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Lakhous Delivers Messenger Lecture on Europe's "Immigration Failure"

Lakhous Messenger

Bilingual author Dr. Amara Lakhous, CIES’ 2014-15 holder of the Luigi Einaudi Chair in European and International Studies, delivered two of his three Messenger Lectures on October 21 and 22.

The headline lecture, taking place in Kaufman Auditorium on October 22, provided Dr. Lakhous’ answer to the question of, “Why is Europe Failing at the Issue of Immigration?”  In his lecture Dr. Lakhous argued that immigration, particularly from the Muslim world, has become a “bargaining chip” in politics and the media.  “If the immigrant is a ‘bargaining chip,’ it’s not hard to enlarge the metaphor by saying that politicians and journalists are merchants, and citizens are simply customers.”

Dr. Lakhous proceeded to identify four causes of the “strategy of transforming immigrants into bargaining chips.”

First, Dr. Lakhous examined the recent success of the extreme right in Europe in politicizing the issue of immigration.  “Today there is no substantial difference between the extreme right and the right or center right…For a long time it was possible to confine racist behavior to the political, cultural, and social fringe.  The racist was excluded, a person not credible, rude, aggressive, and above all, a jester who evoked laughter.  Today the racist has been rehabilitated and has become the standard of courage, the enemy of conformism, a successful politician, a trendy and fashionable intellectual.”

Second, Dr. Lakhous pointed to confusion between the concepts of “immigrant” and “refugee.”  He asserted that “while state constitutions across the EU guarantee the rights of refugees, most countries are not respecting their own laws… International constitutions and conventions must be respected without subterfuge. Every foreigner arriving in Europe must be permitted to present a request for asylum. This is a constitutional right. The commission appointed to examine the requests will then establish whether a person has the right or not to refugee status and protection. For as long as such a law exists there is no choice but to apply it, until such time as the law is changed or repealed.”

Third, there exists “a negative discontinuity within the framework of knowledge of Islam in the West.”  “We continue to see on TV, improvised experts, with no knowledge of languages spoken in the Muslim world (especially Arabic) and who have never attended courses on Islam. They do however publish books with great publishing houses and are invited to speak on television as experts on Islamic subjects.”  Dr. Lakhous attributed this negative discontinuity to a lack of leadership amongst European political and media elites.  “True leaders have visions, projects for the future; they are not just ‘playing it by ear’ or ‘navigare a vista’ as we say in Italian.”

Fourth, Islamic identity is strong and demands visibility within European society.  “To continue considering Islam as a problem for public order, as it is the case in Europe, has serious consequences. I think that the idea of ​​an Islamization of Europe is unrealistic, and serves only to fuel Islamophobia. To Europeanize Islam, however, is possible because the Muslim religion is a culture and, like any culture, it is subject to change and can adapt itself to new contexts.”

Although Dr. Lakhous concluded his talk by stating that he believes that Europe is adopting a “bad model” of immigration, he ended optimistically with an observation that the current the current situation in Europe “stimulates a spiritual reflection and establishes a division between the private and public sphere.   Many Arab Muslim immigrants have in fact understood that the democratic aspect is not only compatible and necessary, but also indispensable for reformulating the great issues of Islam and reconciling religious beliefs with the conquests of modernity, such as the respect of human rights.”

Prior to his lecture on immigration Dr. Lakhous visited Cornell’s West Campus.  There he delivered his first Messenger Lecture as a speaker during the Hans Bethe House’s Bethe Ansatz speaker series, which takes place every Wednesday evening during the semester in House Professor Scott MacDonald’s living room.  Entitled “Becoming a Writer: The Story of My Dream,” Dr. Lakhous’ conversation with the mostly undergraduate audience challenged students to “declare their dreams publicly” and “delete the impossible” from their vocabulary.  “There is no talent, only hard work; lots and lots of hard work.”

The Messenger Lectures were established in 1924 by a gift from Dr. Hiram Messenger, a Cornell alumni and longtime instructor of mathematics, to “provide a course of lectures on the Evolution of Civilization for the special purpose of raising the moral standard of our political, business, and social life.”  Previous Messenger Lecturers have included luminaries such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said. 

Dr. Lakhous was awarded a Messenger Lectureship for the 2015-16 academic year after being nominated by Christopher Way, Director of CIES and Associate Professor of Government, and Gail Holst-Warhaft, Director of the Mediterranean Studies Initiative.