What perspectives for Islam and Muslims in Europe? An Overview

In short:

In this analysis, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a Journalist

and writer, examines the evolution of the relationship

between Islam and the West, retracing a shared history

and providing insights on multiculturalism in Europe. 


Source:  The European Policy Centre 

Author:  Yasmin Alibhai-Brown 

Other Analyses from the same source       


What perspectives for Islam and Muslims in Europe? An


Identifying Diversity – Muslim demographics in Europe 

Accurate data is hard to obtain because most

nation-states and the EU do not yet identify people by

their religious affiliations. This is for historical

reasons- the ghosts of the Holocaust remain as a

reminder of the dangers of such data. Census systems

vary and in many countries it is the place of birth,

which is recorded. No figures are available for

converts, apostates, people with a ‘sleeping’ faith of

no major consequence to their lives, those who feel

culturally part of Muslim countries but are not

practising Muslims, people with a revived Muslim

identity, people who see themselves as culturally

linked to Muslim traditions and ‘political’ Muslims

who are engaged in battles for equality but may not be

strict adherents. For obvious reasons illegal

immigrants who are Muslims or the fluid populations of

asylum seekers would increase official figures if they


Multiculturalism in Islam 

Muslims in Europe and the west in general are as

diverse as the world itself because Islam spread to

the far corners of the globe and accommodated itself

to the different cultural ecologies whilst implanting

a universal set of basic, minimal principles which

were binding to all - the Ummah. Development and

scholarly debate have also always been part of the

different Muslims civilizations through the ages. This

is not surprising. With 14 centuries of history, 1.3

billion adherents on every continent, the soul of

Islam rings with hundreds of different tones. The

Koran itself says this human variety is what Allah

created for the world. 

Take the example of Britain. There are 1500 mosques

and 100 Muslim schools in Britain today. They share

the same fundamental faith but differences in

language, culture, class, different histories,

geographical, racial and ethnic variations make it

absurd to talk about ‘the Muslim Community’ as if it

was monolithic and in any way politically uniform. The

major schisms between Shia and Sunni Islam led to

further divisions into distinct faith and ethnic

groups, a process which is still carrying on. Wahabi

theologians who have inspired some of the most

hard-line new conservatives among Sunnis are not

accepted by most Sunnis around the world who are

traditionally more tolerant and pragmatic than these

new firebrands. Each new generation brings its own

values to the faith of the family and not in entirely

predictable ways. These days young western Muslims in

some families are more orthodox than their parents;

other young Muslims of the same age find their

families oppressive and alien and the rest find ways

to live within the fold and change the older members

to accept modernity. Class makes an enormous

difference, too. Pakistani Muslims from the middle

classes of Karachi have less in common with the

working class ‘tribal’ Muslims of their own rural

areas than with white members of the Conservative

party in Britain. 

Europe and Islam: Shared Histories 

The relationship between Islam and Europe goes back

centuries. Islam and Europe have both constantly made

and re-made each other in spite of the blood that has

been shed on both sides. From the European renaissance

onwards Islam has been an integral, vivid part of

Europe and Britain. Muslim intellectuals gave back to

Europe the ideas of the Greeks which the dark ages had

buried. Their own discoveries in maths, science,

sociology, astronomy and medicine infiltrated European

cultures and studies. Kipling’s irreconcilable East

and West is and always was an absurdity. The

croissant, the crescent shaped bread roll, eaten

everyday for breakfast in Europe, is a symbol of the

Crusades. Painted blue tiles and geometric design,

coffee houses, the beauteous domes in Florence and

Venice - and the Brighton Pavilion - factories, modern

technology, the film industry in Muslim countries,

countless other ideas have flowered and travelled

between Christians and Muslims. 

Yet both sides persist in disseminating the idea that

there can be no common ground between the two. Again

the history of Britain is a good case study. 

The historical connection between Islam and Britain

did not begin with mass immigration from the

subcontinent in the fifties, but this has become

established story among indigenous Britons and most

British Muslims too. Both sides have lost sight of the

long view. The writer Nabil Mater noted in his book on

Islam in Britain 1558-1685: ‘ Muslims and their

Arab-Islamic legacy were part of the religious,

commercial and military self definition of England.’

These exchanges- trade, artistic, scientific,

political - have carried on in spite of wars, mutual

demonisation and ideological confrontations. 

And so the paradox continues today in literature,

films, and other cultural products. In Hollywood

films, for example, Muslims are ‘reel bad Arabs,

lecherous sheikhs, personality free maidens,

bomb-blowing terrorists’ and yet there is a romance

about desert nomads on camels and curvy belly dancers.

Arab food, Sufi music, poetry and thought, Arabic

calligraphy are much loved in the west. But

Islamaphobia is on the increase. Muslims too show

white people as depraved, godless, sex-mad alcoholics

yet cannot resist western freedoms and lifestyles. To

the chagrin of Islamic purists, there is no going back

to the days of the Prophet. London, milk shakes,

Beckham, James Bond, MTV, liposuction, The Royals, the

V&A and other western products are now entrenched in

the modern Muslim psyche and cannot be excised. 

The complex history of this contact stretches back

over a millennium and it is time for Europe to start

teaching this history. There has been much conflict

too, starting with the wars of conquest by Muslims in

the Iberia in the 7th Century, through the Crusades

which began in the 11th century, the rise of the

Ottoman Empire (1600-1918) and the various struggles

for and against colonial domination after the first

world war. But through the wars and clashes immense

mutual respect was also evident as was deep love

between individuals. 

Arguably we may not have had the Indian Raj if Mughal

Emperors had not taken to the traders of the East

India Company who arrived in India in 1608. One of the

first arrivals, Captain William Hawkins, rapidly

became a trusted confidante of Emperor Jehangir.

Subsequent traders brought the emperor harpsichords

and raunchy pictures of Venus and Cupid. Jehangir gave

them licence to trade, which soon led to armed control

and then a takeover by the British government. An

enormous painted panel in the House of Commons shows

British merchants mingling with Mughal high society,

paving the way for colonial domination. 

In famous art galleries across Europe, orientalist

painters depict Muslims as ruthless barbarians-

holding bloody swords or fainting white women mostly -

but in the same spaces, you can see other pictures

paying homage to Muslim men and women, their lands,

aesthetics, markets and deserts. Cairo, Amman, Beirut

became centres for the modern art movement in the

thirties attracting innovative European painters such

as Paul Klee whose pictures of Tunisia fetch a fortune


Colonialism was organised around racial and cultural

hierarchies, but even within this paradigm, Monotheism

was a strong bond between Christians and Muslims. In

the 18th Century mixed race relationships between

British empire builders and aristocratic Muslim women

were much approved of. There is a painting by

Francesco Renaldi showing General William Palmer, a

powerful Ambassador, with his begum Bibi faiz Baksh, a

noblewoman and their children. General James Achilles

Kirkpatrick fell in love with a fifteen-year old

Muslim Princess, Khair un-Nisa, converted to Islam and

married her. Islamic art and design inspired Lord

Leighton, an aristocrat, who incorporated these into

his house in Holland Park, now a museum. 

The 19th century was more forbidding but yet Queen

Victoria herself had Muslim servants looking after her

children and her favourite, Abdul Kareem, was given

palatial suites, had his portraits painted, and got so

close to the queen, it quite shocked the nation. 

The end of the First World War brought an end to the

Ottoman Empire and the long period of humiliation for

Muslim countries world wide. 

As trade and travel accelerated between Britain and

Muslim countries, Yemenis and Bangladeshi lascars

settled in South Shields in Yorkshire, Liverpool and

Cardiff, the East End of London. Muslim sailors,

soldiers and workers helped keep the great empire

going receiving little recognition and low wages. The

first mosques in Britain were set up in Woking and

Liverpool at the end of the 19th century. 

The two world wars brought even greater Muslim

contributions to Great Britain. How many people today

remember the countless Muslims who fought German


Socio-economic and Political Context 

Major post-war Muslim settlements in Europe are made

up of post-colonial groups. Most of them were once

ruled by the countries they settled in. Germany is

different. Turks make up most of its Muslim population

but it was not a colonial power in Turkey. It did have

close ties with the Ottoman Empire though. 

The shared memories have come down the centuries and

indigenous Europeans are still finding it hard to

behave as equals with nations they once thought of as

lesser beings to dominate and control. 

More recent arrivals include Muslims fleeing countries

in chaos under oppressive regimes or the wealthy

international elite. Iranian, Iraqis, Indian Muslims,

Somalis, Bosnian, Kosovan, Afghan and other Muslims

have added to the diversity and mix. The central

Mosque in London can have up to a hundred different

nationalities, dozens of languages, black, brown and

white, from Afghanistan to Argentina, praying together

on Friday, all different, yet all equal before Allah. 

In truth there is as yet no common or agreed set of

domestic and foreign policies in the EU to cater for

Europe’s Muslims. With enlargement this would

obviously be one area, which requires urgent


In France and Britain in particular the attitudes of

dead Empires still remain in the national psyche

(although in Britain this is now shifting up to a

point and in France too) and racial, religious and

ethnic inequalities remain in place. Economic

exploitation of these migrants has gone on for

decades. Salman Rushdie once said the Empire had just

imported cheap labour from the colonies so they could

carry on as arrogantly as before. As Europe develops a

knowledge economy and as old industries dye and

outsourcing to cheaper countries becomes commonplace,

Muslims are finding themselves at the bottom of the


Research shows that Muslims of both genders are among

the least qualified, least upwardly mobile, most

impoverished of the ‘ethnic minority’ Britons. In

comparison, Chinese, Indian and African Asian Britons

are doing significantly better and some have surpassed

white Britons in achievements. Researcher, Professor

Tariq Modood is concerned that ‘the confluence of the

continuing severe disadvantage of Pakistanis and

Bangladeshis and the rise of an anti-Muslim prejudice,

marks one of the biggest challenges to racial

egalitarians in Britain today. 80% of Muslims live in

households where the income is below the national

average compared to 25% of non-Muslim households. 

Facing new dilemmas and challenges: Young Muslims in


This deprivation is creating serious dilemmas for

young Muslims who feel the state has denied them

opportunities or dignity. Some of them are concluding

that they have no option but to opt out of national

life. A young Muslim man interviewed for a report

spoke for many when he said: “As Muslims we are being

forced by the system to make a choice - either

assimilate, compromise ourselves, or separatism

whereby we create our own institutions.” 

There are other serious internal problems too which

are afflicting the various communities. Large numbers

of young Muslim men in some towns – often with poor

education and opportunities- are turning to lives of

lawlessness – drugs, pimping and other anti-social

activities. Their numbers in prisons has doubled in a

decade. Some Muslim communities are completely

dislocated from national life and politicians are now

turning their attention to these relatively new


Extremist views can appeal to young people living

impoverished lives with little hope and much

undirected fury. As one British government report

found ’Alienation is most acute where there is both

social and economic deprivation.’ Too many young

Muslims are emotionally homeless. Racism makes them

believe they cannot belong in Britain and their

communities expect them to think of themselves as

people from elsewhere. Hard line mullahs from Pakistan

and Arab states entice these young people into

embracing a militant Islam which bewilders their own


But there are positive developments too. Newspapers,

voluntary organisations, cultural institutions reflect

an emerging British Islam which is vibrant and

confident. These young British Muslims are firmly

rooted in this country, which they challenge, change,

portray and sometimes upset. The country in turn

imbibes them with values, expectations and

possibilities. But the essence remains attached to

something old and invaluable. There also signs that

there is a gradual emergence of a modern European

Islam with support for EU Imam training establishments

and new assessments of the evolution of the faith as

people embrace their complex lives. 

The Emergence of a Euro-Islam 

Young and older Muslims now aware of the crisis in the

world, are re-examining their beliefs, identity and

notion of citizenship. There is talk of a

‘Reformation’, of belonging to Europe. Tariq Ramadan

who advocates an ‘independent European Islam’ is

advocating a return to basic principles and a

wholesome interaction with their western countries. He

and others reject the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. He

writes: ‘Loyalty to ones faith and conscience requires

loyalty to one’s country’ Professor Bassam Tibi who

coined the term ‘Euro-Islam’ insists that the

integration of Europe’s Islam depends in much part to

the adoption of a form of Islam that embraces an

international morality and value consensus, an Islam

which accepts democratic civil society, pluralism,

equalities and the separation between religion and the


Islam as Threat? 

Islam is perceived as a threat to the west and not

only since the September 11th attacks in the US. Since

the Iranian Revolution in 1978-9 and the oil crisis

precipitated by the Arab oil states, the faith and its

followers have been viewed with suspicion and worse.

The Muslim outrage over Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the

outrage of the west over the fatwa and other

confrontations have created the impression of a clash

of civilizations, an impression which is being turned

into reality by both sides. Islam is the third largest

faith in Europe, the fastest growing religion in the

world and it is visible. There are growing numbers of

converts to Islam mostly middle class individuals, the

majority of them white women. They are not ‘some kind

of liberal Islam-lite’ says one convert Joe Ahmed

Dobson, son of a British MP, but proud orthodox


Muslims are increasingly presumed to be terrorists –

even though in the last decade more Muslims have been

victims globally of non-Muslims and of other Muslims

than the other war around. Look at the deaths in

Bosnia, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Kosovo, Chechnya. Most

non-Muslim Europeans have also come to believe that

Muslims cannot live with the post-enlightenment values

of Europe, with modernity or human rights. Many

western Muslims reject these assumptions. They live

perfectly easily as modern Muslims and feel these

prejudices are meant to keep them from their rights.

Feelings of exclusion can only intensify as a result. 

The perception of Muslims as a threat has led to an

alarming increase in hate crimes and hostile attitudes

towards Muslims. There has also been a marked

deterioration in positive attitudes towards minorities

in general and the attractiveness of populist racist

parties is growing. Some European Politicians are

using this atmosphere to further alienate opinions

against immigrants and Muslims. This is happening at a

time when there is an acceptance in the EU that with

present low birth rates and without an inflow of

immigrants, standards of living and economic growth

will be severely affected. 

European Muslims in Public Life 

There is no sign as yet that the European states

understand the degree to which Muslims of their

countries are excluded and marginalized from

influential public positions. The low economic

position of the majority of European Muslims and

lingering loyalties to old homelands are important

factors which contribute to this state of affairs.

There is a tendency too to seek unelected power

brokers from the various Muslim groups ( an old

colonial model of management) but this model may now

have become more of a problem than a solution as young

Muslims and women reject the idea that they must

always be ‘represented’ in this way when other

Europeans can be diverse, individual citizens with

affiliations to their faith and ethnicities. In some

countries new lobby groups of Muslims are emerging to

tackle Islamaphobia and to promote political


There is an interest in Islam growing in the wider

population and informed European Muslim academics,

journalists, writers and broadcasters are now

appearing in mainstream media outlets. These voices

help to challenge prejudices and presumptions. 

Muslim political representation throughout the EU is

small. The Netherlands has seven MPs, Britain has

three plus four in the House of Lords, and France has

none. Local politics is bringing in more Muslims in

Britain and elsewhere in Europe. European leaders are

failing to tap into the potential that exists with

millions of European Muslims could form a sustainable

bridge between Islam and the west as they are people

of both, Islam and the west. 

There is a growing crisis in Germany and France over

the hijab, the headscarf which an increasing number of

school girls have started to wear. President Chirac’s

latest move to ban headscarves in educational

establishments has created protests throughout the

Muslim world which feels their religious symbols are

targeted whilst Jewish and Christian people are not

similarly harassed if they wear religious symbols.

There are Muslims in Europe who would agree with the

French government but feel the conflict is being

managed badly and will result in confrontations rather

than dialogue and agreement. 

Domestic Consequences of Foreign Policy Decisions 

The war in Iraq had unpredictable consequences in

Europe. A genuine moment of integrated and shared

concern emerged in all capitals as the anti-war

movements gathered pace. EU countries are coming to

understand how deeply connected are foreign and

domestic policy issues today. The Middle East crisis

plays itself out in European streets, homes and places

of worship; ‘the war on terror’ similarly. Other

examples include the dispute over Kashmir and the EU’s

relationship with the theocracy in Iran. European

public opinion has turned viciously against asylum

seekers, most of whom are Muslims. Nobody wants Muslim

migrants any more. 

This adds to the disillusionment of British Muslims

who see their human rights violated by western

governments, by bad governance in Muslim nations, by

the powerful in Chechnya, India, Palestine and other


September the 11th has only deepened the sense of

alienation. The attacks were felt to be an

abomination, and initially the British government and

media were careful not to blame Islam and all Muslims

for the terrorism. There was no surge in animosity

against British Muslims, although tensions have since

increased and British Muslims are expressing

resentment at the intrusive, illegal and unfair

treatment they claim they receive. They have become

more engaged internationally, connected with the Ummah

through the internet. The Republican US government and

Tony Blair are regarded with increasing hostility.

However, completely unexpectedly, the war against Iraq

has brought Muslims closer to their compatriots who

came out against the war. For the first time, Muslims

and non-Muslims came together with a strong political


In all EU countries there is sense of rage and

despondency among Muslims that their own countries

remain undemocratic and often oppressive. Radical

groups form around these grievances and this too then

becomes fertile soil for extremism. 

Treated as citizens? Muslims in Europe 

In Britain, more than any of the other states the

answer to this question would be a resounding ‘yes.’

They are equal to other Britons at least in terms of

their stated rights. The reality is somewhat less

positive, but at least they can assert their rights in

courts. In France, Muslims do not feel they are given

the same rights and opportunities as others.

Ideological confrontations between traditionalist

Muslims and the secular government make integration

harder. In Germany, Turkish Muslims have finally been

enabled to get German citizenship as the country

abandons its principle of jus sanguinis) but as EPC

Dialogue participants heard, these ‘passport Germans’

are not treated as equals yet. 

Shared Values and the British Experience 

True equality is not having to apologise for your

colour or family and identity but a stable nation must

have core, common values, otherwise it is only a

collection of villages where people battle each other

for resources and recognition but feel no attachments

to anyone outside their own enclosures. 

Questions are now arising about the limits of

diversity and the values, which bind people together.

For example: laws protect British children against

corporal punishment in schools. Should Muslim madrasas

(religious schools) be exempt from this? If they are,

are Muslim children getting less protection than

Christian children in Sunday Schools? Other issues are

more contentious. This has created new tensions and

reinforced the idea that Muslims are not respected or

given the right of choice. World-wide campaigns have

been launched to protest. But there are many European

Muslims who agree with the French government yet are

critical of the way this order was passed. 

The place of religion in the state is being questioned

with new vigour through the EU. Are state funded

religious schools divisive, even though most have high

academic standards? Why an established Church of

England when church attendance is going down and other

faiths are thereby relegated to a second-class status?

Should secular values always take precedence over

religious values in the modern world? 

Women in Islam 

The post-war migration flows initially were mostly

male, women came later. Some of these men took up with

white partners and then faced identity crises.

Expectations were and still are that the women would

keep alive the traditions, cultures, faith. But in the

most conservative families, dynamics change, cultures

become porous and the pressures on women and girls are

immense. Children lead separate lives within and

outside the home and there are inevitable conflicts. 

Values – independence, individuality, choice-

inevitably enter their bloodstreams and although some

families accommodate and even encourage these changes,

others find it intolerable. Mothers who have had more

proscribed lives react in two ways; they either want

their daughters to be more independent or, terrified

of repercussions from their families and communities,

impose tight restrictions. 

There are Muslim families in Britain who take their

daughters out of school when they reach the age of

fourteen. Forced marriages are still (and some believe

a growing) problem. Female suicide and runaway rates

among these families are disproportionately high. 

Research shows Bangladeshi and Pakistani women have

lower educational attainments and lower economic

activity than other British Asian women and that part

of the explanation for this is located in cultural and

religious belief systems which locate women in the

domestic sphere. 

There is a success story too of Muslim women forging

ahead but there are many more obstacles in their

paths. For ambitious and educated Muslims women,

Islamaphobia has become a concrete ceiling and they

are fighting against this. Middle-class Muslim women –

still a minority in Britain – are able to exert power

and access all that is good about their faith and

cultures without being imprisoned by either. We now

see Muslim women in Oxford and Cambridge and other

universities and a number of writers, activists,

lawyers, doctors, painters, politicians, city brokers

and journalists- unthinkable fifteen years ago. 

The hijab is proving to be another fascinating issue.

Younger Muslims are taking on the hijab, and burkha.

Others reject these garments and there is considerable

coercion which creates further tensions. The symbolism

of the veil has a long history in the western and

eastern imaginations believes lecturer Reina Lewis

describes ‘Standing as a beacon of tradition or an

emblem of progressive modernity, the veiled or

unveiled, de-veiled or re-veiled, woman has been a

feature of divergent struggles over decolonisation,

nationalism, revolution, Westernisation and



There are signs of a gradual emergence of a modern

European Islam, an Islam that embraces an

international morality and value consensus. At the

same time, there are very real issues affecting

Muslims in Europe and issues such as employment,

racism and identity, which need to be addressed. In

order to make integration work, the dialogue among the

different communities needs to be improved and mutual

rights and obligations need to be recognised. The

rights, responsibilities and circumstances of Muslims

in Europe vary widely. There is not just one Islamic

phenomenon, but several. Much more needs to be done to

deepen European understanding and policy toward the

European Union’s Muslim citizens. 


In October 2002 the European Policy Centre and its

strategic partner the King Baudouin Foundation

launched an Integrated Work Programme around the

questions raised by the rights and responsibilities of

Muslims in Europe and the European Union’s relations

with Islamic countries. This personal overview of the

complex issues involved has been prepared by the

distinguished writer, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. An

extensive report of the first Policy Dialogue, held on

9 December 2003, in context of this integrated work

programme can be found on the EPC website. 


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