Muslims in the West

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted Dec 19, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Muslims in the West

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

It would not be a terribly original observation to make that Muslims in the west are currently the object of concern for both the state authorities as well as civil society. Theoretical literature on the sociology of immigration suggests that the greater the ethnic and cultural difference between immigrants and host societies, the greater the difficulties for integration to take place between them.

Although the bulk of immigration studies focus on the attitudes of mainstream or host societies towards immigrants, it should by now be clear that it is equally important to study the attitudes of immigrants to the countries they go to and take up residence.

There are currently some eight to ten million Muslim immigrants in the west—North America and of course Western Europe. In the past, Western-Islamic encounters have been ridden with tension and conflict. In the immediate period before World War Two the relationship was undoubtedly unequal and skewed. Thus whereas European empires occupied much of Muslim lands there were very few Muslims living in the west at that time.

The post-war immigration of Muslims from the south is therefore an entirely new type of migration process. This time around the receiving states, acutely conscious of the terrible crimes against minorities such as Jews and the Roma (formerly called Gypsies) adopted universalistic principles as enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and incorporated them into their constitutional and legal systems. Consequently, adopting policy that discriminated between the rights of host societies and immigrants or between different types of immigrants began to be removed slowly until equal citizenship became more of a rule than an exception.

However, acquiring citizenship or permanent residence did not entail only rights but also obligations. Indeed the new notion of citizenship that underlined the policy of the western states was liberal contractualism with rights and obligations to be enjoyed and claimed by both sides. It was underpinned by a number of social values such as individual autonomy, gender equality, the right to enjoy and practise religion or any other philosophy as long as it did not threaten public peace and tranquillity and other such rights.

The Muslim immigrants, however, had been raised in largely illiberal cultures where religious authority and law played a much bigger role in the lives of individuals than in the west. Also, notions of individual autonomy and free choice were alien to the new settlers. However, during the 1950s and into the 1960s and the early 1970s, relations between Muslim immigrants and the western states and civil society remained largely peaceful. In fact the Muslims were able to win support from municipalities and other local government agencies for establishing cultural organizations and in some cases religious institutions such as mosques.

Tensions began to grow when need for unskilled labour from the south decreased or saturated and further immigration was no longer required. Up until then even normal economic migrants could benefit from the generous asylum rules and regulations. However, after the Arab-Israel War of 1973 when the oil crisis hit the world economy scope for unskilled labour being absorbed by the western economies decreased dramatically. At the same time, the same economic crisis in addition to civil war and dictatorship created ever greater pressures in the poorer nations of the world to emigrate to the west.

Thus, for example, the civil wars that broke out in the Lebanon in the mid 1970s and continued for years thereafter; the establishment of the Islamist regime in Iran under the Ayatollahs which made educated Iranians flee to the west; the eight-year old Iran-Iraq war that lasted between 1980 and 1989; followed by the occupation of Kuwait by Iraq; and then the first (1990) and second (2003) Iraq wars brought a number of Muslim refugees into the western countries. In this regard we also need to include the large number of Muslim refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina who moved to the west although many of them were secularized like other Europeans.

It is not surprisingly that the influx of such large number of immigrants from the Muslim world, especially from Middle Eastern cultures, resulted in social and political tensions beginning to rise between them and the western governments and authorities. This fact was dramatically illustrated when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 condemning the Indian-British writer, Salman Rushdie, to death for allegedly blaspheming against Islam.

During the Gulf War, British Muslim citizens, especially the very large Pakistani group, were asked to declare whether their primary loyalty was to Britain or to Islam. Spokespersons for the Muslim organizations came up with the reply that their primary loyalty was to Islam but if Britain were to be attacked by an outside power they would defend it. Such an explanation perhaps sufficed for the moment but it left the problem of divided loyalty largely unresolved.

Calls to impose Islamic law to the ‘internal’ matters of the Muslim community began to be given also, including the idea of establishing a Muslim parliament. During the early 1990s, the headscarf controversy emanated in France, and it has surfaced in many other parts of Europe as well. After 9/11 things became even more volatile. The terrorist attacks in Madrid and London in 2005 by Muslim extremists further strained the relations between the Muslim immigrant minority and the host societies.

Rightwing nationalist and racist organizations and movements in the west began to harp on the threat of a Muslim Trojan-horse conspiracy. Some versions of it saw it in terms of a population bomb that will burst in the future reducing Europeans into a minority while others portrayed it something imminent and terrorism was supposed to be clearing the way for such an eventuality. Ironically some Muslim clerics and other hotheads said and did things which only helped to foster the belief in a Muslim threat to the west.

Under the circumstances, there is need to consider seriously if this is something that should be allowed to fester and one day burst out in the form of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It was heartening to learn from this newspaper (October 12, 2007) that more than 130 Muslim scholars have called for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity saying ‘the survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake’. I think that is the first step in the right direction. Peace can only be established in the world if not only Muslims and Christians but also other cultures respect the human rights of all individuals.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore.  Originally published in The International News, Wednesday, December 19, 2007