Islam and Immigrants in Western Europe

In the past several weeks, hundreds of lives have been lost at sea as refugees flee northern Africa seeking safety in Europe. How is this humanitarian crisis related to religious freedom? To what extent is this mass emigration related to a lack of religious freedom in home countries? On the other side of the coin, what do religious freedom issues in the EU have to do with the treatment of these refugees? To what extent do the religious identities of these migrants influence EU refugee policies?

By: Nancy Foner and Richard Alba

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The plight of the many thousands of refugees attempting to enter Europe from the Middle East and northern Africa in a flight from war and persecution has captured the world’s attention. Those who survived the harrowing journey have sought asylum, hoping to build new lives in Europe, which offers not only the prospect of peace, democracy, and economic opportunity but also the possibility of greater religious freedom.

The glow of Europe, however, may eventually wear off for those able to put down roots because of the barriers to inclusion they confront. There are the difficulties of finding decent jobs, as well as prejudice owing to their darker skin color and refugee origins. For refugees who are Muslim—and this includes a large number now seeking entry to Europe—religion is also a major source of exclusion.

Indeed, whether our focus is on recent Muslim refugees, longer-established Muslim immigrants, or the European-born children of Muslim arrivals, Islam has become a central dividing line in much of Western Europe that separates Muslims from those in the native majority population and is a source of hostility and discrimination.

One of the barriers that Muslims in Western Europe face has to do with what the sociologist Jose Casanova calls the “intolerant tyranny of the secular, liberal majority.” After centuries of domination by an established and highly restrictive Christian order, many Europeans aggressively trumpet secular values and see Muslims as a threat to them. Religious identities and forms of social and cultural activity based on religious principles are frequently viewed as illegitimate in Western Europe, particularly when it comes to Islam. While conservative religious people are expected to tolerate behavior they consider morally abhorrent, such as homosexuality, Europeans often feel that their societies should not tolerate religious practices or cultural customs that conflict with liberal secular norms and widely accepted views on such matters as the equal role of women and openly displayed sexuality. Especially prominent have been debates over whether to allow Muslim women to wear the headscarf, or even more full-face veils, in public spaces.

Another barrier confronting European Muslims is the open, blatant, and often highly provocative anti-Muslim political movements that have attracted growing support. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, voted the second most popular politician in his country in two national polls in 2009, has called for the banning of the Qur’an . In shrill rhetoric not uncommon for anti-Islam politicians, he has proclaimed, “If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time.… We are heading for the end of European…civilization as we know it.” In France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s newly-named party, Les Republicains, is playing on these same fears to garner support, advocating, among other things, for the addition of bans on headscarves in universities to those already in place in public schools.

But something else is involved, and it hits especially hard at the ability of Muslims to feel they belong to the European societies where they reside. Despite dominant secularism and the breaking of many links between church and state in Western Europe, the institutional context continues to favor Christianity and marginalize Islam. Magnificent churches and cathedrals dot the landscape (and in France, despite its proclaimed laicite, they are owned and maintained by the state), but few mosques can compete in appearance. Many Muslims are forced to worship in repurposed buildings or modest prayer spaces. Their attempts to build more impressive structures have given rise to ugly disputes in many cities. In Switzerland, for example, a successful 2008 referendum banned new minarets.

In much of Europe, the state favors long-established religions—and Christianity above all—through its school systems. In countries like France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, there is state support for religious schools, but the small number of government-funded Muslim schools pales beside the large number of Protestant and Catholics ones. While the French National Front (as well as Sarkozy) opposes allowing pork substitutes for Muslims in public schools, some schools serve fish dishes on Friday in keeping with Catholic tradition. In Germany, Christian and Jewish students receive regular religious instruction from teachers in the public schools, but Muslim students are taught Islam only in a few places.

Even in everyday popular culture, Muslims cannot help but see the domination of Christianity—and the second-class status of Islam. (Judaism, after centuries of anti-Semitism, has earned a modest seat at the mainstream table.) Public recognition is taken for granted in the case of Christian holidays but denied to even the most important Muslim ones. Christmas dominates public spaces throughout Europe, with Christkindlmarkets taking over town squares in German-speaking countries. In France, the annual public holidays include important Catholic ones but no Jewish or Muslim ones.

These institutional and cultural barriers confronting Muslims thwart a full identification with European societies on the part of many children of Muslim immigrants, even though they are citizens who have been born, raised, and schooled there. For the second generation, religious identities generally overshadow ethnic ones because the ancestral homeland—so meaningful to the parents—is but a pale memory to the children. But the European context makes combining a Muslim identity with a European one very difficult.

This situation has played a major role in a troubling development of the last few years, as several thousand second-generation European Muslims have gone to fight with Islamist groups in the war in Syria. Thus while many Syrian Muslims are in flight from jihadist militants and desperate to be admitted to Europe, many European-born Muslims who do not feel fully accepted in their own societies are heading in the opposite direction, seeking to join these very conflicts. As it turns out, the forces linking the newest Muslim refugees seeking safety in Europe and the Muslim second generation who have grown up there are connected in a paradoxical—and often tragic—way.

Nancy Foner is a distinguished professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Richard Alba is a distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 

This piece was originally authored on June 10, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/14/islam-and-immigrants-in-western-europe