What is the future of a new generation of European Muslims?

In Europe, the increasing presence of Islam has often provoked concerns about a threat to security and liberal democracy. Jonathan Laurence’s The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims challenges these ideas and shows how the transformation of a new generation into European Muslims has consisted of a complex mix of achievements and tensions. The book recently received a terrific review in The Economist. Jonathan was kind enough to answer a few questions about his unique look at European Islam, the debates surrounding it, and the connection to the Arab awakening:

Q: Anders Breivik was recently declared insane by the court. His act of violence is widely condemned, but aren’t his anti-multiculturalist views fairly widespread?

For Breivik, the year is 1683 and an Islamic empire is storming the Gates of Vienna. Some of the views in his Internet-age manifesto are popular, although what he did in Oslo and Utoya is of course condemned. An Italian politician from a party in government spoke approvingly of the Norwegian’s belief that Europe had “given up on its cultural identity without a fight.” In December, a poll showed 76% of the French public thinks Islam is “progressing too much.” So the vocal concern over Islam’s growth and Muslims’ integration is no longer the exclusive domain of the far right. It has become ritual for heads of government to declare the failure of multiculturalism, a catchall description increasingly taken to mean the arrival of Muslims in Europe. Breivik may be legally insane, but he is not alone in thinking that Europe is at a turning point vis-à-vis its growing Islamic minorities.

Q: What does this mean for integration policy in European countries, and how have Muslim groups reacted? Is this what the Minaret and Burka bans were about?

On the one hand, the focus on religious fundamentalism led to several well known bans on Islamic symbols in public spaces, from headwear to architectural design. It also provoked acrimonious debate about whether Islam “belongs” and if its associated practices –in all their diversity—can be reconciled with national identity. On the other hand, history tells us this is fairly standard treatment for a new minority entering the crucible of the nation state and joining the general citizenry. Increasingly, however, Muslim communities perceive the sum total of public debate as something akin to religious persecution or a kulturkampf against Islam. It’s not just the religious conservatives or the pious, but Muslims as a “group” who increasingly feel stigmatized. Last month, community eminences in France, Germany (and the US) independently cited the Nazi era and the gradual marginalization of German Jews to describe the political environment. It is not the most encouraging sign, obviously, if the main icebreaker between Muslims and non-Muslims is whether it’s 1683 or the mid-1930s outside.

Q: How did it come to this point, and is this a dead end? Or are there trends in other directions?

The competing narratives of victimization –and self-affirmation—are not new. But Muslims and non-Muslims do seem to be talking past one another at a moment when they need to be in constructive conversation. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize the degree of cooperation that already exists between community leaders and European governments. A recent stunt to name Europe’s “tallest minaret” (35 meters) after Nicolas Sarkozy is not as ironic as it first appears. In many ways, European Islam has flourished in the past decade. When Sarkozy was interior minister in 2002–4, he helped forge the still-running French Council for the Muslim Religion and started a trend among his European colleagues to guarantee equal religious rights to Muslims. “State-mosque” relations have advanced by leaps and bounds. A thousand Islamic prayer spaces have opened in France in the last ten years. One hundred and thirty schools in Germany’s most populous state (North Rhine Westphalia) now offer Islamic instruction alongside existing religious classes, and the first class of German Muslim theologians began their doctoral program this fall. The list goes on. European governments and Muslim organizations have gotten to know one another better, and community leaders have been brought into a context that encourages their continued adaptation to life as a minority in Europe.

Q: You argue in the book that it’s not 1683 or 1938, but that European countries are at a crucial “nation-building” moment in between. What does your book have to say about the Arab awakening?

The book shows how Europeans responded to the same questions now confronting North African governments: how to balance religious freedom and the democratic rule of law? Can Islamist movements behave “moderately and democratically”? The first generation of European Islamists fled political persecution at home, and some of the religious tension in European countries is rooted in their old political battles. Perhaps the “settling” of Islam’s status in their countries of origin will engender a new dynamic and allow integration to proceed in Europe. On the other hand, European Muslims have made their home in Europe and are not as personally involved in 2011’s events as could be assumed. Nonetheless, the image of Muslim masses protesting peacefully and organizing themselves democratically could contribute in the long run to a continuing “normalization” of how Islamic populations and societies are perceived in Western democracies.

Jonathan Laurence is associate professor of political science at Boston College.

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