Recent government actions (including an Austrian law restricting German translations of the Qur'an, a German circumcision ban, a French headscarf ban, and a Swiss aminaret ban) are restricting Muslims' religious freedom in western Europe. Please join us on Cornerstone as diverse commentators explore the obstacles that European Muslim communities face and what these challenges mean for the future of religious freedom.
By: Muddassar Ahmed
Muslims are a visibly fast-growing community in an increasingly diverse Europe. Within this context, Europe is witnessing a rise in multiple identities within minority groups, not least the Muslim community. How to reconcile these multiple identities has become a fundamental part of the popular discourse on Muslims in Europe. And whilst the more contentious aspects of that discourse can sometimes be divisive and controversial, they often mask the progress and increased social mobility amongst Muslims throughout Europe.
Today, statistics show that Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims are on the rise across Europe. The ideas of diversity and multiculturalism are increasingly being challenged by notions of nationalism, homogeneity, and singular identity. Diversity, in all of its forms, is often presented as being diametrically opposed to nationalism and homogeneous nation-statism. This in part has created a conducive environment for the sharp rise in Islamophobic discrimination.
In France the number of reported Islamophobic incidents increased by 47 percent since 2013, whilst in the UK, the number of Islamophobic incidents has doubled since 2013. In 2009 a report on discrimination against Muslims by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU found that one in three respondents had experienced discrimination in the past 12 months. And this, of course, does not include the pervasive Islamophobic reporting within European media. In the UK, the 2012 Leveson inquiry into UK media practices highlighted the British media’s continuous and unfair targeting of Muslims in its coverage.
What compounds this problem is the absence of any official monitoring mechanism for Islamophobia in Europe. Much of Europe’s Islamophobic discrimination remains unrecognised, leaving countries and the EU powerless in understanding and quantifying the true scope of the problem.
But despite this, Muslims have emerged against the odds from this negativity as a largely upward and positive force in Europe—a stable and enterprising community at the forefront of European success. This is the largely untold story of Muslim progress, one that extends to the fields of European business, politics, culture, and theology. Often due to perceived or actual discrimination in traditional professions, Muslims in Europe have demonstrated an inclination towards independent business and entrepreneurism. According to a 2008 EU Commission report on ethnic minority business, entrepreneurial potential among groups that are disadvantaged, particularly among the migrant communities, is particularly strong.
Politically, European Muslims have made huge strides in the past few years in integrating themselves within Europe’s democratic system. Examples include the appointments of a British Pakistani, Sajid Javid MP, as Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister of Equalities; the appointment of Moroccan-born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as the French Education Minister (also the first woman in French history to hold that post); and the appointment of Cem Ozdimir, a Turkish heritage MEP, as co-chairman of Germany’s powerful Green Party. Yet another symbolic example is the appointment of British Muslim MEP, Sajjad Karim, as chair of the European Parliament’s Ethics and Standards Committee.
While voting and political participation for the majority of Muslims in Europe varies by country and are limited to those who are citizens, important posts within European governments are held by those of Muslim heritage. This is an indication that the political representation of Muslims is advancing against the rising tide of Islamophobic sentiment across the continent.
Legislatures that have a proportionately higher number of Muslims include Belgium, Netherlands, and the European Parliament. Recently, political parties aiming to cater to Muslims have begun to emerge, including the Muslim Democratic Party in Rotterdam and the Prune Party in Portillio, Toledo. This is particularly intriguing in light of recent major gains by far right and Islamophobic groups in European politics. The rise of UK Independence Party and the French National Front have underscored the bitter European climate for Muslims, but one that continues to be blighted by political success stories amongst Muslims.
Despite challenges of extremism and the current flow of a small but vocal minority to fight alongside the Islamic State (ISIS), European Muslims are known to be patriotic. A study in 2009 by the Open Society Institute found British Muslims to be the most patriotic community in Europe: 94 percent of UK-born Muslims identify themselves as British and are proud of their British identity. As the generational gap among Muslims closes, Muslims who are born in Europe are more likely to identify themselves with their country of birth than the country of their parents.
European Muslims have also contributed to the arts and media, whether as cultural icons, TV presenters, or nationally watched television shows. For instance, the UK, France, Denmark, Norway, and Germany all have Muslim anchors on mainstream television news shows. From French footballers to British singers, Muslims in Europe are quickly becoming an integral part of the social fabric of their countries.
From business entrepreneurship and politics to academia and the arts, European Muslims have made and continue to make valuable contributions to the societies in which they live. They have very much become an important and long-lasting feature of an ever-evolving Europe.
Muslims in Europe have the potential to become a living demonstration of the European triumph—the triumph of multiculturalism and globalization over sectarianism and racism. While the socio-political climate has become more challenging for European Muslims, European Muslims, by large, remain on an upward and progressive trajectory and have demonstrated they are a stable and successful minority community embodying the European ideals of religious freedom and diversity. It is important that Europe’s Muslims continue to stay unfailingly loyal to these ideals, regardless of how much downward pressure these principles face in today’s Europe.
Muddassar Ahmed is the founding Chief Executive of Unitas Communications Ltd, where he has led on projects with the United Nations, US State Department, the UK Foreign Office, the Arab League, Barclays Wealth, Mosaic, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, the UK National Health Service (NHS), and the British Council.
This piece was originally authored on December 11, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.