Muslims in Western Europe

Dim drums throbbing in the hills half heard 

Aug 8th 2002 

From The Economist print edition,_by_satellite

Is there something about Islam that makes it

impossible for Muslims to fit into western, liberal


AT THE end of the street stands the church, its

steeple rising high above the roofs of the

neighbouring terraces. The roads on either side are

named after English county towns'Cambridge, Stafford,

Warwick and so on'and in the pub on the corner of

Warwick Street the pints are being pulled. Oh, to be

in England. But this is not quite the England of

Robert Browning; this is Oldham, a decaying cotton

town just outside Manchester, where litter blows in

the street, buddleia sprouts from the brickwork of the

factories that made 19th-century Lancashire rich'and

the children running into the building opposite the

pub are Muslims arriving for their daily measure of

Koranic instruction.

Similar scenes can be found in many towns in Western

Europe these days. It is hardly a novelty to see women

in saris, men wearing turbans, or signs written in

strange scripts. Even the riots that erupted in a part

of Oldham last summer seem a bit familiar: mass

immigration has been a fact of life for West Europeans

for several decades now, and so have its concomitant

problems. What is new is not concern about immigrants

in general but about Muslim immigrants in particular.

September 11th and Osama bin Laden's justification of

violence in the name of Islam were enough to arouse

all sorts of worries about the Muslim world, where

theocracies flourish, women tend to be downtrodden,

zealots chop off limbs for breaches of the law and

adulterers may be stoned to death. That several of the

perpetrators of the attacks on the twin towers had

apparently lived for years in western countries raised

further worries about the enclosed societies that

seemed to exist within the West, societies in which

hate could be preached and treachery plotted while all

around non-Muslims remained utterly unaware.

Then, in May, came the Dutch general election and the

bewildering success, until his murder, of Pim Fortuyn,

the gay critic of the Netherlands' consensual

political establishment. Part of Fortuyn's message was

simply anti-immigration: the country was 'full up'.

But it was not only racists who responded to his views

about Islam. It was, he said, a 'backward religion',

intolerant of homosexuals and women's rights. This

struck a chord well beyond the Netherlands, as may be

judged by some remarks of Joschka Fischer, Germany's

foreign minister, at the end of May. It was necessary,

said Mr Fischer, whom no one would consider illiberal,

to find out whether Islamic traditions and teachings

were compatible with the values of modern western


Up in Oldham, Riaz Ahmad could be forgiven for feeling

a bit hurt. Having been elected mayor of this town of

220,000 people, 11% of them Muslim, only three weeks

earlier, he had just started to use his new position

to bring people together. He considers the main

problems of everyone in Oldham to be the scarcity of

jobs and decent housing and all the other handicaps

associated with poverty. These afflict immigrants even

more severely than longer-established citizens. 

The immigrants who arrived in Oldham in the 1970s and

1980s came to work in the textile industry, expecting

to go home to the Indian subcontinent in due course.

The Turks who went to Germany as 'guest-workers' from

the 1960s onwards, and the North Africans who went to

France around the same time, all had similar reasons

for leaving home, and similar hopes of returning. But,

for most of them, the return has never happened.

Meanwhile, they have failed to learn English (or

German or French) very well and, to make matters

worse, most of their original jobs have gone. Now, in

Oldham at least, any work to be had is in offices or

banks or dry cleaners, where a command of the language

is far more important than in a textile mill. So

Asians find it hard to get jobs, while their children,

held back by poor English, often fare poorly at

school. Some schools are over 90% Asian.

Mr Ahmad mentions other difficulties faced by Oldham's

newcomers. Many grew up in rural areas in Bangladesh

and Pakistan, a far cry from urban England, and they

were unskilled. Moreover, some brought their feudalism

with them, and also the loyalty to the clan associated

with it. This means that today an extended family of

up to 500 people may vote as one. 

This kind of behaviour is not confined to Oldham: as

many as 600,000 of the 2m or so people in Britain who

originated in the Indian subcontinent came from just

one region, Mirpur, in the Pakistani part of Kashmir.

Like others from South Asia, Mirpuris congregate

together, bring girls and boys to Britain to marry

their sons and daughters in arranged (and occasionally

forced) marriages and thus help to constitute the

'parallel society''the term is used in an official

report into last year's riots'which exists in Oldham.

Such habits obviously make it harder for these

communities to fit into British society as a whole'and

Britain has been quicker than, say, France or Germany

to come to terms with the idea of integration, whereby

immigrants may keep the culture and religion of their

homeland, rather than assimilation, whereby they are

indistinguishable, except perhaps by colour, from the

natives. In themselves, these habits have little to do

with Islam. Yet some aspects of Islam do reinforce the

isolation of Muslims in Western Europe.

Abroad at home, by satellite

The position of women is a case in point. Whether for

cultural or for religious reasons, women tend to come

a poor second to men in Islamic societies. After

marriage, they often spend much of their time indoors,

cut off from the sorts of activities that might bring

them into contact with their non-Muslim neighbours.

Another consequence, says Pierre Bédier'who, until he

became a government minister in June, was mayor of

Mantes-la-Jolie outside Paris'is that they spend much

of their time watching television, and not just the

standard diet devoured by most people in France. The

television beamed into the homes of French Muslims

comes from the Middle East or North Africa, with

programmes that constantly dwell on the tribulations

of the Palestinians and the 'victimhood' of the Arabs

in general. In the main square of Le Val Fourré, the

Muslim quarter of Mantes-la-Jolie, where an

electioneering President Jacques Chirac was spat upon

by youths earlier this year, few women are to be seen,

and in the café the people drinking mint tea are all


That is not to say that all women are subjugated. Far

from it: Le Val Fourré's hammam'Turkish bath'is run by

Fatima Jaadane, a successful entrepreneuse from

Morocco, and several young women are serving beer in

the recently opened nightclub nearby. Such behaviour

would not go down well in Oldham, though. A few girls

do go clubbing there, says Zaffer Ullah, a 28-year-old

community worker, but they probably do not tell their

parents, and many do not drink. He says he is 'not

religious''he goes to the mosque once a week'but,

unlike Oldham's whites, 'We don't like to go to pubs.'

Phil Woolas, a local MP, says Islam's ban on alcohol

was a significant contributor, along with

testosterone, to last year's riots. If you're an

unemployed youth, with dim prospects, sharing a

bedroom with five brothers and forbidden by your

parents to go out with girls or have a drink, and

along come some provocative white racists, you're

tempted to take them on.

Most of Germany's Muslims are Turks, whose attitude to

Islam is much more relaxed than that of Pakistanis.

But in Germany, as in Turkey, some Muslims are

becoming more devout, and even more are choosing to

assert their Muslim identity as a form of

self-expression, a way of saying that they are not

ashamed of their origins. Many women do this by

wearing the headscarf, an act no more objectionable,

you might think, than Sikhs wearing the turban or Jews

the yarmulke, but one that is a constant reminder to

those around them that they are not going to reject

their background.

Cem Özdemir, one of only three members of the

Bundestag of Turkish origin, sees no problem with

this. So long as Muslims respect the German

constitution, speak a bit of the language and accept

the values of society'which are universal, he notes,

not specifically Christian'their readiness to fit in

should not be questioned. Yet he admits that Muslims

have sometimes been responsible for attacks on gays

and lesbians in Germany, to their dismay as well as

injury, since homosexuals have often been in the

forefront of campaigns against all kinds of


Certainly, some Islamic practices seem jarring to

Europeans. The ritual slaughter of tens of thousands

of sheep at the annual feast known as Aid al-Adha

draws a shocked response each year in France. Less

upsetting but still awkward are Islamic burial

requirements, some of which (the ban on coffins)

conflict with public-health laws. Since exhumation is

also strictly forbidden under Islam, and bodies must

be buried as soon as possible, 90% of Germany's

Muslims are flown home to be buried once they die.

France has only one Muslim cemetery, at Bobigny, and

Germany none, though land at Tempelhof in Berlin may

yet be used. In Le Val Fourré, the bodies of older

Muslims are also sent home, though the young are

usually buried in the Catholic cemetery.

Such practices serve to perpetuate the links with the

homeland. So does the reluctance of many states to

grant citizenship to their immigrants, sometimes even

to the children of immigrants born in Europe. But

nothing perpetuates these links as worryingly as the

Muslim organisations that exist in Europe and the

mosques in which Europe's Muslims worship.

Once a Turk, always a Turk'

In Germany, for example, the biggest organisation for

immigrants is DITIB, an arm of the Turkish

government's office for religion. Turkey is a secular

state, thoroughly hostile to fundamentalism, so DITIB

is far from Islamist, but it does not do much for

integration. On the contrary, since its main concern

is the pursuit of Turkey's national interest, it

encourages Turks in Germany to think of themselves as

Turks. So do Turkish-language press and television.

The German edition of the Turkish paper Hurriyet is,

in Mr Özdemir's words, 'more nationalist than the

Turkish one'.

Only a small fraction of Germany's 3.2m Muslims belong

to the country's 19 Islamist groups but, according to

the authorities, they add up to nearly 32,000 people.

The largest organisation, Milli Gorus, is linked to

the main Islamist party (whose name changes according

to the latest banning order) in Turkey. It does not

preach violence, but its 27,500 members are likely to

be taught that integration into western societies is

treason under Islam. Other fundamentalists may belong

to the Islamic Cultural Centres, a group headquartered

in Cologne that operates in half a dozen other West

European countries. Or they may, if they are brave,

belong to the Caliphate State, banned last December,

with 1,100 members in Germany.

Many Islamic organisations perform vital tasks

neglected by others'for instance, helping immigrants

to find housing or work (the unemployment rate among

Berlin's 180,000 Turks is over 40%, compared with 17%

among Berliners at large). But both the number and the

structure of these groups make it difficult for

outsiders, whether the government or Christian

churches or others seeking to build bridges, to know

whom to deal with. 

This pattern, or rather absence of pattern, is

mirrored in the mosques. Most in Berlin are organised

on a national basis. Most do good work, organising

programmes for women about health care or child

welfare. They win praise for their anti-drug

activities. But what is taught by their imams, both in

the mosque and in the school (or madrassa) that is

generally attached, is often unknown to outsiders.

It may be well known that venomous sermons are

preached in the Finsbury Park Mosque in London by Abu

Hamza al-Masri, a one-eyed sheikh with a special

distaste for America. It may be that the Italian

police have long known, as George Bush said last year,

that the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan harboured

a terrorist cell. But for most people what goes on in

Europe's mosques'which are usually flats or halls or

garages, not the domed and minareted buildings of the

Levant'is a matter for conjecture. That inevitably

turns to suspicion when news breaks, as it did

recently, that leading imams in Amsterdam, Rotterdam

and The Hague had apparently been inciting their

congregations to violence.

Europe's imams are usually sent and paid for by the

governments of Muslim countries. Secular Turkey,

through DITIB, sends imams and provides Islamic

lessons for children in Germany. Morocco and Algeria

do the same in France. In Le Val Fourré the mosque, a

handsome affair by any standards, was built by Saudi

Arabia, and for a while, until the French intelligence

service 'organised a change', had a fundamentalist

imam. Why do governments believe it their duty to

provide mosques and imams in a foreign country'

Perhaps to stop their expatriates falling prey to

radicalism; perhaps because the distinction between

church and state is never clear for theocratic


A fear of extremism is not confined to non-Muslims.

Ghoul Moulay, an imam in Marseilles, frankly expresses

his fear of fundamentalists not just from Somalia or

Yemen but also from Britain. Soheib Bencheikh, the

grand mufti of Marseilles, says 'Muslims must become

immunised against outside radicalisation.' Like many

others, they believe it essential that imams should be

trained in Europe, not in the Middle East, the Maghreb

or Pakistan. 

But where will the money come from to build and run

the necessary colleges' Secular, anti-clerical France

is constitutionally forbidden to give state money to

religions, though the long-established Christian

churches and their Jewish counterparts receive tax

benefits. Mr Bédier, the ex-mayor of Mantes-la-Jolie,

thinks a solution could be found. First, government

buildings could be rented out to Muslim groups for

peppercorn sums. Second, a state school could be set

up to train imams in Alsace-Lorraine, which was not a

part of France when the crucial law on separation of

church and state was enacted. 

A similar effort is needed in Germany to promote

suitable Islamic education in schools. The German

constitution says all children have the right to

religious education, and in Länder (states) such as

North Rhine-Westphalia about half of all kindergartens

are organised by the church, though they are 60%

financed by the state. Jewish children receive

teaching overseen by the Central Council of Jews, but

the country's 3.2m Muslims receive no Islamic

education from the state'leaving the field wide open

to the unsupervised madrassas. In Germany, the Central

Council of Muslims may fill the breach, and one

institute to train teachers is getting going in

Münster, but many more are needed. Spain lags even

further behind, chiefly because the government is

still searching for a Muslim authority with which to

reach agreement.

The slow path ahead

Generalisations about Europe's Muslims need heavy

qualification: their cultural and national

backgrounds, which vary enormously, may play a bigger

part in their ability to integrate than their

religion. So may the culture and politics of the

countries they now live in: all Commonwealth citizens

enjoy the vote in Britain, for instance, which means

that Muslims from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and

parts of Africa can vote in British elections as soon

as they arrive. Their children, moreover, are British

if they are born in Britain. In France and Germany, by

contrast, citizenship has been granted only


One broad conclusion is clear. Pim Fortuyn was wrong:

nothing in Islam makes it impossible for Muslims to

fit into West European society, as the successful

integration of many thousands already attests. In

particular, he was wrong to think Islam was

necessarily, and therefore immutably, intolerant. It

is true that some Muslims are intolerant of

homosexuality and treat women badly, but homosexuality

was a crime in most western countries until recently,

and women did not have full voting rights in Britain

until 1929. In France they were not allowed to sign

cheques until 1962. Given time, and effort on all

sides, most Muslims will lose their censoriousness, as

well as their insistence on marrying within their

communities. And anyway, how many Catholics would

still prefer their children to marry a Catholic rather

than a Protestant'




Two loyalties, too


But integration is hindered both by cultural and, to

some extent, by religious factors. The critical mass

of the Muslim immigrant communities, which makes it

easier for individuals to survive unintegrated, is a

serious impediment, just as it is for Latinos in the

United States. So, in one respect, is the strength of

Islam as a religion. That strength brings several

benefits. Muslims are generally good, law-abiding

citizens. They tend to have strong family values.

Their children who have gone through religious

education often gain a self-confidence that helps them

in their other school work. But Islam is a religion

that is readily open to extremist distortion, as all

religions are to some extent, and it is ill-equipped

to impose restraint on its wilder followers: 70% of

the imams in France are self-proclaimed, laments Imam

Moulay in Marseilles. If an association wants a

fundamentalist, no one can stop it.

The lesson is that, if integration is the aim,

everyone must work at it. In Britain, the most

residentially segregated of all immigrant groups are

the Bangladeshis, many of whom are crowded into a

single borough, Tower Hamlets, in East London. The

next-most-segregated are the Pakistanis, followed by

the Indians, with the Caribbean population relatively

well integrated. Indeed, Ceri Peach of Oxford

University argues that the Caribbeans are following an

'Irish', assimilationist path, whereas the

predominantly Muslim South Asians are following a

'Jewish', pluralist path in which they are

economically integrated but socially encapsulated. It

would be wrong to assume that what happens in Britain

will necessarily happen elsewhere, just as it would be

wrong to attribute the South Asian Muslims' lack of

progress in society only to their religion. But it

would be odd if Islam had nothing to do with it.


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