LONDON -- Just as it did in America, immigration dominated the headlines in Europe this summer. In the States, we had the whole ground zero mosque debate
, Pastor Terry Jones threatening to burn Koran
s, and the seemingly endless speculation over whether President Obama really is a Muslim
(or a cactus
Over here in Europe, things were equally lively. Sweden, long famous for its tolerance, elected a far-right, anti-immigrant party to its parliament for the first time in history. A prominent official at Germany's central bank
was sacked for his provocative statements about Islamic immigrants in Germany. And then there's the ongoing saga of the Roma
, France's itinerant gypsy population, who have been forcibly expelled from their refugee camps by President Sarkozy's government. In the words of my colleague, Sarah Wildman, the two continents now share a "kinship of intolerance
Well, strap on your seat belts, because things are about to get a whole lot worse. This week, the British government revealed that up to 20 Britons are training in Pakistan to launch suicide attacks in London
. Two British brothers -- along with eight Germans -- were also discovered to be at the heart of a "Mumbai-style" shooting spree planned on the UK, France and Germany
. This comes on the heels of an announcement by the head of the British Security Services (MI5) last week that Britain faces a growing threat of terrorist attacks
from UK residents trained in Somalia (as well as from dissident factions in Northern Ireland.) These would-be terrorists are believed to be of various origins, including Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and West African.
To have so many terrorist plots brought to the surface in quick succession (on top of heightened terrorist threat levels in both France
) is going to make a European population that's already "jumpy" about immigrants' ability to assimilate
that much more anxious. It's the proverbial match brought to the powder keg.
Because it's one thing to worry that immigrants are taking "European" jobs
or undermining women's freedom with their traditional dress
or -- as in the case of the Roma -- constituting a social "nuisance" because they beg for money
on the streets. However reasonable those fears may or may not be, they can -- and do -- have policy responses.
But that's a far cry from worrying that immigrants "want to kill us" which is -- fairly or not -- the leap that will now be made in some corners of Europe, particularly with respect to Muslim immigrants
. Because a threat to one's physical safety and security is a whole different kettle of fish than a perceived threat to one's economic livelihood or social norms.
This most recent rash of incidents also raises an interesting set of questions about what constitutes an "immigrant." However you feel about the French government's treatment of the Roma, they really are illegal immigrants who come to France fleeing discrimination
in their native Bulgaria and Romania, and then stay in France long beyond what EU law allows.
In contrast, many of the Britons implicated in the most recent round of plots are so-called "home grown terrorists
" who hold UK passports. Like the 7/7 attackers who bombed the London transport system five years ago, these people are likely second-generation immigrants who were born and bred in Britain. They grew up and went to school here, and somewhere along the way, got radicalized
But is there a statute of limitations on how long you need to be somewhere before you are considered native? Can people still be immigrants -- in their own minds or those of their fellow citizens -- even if they were born in the (foreign?) country they despise -- or which despises them?
That's an interesting set of conceptual questions which I'm sure anthropologists will ponder for years to come. In the meantime, the immigration "problem" on the ground in Europe is a very real and very pressing. And I can't see it getting better anytime soon.