The Warsaw Declaration, approved this May 17 by the Council of Europe, clearly lists the fight against Islamophobia amongst the priorities of the European Union. This was the first time that the EU had openly expressed such concerns and yet increasing incidences of Islamophobia after the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the Madrid bombings in 2004 have made it clear that attacks against the Muslim community are no longer isolated and sporadic incidents. Rather, they are a reflection of the tension that has been bubbling beneath the surface in many countries and that is beginning to manifest itself with increasing persistence.
Ethnicity, not religion
For Mohammed, a Muslim who settled in Seville more than 20 years ago, the turning point was September 11 2001 and, although he claims not to have experienced any “different treatment” within his closest social circle, he does admit to “feeling more closely observed”. Like him, many other practising Muslims and numerous Islamic groups lament the dangerous rhetoric that directly relates Islam with fundamentalist beliefs and terrorism; or with illegal immigration that is associated with marginalisation and crime. What, on occasion, is seen as discrimination against Muslim immigrants is often the result of the fear of an already rapidly expanding, and culturally very different, foreign population. Islam, therefore, is at risk of becoming a victim of ethnic rather than merely religious prejudice.
Indeed, many of the controversies and incidents surrounding the practice of Islam in Europe are more closely linked to the aesthetic and symbolic aspects that accompany it than to Islam itself. In France, the government has gone so far as to ban female pupils from wearing the hijab (Islamic veil) when attending state schools.
In Spain, a country which in 1992 passed one of the most progressive laws on the protection of religious freedom in general and of Muslims in particular, the construction of mosques has met with opposition from prospective neighbours and is also a very controversial question in Italy. However, in certain regions of Spain, such as Andalusia, the entry point for Moroccan immigrants into Europe, the teaching of Islam is now among the subjects on offer to school children. An issue that is still being debated without agreement in Germany.
Fundamental for the construction of Europe
Until now, two models have been followed for the integration of Muslims into Europe - and both seem to be in crisis. The northern countries have favoured a multicultural integrationist approach, which, following the London attacks and the ethically motivated civil unrest seen in cities such as Bradford, has been thrown into doubt. Meanwhile, the French secular and assimilationist approach does not account for the importance of religious identity. The traditional secular culture of Europe is at the centre of the debate. Certain political parties even defended – during the drafting phase of the European Constitution – the recognition of Christian humanism as a pillar of European construction. Of a Europe in the process of reconstruction and whose many religions and multiculturalism cannot be denied.
We are therefore talking about a ‘Europeanisation of Islam’ or, as Le Monde put it this February 15, a ‘European Islam’. It is an idea that suggests taking a second look at the place of Islam within a 21st century Europe that cannot deny the religion’s cultural legacy. Perhaps we need to promote a mutual reconciliation of positions capable of equating the Islamic doctrine with the respect of liberties, as they are understood by Western law. In Germany, the most recent case is that of Hatun Surucu, a Turkish woman killed by her three brothers for living in a way which broke the traditional rules of her religion: she was a single mother, after leaving her cousin and arranged husband.
In Germany, just as in France, they are sceptical about the extension of the European Union’s borders to include Turkey. The incoming German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has expressed her concerns about the full integration of Turkey into the EU, whilst in other countries, such as Spain, the government has presented an initiative to the UN Assembly which, christened the ‘Alliance of Civilisations’, advocates the bridging of divides between the West and Islamic countries.