The future of Europe’s Muslims 

Tarek Osman , Tuesday 27 Oct 2020

With calls to boycott French goods growing across the Islamic world, Tarek Osman insists that Europe’s Muslims must integrate better into their own societies before it is too late

The future of Europe’s Muslims
The future of Europe’s Muslims

French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks on Islam after the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown offensive cartoons of Muslims’ most revered Prophet Mohamed to his students in class, have sparked Muslim outrage, and a hashtag demanding the boycott of French products has been spreading on social media ever since. 

Paty, 47, was killed on 16 October outside Paris at the hands of an 18-year-old radical Islamist of Chechen origin, who was later shot dead by police. The terrorist murder soon sparked outrage across France and public rallies in support of freedom of expression, while Muslim leaders were quick to condemn the murder as a terrorist act that had nothing to do with Islam. 

Controversy, however, soon erupted after Macron’s comments against Islam and Muslims, accusing them of “separatism” and vowing not to act against cartoon depiction of the Prophet Mohamed. 

Macron’s further remarks that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, not only in France” were seen as provocative, and some Muslim leaders, including at Al-Azhar in Cairo, the world’s most-famous Muslim institution, slammed them as “racist.” Macron’s refusal to condemn the publication of caricatures and praise of Paty as “the face of the republic” soon resulted in a growing Muslim boycott of French goods in the Middle East, including Egypt.

However, the crisis also provoked a heated debate among European Muslims and how far they are integrated into their own societies. It is perhaps high time to re-visit the issue and to think of out-of-the-box solutions.

Europe’s pace is deliberately slow. Often a slow pace has an elegance to it. It matches Europe’s view of itself: as the epitome of human social experimentation.

But a slow pace can also be dangerous. It can make ordinary people gradually come to accept ideas and “realities” that, were they to be introduced more suddenly, would have elicited acute rejection.

This characteristic has been a key factor in the rise over the past two decades of far-right political parties on the European continent and in the UK. Slowly, what seemed to be shocking two decades ago has now come to be seen as normal.

For some, the far-right is a threat to the liberal-democratic order upon which post-World War II Europe was built. In this view, the rise of the far-right is not just a consequence of populism at a moment of economic weakness, but is a danger to what Europe has come to mean over the last few decades: a sanctuary of freedoms, political and civil rights, pluralism, and individuality, all anchored on, supposedly, deeply held lessons gained from colossal past mistakes that cost the lives of tens of millions of people.

Other Europeans see Europe differently. Wide sections of the European middle and especially the working classes regard Europe not as a political project situated in a historical context, but as a social order and a set of shared values and various yet relatively similar ways of living. Many Europeans will also not be able to clearly define what “European” means, even if they would be able to identify that which, for them, does not culturally fit their view of Europe.

For many, the rise of the far-right in Europe is a consequence — or reaction — to the entrance of new, and what they sense are culturally unfit, elements in European societies. In this view, these elements are particularly Muslim immigrants. 

For at least a decade now, these feelings about cultural fitness have been interacting with gloomy economic trends in large parts of Europe and have created strong nationalistic — and nativistic — political currents that see Muslims in Europe as a problem.

This is a different view from the one held by those who regard Muslims in Europe as a threat. The latter get most of their facts about Islam, Islamic history, and Muslim communities in Europe wrong. And generally they have antagonistic positions towards Islam and Muslims. 

Those who see Muslims in Europe as a cultural problem (not a threat) have no quarrels with Islam as a religion or with Muslims as individuals. However, they believe that the inherent values engendered within the largest segments of Muslim communities — whether inside or outside Europe — are incompatible with the ways of life, social norms, manners, and, indeed, values, of modern European societies. 

Those who invoke the rise of the far-right as a threat to Europe’s liberal democratic order typically see immigration as one problem among others and one of the complex challenges facing the European project over the past half century. And so they put immigration in perspective: about 15 million Muslims, the vast majority of them peaceful, are productive members of society in a continent of almost 500 million people. 

But for many Europeans (who may not be overly enamoured with the “European project”), immigration, and the specific concern of cultural fitness, is the single most important challenge they want addressed — and addressed now.

Some factors make such urgency understandable. After half a century of the slow but continued growth of Muslim communities in Europe, neither Europe nor the majority of European Muslims have figured out a workable and sustainable cultural and emotional link between the two sides. 

Many, especially in Francophone and Germanic Europe, continue to see Muslim communities as immigrants, outsiders who even if they will never leave will also never become part of “us”. For many such people, “us” is not a race-based collective but is the reservoir of society’s cultural heritage. 

On the other side, many European Muslims, especially the older generation that settled in Europe in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, were keen to acquire and to pass on to their children European passports, but abhorred the idea that those children would become “God forbid, Europeanised”.

The future of Europe’s Muslims
French rallies in support of beheaded history teacher Samuel Paty

CLAIMS: That emotional detachment — on both sides — is becoming more and more fraught today. Unlike their parents and grandparents, second and third-generation European Muslims are not overly sensitive to the apprehensions of the majority of their fellow citizens. 

They see the cities and towns they grew up in as their homes. They believe — and have solid legal, political, and moral reasons to back them up — that they have an equal claim to Europe as the ethnic Europeans do. 

But political correctness aside, that belief, confidence, and justified sense of entitlement are seen, from the other side, as another reason to address the “immigration problem” now. The segments of the European population that see most Muslims as culturally unfit outsiders want a strict and quick limit on the number of “immigrants”, and especially Muslims, who will be “at home in our” societies. 

It is easy to succumb to knee-jerk accusations of bigotry here. But that does not alter the fact that these feelings are increasingly one of the most powerful trends in European politics today.

The second reason justifying the urgency of the issue is that all the major integration and assimilation strategies of the past few decades have failed. Time was supposed to bring about a meeting of minds, values, and lifestyles. For most Europeans, this meant that the Muslims in their midst were expected to gradually discard the world-views of their original countries and to adopt the values of the societies they had chosen to come to. 

Despite the cultural condescension inherent in that view, it was reasonable to assume that second and third-generation European Muslims would indeed transcend many cultural barriers and internalise a lot of the values and manners of the societies in which they had grown up. Some did. Many demonstrated the classic desire for success characteristic of minorities all over the world, and so we see in Europe a lot of doctors, lawyers, and professors (especially in scientific disciplines) of Islamic background. But the majority, even in the second and third-generations, did not internalise the values of their new societies.

This was partly the result of the fact that most of the Muslim migrants who came to Europe in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s belonged to the lower middle, working, and poorer classes of their original societies. Their exposure to their home countries’ experiences of modernisation from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries was limited. And so they were particularly susceptible to the cultural shock of being introduced to extremely modern, secular, liberal, and individualistic societies.

It was also partly the fault of the European elite that wanted them to come as cheap labour, especially in the two decades after World War II, but never invested in enabling them to integrate and assimilate. This was understandable in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1980s and 1990s, it had become one among several confirmations that many in Europe’s elite defined Europe very narrowly. That elite failed to imagine a European norm that transcended the foundational culture.

The third reason is that most of the “solutions” that European Muslim intellectuals have put forward have limited resonance amongst most European Muslims. These solutions delve into Islamic theology to prove both to the wider European audience that Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion that has no quarrels with secular modernity and to European Muslims that they can find within the recesses of Islamic jurisprudence flexible answers to any dilemmas they might have about being Muslims living in today’s Europe. 

However, many of these interpretations are selective and can easily be refuted. But the real flaw of this approach is that it assumes that a significant percentage of Muslims are waiting for philosophically rich discussions of centuries-old concepts put forward by scholars they have hardly heard of but who supposedly have the ability to forge interpretations of what being a European Muslim means or how he or she ought to see his or her identity and live his or her life.

This is ridiculous, and yet a cottage industry has grown up out of that illusion.

In fact, these very “solutions” exacerbate the problem. Approaching the place of European Muslims in their societies through theology, even if by the most enlightened Islamic scholars, entrenches the distinction between Muslims and the rest of the population. It is also misguided. It frames the question in terms of how to reconcile the most dominant interpretations — which are far from being the most enlightened — of 14 centuries old religious rules with the norms and values of the most liberal and modern group of societies in human history. This framing addresses a different problem.

Then, of course, there is militant Islamism. Whether in an organised way or through the acts of “lone wolves”, the more violent Islamists attack Europe, the more difficult the positioning of European Muslims will be. The majority of Europeans will not condemn their fellow Muslim citizens as guilty by association (though increasingly some do). But feelings of unease and anguish will deepen.

Economics is also not helping. The declining competitiveness of most European economies, increasing joblessness, and deteriorating living standards are fueling anxiety in Europe. Many in Europe are losing the resources and patience they once had when dealing with the complexities of immigration.

The changing nature of European politics exacerbates the problem. Populism has already established its presence in Europe. The lessons from the 1930s and 1940s are fading away. The far-right is becoming more powerful across Europe. And it is likely that soon many European societies will start to use legislation and political measures to address what many in their electorates consider to be “the problem of Islamic migration”.

Top-down solutions will not work. European Muslims have no choice but to take ownership of the problem. The widespread abdication of responsibility that many European Muslims have towards their own future will give rise to colossal challenges, and potentially also threats, to their presence in Europe.


STARTING POINTS: Three points could be a start in the search for more viable solutions. 

One, Muslims and non-Muslims must stop focusing on Islam. There are at least half a dozen major interpretations of the key theological foundations of this 1,500-year-old religion. And for each there are different views on how to reconcile that interpretation with secular modernity. 

Anyone with a decent command of Islamic history (which spanned three continents and vastly different political and socio-economic epochs) can pick and choose from a stupendously rich heritage to forge an argument for or against “Islam’s compatibility” with secular modernity. But all of these arguments are, by default, selective and subjective. None will be the final word. And it will not make any difference, in terms of credibility, or resonance within European Muslim communities, if some European, Arab, or Islamic governments endorse the most flexible and liberal, or the most austere, of these arguments.

Two, focus on Islamism. Islamism is neither good nor bad. It is the different manifestations of the myriad of interpretations of Islam in politics, social dynamics, and identity. Invariably, these interpretations and their manifestations are functions of socio-economic and country-specific circumstances. Local cultures play a crucial role in shaping and developing their own forms of Islamism, which can be refined and transcendent, or formulaic and practical, or base and violent, or many other forms. 

Only through understanding these local versions of Islamism (in different European societies) will serious and practical ways forward emerge. Almost certainly for these new ways to be implementable, they will have to come from within local Muslim communities.

Three, apply such emerging ideas through working with the local civil society, not state vehicles, religious authorities, or political parties. The objective is to get the small educational, occupational, entertainment, and other social organisations that serve local Muslim communities to interact with their counterparts that serve the rest of society. 

“Communities” is the key word here. Hundreds of thousands of European Muslims have rich, varied, and multi-faceted interactions with their wider societies, but many of those are at the upper (affluent) levels of European Muslim communities. Working with local civil society organisations will not only expand Muslims’ realm of interactions with their wider milieus, but will also channel those interactions away from top-down structures (including political elites) that have nothing to offer and whose interventions are likely to complicate these community-based interactions. 

Gradually, significant percentages of young European Muslims (primarily at the lower socio-economic levels of Muslim communities) will build and gain trust, become less detached, and experience commonalities with their countrymen and women. This is a key basis of any collective identity. As simple as this might sound, it has not taken place on any major scale in almost any European country with a sizeable Islamic presence.

Community leaders and financially successful Muslims (the tens of thousands of high-earning professionals in Europe) should support artistic work and initiatives in particular. Because of many of the background factors highlighted above, the first generation of European Muslims over the past 50 years made a limited contribution to mainstream European art, philosophy, and culture in general. 

This is changing, though at a very slow pace. But the vast majority of emerging Muslim European artists tend to focus on amusement and farce, for example stand-up comedians, at the expense of anything more ambitious. In addition, over the past two decades the vaguely defined sensibilities of Muslims, and especially European Muslims, have set them apart as a group that should be protected from freedom of expression. All of this has meant that, despite half a century of being a component of some of the largest and most dynamic European societies, Muslims have not yet left a mark on Europe’s contemporary collective consciousness. 

This is particularly saddening given that the presence, integration, and future of European Muslims have become key issues in Europe’s socio-politics. This is why Muslim communities should strongly encourage their young people’s artistic endeavours, experimentation, and entrepreneurship. Art — in its broadest definition — has always been the most effective and noblest medium through which the “other” manages to shed layers of estrangement and through which the “rest” can see the depth beneath the veneer.

All this will not magically solve the problems that have bedeviled the situations of European Muslims. But they could mitigate the increasing challenges. Empty political talk that eschews real problems, bigotry playing on populist tendencies and fears, and rhetoric steeped in theology will all yield nothing, as has been the case over the last few decades.

If European Muslims fail to take ownership of their future in their societies, they may find themselves in an acute predicament and sooner than many of them might think.

The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).


*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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