Europe and its Muslim population: recent history and the task that remains

The Paris Grand Mosque. Photo by LPLT via Wikimedia  CC 4.0 International

Committed Christians understand what it means to live in a secularised society

If we are to take stock of the Muslim presence in Europe and likely future trends, it is helpful to retrace the course of the last fifty years. As far as the European countries with the oldest migration history are concerned, this timespan can be divided into four periods. I should say straightaway that I undertake this exercise with a greater feeling of pessimism than I used to have, perhaps partly because I have recently been focusing primarily on the jihadist phenomenon.(1) Having said that, I do not want to drown the positive aspects out, since they, too, exist. My hope is, rather, that this position may serve to let the challenges we are called to respond to emerge more clearly.

From Immigration to Separation

The first period dates back to the now distant 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, when Europe needed manpower and Muslim immigrants met with a positive reception. This period should not be idealized, however, because adverse reactions were already manifesting. They were based on the fear—one recurring with every wave of migration—that immigrants were taking jobs from natives. In the case of France, moreover, the Muslim immigration occurred against the backdrop of the after-effects of the Algerian war. We can talk of a happy period nevertheless, because Muslim immigrants were socialized in advance to a Western modernity to which they aspired and they did not define themselves on the basis of their religious affiliation. For example, the Muslims I knew between the late 1960s and the early 1970s did not describe themselves as Muslims but, rather, Moroccans, Turks, Rifians, etc.

This first phase was followed by another (running from the end of the 1970s to the mid-1990s), which I would call a “period of absorbable difficulties.” That is to say, the first problems began to appear but it was thought that they would be resolved over time, as had happened with other migration processes. The context was complicated by the oil crises of 1973 and 1978 and then by a wave of migration that immediately had to reckon with unemployment. This is the period in which the Muslim population began fully to embed itself within the social fabric of European countries but, at the same time, it was marked by what has come to be called “Islamic awakening.” Khomeini seized power in Shiite Iran in 1979 but the Sunni world was also in turmoil. The awakening was a general one, but encouraged by certain states in particular. In Saudi Arabia, King Faisal (r. 1964–1975) put into effect the project he had already worked out in the early 1960s, while he was still a prince: to make the kingdom the hegemon of the Muslim world through the Wahhabi doctrine’s spread. The part played by other countries, such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Pakistan, was also important, however. During this phase, greater freedom of action was accorded to movements and organizations that had previously been countered or even banned (such as the Muslim Brothers, for example).

This shift had repercussions on the situation of Muslim immigrants. With my own eyes, I saw them pull Islam out of their suitcases and mobilize for the construction of prayer halls and then genuine mosʼes for worship and the teaching of the Qur’an. Indeed, they knew they would never return to their countries of origin and felt they had to pass on to their children something they considered ever more central: the Islamic heritage. This triggered not only a widespread religious demand but also the first controversies: the one regarding the Islamic veil (which, at the end of the 1980s, became a requirement codified by the religious movements’ leaders) or the dispute about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and, therefore, freedom of expression. The first forms of radicalism and jihadism also emerged, although these were still tied to the movements active in their countries of origin (the typical example is support for the Armed Islamic Group in the Algerian civil war). At the time, it was argued that these phenomena were the residual expressions of circumscribed minorities and that the difficulties would resolve naturally. More specifically, it was thought (and I, too, thought this) that it was a question of generations. This reading was further supported by the two perspectives used to interpret Islam’s presence in Europe: the multiculturalist one and the interculturalist one. According to the former, Islam is a culture like any other and, as such, must be respected. According to the interculturalist vision, the problems would be overcome by applying the logic of communication between cultures. These approaches (and the multiculturalist one, in particular) must be credited with having called a monolithic Eurocentrism into question. It must be conceded, however, that they do not allow (and will not allow) one to think about or tackle the encounter with the Muslim world appropriately.

The third period is the one of restless adaptation and unresolved issues beginning to go into a downward spiral. These are the years stretching from 1995 to 2011–2012. So I am not interpreting September 11 as a radical break. I see it, rather, as the epiphenomenon of a process that was already under way. During this phase, thorny problems that had already appeared became ever more crucial. The socio-economic context continued to be problematic and, from this point of view, it is not erroneous to explain Islamic radicalism through the economic variable, for all that the latter should not be absolutized. One Muslim generation succeeded another: by now we have already reached the third and it is composed of fully European citizens, rather than “children of immigrants.”

“The return of Islam” was fully realised during this period. This is why, right from the start, I found myself disagreeing(2) with my colleagues Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, who were talking about “Islamism’s decline”(3) or the “failure of political Islam.”(4) I, on the other hand, have always argued just what I have observed i.e. the victory of political Islam. Certainly, its success did not take the form of an “Islamic Revolution” like in Iran, but it is witnessed by the fact that, at the end of the 1990s, no political regime in the Muslim world managed to legitimate itself without making concessions to Islam at the symbolic, institutional and legal levels.

One of the decisive factors in this success story is Wahhabism’s change of name: it began to call itself Salafism. Thus it ceased to be a minority doctrine that was limited to the Arabian Peninsula and became “universalizable,” transforming itself into a hegemonic vision of Islam. From the 1990s onwards, this vision was to spread within Europe as well, intensely socializing primarily the younger (second and third) generations by means of an intelligent policy of production of the intellectual elites. Encouraged by the Saudi regime, such spread was achieved, in particular, through the founding of new universities and the restructuring of higher Islamic education along the model of a certified progression (master’s, doctorate, etc.). Furthermore, university sections dedicated to non-Arabophones were created, with scholarships for European and Asian students who went to study in the Arab countries. From the mid-1990s onwards, these students were to return to their country of provenance and become leaders in their turn. This was to contribute to producing a Salafism that has been called quietist (in the sense that it claims not to be violent or jihadist) but that has a very strong normative and ritual dimension. In the face of this phenomenon, there was an observable regression in the other visions of Islam and in the respective leaders, who could not boast an equally structured education and were unable to compete with the Salafis’ activism. The latter, as I was able to observe personally when I began my research on Brussels,(5) were in fact very engaged in the various districts and in the parks where drugs were pushed: in short, they were truly militant. The effects of this growth were to be seen after the 2000s, when Muslim youth began to distance itself from a social context that it considered to be impure. The same process was to occur in schools, where teachers who explained the theory of evolution or who taught French by making their students listen to songs found themselves facing pupils supporting fixist doctrines on the creation or according to whom it was forbidden to listen to music. In this new context, the Muslim religious universe experienced a sort of turning inwards and relations between young Muslims and young non-Muslims became increasingly difficult. Schools sought to prevent this isolation as much as possible but could not do much in the cases where strong demographic concentrations resulted in classrooms of almost exclusively Muslim pupils. In this sense, what happened in the Brussels sports clubs is emblematic: these processes of separation made it increasingly difficult for them to create mixed teams of Muslims and non-Muslims.

Alongside Salafism, there also co-exist political visions of Islam. These attract smaller numbers, since young Muslims, like all young people, are not very politicized. They are equally influential, however, primarily thanks to the success they achieve in certain countries. They have proved decisive for the building of a Muslim socio-political identity, by virtue of which it is not enough to be proud of one’s religious affiliation since one must also have the power to build a political community and make demands in Islam’s name. It is not by chance that, during these same years, Malcolm X became a point of reference for young people and the icon of a leadership that resists and refuses to let itself be integrated.

Beyond the Fight against Terrorism

September 11 was the culmination of these developments and, at the same time, of the cycle of violence that began with the appearance of jihadist doctrines and phenomena in the early 1970s and their generalization in the Afghan jihad. In the European context, the trend towards a separation of Muslims from non-Muslims paved the way to increasingly sharp conflicts. The disputes became more heated and in Europe there was a growing presence both of groups militating against what they considered an “Islamization of the Continent” and of nationalist or regionalist parties that found their raison d’être and their electoral consensus in resisting globalization, Islam and the European project.

On the Muslim side, the leaders holding positions of power in the mosques and the various organizations did not know what to say regarding the future of Muslims in Europe or about terrorism. As late as 2005, a preacher in a Brussels mosque that gathers together around 2,000 believers every Friday was still inviting Muslim Belgian nationals not to go to the polling stations so as not to contribute to the election of a kāfir (unbelieving) government. Another significant episode dates back to three weeks after the attacks in Brussels of 22 March 2016, when various associations (including some Muslim ones) had organized a big march in the Belgian capital. The demonstration was to set out from two symbolic points, the Gare du Nord and Molenbeek, the Brussels quarter that became unhappily famous after the attacks of 2015 and 2016. I went to Molenbeek, home to a sizeable Muslim population (there are 18 mosques in the territory). I was expecting the imams to be in the front line but there was not a single one. And the Muslims from Molenbeek were very few in number. That does not mean that jihadism enjoyed a widespread consensus but, rather, that there was a sort of hesitancy about it and I think that this needs to be analysed.

The 2000s was marked by a heavy investment in the fight against terrorism. This was (and is) an indispensable response. It was also accompanied, however, by the tragic drifts stemming from the unleashing of armed action, particularly in the specious Iraq war launched in 2003 by the Anglo-American coalition led by G. W. Bush and Tony Blair, in which almost all their allies participated, France and Belgium excepted.

The security measures have not been enough to change mentalities, moreover. In 2002, at the time of the war in Afghanistan—which was understandable—I remember writing an article entitled “Fight against Radicalism, Yes, but Afterwards?” for a Belgian newspaper. The problem is that there has not been an “afterwards.” We have limited ourselves to this type of response, which is necessary but not enough. The cultural and social dynamics that interfere in relations between populations and countries continue to be ignored or underestimated, on the other hand. It is thought that spontaneous processes or demonstrative gestures are enough to make things evolve in a positive direction. In the current context, however, spontaneous processes foster forms of extremism, on the part of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That is to say, people have not become aware of the fact that we are facing a complex encounter between two civilizations, each of which is living a particular crisis situation.(6)

The Arab Spring: a Tragic Turning-Point

After the delusion caused by the Arab Spring, a part of the Muslim world and several European and non-European countries found themselves facing a tragic reality: terrorism and the fact that significant sectors of Muslim youth (boys, but also girls) were embracing jihad. The Middle East and the Arab world in general came out of the Arab Spring destabilized, if not devastated. These events opened a new phase (the fourth), which involves the future both of Islam and of relations between the Muslim world and the West.

The attacks of the years 2015–2017 constituted a trauma for European citizens and institutions, whilst they were a godsend for the groups and parties opposed to Islam. However, they were also a shock for the Muslims who, after years of hesitation, have begun to declare themselves more overtly against the violent radicalism associated with Islam and against the political or Salafi visions, which are held to be directly or indirectly responsible for the radical shift.

On the wave of emotion that followed, Muslims and non-Muslims linked arms in a shared condemnation of the extremists and to show their common commitment. Dialogue initiatives multiplied, forms of religious and spiritual diplomacymilitary collaboration in the fight against terrorism occurred. The rise of a figure such as Muhammad bin Salman to leadership of the Saudi state and the prospect of certain kinds of opening fuelled hopes of a change. However, the future of an Islam related to this regime or to those in other countries remains uncertain. Just as radicalism’s future does.

Police forces and judicial institutions have made great progress. It seems to me, however, that Muslims and non-Muslims alike have not yet taken seriously the social and cultural challenges that are awaiting us, particularly as regards the younger Muslim generations and the Muslims who have recently sought refuge in Europe. Furthermore, in the emigration context, I can perceive the interiorization of a withdrawal into a quietist “neo-Salafism” amongst the Muslims of Arab origin, whereas those of Turkish origin are being heavily influenced by the current government in Ankara and its anti-Western, anti-European nationalist-religious discourse.

This problem is linked to that of the weakness of the Muslim leadership in Europe (apart from few isolated figures). For more than a decade I have been stating that it is not mosque-building that is most urgently needed but, rather, the forming of minds. That is to say, there is a need to foster the emergence of a well-trained, mature Muslim leadership. This is a very complex undertaking that will require time. Considering the current dynamics of the conflict within Sunnism, creating a Faculty of Islamic theology now, within a short timeframe, is unthinkable. Moreover, it is well known that haste makes waste. If anything, work should be done to create the conditions that would allow a young generation of Muslims to found such a faculty in ten years’ time.

Furthermore, the growing popularity of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant nationalist parties in European societies is helping to increase an equally hostile feeling amongst Muslims. Mutual relations are continuing to be dragged into a downward spiral similar to the one in the early 2000s and all the more so given that the clarifications and in-depth analyses needed to get out of the dispute are struggling to make headway. When things go well, a sort of passive neutrality is established: one that avoids the basic debate on central themes. If we are to overcome this state of affairs, it is not enough to foster interreligious dialogue. It is, rather, necessary to reflect on what it means, nowadays, to be citizens and what place religion has in the public space. In order to do this, it is necessary to agree to calling the respective “self-evident” values into question, thereby creating the (currently lacking) conditions for a serene discussion. However, if there is no room in Europe for an in-depth reflection on the relationship between Islam and modernity, it is highly unlikely that there will be room for it anywhere else.

The Christians’ Role

I would like to conclude with an observation regarding the role of Christians. I say this, wearing my sociologist’s hat, on account of the experience I have developed over the last years. In a spirit that sought to provoke debates rather than disputes and working within the framework of research on the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims carried out at the Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Études sur l’Islam dans le Monde Contemporain (CISMOC–Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Islam in the Contemporary World)(7), we organized a series of workshops involving between fifteen and twenty people. The participants included Muslims of various leanings (Sufis, Salafis and radicals), Christians, agnostics, atheists and militant secularists who were all called to discuss various themes ranging from the veil to their relationship with politics. On these occasions, I was able to observe that the interlocutors who succeeded in bringing greater depth to the debate were the more solid Catholics, who possibly also had some form of political commitment behind them. The others (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) struggled more and ended up in head-on clashes. Why was this? Because the more committed Christians have understood, starting from their own personal stories, what it means to be believers in a secular state and a secularized society. They have already reckoned with these problems. I believe that this is the kind of discussion that we need.

Felice Dassetto is a sociologist – anthropologist, Emeritus Professor UCL, and Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium.

https://www.mercatornet.com/above/view/europe-and-its-muslim-population-recent-history-and-the-task-that-remains/22599

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