Euro-Islam: a cultural phenomenon

Article published on Dec. 16, 2004
community published
Article published on Dec. 16, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Islam in Europe is as diverse as the believers’ countries of origin. And yet when Europe fails in its task to integrate Muslim immigrants, religion gives them a common identity

People crowding around bakery stands during Ramadan; young and old men pouring into the mosque on Friday; streets filled on bank holidays with rows of people kneeling down on rugs to pray, their heads turned towards Mecca: faced with these sights, you could easily believe that you were in Marrakech, Tunis or Cairo. But the local mosque is lacking the usual shady inner courtyard, the ornate tiled pattern and the towering minaret. This mosque is concealed behind a whitewashed wall, resembles a warehouse and is situated in a run-down quarter of northern Paris where African immigrants form the majority of the population. Such areas can be found in many large European cities today.

Fighting prejudice

The Muslim population in Europe bears many similarities to other immigrant groups. A large proportion of Muslims have withdrawn into isolation, partly because it is imposed upon them and partly as a matter of choice. Many seem to live alongside, rather than constitute part of, European society. It has long been a source of concern that these closed communities could develop into enclaves of poverty, criminality and violence, and the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 have only served to increase these worries. Suddenly Europeans realised that Islamic extremism was becoming an increasingly important issue not just in the Islamic world, but also in Europe. Suddenly it was feared that the two cultures could work against each other, rather than with each other. However Muslims are fighting this prejudice and are stressing that the equation “Islam = Islamic extremism = terrorism” is an unfair simplification.

Variety is the spice of life

It is hard enough just to find a common denominator for Islam. Is it a religion, a culture or a societal model? The Islamic world stretches from Morocco to Indonesia and has more dissimilarities than similarities. Islam has blended into the religions and cultures which it is based upon. The mystic “people’s Islam”, which is predominant in many rural areas and lays great emphasis on meditation, idolising of saints and burial rituals, has little in common with the enlightened Islam of the urban middle classes. The secular culture in Turkey and the radical state Islam in Saudi Arabia are worlds apart. The face of Islam in Europe is as varied as the countries which the Muslims come from.

Today there are around 15 million Muslims in Europe; of which approximately 5 million live in France, 3.2 million in Germany and 2 million in Great Britain. Spain, the Netherlands and Austria also have significant Muslim minorities. The majority of Muslims in Great Britain originate from the former Indian Empire (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) because, as members of the Commonwealth, their applications for residence and naturalisation were given preference. Similarly, in France the majority of Muslims come from the former colonies in North and West Africa, which have retained a close link to the former head of Empire thanks to the French language. In contrast, most of Germany’s Muslim population are guest workers from Turkey who were recruited during the 1950s and later. There are also a large number of political refugees including Iranians, Kurds, Palestinians, Bosnians and Afghans.

Religion as a common identity

These immigrants have an incredibly diverse background and often share neither culture nor mother tongue with other Muslims, and yet in Europe they find themselves part of the same community; they find themselves united through their common feeling of foreignness and discover a certain solidarity. Nigerians, Turks, Arabs and Pakistanis meet together in the mosque for prayer, and it is here that the “umma”, the Muslim community, seems to become reality. However, although Islam may form a bridge between immigrants of different backgrounds, many Muslims do not succeed in integrating themselves into the European society around them. Faced with a society which seems not to need them or even recognise them, many Muslims see Islam as a refuge which promises identity, meaning and orientation. In spite of this, Europe has a duty to offer all of her citizens a place and to accept them as a valuable part of society. The Muslim community must also play its part in this: if they want to find their place in Europe, Muslims must agree to live by the European rules of society.