By Hans Blokland

In 2015, roughly 1,1 million refugees came to Germany. About 428,500 of these people are Syrians. Refugees from Iraq (13%) and Afghanistan (10%) form the second and third largest group. For 2016, the prospects are not much lower.

As for numerous other Europeans, many Germans fear the “otherness” of the current refugees. They fear that in the end the refugees, especially people from Arabic origin, do not share fundamental Western views on, among others things, gender, homosexuality, tolerance, freedom, pluralism or democracy. There is a widespread angst that, connected to this different worldview, integration will fail, “parallel societies” will develop and a trend of religious and political radicalization will begin. The terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 are seen as indicators of this, as are the young male mobs assaulting women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and Hamburg, or the more than 5000 European youngsters that have joined the ISIS (among them about 1600 French, 800 Germans and 500 Belgians).

At the same time, there is a widespread anxiety that the fear of immigrants leads to a radicalization among ethnic Germans and other Europeans, ending in discrimination, intolerance, violence, and support for right-wing populist political groups and parties. In Germany the number of attacks on refugee homes reached almost a 1000 in 2015 (up from about 200 in 2014 and 70 in 2013). The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is soaring in the polls and is getting more extreme by the day, also pushing other political parties to the right. And Pegida-supporters (“Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes“) are marching the streets not just in Dresden and Leipzig, but even in Prague, Warsaw, Amsterdam and Dublin, listening to hate speeches that until recently had been inconceivable and also illegal.

Comparable developments can be witnessed in almost all European countries, including those countries that refused to take in significant numbers of refugees. Both trends of radicalization feed on each other, both create an atmosphere of fear and intolerance, and endanger civic society and democracy all over Europe.


Knowing and understanding

We do not really know to what extent and in which ways the people from, among others, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq fleeing the terror in their home countries indeed have different values, ideas or worldviews than “us”.

To further integration and to counter ethnocentrism, radicalization and extremism, both among natives and migrants, it seems first of all absolutely necessary to know who the newcomers are: what are their needs, wants, beliefs, visions, values, norms, fears, dreams, aspirations, expectations? (1) What do we have in common, where do we differ?

It is never easy to get answers to these kinds of questions, even when the research involves social scientists researching people from their own culture; a problem only exacerbated when these same researchers research people from different civilizations, people that, on top of everything else are frequently traumatized, scared and distrustful. Nevertheless, every step towards understanding, and every successful policy, starts with a minimum of knowledge about the people concerned.

What goes for the refugees, also goes for the people scared for an “Untergang des Abendlandes”, a collapse allegedly caused by, what Dutch populist Geert Wilders called, a “Tsunami” of refugees believing in another (but related) God than the one some of Europe believe in. Are these right-wing voters and demonstrators really deeply concerned about the potential undermining of the European ideas on democracy, freedom, pluralism and tolerance, or are they, consciously or unconsciously, motivated or driven in other ways? Which values, ideas, fears, hopes, frustrations do they have? Are their ideas on the good life and the good society really that different than the ones of the refugees they refuse to welcome?

We do not really know either. Social scientists, politicians and journalists most of the time have been taken by surprise by movements like the AfD, Pegida and Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party For Freedom, the party of Geert Wilders in Holland) or by the appearance of “Wutbürger” in general. Not knowing where the frustration and agitation in the end comes from, they also do not know how to react to it and how to cope with it. Other than just describing, repeating and ultimately boosting the “opinions” that right-wing voters’ voices when asked in a survey, political scholars and politicians should dig deeper, and politics should consequently act on the findings.

Often it is not an exchange and discussion of values and visions that is needed to further mutual understanding, respect and integration, but just an exchange of factual information. Why did the refugees leave their homes and countries? What are the situations in their countries of origin? What are their aspirations in their new home countries? What do they hope for their children? (2) What exactly are the native Europeans demonstrating against immigration afraid of? What is their social situation? Understanding and tolerance often start with knowledge.


Debating values

Above all else, we should start an open dialogue between natives and migrants on those values and views many members of both groups, rightly or wrongly, feel endangered. European integration-courses and projects currently concentrate on learning the language, learning the daily operations of our society, getting a house and a job. This is all very important, but considering the trends now observable, not enough. Round-table discussions on fundamental themes like democracy, pluralism, tolerance, religion, gender and homosexuality are needed, discussions in which natives and migrants openly and critically discuss all these topics, of fundamental importance to all involved.

In other words, we need an ambitious venture in public deliberation.

Evidently, the European participants should not enter these deliberations with a superior, paternalistic, Eurocentric perspective: let us tell you what to think and how to organize your life (otherwise we will expel you). This arrogance can only backfire. We can learn something valuable from almost all other cultures. Our Western civilization went wrong in important ways, destroying not just the environment but also key conditions of human well-being (Lane 2000), and it is time to correct the course of blind rationalization we have taken (Blokland 2006, 2011). Other cultures like the ones of the Middle-East could help us here.

picture by jeanbaptisteparis

Yet, there are ideas on gender, homosexuality, democracy, pluralism, and tolerance – ideas also grounded in German, European and international law – that have a well thought-out, plausible, scholarly basis. A motivation of many refugees to come to Europe in the first place is exactly the existence of open societies based on these ideas. To give up on them would be a mindless “open mindedness”. There is a pluralist midway between absolute cultural relativism and absolute ethnocentrism, and this midway is what we have to respect as our common ground (Berlin 1997, Taylor 1992, cf. Blokland 1997, 1999, 2011). We can reason about values, perspectives and visions. Moreover, European democracies have extensive experience in doing this, also regularly in such deliberative ways that understanding and insight are furthered, and not conflict. Wilders, Le Pen, Petry, (or Trump) are the exception, not the norm.

With scholars ranging from John Stuart Mill (1859) and Karl Mannheim (1940), to Isaiah Berlin (1988), Jürgen Habermas (1981), Robert Dahl (1989) and James Fishkin (1995) we also believe that ideas and values only stay alive and vibrant when we discuss them in the open. A democracy that has lost its confidence to discuss its most fundamental values can never survive.

Therefore, a probably unexpected but very welcome outcome of an open exchange with the refugees coming to Europe could be a better understanding of our own European cultural tradition and identity. The open discussion with representatives of other cultures about concepts like democracy, pluralism, tolerance, equality (also between the sexes) and freedom – concepts that many see as constitutive for our European identity – will broaden our own minds, will relativize, but also revitalize our own cultures. It could help us to trace back and to redefine the European identity that should form the fundament of the European Union, a fundament needed also by economic projects and that has been neglected so far.


An Ambitious venture in public deliberation

The project that we have to enter in Europe presupposes answers to vital questions; questions that political theory and science can help in answering. In the upcoming blogs we will address the issues at hand. To name a few: How can we debate values in a fruitful way? When we do not believe that all ethical questions can only have one correct answer and that all correct answers can be organized in one harmonious, consistent system, do we then have no other alternative than moral and cultural “Multikulti” relativism? Or is there a pluralist midway? What is the meaning of tolerance and how does it differ from indifference? How to adequately frame deliberative discussion and the outcomes of that?

On top of that we need answers on predominantly empirical questions. What are the (social) psychological conditions of a fruitful debate? Are there existing best-practices in deliberation? How were they organized? What were the outcomes? In the last two decades we have studied in social science the conditions under which discussions on values, visions and worldviews can be fertile. We have a rich literature on deliberation. In the public deliberation now needed we should make use of the available insights and also improve on these.

The urgency seems greater now than ever before. 



(1) As Petra Bahr (Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung) wrote in Die Zeit „[..] wenn eine Million Menschen aus überwiegend muslimischen Ländern nun in Deutschland eine Heimat finden sollen, gehört ein nüchterner, kritischer Blick auf den Islam dazu. Genauer gesagt: auf die konfessionellen Prägungen, die sozialen Praktiken, die Auslegungsformen – die diejenigen mitbringen, die zu uns kommen. Wir brauchen eine genauere Kenntnis der religiösen Topografie der Herkunftsländer. Wir brauchen präzisere Beschreibungen der kulturellen, politischen, familiären und auch religiösen Ordnungsmuster. Denn durch sie werden Ideale von Geschlecht, Hierarchie und Autorität vermittelt.“
(2) Other than many natives might expect, migrants have higher expectations, aspirations and wants with regard to the education of their children than the Germans themselves, a survey of the Bertelsmann Stiftung in 2011 among Turkish and Russian migrants and Germans showed.

• Many thanks, as always, to Sarah Coughlan for her comments and editing.



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