Islam shaping a new Europe
Sun Dec 19, 9:40 AM ET Chicago Tribune http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=2027&u=/chitribts/20041219/ts_chicagotrib/islamshapinganeweurope&printer=1
By Evan Osnos Tribune foreign correspondent
A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Anyone wondering how the struggle for the soul of Islam could play out in America should look to Europe. Islamic traditions and beliefs are prompting Europeans to re-evaluate practices and laws as well as prized principles, such as the separation of church and state. Nowhere is this more evident than in France, now home to the largest Islamic community on the continent. For the 11th part of this occasional series, a Tribune reporter traveled to a Paris suburb to examine the future that Europe is straining to handle.
Butchered piglets hang in tidy rows at the open-air market, and shoppers haggle over cheese and oysters in a scene hardly altered since the last Bourbon king was buried at the Gothic church on the corner.
But slip out of the market on a Friday, and a quarter-mile up the road you will find a very different France: Hundreds of Muslims squeezed hip to hip into an unheated canvas tent, bowing in sacred silence toward Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, which few of them have ever seen.
The worshipers at this makeshift mosque on the edge of Paris are men and women, dressed in the latest fashions and traditional robes, Arab, European and African. They are moderate, conservative and fundamentalist. They are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants. They are content and they are enraged. They are the future that Europe is straining to handle.
What is happening in Europe may provide a partial preview of what lies ahead for the United States and its fast-growing Muslim population.
For the first time in history, Muslims are building large and growing minorities across the secular Western world—nowhere more visibly than in Western Europe, where their numbers have more than doubled in the past two decades. The impact is unfolding from Amsterdam to Paris to Madrid, as Muslims struggle—with words, votes and sometimes violence—to stake out their place in adopted societies.
Disproportionately young, poor and unemployed, they seek greater recognition and an Islam that fits their lives. Just as Egypt, Pakistan and Iran are witnessing the debate over the shape of Islam today, Europe is emerging as the battleground of tomorrow.
“The French are scared,” said Tair Abdelkader, 38, a regular at the tented mosque whose light blue eyes and ebony beard are the legacy of a French mother and Algerian father. “In 10 years, the Muslim community will be stronger and stronger, and French political culture must accept that.”
By midcentury, at least one in five Europeans will be Muslim. That change is unlike other waves of immigration because it poses a more essential challenge: defining a modern Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilization. The West must decide how its laws and values will shape and be shaped by Islam.
For Europe, as well as the United States, the question is not which civilization, Western or Islamic, will prevail, but which of Islam’s many strands will dominate. Will it be compatible with Western values or will it reject them?
Center stage in that debate is France, home to the largest Islamic community on the continent, an estimated 5 million Muslims. Here the process of defining Euro-Islam is unfolding around questions as concrete as the right to wear head scarves and as abstract as the meaning of citizenship, secularism and extremism. In some cases, conservative Muslims have refused to visit co-ed swimming pools, study Darwinism or allow women to be examined by male doctors.
One young St.-Denis fundamentalist recently set off for Iraq (news - web sites) and was captured fighting American troops in Fallujah. Stunned by stories like that, France is hoping to use the legal system to influence the direction of Islam within its borders.
The government has deported 84 people in the past six months on suspicion of advocating violence and drawn wide attention for banning head scarves and other religious symbols in public school. But even supporters of that tough approach concede that the measures can do little more than patch the widening cracks in Europe’s image of itself.
“I’m not sure we’ll go much further than gaining a few months or years” in the effort to limit Islam’s imprint on France, said Herve Mariton, a member of the French Parliament who lobbied for the head scarf law. “That may be useful. But there is no way this is the ultimate answer to the challenge.”
A new France
St.-Denis’ narrow streets sweep outward from a soaring 12th Century basilica that is the final resting place for generations of French monarchs. But today their snowy stone statues stare down onto a city and nation in transformation.
The Muslim migration to Europe began in earnest after World War II, when North African workers arrived by the thousands to help rebuild the continent. A half-century later, no fewer than a third of St.-Denis’ 90,000 residents are of Arab origin.
Arabic script on butcher shops and storefronts touts halal meat, handled to Islamic standards. Couscous restaurants are as plentiful as brasseries. Muslim settlement houses usher in new immigrants, and Muslim funeral homes bid farewell to old ones.
Across the country, French Muslims still live more or less where the first arrivals settled a half-century ago, in suburban apartment blocks erected in the 1950s for foreign workers. These suburbs, the banlieues, have become the byword for France’s virtually segregated Muslim communities.
The complexes used to be integrated, with Polish, Italian and French workers living among North African arrivals, but over time the Europeans moved on—and the Arabs did not. It is a scene repeated across the suburbs of Paris.
“Gradually the French people left or died, and they were replaced by more people from North Africa,” said Brigitte Fouvez, 55, deputy mayor in the neighboring town of Bondy. “The French people who stayed would say, `You can smell the cooking in the hallways,’ and eventually they left too.”
Like other ethnic Europeans, Fouvez and her husband moved from Paris in 1978 in search of more room for their two children. She watched Bondy evolve.
“Before, we had a charcuterie and a butcher,” she said. “Now there are just three halal butchers, no fish shop anymore, no traditional French stores.”
But those changes weren’t nearly as startling as the sight of conservative Muslim women draped head to toe in dark chador robes—to Fouvez’s eyes, “as black as crows.”
Birth of an identity
Thirteen hundred years after the Frankish King Charles Martel repelled Muslim armies from the central city of Tours, Islam is now the second religion of France; there are about 10 times as many Muslims as Jews.
From the Paris suburbs 25 years ago, Shiite Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini planned a revolution that ultimately overthrew the Shah of Iran and, in turn, helped inspire a global Islamic revival. The fallout is easily visible today as the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants in Europe increasingly embrace religion. In France and England, polls show greater commitment to daily prayers, mosque attendance and fasting during Ramadan than there was a decade ago.
Only one in five Muslims in France say they actively practice the faith, but many who once defined themselves in terms of Tunisian, Iraqi or Turkish descent now consider their primary identity to be Muslim.
“Nobody was talking about Muslims in France at the end of the 1990s. People were talking about Arabs or beurs,” said French political scientist Justin Vaisse, using the term applied to French of North African immigrant descent.
Young French Muslims gravitate toward charismatic spokesmen of a new European Islam, such as controversial Swiss-born philosopher Tariq Ramadan, whose French headquarters here in St.-Denis urges a “silent revolution.” In his writings, he advocates using the political process, instead of violence, to win Muslim rights and recognition across Europe.
Ramadan’s supporters call him a major voice of moderate Islam, but some critics say he is tied to extremists, a charge he denies. He was scheduled to begin teaching this year at the University of Notre Dame until U.S. immigration authorities rescinded his work visa, citing unspecified national security concerns.
Unlike earlier immigrants, who were bent on returning home flush with cash, more-recent arrivals have been deterred by the turmoil in their homelands and stayed, building families that are larger than those of their graying ethnic European neighbors. The effect is amplified by the decline of European Christianity. The number of people who call themselves Catholic, the continent’s largest denomination, has declined by more than a third in the past 25 years.
The results are stark. Within six years, for instance, the three largest cities in the Netherlands will be majority Muslim. One-third of all German Muslims are younger than 18, nearly twice the proportion of the general population.
With that growth, and the deepening strains between the U.S. and the Islamic world, radical Muslim clerics have found no shortage of adherents. A 2002 poll of British Muslims found that 44 percent believe attacks by Al Qaeda are justified as long as “Muslims are being killed by America and its allies using American weapons.” Germany estimates that there are 31,000 Islamists in the country, based on membership lists of conservative federations.
Year by year, European Islam pulls further away from the cultural traditions of Morocco or Algeria, refashioned all the while by the pressures of life in Europe. For some, the solution is a more liberalized Islam that incorporates Western concepts of individual rights and tolerance. But for others, the answer lies in a stricter interpretation of the core elements of the faith.
“It is more fundamentalist in its essence because what you subsist on is personal practice—reading of the Koran, Shariah,” Vaisse said. “It can take very humanist forms, but in some cases, it can also lead to political radicalization and terrorism.”
The potentially serious effects of that radicalization became clear on March 11, when coordinated bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800. Moroccan and Tunisian suspects later killed themselves in a standoff with police.
More recently, the Netherlands is in turmoil after the brutal killing of Theo van Gogh, who made a controversial film about violence against women in Islamic societies. Police arrested a 26-year-old man with Dutch-Moroccan citizenship and charged him with stabbing and shooting van Gogh. The suspect allegedly pinned a note to the body with a knife.
Within days, an Islamic school was set ablaze, and retribution followed. Right-wing politicians in Belgium and Germany demanded new curbs on immigration. In time, however, a more ominous fact emerged from the case: It was not the work of newly arrived immigrants with extremist views, but the product of homegrown radicalism. Police say suspect Mohammed Bouyeri wrote the death note in Dutch, not Arabic.
“This [cultural] schizophrenia is the most dangerous thing we face in Europe today,” said Gilles Kepel, head of Middle East studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and author of several books on Islam in Europe. “It means Madrid. It means Mohamed Atta,” he said, referring to one of the Sept. 11 hijackers who lived for some time in Germany.
Two men, two visions
Where moderate Muslims ultimately place their loyalty may be the defining—and unpredictable—ingredient in the struggle to fashion an Islam of the West. To understand the choices, visit the men who represent the two competing visions of Islam in France.
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris in the heart of the city, is a long-standing voice of moderate Islam in France. On the other side is Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, the increasingly powerful Islamist federation.
Trained as a dentist, Boubakeur, 64, runs the 1920s-era mosque in the heart Paris. He is prone to quoting Immanuel Kant and is a favorite of French officials and foreign ambassadors. He wears a red rosebud on his lapel signifying membership in the Legion of Honor. And he knows he is losing ground.
“Since Sept. 11, the world of Islam is changing faster in the West than other places in the world,” he said at his antiques-lined office, his V-neck sweater, rimless glasses and wispy gray hair giving him the air of an English schoolmaster. “Western countries had had a gentleman’s agreement with fundamentalists: You can stay here as long as you keep quiet. But the gentlemen are not being as quiet as they used to be.”
There is no question that Boubakeur’s influence is weakening. Last year he was handpicked to be president of the official French Council of the Muslim Faith, a new body established by the government in 2003 to give Muslims a formal voice in dealings with the state. Just as other bodies represent Catholics and Jews, the council speaks for Muslims on issues such as the construction of mosques and the training of clerics.
But things didn’t go as planned. In the first election, his moderate camp was trounced by conservative candidates who won 70 percent of the 41 seats. The next vote is scheduled for April, and moderates are expected to lose even more to the men he believes are “radicalizing Islam” in France.
“The facts are there: Religions that close in on themselves become sects, and that is what is happening to Islam here,” Boubakeur said. “And I am very sorry about that.”
Across town, beside the highway in the tough Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Boubakeur’s opponents are confident. Breze greets visitors at his glass-and-steel headquarters with a glossy package of materials and a calm message of “coordination, not confrontation.”
“We are not extremists,” he says, sipping espresso at a conference table. “We practice our beliefs and have respect for the state. We want one thing from Europe and France: that they are faithful to their values.”
Indeed, Breze and the union have thrived under Western democracy. Just two decades after its creation, by two foreign students, the union dominates French Islam. In the last elections for the Council of the Muslim Faith, Breze won control of a crucial post representing central France.
Breze’s federation draws 30,000 people to its annual conference, and the crowd is increasingly vocal in challenging the political powers that be. At last year’s convention, the interior minister was booed in the middle of his speech when he suggested that women must remove their head scarves for ID photos.
So what does Breze really want for Muslims in France? He and his group carefully calibrate their demands. They demonstrate against the ban on head scarves, for instance, but urge young women to respect the law as long as it is in effect. His federation is part of a broader umbrella group for all of Europe that is known for issuing decisions that help conservative Muslims function in a modern Western society by permitting, for instance, interest-bearing loans that would otherwise be banned under Islam and allowing the consumption of pork-based gelatin.
Push Breze on the most sensitive issues—does he seek an Islamic state in France, or the application of strict Islamic law and punishment—and he says no: “Perhaps they are valid in Saudi Arabia or Palestine, but they are not valid here.”
To some critics, Breze is a “double talker” who says one thing in French and another in Arabic. To others, he is simply a shrewd strategist who understands the coming power of the fast-growing Muslim communities here.
For his part, Breze says his mission is to convey a simple message: “France must respect this population.”
A parallel world
By all appearances, she is as French as they come. A law student at the Sorbonne, she has dark brown hair that falls in stylish curls to her shoulders. Dining with friends in downtown Paris, 23-year-old Faten Mansour wears Diesel-brand jeans and red stiletto heels. But she will be the first to point out that she is not just French.
“I am a woman, I am an Arab and I come from the suburbs. I have three handicaps,” she says. “France is not racist, but it is xenophobic. I can study the law all night, but I don’t know if I will find a job—not because I’m not competent, but because I’m an Arab.”
That feeling of exclusion has emerged as the central issue in the struggle to integrate Islam in Europe. Whether it is Turks in Germany, Indonesians in the Netherlands or Pakistanis in Britain, polls show Muslims feel they live in a parallel world within Europe.
There are no Muslims in the French Parliament, no Muslim CEOs of top French companies, and the national news media is overwhelmingly white. Midlevel Muslim politicians routinely recite instances of their careers being diverted by higher-ups.
In an unusually blunt official assessment, the French government’s auditing agency in a report released Nov. 23 faulted the republic for failing to combat segregation in housing, workplaces and schools. The same week, France’s largest insurer, AXA, presented a report concluding that young immigrants in France experience a rate of unemployment that is 2 to 5 times as high as that of young people who are ethnic European.
Moreover, that frustration is getting worse over time. “The first generation came to Europe to work, the second generation was caught in between two cultures. But the third generation is completely French, and they want all the rights of citizenship,” said Khalid Bouchama, the St.-Denis representative for Breze’s group.
For ethnic Europeans, the Muslim migration amounts to a world upended: The continent that for centuries exported its people, culture and religion to the Third World is now being shaped by its former colonies. But for the French establishment, the challenge is to bring Muslims into European society without changing the foundations of secular democracy.
No decision has sparked more controversy than the French government’s move to ban conspicuous religious symbols from public schools, including Muslim head scarves, Jewish yarmulkes and large crosses. To its opponents, the law was a blunt refusal to accept Muslim immigration. But to its supporters, it was a decisive move to lower the barriers building between France’s young people.
“It showed you can only go so far, you can’t go any further,” said Blandine Kriegel, an adviser to President Jacques Chirac on integration issues. “The issue touched a raw nerve. It is a nerve that is at the very heart of our way of life.”
Kepel, the professor, served on the commission that recommended the law. He originally opposed the idea, he says, until he heard testimony from teachers and young women who described how young fundamentalists used girls’ decisions to wear a veil as leverage to pressure them into adopting a more religious lifestyle.
“If we were accused of being Islamaphobes, let’s take it and not give a damn. It was a time to give those kids the opportunities to interact in the best possible way and not jeopardize their futures in French society,” Kepel said.
French Muslims responded with mass protests. Terrorists in Iraq abducted two French journalists and demanded that the law be repealed or the captives would be killed. The move backfired—French Muslims roundly denounced the threat.
Four months into the first school year under the law, 45 girls across France remain out of school or in mediation over their refusal to remove their scarves. Considering that 2,000 girls were believed to be wearing the veil last year, French officials have been pleased with the outcome.
Other than the veil law, Kriegel said, the government is trying to reduce segregation of Muslim immigrants by expanding access to French language instruction and combating workplace discrimination. The government, she believes, is on the right track.
“There are no fires in the banlieues,” she said. “There are no riots as there were in the black ghettos in the United States in the 1960s. Why don’t we have that? Because we’ve been rolling up our sleeves and doing something. . . . We have turned the corner.”
But in St.-Denis and other suburbs, the verdict is less clear. The huddles of young men stand like emblems of 17 percent unemployment, well above the national average. Classrooms and public housing are overcrowded with fast-growing immigrant families.
The mosques are busier than ever: the storefront Tawhid Center for young followers of Tariq Ramadan; the Tabligh mosque for the reclusive adherents of Saudi-style conservative Islam; the many basement prayer rooms for whoever stops by.
A French intelligence official who monitors fundamentalist groups said he believes the veil controversy and efforts to train imams have pushed French Muslims to an awkward reckoning point: They must decide whether to integrate with Europe or fight back in earnest against official efforts to shape their community.
“They are at a crossroads,” he said. “They can either go left or right.”
ON THE INTERNET For more stories and photos in the series “Struggle for the soul of Islam,” go to chicagotribune.com/news/ specials/
- Is Islam Endangering ‘Europeanness’? http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=289575&page=1
- The Muslims Are Coming, The Muslims Are Coming, Michael Vlahos http://www.techcentralstation.com/082603A.html
- The Muslims Are Coming http://www.bertramonline.com/article/247/the-muslims-are-coming
- Muslim Minority Communities http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/research_comments.php?id=431_0_23_0_C
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