Worldview: After lost decades, can EU get immigration right?

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" Some political actors for some reason thought it wasn't proper to condemn. ... They thought [immigrants]... would ultimately integrate and respect the fundamental balance between communities. But an approach of tolerance has driven the situation to negative consequences. Saad Amrani, chief commissioner of the Brussels Police DepartmentAJC Global Forum

In this sour campaign season, where the immigration issue has turned so ugly, it's instructive to watch the European debate over migrants.

That debate should make Americans realize how lucky we are. As an immigration country, we have a proven ability to absorb newcomers, including those from Muslim countries. (And we could resolve the problem of illegals from south of the border if both parties cooperated.)

Europe, on the other hand, has failed to integrate generations of Muslim guest workers, many of whom still live in ghettos and are preyed on by radical Islamists. And, of course, the continent is now swamped with more than one million refugees fleeing Mideast conflicts. This flood, combined with several terror attacks, has helped fuel the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe.

What to do? I put this question to the chief commissioner of the Brussels Police Department, Saad Amrani, whom I met at the American Jewish Committee's 2016 Global Forum. (A Belgian of Moroccan descent, Amrani is the kind of European immigrant success story that rarely makes headlines.)

"Extremism is linked to the denial approach, to political correctness," the commissioner told me. "It is possible to talk about certain issues without stigmatizing, but that isn't happening." In other words, it is possible to take a hard look at the problems within Europe's migrant ghettos, including radicalization, without stigmatizing all Muslims or their religion.

Indeed, this must be done to prevent the same mistakes from being made with new refugees.

Amrani grew up in Morocco and emigrated with his family to Belgium. His was not a family of privilege: His father worked in a printing factory and his mother was a teacher, but they put all their resources into his education. But many Muslim immigrants never move beyond ghetto boundaries.

Yet, over the last 40 years, European countries paid little attention as their immigrant ghettos became permanent fixtures. They looked away as religious radicalism took root.

"Some political actors for some reason thought it wasn't proper to condemn," Amrani said. "They chose silence. They thought people with jobs, or on welfare, would ultimately integrate and respect the fundamental balance between communities. But an approach of tolerance has driven the situation to negative consequences."

European governments did nothing as money from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf poured in for mosques and imams who preached an intolerant salafist version of Islam. The internet magnified that message.

As the European Union expanded, said Amrani, local security officials like himself warned that "there would be design problems with migrants and population movements." This was even before thousands of European Muslim youths were enticed to fight for ISIS in Syria.

Meanwhile, ordinary Muslim immigrants who wanted to push back against the salafists had little recourse. "We have failed to empower positive mainstream Muslims in Europe," said Amrani at the AJC forum. "I worry about the silent majority locked down in the ghetto, subject to influences not from their own community."

An obvious way to help that silent majority would be to bolster education and services.

But the opposite is happening, as I saw in March when I visited Molenbeek, the neighborhood in Brussels that hid some of the jihadis who terrorized Paris. Residents told me their schools lacked texts and teachers.

"Molenbeek municipality is bankrupt, and will start cutting resources for education and services," Amrani complained. "The European Union could lead here. [Instead], it spends millions of euros on projects that are irrelevant."

Which leads to the question of what the European Union could and should do now.

"Migration has never been addressed by the European Union," Amrani said. "We have never agreed on a long-term approach."

That approach, he said, should start by making clear that newcomers must adapt to the culture of their new countries. "This is a question of values," the commissioner said. "Europe must make it clear: These are the rules of the game that you have to abide by.

"Among the refugees, they have no clue what [European] countries expect from them. We have portrayed a false El Dorado. We have 10 percent unemployment and haven't integrated those on our soil after 40 years."

Clearly there will be back-and-forth over what constitutes freedom of religion. But I think Amrani's point is well-taken: Less educated refugees from traditional cultures that repress women must accept the culture of their new homelands, or face serious consequences.

"If you say you won't respect a common set of rules and your religion is above the rules of the country, then you have trouble," said Amrani. The police chief cited an incident where, he said, a group of Afghan migrants beat up a Syrian woman in Germany because she was unveiled.

He would also like to see a "restructuring of the religious field" and a "building of European Islam." That means halting Saudi and Gulf funding of mosques and imams and training new imams in European schools of theology. This, of course, would be a long-term project. "We have lost 50 years," he said mournfully.

And he desperately wants to see the investment of major EU resources to help ordinary Muslim-European citizens, especially with decent schools in places such as Molenbeek. "We have to reach out to the mainstream silent majority that is scared," he said, "because those dysfunctional [jihadi] families drag others down."

He will soon embark on a joint project with Rutgers University to devise ways to protect vulnerable immigrant communities such as Molenbeek.

Yet, with the EU under strain, and Britain possibly poised to leave, Amrani worries that Europe will pay insufficient attention to integrating new Mideast migrants.

"We are about to make the same mistakes as the past 30 years," he warns urgently. "We need to reinvent our vision of living together.

"For God's sake, we mustn't repeat the same mistakes."

trubin@phillynews.com

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