For decades, the European Union has debated the question of minorities to a fine artform; the concentration, however, has almost always been on national or ethnic communities. In the late 1980s, there was a growing realisation that religious identity was, for some, prioritised over race and other identities. The events of 9/11 made the topic of religious identity and its role in a diverse society ever more important.
The Muslims of Europe are the largest non-Christian religious community of Europe, and have been the subject of much discussion for many years, but September 11th brought them into the limelight as never before. The challenges they face in understanding themselves as Muslims of Europe, rather simply as marginalised migrants, have evoked a number of intriguing responses in the way they view their identity, and, most intriguingly, the manner in which they seek to follow Islam in this socio-political context. Fiqh al aqalliyat, or minority jurisprudence, is a field of growing concern to the Muslim community that places shariah at the axis of its existence. Questions have been posed from all quarters; academics, activists and students from within Europe, as Europeans. The questions continue to be debated and argued about, with the quality ranging from rants in leaflets handed out by well-meaning activists, to articulate statements by a range of intellectuals and traditional scholars. People such as Tariq Ramadhan, the Swiss Muslim grandson of Hasan al-Banna, Abdullah Bin Bayyah, the Mauritanian faqih and teacher of Hamza Yusuf, and Taha al-‘Alwani, a Shafii scholar in the United States, have taken this remarkably complex issue on board, and the answers they have provided leave little room for doubt: the Muslim in a non-Muslim state, whether as an immigrant or as an indigenous citizen, is under a responsibility to respect the law of the land, and to contribute to improving his or her society.
However, the trials that Muslims face both within Europe and elsewhere, have also contributed to a new test: the rise of reactionaries whose main and primary concern is ‘identity politics’ rather than an inculation of Islamic principles, faith and spirituality.
Feeding the isolationist and extremist agenda is the attitude of the mainstream community towards Islam: September 11th might have made the word ‘Islamophobia’ more noticed, but some academics warn that September 11th did not increase Islamophobia significantly; its been with us for a long time, and in an alarming way.
Sometimes the prejudice comes from isolated corners, such as the British National Party, or Vlaams Blok, but often, the bigotry has been manifested by spokesmen and politicans of much more noted stature. Islam, we are told, is a barbaric and dangerous religion with maniacal followers who are, of course, un-European and foreign.
Such claims continue to be dismantled in the face of authentic scholarship. My own research revealed to me a dual retort to the accusation of ‘foreign’ (quite apart from the truth that even if Islam were foreign to Europe, it would not make it less acceptable than any other religion, including Christianity, which was born in Palestine). Firstly, as mentioned above, the long history in Europe which Muslims may look back on with proud awareness; Muslim Spain, which the mainstream has begun to accept as having been the balwark of civilisation in a region of barbarism in its time. But also the indigenous nature of Islam in Eastern, Northern, and Southern Europe; Muslims may have grown in great numbers over the past 50 years through immigrants, but Islam had a presence all over Europe for centuries before, which is only now being truly analysed and discussed in a comprehensive manner.
Secondly, even without the antiquated Muslim communities which still exist, and the migrant communities with their descendants, Muslims are still present in every European Union member state as converts. These are not isolated individuals; rather, they are another phase of the Muslim population in Europe, and provide a positive defiance to those within Europe who consider Islam to be forever beyond Europe. In many cases, they are at the forefront of the Muslim community in terms of social involement, participation and education. That last enterprise, authentic education, is slowly becoming a major aspect of the Muslim community, as the effort goes on to find local ways to manifest Islam, learnt from people whose authenticity and orthodoxy is beyond reproach.
The integration of Muslim communities into European is not a question of ‘if’; it is a question of ‘how’. The Muslim community is here to stay, and, stubborn though some quarters both within and without may be, refuse to remain marginalised and on the sidelines. It is also no longer a question of ‘if’ the mainstream are willing to accept them, for one thing is clear; Muslims in Europe are now European, and have become so despite the best efforts of some. The onus has ceased to be on them to prove themselves as such, with their leaps and strides in participating in the society of their countries (often surmounting great obstacles in the process). It has now become a challenge for European legislatures and policy makers; is Europe willing to do more than pay lip service to the credos of multi-culturalism and tolerance?
Muslims have some issues to deal with internally, most certainly. But they are more than willing to change European rhetoric into European reality.
H.A. Hellyer is currently a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick (UK). This article was originally published in the Muslim News (UK) in May 2003