Euro-Islam v. "Eurabia": Defining the Muslim Presence in Europe

By
Ina Merdjanova

Religion Dispatches

April 30, 2008- Euro-Islam vs. “Eurabia”: Defining the Muslim Presence in Europe

In the cacophony of voices in the European public square in the wake of the Fitna controversy, two broader lines can be discerned. While the protagonists of interreligious and intercultural toleration—in both secular and church-related circles—constitute a clear majority, the message sent by Wilders has not fallen on deaf ears.

The theme of his film taps into popular fears about the growing presence of Islam in Europe. Anti-Muslim attitudes have historical roots in European culture(s), but more importantly, recent surveys reveal a growing degree of intolerant and discriminating attitudes toward Muslim immigrants. The response from Muslims, both in Europe and internationally, has been outrage: Wilders’ video has been compared to the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, and even to the Rushdie affair; the Organization of the Islamic Conference has seen it as a new “act of discrimination against Muslims,” designed to “provoke unrest and intolerance.” Reactions have ranged from retaliation threats—which include several fatwa against Wilders and calls for his death—to statements of outrage, to warnings not to yield to provocations.

Most of these divergent voices have engaged (to different extents, and from different angles) the issue of “Euro-Islam.” But who are European Muslims and how do they participate in the creation of a European Islam? There are around 15 million Muslims in Western Europe today, and a distinct social tension has attended the rising of this population. Specific issues like the building of mosques, Muslim education, and controversies over the wearing of hijab have intersected with wider issues related to the general lack of economic, political and cultural integration of Muslims. Both observant Christians and nonbelievers in Europe, have, for different reasons, often viewed Muslims’ expression of religious beliefs and symbols in the public space as particularly problematic. Concerns about demography and social cohesion have figured highly in the mass imagination, fueled by alarmist talks by some intellectuals and politicians about Europe becoming “Eurabia,” a colony of Islam.

Muslims in Europe have been suspected of being loyal to foreign Islamic agendas, of being influenced by Islamic networks and supported by foreign funds. And, since September 11 and the bombings in Madrid and London, Muslims in Europe have been increasingly perceived as a major security threat. Since 2001, the number of arrested terrorist suspects in various EU countries has been much greater than in the US. Anti-Muslim attitudes have been further fostered by anti-immigrant sentiment and images linking local Muslims to the violence in the Middle East. All this has hardly been conducive to objective study or representation of Muslim communities in Europe.

When speaking about Islam in Europe, many people often forget that Southeast Europe, or the Balkans, has been home to Muslim communities for more than six centuries. The Ottoman conquest of the Balkan Peninsula during the 14-15th century led to a massive expansion of Islam in this part of the world. While religion in general was suppressed under communism, the end of the Cold War has brought new opportunities for Muslim religious and cultural revitalization, as well as for political mobilization.

Muslims in Western Europe and those in the Balkans differ enormously between themselves (and often within each group) according to geographic, ethnic, and linguistic background, as well as in terms of culture and ideology, but they are all involved in the simultaneous processes of European unification on the one hand and globalization on the other. Moreover, they have been struggling to elaborate a concept of a European Islam that aims at defining what being a Muslim in Europe actually means, not to mention the question of who is to speak on behalf of this population.

European Islam has sometimes been perceived by various European governments as a potentially unifying project, one which might redress the failure of the two dominant European approaches in dealing with immigrants (whether it be the strategy of assimilation in France or multiculturalism in Northern Europe). Moreover, the advancement of this project is often seen as bringing about the long-hoped-for institutionalization of Islam, which could compensate for the lack of a centralized authority in Islam and with which matters of mutual interest can be negotiated. There is also the hope that the institutionalization of Islam might assure better transparency regarding funds channeled to Muslim communities and associations from abroad.

Many Western European Muslims view the construction of a European Islam as an important step toward social integration, particularly in the face of widespread hostility and prejudice: the status of being European by birth yet profoundly different from the largely secular European milieu inevitably demands a new self-definition. The project of Euro-Islam, however vague and undeveloped right now, aims at constructing a positive image of Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance; countering post-September 11 suspicion of Muslims as terrorists and the attendant large scale fears of Islam. Moreover, it carries the hope that European citizens of Islamic faith can mediate between “East” and “West”, serving as brokers of peace and reconciliation.

Balkan Muslim leaders and theologians have claimed a representative status for “their” Islam, a centuries-old presence on European soil. As far back as the 19th century, the Muslim elite in the region sought to formulate a “local Islam,” compatible with Western modernity. Today, the well-institutionalized Bosnian Islamic Community has played a key role in promoting the positive image of Balkan Islam as a model for a pan-European Islam, and its leader, Mustafa Ceric, wants to establish himself as its patron. In 2006 Ceric devised and circulated a “Declaration of European Muslims”, which names Europe “the house of Peace and Security based on the principle of Social Contract” and highlights European Muslims’ commitments to the rule of law, tolerance, democracy and human rights. The Declaration has been widely distributed, both in the EU and the Islamic world, but has not yet made much of an impact.

It might be that Balkan Muslims see a pan-European Islam as an opportunity for enhanced recognition of their historical presence in Europe, but, despite the attractiveness of the idea of a European Islam, there seem to be various obstacles to putting it into practice. First, the cultural and socioeconomic differences between the Balkan Muslims and those living in Western Europe are enormous. Moreover, the considerable fragmentation along ethnic, national, and also sectarian lines among various Muslim groups in both parts of Europe is hardly conducive to the construction of an all-European Muslim identity. Second, there are few systematic interconnections between Muslim communities in Europe, especially with the absence of sociopolitically influential pan-European Islamic organizations. Last, but not least, some writers and policy-makers have expressed concerns about a potential political appropriation of an institutionalized Islam by Muslim radicals in Europe, who tend to have better organizational skills as well as means to impose their agenda on the rest of the Muslim population. These concerns are obviously to be taken into serious consideration, before a further promotion of the project.

For the time being, the question of whether Euro-Islam will remain a talismanic sketch, will be altogether dismantled, or will be turned into a coherent, feasible and commanding program, is still far from clear. One thing is certain, however, and that is that Islam and Muslims are not external and alien to Europe. Europe has a considerable “indigenous” Muslim population in its southeast part, and communities that have developed effective models of societal integration. This is an important asset they have to offer—something that politicians like Wilders, with their sensationalist and alarmist agenda, prefer to completely forget.

This essay was written during the author’s visit to the Woodrow Wilson Center as a Southeast Europe policy scholar. 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant