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Eye on the News

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt
Europe’s Battle over Symbols
Multiculturalism has created separate societies within the same territory.
February 12, 2013

Last summer, the director of Norway’s Trondheim Museum of Art, Pontus Kyander, decided that the museum should no longer fly the Norwegian flag. He argued that a nation’s flag is no longer a collective symbol that unites all citizens. On the contrary, it was divisive—rallying only ethnic Norwegians and Christians, while excluding the country’s newer inhabitants, who often profess a different faith. Kyander suggested that other symbols must be found, which could unite people across religions, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities.

What if Kyander is right that no common cultural glue exists, not only in Norway, but also in other European countries—and they eventually break up into separate nations, no longer defined by territory, but by religious and moral values? In such split societies, the original populations would live with their customs and norms, separated from others—usually Muslim immigrants—who inhabit a world of their own. What symbol could incarnate the values that keep such distinct communities together? And what kind of community, if any, is left in a multiculturalist society that no longer shares culture, religion, nationality, or language?

The battle over symbols in Europe has intensified in recent years. Ethnically distinct groups increasingly make demands that they be able to practice their own customs and receive special dispensations for particular religious practices. Muslim organizations in Norway have gone so far as to demand special police uniforms for female officers; special opening hours for public swimming pools dedicated exclusively to Muslim women; special hours in fitness centers; special bathing curtains for Muslim boys to protect them from being exposed to other children; special diets in schools; special prayer rooms in airports; and interpretation facilities in all public institutions for those who don’t speak the nation’s official language. These demands are on the agenda in many European countries. Building on this self-inflicted separation from majority society, Muslims seek, through family arrangements, the introduction of spouses from their home countries. In this way, they establish a de facto separate nation within the new homeland. The effort leads to massive social problems, including unemployment and segregation in schools and other institutions—and it has prompted official pushback.

To much fanfare, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy prohibited the wearing of burqas in France in 2010. A ban on the use of religious symbols in schools and other public institutions was already introduced in 2004 under President Chirac. A year earlier, after a referendum, Switzerland introduced a prohibition against the construction of minarets. Many liberal Swiss citizens voted for the prohibition as a protest against what they saw as the Muslim minority’s illiberal practices. They sought to force a debate about taboo subjects—specifically, about what religious beliefs should receive special privileges in their democracy. But more generally, fearful of being called “Islamophobic,” European media shy away from discussing these issues, especially the bigotry of some Muslim norms—violent animosity against homosexuals, for instance, or the prohibition for Muslim youth to outmarry from their community.

Whether or not he realizes it, Pontus Kyander is opening up a new discussion about multiculturalism—the most radical attempt ever made to let people live in separate worlds within the same political territory. When an outside cultural group, like Muslims, seeks official sanction for its segregation from the mainstream, the clumsy counterreaction often advocates repression of Islamic cultural symbols. Pontus Kyander’s flag ban represents a strike against the counterstrikes. Political correctness makes honest discussion impossible, and thus both sides resort to censorship. One side bans minarets, the other prohibits the national flag, while neither dares address the real problem: whether Islamic dogmatism is compatible with human rights and democracy. And so Europe’s battle over symbols continues.

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