, companies, political parties, circles of friends, – can impact upon a group at every level, and are resolved in largely the same way: with the expulsion of a faction or individual from the group. By defining what the group considers to be the cause of the conflict and removing this foreign element, conflict within the group’s ranks is dampened. At the same time, the expulsion strengthens relations between those members who remain. At long last they are gone! We have all been involved in similar situations or been on the receiving end of them in one way or another. We admit it reluctantly. That an alarming similarity exists between the warring factions that can itself cause an escalation of the conflict does not make the memory of it palatable, nor lessen the desire to bury that memory.

Ancient religions had built-in mechanisms to enable such “conflict-dampening” expulsions when desire, envy, or internal disagreement threatened the group with escalating violence and disintegration: the periodic, ritualistic sacrifice or banishment of a randomly defined scapegoat. There are no such mechanisms in secular society, except in their more spontaneous forms. The legal system has so far shown itself incapable of impeding spontaneous expulsion.

Groups who find themselves on the threshold of deep-seated, internal conflict are quick to respond by pointing out an enemy in order to ease the pressure and resolve the conflict within their ranks. When poverty comes in at the door, love flies out the window. When we feel directly threatened, we remove the threat and externalise it. In other words: just how sour must the good times turn before we become incapable of covering up the deep-rooted, underlying differences or potentially destructive conflicts present within a society? Just how much contradiction can I and my culture tolerate before we manufacture enemies to protect what we feel is under threat: our civilisation, our values, our way of life and our identity?

The examples are many. Jews had been living and working in Spain for several centuries when in 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella consolidated their Catholic reign and cast out of the country what remained of their Jewish population – 300 000 in all. Twenty years ago, a good five hundred years later, Belgrade resolved internal conflicts and a nascent need for an identity of self-rule by subjecting its Muslim brothers and sisters to genocide: an extremely well integrated part of the population who had lived and worked in the region for over four hundred years was hunted down overnight and massacred. In 1972, when Idi Amin wanted to strengthen his position in warring Uganda, he deported the country’s 80 000 Asians who for decades had helped build up the nation’s trade network. Many Arab countries availed themselves of the peace process after WWII to strengthen their identity – weakened by colonisation – by driving 870 000 Jews out of the region. With nationalisation in 1957, Nasser reinforced pan-Arabic unity by casting the French, English, and Greeks out of Alexandria. He made the last cosmopolitan and intellectually nascent Arab capital into what it is today: a sad, hollow, homogenous shell enclosing a time long since past. We Europeans know how, in the last stage of the European civil war (1871-1945), we ourselves hunted down and killed – exterminated – our Jewish brothers and sisters, who with their religious, intellectual, and economic culture had profoundly and invaluably enriched our continent for hundreds of years. Few openly acknowledged the expulsion. Many more Europeans than we care to believe supported it in silence, like the millions of Muslims who quietly support the attack on Western culture today.

When people in conflict expel an individual or a faction from their own culture, it happens in the knowledge that the outcast will remain within that culture’s economic and social network – the outcast is still a part of the community. When a society expels an individual or group who from the start never belonged to the culture, the expelling society has lamentably few problems in making the expulsion comprehensive – removing the outcast’s economic means, permanently expelling her, or killing her.

In the next few decades, Europe will witness significant immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, from different cultures and religions. Alongside America and Australia, it will receive millions of poverty-stricken people, who see in these countries the possibility for a better and richer life. This is distributive politics in action. When conditions become significantly better somewhere else, animals and humans will move towards locating their optimal source of subsistence. Anything else would go against the laws of nature and give cause for concern. Breaking-up, moving and migrating are healthy, necessary features of life. Moving brings in its wake extensive changes and challenges for original citizens as well as for immigrants. Immigration to the First World will increase. Europe is facing huge challenges today: the way in which we resolve them will decide the fate of the continent.

The majority of immigrants who arrive in Europe come from poor, Muslim countries, either formerly colonised by Europe or newly colonised by Europe or one of its allies. On arrival in Europe, the balance of power is replayed. First, the immigrant feels intimidated at the reception centre. If granted entry, she is allocated the lowest quality housing, usually in the ghettoes. Then she is exploited as cheap labour or remains living as part of a reserve workforce in the ghettoes on the outskirts of the big cities, left to languish in desperate poverty under police control. Immigrants who cross the border independently, undocumented or without rights are, like unpeople, exposed to grievous economic exploitation.

To meet demand from low-cost countries like China and India, European states have chosen to keep labour costs as low as possible. Many permanent resident workers feel threatened by cheap, immigrant labour, and by extension, by their very presence. For her part, the immigrant experiences the exploitation and absence of respect as threatening. This increases the tension. Living in different parts of town, without any real contact with each others’ traditions and cultures, the permanent resident and the immigrant form ideas about one another based on tragedy, individual events or blatant lies, images of the enemy that extremists in both camps take hold of – and reinforce – in their cynical battle over what Europe should be.

Every society – European and Muslim alike – labours under extreme tensions. In Europe, governmental control over its citizens has increased through laws, data registration and surveillance, and the ability of capital to tie itself to consumers through speculative marketing ploys. Inducements to dependency like lifetime borrowing have led to a significant erosion of the individual’s freedom and rights. Political rhetoric, product range, leisure pursuits and mass entertainment have replaced real freedom with symbolic freedom. Our freedom is contingent on social dumping, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources and Third-World labour, and on military supremacy. The well-to-do, European citizen is in a “double-bind” from which it will be painful to extricate himself. Under the guise of the War against Terror, in an effort to impede opposition, the European state is in the process of turning authoritarian.

Since the demise of colonialism a re-Islamification has taken place within the Islamic world in order to strengthen the Muslim sense of self and identity. In the thirty years since the Iranian revolution, this has led to a significant clampdown on the freedom and rights of Muslim women. Islamic culture is today witnessing the beginnings of an unprecedented female uprising – an uprising that is represented across the board by the intellectuals and the poor; by Iranian Shirin Ebadi and Pakistani Mukhtar Mai. Add this to the fight between millions of poverty-stricken and the affluent and corrupt power-elite, as well as the one between Liberals and Conservatives, and tensions between Muslims mount ever higher.

The attack on New York by Islamic terrorists was an extreme expression of hatred towards Western values. America’s counter-attack in Afghanistan, and subsequent occupation of Iraq, in order to gain control over oil resources, as well as the pressure the US exerts on Syria and Iran in an effort to dominate all of Islamic culture, is experienced by Muslims as a recurrence of colonial occupation and oppression. European principles vis-�-vis democracy and universal human rights are strongly rooted in the United States. Many immigrants belong to the socially-oriented community of Muslims – the Umma – with its meeting point in the Arab world. The European immigrant and the permanent resident interpret the daily news from the Middle-East in vastly different ways. Two powers outside Europe are at war with one another, fighting for our minds. The battle for Europe is also taking place outside its borders.

To prevent the outbreak of conflicts, the authorities have decided to “integrate” the immigrant. For the most part, this happens in two ways: with the use of force and the concept of a multicultural community.

“Integration”, “inclusiveness”, “host-countries”, and “tolerance” are watchwords for the permanent resident. The immigrant experiences integration as yet another assault: in more and more countries, she is obliged to provide her signature and take an exam to prove that she submits to the permanent resident’s culture. If she breaks the law, she is banished. In a similar vein, before 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand gave the Spanish Jews the choice between giving up their own religion and converting to Christianity or being banished.

The concept of a “multicultural community” is based on the idea of the city as physical meeting place. We have to go back over a century to find a time when the European metropolis – as place where people worked, argued, traded, fought and loved – in any way resembled a meeting point. The European citizen – immigrant and resident alike – have, like those elsewhere in the West, retreated from the metropolis. Clutching their toothbrushes and soap, they withdraw into cramped, hermetically-sealed accommodation where, with the aid of our mobiles and house phones, our remote controls and the Internet, we make selective choices about who we will communicate with. These days, the city is an ad-filled, humanly neutral, airport-like shopping centre, where we pass each other on our way to and from our selected – and segregated – pursuits. That is, if we pass each other at all.

Articulating the word “freedom”, or saying “we”, are not equivalent to achieving freedom or living within an actual community. Putting an immigrant and a permanent resident side by side on an advertising hoarding does not mean that they talk to one another or indeed have anything in common. The media, fashion, and the latest technical gadgetry give the impression that we are all active participants. Virtual, multicultural meeting-places, political commentary and TV programmes can all lead us to believe that we share a common culture and common values. Unfortunately, we do not.

A culture’s surface can change from one decade to the next. Beliefs, lifestyles, and morals are values that take a long time to change. Even when the prerequisites for them have gone, we may continue to bear with us the underlying structures of a culture for centuries before lifestyles and values eventually not disappear, but merge with other new values and lifestyles. People can live and work alongside one other for hundreds of years, in a seemingly integrated and harmonious fashion before historical or economical changes awakens latent tensions or a crisis can lead us to re-establish our old values – in defence of our self-esteem and identity.

We should quickly disabuse ourselves of the delusion, should we subscribe to it, that contemporary humankind should be more enlightened and civilised than in the past. That is not how we develop. The distance between civilisation and its absence has unfortunately remained constant throughout human history, and this will continue to be the case for the inestimable future. Threatened, the group will resort to whatever means it has to survive. Sudden economic slumps, falling living standards, levels of consumption that are unsustainable yet integral to maintaining a sense of freedom, degradation or high unemployment, can cause the permanent resident to accuse the immigrant of taking his job, his dignity and his freedom – “she was never one of us anyway, she was never really a part of our culture.” We do not like to think it, but deportation procedures can be reactivated in Europe too.

At the foundation of every human being and every human community lies the reality: the drive to meet our primary needs for food, sleep, shelter, a sense of security, that we are valued and belong somewhere. This is what we have in common. Different environmental and living conditions lead to the development of different cultures and survival mechanisms to meet these needs. Historically, the immigrant and the permanent resident have differing cultures of survival. It is in the meeting of these different cultures of survival in Europe that Europe will take shape.

The battle for Europe will not take place in Afghanistan, Iraq, the USA, the Middle East, on airplanes, at immigration reception centres, or across barbed wire. Nor will it take place in government buildings, the offices of newspaper editors or TV studios, even though these can play a vital role through a combination of progressive legislation, labour market initiatives and astute journalism.

The battle for Europe will take place in the public spaces we all frequent on a daily basis: workplaces, canteens, taxis, shops, schools, nurseries, voluntary organisations, political parties, companies and local government, the media and artistic institutions, and it will happen in the places in which we are yet to meet: the church and the mosque, the caf̩, home, kitchen, living room, bedroom, bed Рin other words, in all the nooks and crannies that host the formation of concrete values and the exchange of symbolic ones. But the real battle will not even take place here, in these spaces. The real battle for Europe begins the moment we leave our own cognitive and imaginary spaces, when we make the encounter between the permanent resident and the immigrant an current, ongoing encounter.

To leave behind our preconceptions of one another, to meet each other, to reveal ourselves, is to take a chance on letting the encounter change us. Anyone who has been through an ongoing encounter knows how quickly judgments evaporate, but also how demanding, difficult and simultaneously incredibly rewarding it is.

Conflict is central to the ongoing encounter. The instant I acknowledge someone as my opponent, I acknowledge her also as a human being, as my equal. It is the opponent we respect, listen to, change – and by whom we allow ourselves to be changed – that makes us into potential friends, spouses, brothers and sisters in arms, partners.

The ongoing encounter has nothing whatsoever to do with integration, tolerance or inclusiveness. The ongoing encounter begins with a mutual acknowledgement of one another – a smile, handshake, and reassuring words about each other – that we are here, now. Work, trade, and discovering together the value of a piece of merchandise or work, negotiations, professional issues, political projects, voluntary work, practical problems – all situations that demand our tangible efforts – are ongoing encounters. Love and erotic encounters are also included here. Because we are ignorant of the answer to the situations we are in, we must be open, reveal ourselves and accept that we will be changed in the process. In the ongoing encounter, our preconceived notions of one another are replaced by disagreement, aggression, cooperation, quarrelling, hate, declarations of love, victories and defeats. Throughout the conflict, we demonstrate our fragility, our strengths and weaknesses – our humanity – through desperation, love and hate, sickness and need. The physical: touch, facial expression, body language, smell, nudges, head-shaking, handshakes, embracing and hugging, also forms a part of the ongoing encounter.

The roots of democratic processes are to be found in the harsh reality of the everyday world, in rivalries and conflicts of interest. The process forces us to take a step back from our self-image and look at ourselves through others’ eyes. We have to redefine who we are through negotiation in order to achieve a result. The ongoing encounter, real democracy, makes us tangible, capable of withstanding abstraction – the language of the power-elite.

As an immigrant, I will not relinquish the potential of the family as a legally recognised unit, the intermarriage and the financial security offered by this dual safety net. Not before I know that the permanent resident will approach me to offer his legal services in granting me justice and security. Not before I know that when I am in need my neighbour will give me food and shelter. As permanent resident I will not relinquish my wealth and egotism before the encounter with the immigrant has shown me that she has more to offer me than I have already: more warmth, more security, an enhanced perspective, greater wellbeing – a better life.

To go through conflicts together that are so elemental that both parties experience a dependency on each other, to realise that no one can come away the sole victor, to realise that we must live with the discomfort of dissension and diversity – this pain is the price of democracy.

We are integrated, permanent resident and immigrant – if the word still means anything – when we acknowledge each other as enemies, as worthy opponents, equal partners, friends, potential lovers, and spouses. When we work together to deal with the conflict in the here and now instead of listening to extremists who play to our fears. When the underprivileged permanent resident and the underprivileged immigrant are joined in political struggle, in achieving a common end. When we, permanent resident and immigrant, in the heat of battle, can accept expulsion because we know we cannot make it without each other – because we belong to the same culture.

We are integrated when our mutual reclaiming of the biosphere – of the economic and social space – becomes a part of our self-awareness, our self-narrative. We are integrated when we have become a creolised culture, a mixed culture. But we will not know this culture’s form or composition – until tomorrow.

Published 9 March 2006

Original in Norwegian
Translation by Nicole M. Fishlock
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 3/2006 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo)
© Erland Kiøsterud/Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) Eurozine

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