Europe’s Muslim future

In the gardens of the Great Mosque of Granada, tourists walk respectfully amid the greenery and tinkling fountains. A murmur of Qur’anic verses emerges from the clusters of students within the prayer hall. And from the mosque’s terrace, there are unparalleled views across the valley to the Alhambra—one of the world’s finest Islamic monuments.

At first glance Granada is a picture of Islam’s harmony with the West, a model of coexistence that suggests Islam and Europe can live at peace.

But the Great Mosque is the first to be built in Granada in almost 500 years. It took 22 years to build because the local inhabitants feared that it would lay the foundation for the reconquest of Spain by Islam, which was expelled from Iberia in 1492. Amid the bougainvillea and white-washed houses of the streets around the mosque, the graffiti reads ‘Moros fuera’ (Muslims out).

Granada’s Great Mosque, conceived as a symbol of peace, has become a touchstone for a Europe that cannot decide what to do with the more than ten million Muslims who now call Europe home. The resulting debate—given new urgency in the wake of terrorist attacks carried out, supposedly in Islam’s name, in Madrid and London—has seen Europe shift away from its history of tolerant multiculturalism towards a policy of secular integration, towards the demand that Muslims become Europeans first and foremost.


Few countries have woken up to the debate with the force of the Netherlands. When the controversial Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh was assassinated by a Muslim of Moroccan descent in November 2004, it provided the catalyst for a fundamental re-evaluation of the Dutch model of multiculturalism.

Until the murder, the Netherlands’ one million Muslims (six per cent of the Dutch population) were permitted to follow their religion, send their children to Islamic schools and speak their languages of origin. Holland was proud of its tolerance, extending its cherished freedom from government interference to all immigrants who sought refuge on Dutch soil.

After the murder of Van Gogh—a polemicist who compared Islam to bestiality—it was as if the world had changed overnight. Muslim schools were fire-bombed. Mosques were attacked. And politicians peddled the politics of fear.

The influential former EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein took up the mantle of Pym Fortuyn, who called Islam a ‘backward religion’. Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002 and then, in November 2004, voted the greatest Dutch person of all time. Mr Bolkestein advocated compulsory integration and issued dire warnings that if nothing were done, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht would have non-European majorities within two generations: ‘The most common first name registered at birth these days is Mohammed. This, they say, is the Europe-to-be.’

A survey in January found that only 19 per cent of Dutch people did not see the presence of Muslims in the country as a threat. As the country’s patina of tolerance slipped further, Edwin Bakker, terrorism expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, admitted, ‘Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point.’

As if on cue, a government report described the Dutch policy of multiculturalism as ‘a 30-year failure’. In response, the government announced a raft of measures unrivalled in Europe: the refusal to grant licences to any Muslim clerics not trained in Holland; expensive integration exams for would-be immigrants that required knowledge of the Dutch language and a correct answer to the question ‘Is it OK to sunbathe topless on the North Sea beaches along the Dutch coast?’; and, ultimately, the extension of compulsory integration to Muslims already living in Holland and wished to retain their right to stay.

Capturing the hysteria that drove the debate, Mr Bolkestein argued that even the country’s foreign policy ought to reflect the new reality, claiming that if Turkey were allowed to enter the European Union, resistance ‘at the siege of Vienna in 1683 will have been in vain’.

Across the border in Germany, the leader of the conservative Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, announced that the lesson of the Dutch experience was that ‘multiculturalism has failed big time’.
In France, the story has been completely different. From banning all headscarves and religious symbols in state schools to the expulsion of Muslim clerics preaching messages considered contrary to the state’s secular ideals, France has been one of the world’s leading proponents of rigid secularism.
The man who would be France’s next president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has summed up the relationship between Islam and democracy in the French republic by arguing that ‘it’s too late to raise the compatibility issue. Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France. So you’ve got to integrate it by making it French.’

These two visions for the future of Europe—one accommodating symbols of religious identity and allowing a minority to develop in parallel to the wider society; the other demanding that civic identity take primacy over a person’s religious faith—were, for decades, the complementary faces of the European experiment. It is now clear that the integrationists are winning.

Gilles Kepel, one of France’s foremost experts on the Muslim world and the author of The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, argues that only through integration can the moderate streams of both Islam and Europe itself triumph: ‘The logic of integration is fundamental for the future of our co-citizens of Muslim origin. The other option is “the Muslims of Europe”, a kind of irreducible colony, which explains events like the murder of Theo Van Gogh.’

Kepel continues: ‘In Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia, almost everyone has a cousin, a brother or a nephew in Madrid, Milan, Brussels, Marseilles. People living in Maghreb countries follow all this very closely, and the political vocabulary in Morocco and Algeria has evolved considerably to come closer to the European norm, fuelled by the experience of emigrants. I think the democratic pressure of the European example will spread like an oil stain.’

One justification among Europe’s political philosophers for the push to integrate Europe’s Muslims into secular European society is the fact that the perpetrators of the London bombings had been born and educated in multicultural Britain.

A more compelling argument is Islam’s demarcation between the Dar al-Islam (Land of Believers) and the Dar al-Kufr (Land of Impiety). If Muslims can consider Europe a part of the former, Muslims in Europe will be able to participate in politics and send their children to French schools. If Europe belongs to the latter, which keeps Muslims at arm’s length, strict Muslims will have no choice but to stand apart and even fight against the European countries in which they live.

In truth, moderates on both sides of the divide admit that the best that can be hoped for is a third possibility advocated by Islam—the Dar al-Suhl (Land of the Treaty) where Muslims live as a peaceful minority.

As much of Europe grapples with such existential questions, it is in Spain where the future relationship between Europe and its Muslims may be decided.

When the application for the Great Mosque of Granada was first made, there were fewer than 100,000 Muslims in Spain. Now the figure exceeds 700,000. According to Gilles Kepel, ‘Spain is at the same time a very young and a very old Muslim country. Very old because there are Muslim roots in Andalusia, and very young because most of the Muslims in Spain are still immigrants and have not attained citizen status. Spain can still choose which path suits it best, whereas other European countries already made their decision.’

But if the country is to be Europe’s prototype for the Land of the Treaty, the early, conflicting signs are less than hopeful.

The leader of the main opposition Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, publicly denounced Islam in a list of ‘religions that are not part of our culture, that do not respect our constitutional values’. Cardinal Rouco, the president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference and former Archbishop of Madrid, told students at a summer Catholic camp, ‘The complex of religious anachronism from which we have yet to emerge is leading some to try and set us back in the year 711—the year of the Muslim invasion of Spain.’

When Muslims sought permission to build mosques in Premia (Catalonia), Gramanet (Catalonia) and Navas del Marques (Avila), the local authorities refused to grant planning permits. When Muslims requested that they be allowed to pray in the former Great Mosque of Cordoba—which was converted into a cathedral in 1326—Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, responded by saying, ‘One has to accept history and move forward … It is difficult to have Christians and Muslims mixing and sharing a common life, despite being driven by wanting to go back in time or take some form of vengeance.’

To have said this in a city which, 1000 years ago, was home to 500,000 Muslims, Christians and Jews who lived in harmony in a renowned centre of philosophical and scientific scholarship, was hardly the language of a treaty.

Discrimination against Muslims within European societies, in this Spain is no exception, has also fostered an economic underclass of immigrants, suggesting that economic integration may be as important as cultural harmony. According to The New Yorker, ‘This population is disproportionately young, male and unemployed. The societies these men have left are typically poor, religious, conservative and dictatorial; the ones they enter are rich, secular, liberal and free. For many, the change is invigorating, but for others Europe becomes a prison of alienation.’

Which way Spain will decide is not yet apparent. That it has taken a firm decision to allow Muslim women to wear the headscarf—the first student to test the ruling, Fatima Endrisi, was welcomed to school by a clapping crowd of teachers and students—suggests that the French model of integration will not be adopted wholesale. That the government responded to the Madrid train bombings with a (since-withdrawn) threat to vet imams’ sermons suggests that the right to religious freedom remains a veneer.

In the meantime, it is Spain’s Muslim community that is attempting to build the necessary bridges.

Moneir Mahmoud Ali el-Messery, imam of Madrid’s M-30 Mosque (Europe’s largest) is a lover of poetry and speaks perfect Spanish after ten years in the country. Arriving here after eight years of study in Saudi Arabia, he remembers, ‘I saw two youths kissing in the street, and I was flabbergasted, and my brother explained to me that this was something very normal here.’ The imam’s three children study in Spanish schools and have been ‘educated in coexistence and tolerance, in how to love the whole world’. He concludes with a statement that could become a mantra for Europe’s Muslims: ‘When I studied in Saudi Arabia, I interpreted it with little analysis. In Spain, I have to be more rational, I have to talk not only as a Muslim; I have to be a bridge. I have come to know another place, another way of thinking.’

If Europe hopes to produce model European Muslims in the mould of el-Messery, it has no choice but to adopt the integrationist model, says Gilles Kepel. ‘The future of Islam is in Europe. It has a huge Muslim population. Either we train our Muslims to become modern global citizens, who live in a democratic, pluralistic society, or, on the contrary, the Islamists win, and take over those Muslim European constituencies. Then we’re in serious trouble.’

What he doesn’t say is that we may be in serious trouble anyway, that for such integration to work, cultural integration must be matched by a willingness of Europeans to embrace Muslims as equals and not just the other way around.  

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer, living in Madrid.

 

 

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