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Cultural, Religious Discord Shades European Need for Immigrants

A shrinking population is forcing the continent to accept diversity, but many fear a growing clash between Western and Islamic values.

April 28, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Europe is buying more coffins than cribs.

The continent faces a shrinking population and other harsh demographic changes that threaten the welfare state unless it finds more foreign workers in coming decades. But its economic need for newcomers is at odds with its skepticism of embracing an angry and often disillusioned immigrant Muslim population.

Unlike the congressional battle over immigration in the United States, dealing mainly with Latinos and their right to work, the furor in Europe centers on cultural differences and anxieties over radical Islam. Whereas the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, Europe historically is a continent of nationalism, where falling birthrates and rapidly aging populations are forcing it to accept diversity.

"The political parties in Germany know the country needs immigrants, especially well-educated ones," said Bulent Arslan, head of the Turkish Forum for the conservative Christian Democratic Union party. "But the general population doesn't accept this fact."

Germany has one of the world's lowest birthrates: Fewer babies were born in 2005 than in the last year of World War II. The country will need 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants every year to sustain its population. A recent United Nations report estimated that by 2050, Germany will need 3.5 million working-age immigrants each year to maintain its population ratio and fund pension, healthcare and other programs for the elderly.

The U.N. survey found that even allowing for immigration, the European population will drop by 2.5 million a year by the middle of the century. In the United States, immigrants are helping births outnumber deaths by about 1.7 million a year, although this will decline to about 500,000 a year by 2050, according to the U.N.

The question in Europe quickly turns from one of numbers to one of Western values -- a concept not fully articulated by Europeans themselves, but often used to protest the loosening of immigration policies. The Muslim population has doubled to about 15 million since the 1980s, and many on the continent view the religious head scarf, arranged marriages and conservative imams as challenges to democracy and equality.

Cultural unease intensified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and was further heightened by the bombings in Madrid and London and the furor over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Some Muslim leaders have begun urging Europe's largest minority to do more to integrate and understand that Islamic principles -- despite the teachings of fundamentalists -- are not jeopardized by Western society.

"Religion has become an issue," said Rainer Ohliger, an analyst with Network Migration in Europe. "Religion was not an issue for immigrants in the 1980s. Then, it was social integration, housing and welfare.

"Why did it change? In Germany you could see the echo effect of arranged marriages and other traditions practiced in Turkey. Then you had 9/11, and all of a sudden the Muslim religion was perceived as a danger, although in Germany that perception started earlier," Ohliger said.

In 2000, Germany made it easier for those who had lived in the country for at least eight years to become citizens. But new Muslim immigrants, who come from nations as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yemen and adhere to varying degrees of religious devotion, face tougher measures. The German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg now gives a 30-question oral test designed to filter Islamic extremists; other states may follow suit.

In the Netherlands, where citizens were shaken by the killing of a Dutch film director by an Islamic radical, a new residency test requires immigrants to watch a video depicting Dutch life that includes two men kissing and topless women at a beach. The intent is to show applicants, especially Muslims, that they must accept Europe's liberal and secular lifestyle.

Britain and the European Union are also considering exams and "integration contracts" for new arrivals.

France has one of Europe's higher birthrates and a stable immigrant population, but doesn't have enough jobs for the 100,000 foreigners, many of them unskilled, who arrive each year. Unemployment and anger over discrimination fueled weeks of riots that swept the nation late last year.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy wants a strict immigration bill that rewards foreigners "whose personality and talent are considered assets for France's development and influences."

The bill, now in Parliament, would make it more difficult for families to bring unskilled relatives to France. It would also require language training for new arrivals and end the policy of automatically giving illegal immigrants a residency permit if they've lived in France for at least 10 years.

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