The voices of the vast majority of Muslims in Europe have been marginalised, not least when very serious crimes drag them into a cycle of analyses and demonisation. This suggests that people with isolationist ideologies are organising such incidents for use as political cards, with total indifference to the multiculturalism upon which European societies are, at least nominally, based.
In France recently President Emmanuel Macron sought electoral gains from the far-right by trying to demonise Islam and Muslims. More than six million French citizens are Muslims, providing a ready-made scapegoat for all manner of social ills which agitate the right-wing. Some saw this is a means by which Macron could divert attention from the second wave of Covid-19 infections hitting France, as well as a declining economy.
When a French teacher was killed, apparently for showing his students cartoons alleged to be of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, social harmony in France was also a victim. Macron couched his comments in a defence of freedom of expression, paying little heed to the necessity to protect people from physical and psychological harm. The French president’s invocation of the state’s secularism opens the door to attacks on minorities who have played an important role in the building and revival of societies and communities across Europe and beyond. This role should not be underestimated.
Macron could and should have taken a lesson from the way that New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern coped after the shooting at two mosques in her country last year. She sought to unite the country, rather than highlight differences; to heal wounds rather than make them worse. To put it bluntly, Macron did the opposite.
French failures in this respect can be seen in the hate crime statistics, especially and significantly against France’s Muslim citizens. The Collective against Islamophobia in France recorded in its latest report that there were 1,043 reported anti-Islam incidents in 2019, a 77 per cent increase on the figure for 2017. That number includes 68 physical attacks; 618 incidents of discrimination; 210 incidents of incitement to racial hatred; 93 incidents of defamation; 22 incidents of vandalism of Muslim places of worship; and 32 incidents of discrimination related to combating terrorism. All of these incidents are fuelled by right-wing politicians and supporters, official institutions, the media, and intellectuals.
The populist discourse in many European countries has increased Islamophobia, leaving Muslim citizens doubting that they have a future in the countries in which most of them were probably born. However, they have firm convictions stemming from their achievements which bear witness to their positive contributions to society. Generations of Muslims have been born and raised in Europe and are not “immigrants”. They and those who have converted to Islam have deep roots in the continent with many holding influential positions. From ministers and mayors to scientists, doctors, businessmen, sports stars, and artists, European Muslims are to be found everywhere.
Over the centuries, Europe and Islamic culture have interacted widely. Influence has been two-way through travel, trade, and, of course, the Crusades. It is often said by scholars that the knowledge of the ancients was preserved and built upon in Muslim Spain over 800 years — when Europe was in the so-called “Dark Ages” — which then fuelled the European Renaissance.
Contrary to populist discourse, Muslims generally have no problem with integrating into their local communities. According to a study conducted by the German Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation in 2017, Muslims have integrated successfully in Germany, Britain, Switzerland, France, and Austria, despite the obstacles that they face in education and employment.
The study was of a representative sample of more than 1,100 Muslims in Germany and 500 from each of the other countries involved. “The integration of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe is making clear progress,” said the report. “By the second generation at the latest, the majority have entered mainstream society.” It also noted that “The successful integration is all the more notable because none of these five countries offer consistently good opportunities for participation, and Muslims encounter open rejection from about one-fifth of the population.”
In this context, social cohesion expert Stephan Vopel says that “Islam is not an obstacle to integration. Muslims, even the highly religious, learn the new language and strive for higher education levels just as much as other immigrants.” The study shows that the majority of participants, 94 per cent, feel connected to the country where they live, despite the expressions of rejection that immigrants face.
How successfully Muslims can integrate into multicultural societies is dependent on the laws which serve citizens and balance their duties with their rights, regardless of religion or ethnicity. After Sadiq Khan was elected in 2016 as Mayor of London he described himself as a proud British Muslim and Londoner of Pakistani origins. Other individuals who can be mentioned include the former Chair of Britain’s Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. She was the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet meetings and the third Muslim minister in Britain. In France, Rachida Dati was the first woman of Arab and Muslim origin to hold a ministerial portfolio in the government, and was Mayor of the 7th Arrondissement in Paris; she was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 2009.
Dutch politician and MP Joram van Klaveren is dedicating his life to researching religiosity and conversion to Islam through his books after he converted to the faith himself. Ahmed Aboutaleb is a Dutch politician of Moroccan origin who has been Mayor of Rotterdam since 2009. In 2015, he was chosen as the most popular Dutch political figure in an opinion poll. Local politicians from Muslim backgrounds are found all over Europe, as are sports stars, particularly footballers. Paul Pogba, Mohammad Salah, Sadio Mane, and Mezut Ozil, for example, and that’s just in the English Premier League. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane was a revered player for the French national team, Les Bleus, for which Pogba now plays.
Europe’s problem was never with its Muslims, but rather with extremist ideologues sowing unrest in society. They exist in all communities and are not unique to any particular one, as honest scrutiny of media reports would reveal. For all sorts of reasons, Muslims in Europe are the new scapegoats. Europeans have a tradition of this sort of thing: in Britain, it was once the Irish who were marginalised and demonised. In Germany it was the Turks; in France the Algerians. Across the continent, it was the Jews, infamously so, as the Nazi Holocaust attests.
The cure to this deadly malaise is to strengthen public freedoms for the benefit of everyone, not at the cost of freedom for minorities. The laws and judiciary must be impartial and without discrimination. Integration is a two-way street, but at the moment the scales are tipped in favour of the majority, which expects the minority — the Muslims — to kick down the doors to be welcomed. That doesn’t work. Nobody should be expected to abandon their faith, culture, and language in order to fit into mature societies. Europe has been a melting pot for people from all over the world — and across and within the continent — for centuries. With political will and sincerity, it can remain that way. The crisis in Europe stems from extremist ideology, not Islam and Muslims.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.