Europe Confronts Islam

Reluctance to embrace the Muslim community in Western Europe threatens to alienate people who are key to curbing future terrorist attacks.

Germany is home to 3.2 million Muslims, yet last month a small but vocal group staged a protest in Cologne to try to block plans for a Mosque. This kind of Muslim exclusionism has become a disturbing but growing trend in Western Europe.

Leading opponents of the mosque in Cologne—Manfred Rouhs, leader of a radical right-wing citizen’s movement known as Pro-Cologne, and Ralph Giordano, a respected German-Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor—cite the mosque’s largely Turkish constituency as a primary cause for concern. “These people only speak Turkish,” Rouhs told The New York Times. “They see no need to learn German. We think that’s the wrong way, and because of this we are critical of the project.” In Giordano’s view, the mosque would be “an expression of the creeping Islamization of our land.”

The continued threat of terrorism may be part of what is making Europeans reluctant to embrace the Muslim community, but as USA Today notes, Muslims are essential to combating terrorism and securing global peace. Europe and the rest of the world cannot afford to continue to alienate this segment of the community.

Despite this warning, Germany isn’t the only one experiencing tensions. Former foreign secretary of Great Britain Jack Straw ignited an ongoing debate about the use of veils in British society when he wrote in The Lancashire Telegraph last year that he “felt uncomfortable about talking to someone ‘face-to-face’ who I could not see.” According to an Ipsos MORI poll conducted shortly afterwards, 59 percent of Londoners agreed with Straw’s insinuation that wearing veils is bad for race relations. And more recently, David Sexton, a columnist for The Evening Standard, wrote that the veil is “abusive, a walking rejection of all our freedoms.” It’s therefore unsurprising that some Muslim women who wear a veil report being the object of verbal abuse as well as legal action restricting their right to wear it.

The concerns about veils are emblematic of larger concerns about Muslims in British society. After the terrorist attacks of 2005, the foiled plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners in 2006, and the unsuccessful car bombings in June, there has been an increasing backlash against British Muslims. The British National Party is still small—receiving only 0.7 percent of the vote in the 2005 general election—but it is the fastest growing party in the country. It promotes the deportation of all illegal immigrants and thinks Britain should pay legal ones to leave. Nick Griffin, head of the BNP, has called Islam a “wicked, vicious faith” and British Muslims “the most appalling, insufferable people to have to live with.”

This discrimination is not confined to fringe parties in Europe. The accession of Turkey, a majority Muslim country, to the European Union has become an issue of major contention among European leaders and the public. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Christian Democratic Union to which German Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs both oppose full membership for Turkey. Majorities of citizens in Austria, Germany, and France, along with 12 other countries, are also wary of Turkish accession to the EU not only because of the country’s human rights record but also, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, due to its demographics—it is “huge, poor, and Islamic.”

At the heart of growing Muslim exclusionism in Europe is a concern that immigrants want to create a segregated, parallel world—one that rejects and threatens the values of the host country and replaces those values with its own alien beliefs.

Ironically, viewpoints like these have played a significant role in creating a separate, parallel world of Muslim immigrants. Until 1999, the “imperial and state citizenship law” of Germany prevented most migrants and their children from obtaining citizenship and even denied them some constitutional protections. And “The English,” in the words of Roger Ballard at the University of Manchester, “have always had, since the days of the Reformation, this strong commitment to homogeneity.” The Christian European Union—to a degree—views Muslim Turkey as culturally incompatible with its member states.

The reality is that the majority of Muslims have adopted a spirit of accommodation in European communities. The Mosque being built in Cologne, for example, will not broadcast calls to worship over loudspeakers, will not impose itself on a neighborhood, and will be built with glass walls to symbolize its openness. Turkey, for its part, has initiated important political and economic reforms, as called upon to do by the EU, although more reforms are needed.

Recognizing that Muslims have been driven into isolated communities and not offered the same educational and economic opportunities, European leaders must reintroduce rationality into a debate about Islam in Europe that has been hijacked by the vocal minority of nativists and xenophobes. European leaders must reciprocate European Muslims’ spirit of accommodation and give them more of a stake in their communities. This includes not only equal social, economic, and political opportunities, but also an acceptance of religious diversity.

European authorities would benefit from examining what the United States has done right in integrating its Muslim population. This may seem surprising considering the numerous immigration and assimilation challenges we still face, and one need look no further than recent divisive and heated debate in the Senate and the backlash against Muslims in the post-9/11 era for examples. But there are clear reasons why the majority of Muslim Americans—according to the Pew Research Center—are “Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream” while the majority of European Muslims are not.

Part of the explanation is that, unlike in Europe, Muslims in America have not traditionally faced significant economic and social barriers. The same Pew poll referenced above confirms the validity of the belief among the majority of Muslims that they have had the opportunity to advance themselves with hard work and subsequently, “Muslim-American income and educational levels…generally mirror those of the general public.”

Perhaps more importantly, the United States, which was founded upon a principle of religious tolerance and pluralism, offers comparatively fertile ground for those wishing to practice their religion freely. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago and a Muslim, recently told Newsweek, “When I say to an evangelical Christian, ‘It’s prayer time,’ they might question the way I pray, but they understand viscerally the importance of prayer. When I lived in England and I said, ‘It’s prayer time,’ people looked at me as if I was an alien.”

Unfortunate setbacks in America, such as the general population’s increasing skepticism of Muslims and their religion, should not blind monoculturally minded Europe from recognizing our historical successes and seeing that cultural conformity does not equal national unity.

Read more at the Faith and Progressive Policy Project from the Center for American Progress.


The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.