Skip to comments.Islam in Europe: A Changing Faith
Posted on 12/23/2001 9:48:39 PM PST by jennyp
There's standing room only in a converted warehouse in the decaying industrial hinterland north of central Paris. It's mid-October, just days after the first U.S. bombs fell on Afghanistan, and the French magazine La Médina which serves as an outlet for the country's Muslim population has organized a public meeting on the significance for Islam of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath.
The atmosphere is electric. The men are in jeans and sportswear, while most of the women wear scarves over their heads. With few exceptions, the audience is made up of North Africans in their mid-20s. On the podium, 39-year-old Swiss university professor Tariq Ramadan whose grandfather founded Egypt's Islamic revival movement the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 begins to speak. "Now more than ever we need to criticize some of our brothers," he tells the packed hall. "My dignity depends on saying, 'You're unjustified if you use the Koran to justify murder.'" The French establishment with its traditional mistrust of religion views Ramadan with suspicion, but tonight he sounds like the voice of reason.
Then a young woman steps up to the microphone. With her black hijab she could be from almost anywhere in the Muslim world, but her accent is unmistakable it's pure northern Parisian: "It's urgent for Muslims today to do everything they can to make the truth about their religion understood." The crowd bursts into thunderous applause.
Although most media have focused on a hard-core fringe calling for armed struggle against America, the overwhelming majority of Europe's Muslims see their religion as a moderate one. A survey carried out by the Mori agency for Eastern Eye, Britain's biggest selling Asian newspaper, shows that 87% of the Muslims polled are loyal to Britain, even though 64% oppose the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan.
These people and thousands of others like them are crafting a new strand of Islam, one that aims to reconcile the basic tenets of the faith such as social justice and submission to the will of God with the realities of contemporary European life. Though this process has been under way for some time, the events of Sept. 11 and afterward have lent it new urgency.
For many of Europe's 12.5 million Muslims, now is the time to redefine Islam in the context of their identities as believers who were born and bred in Europe. The result is a kind of Euro-Islam, the traditional Koran-based religion with its prohibitions against alcohol and interest-bearing loans now indelibly marked by the "Western" values of tolerance, democracy and civil liberties. This new vision could well end up influencing the world these young Europeans' grandparents left behind.
For this new generation, Euro-Islam is not a zero sum game: it is possible to be Muslim and European at the same time. In fact, unlike that of their Christian neighbors, the religious faith of Europe's Muslims is getting stronger. A survey published by French newspaper Le Monde in October shows that people from Muslim backgrounds are praying more, attending mosques more often and observing the Ramadan fast more assiduously than they did in 1994, when the survey was last conducted. The increased devotion is particularly marked among those who have been to university. In Britain, more women are wearing the hijab today than 10 years ago.
Euro-Islam is a bridge between two cultures, providing young believers with a way of respecting inherited traditions while living in a different world. It also gives them the confidence to practice their religion more openly, unlike their parents or grandparents who thought their sojourn in Europe was temporary and so were content to express their faith in private. Their children view Europe as their home and see no reason not to worship more publicly.
During Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that ended last week, Ahmid a Moroccan-born imam at an Islamic cultural center in Rome was selling Korans and cassettes of Muslim preachers at his stall outside the central mosque. A practicing Muslim back in Morocco, Ahmid has become more devout since arriving in Italy 13 years ago. "The immigrant turns to religion for support," he says. "Muslims have always gone anywhere in the world and adapted to learn to live as they must and let others live their lives."
As Ahmid suggests, the story of Islam in Europe is a story of immigration. During the Continent's reconstruction after World War II, Britain and France turned to their former colonies in South Asia and North Africa to fill their manpower shortages, while Germany opened its doors to "guest workers" from Turkey. Most of these guests never went home again, and their children were born and grew up as Europeans. Today, the Muslim communities in these three countries are the biggest in Europe: 5 million in France, 3.2 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain. These numbers have been augmented by more recent waves of immigration to countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and the Scandinavian region.
But Islam itself is nothing new in Europe. After advancing as far as Tours in 732, the Arabs remained in Spain until 1492, when they were driven from Granada. Over those centuries they bequeathed the Spanish their distinctive pronunciation of the letter J as well as masterpieces of Moorish architecture. The Islamic scholars Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd reintroduced Greek philosophy to the West during the Middle Ages, while Arab mathematicians revolutionized science with the invention of algebra. And when the Ottoman armies pushed west through the Balkan peninsula in the 14th century, they established Muslim communities in Central Europe that still exist today.
In Sarajevo, the imams' calls to prayer from reconstructed mosques blend with the chimes of bells from Orthodox Christian medieval churches and 19th century cathedrals. "I have more in common with Bosnian Serbs than Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan," says former Bosnian Interior Minister Muhamad Besic. His words offer striking testimony of the strength of Islam's historic roots on the Continent, given that not 10 years ago his city was under siege from those same Bosnian Serbs. But they also speak of an assimilation that even war could not affect.
What's different now is that for the first time in their 14-century history, Muslims are living as minorities in secular societies. Traditional Islamic theology divides the world into two zones: the dar al-Islam, or house of Islam, and the dar al-harb, or house of war. This world view assumes that Muslims will never be able to practice their religion properly in non-Muslim lands and so should not settle there. But second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe quickly discovered that this was a false opposition. Fresh ideas were needed, such as the dar ash-shahada, or house of testimony: a new concept referring to any place where Muslims can make their profession of faith and live according to the precepts of their religion.
Tariq Ramadan is one of the most prominent exponents of this new thinking. "As a Muslim I can be at home anywhere I'm safe and where the rule of law protects my freedom of conscience and my freedom to worship," he says. "In this new environment, my responsibility is to bear witness to the message of my faith."
European Muslims don't necessarily differ from other Muslims when it comes to the basic tenets of that faith, but according to Dilwar Hussain, a research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, they do have "greater flexibility, greater awareness of the wider society and more liberal attitudes." Witness the growing number of Muslim girls contacting the Rutgers Women's Health Foundation in the Netherlands for abortion advice.
Hussain says that Europe's liberal attitudes are forcing the faithful to reassess their own beliefs. "The younger Muslims are going back to the text and asking: 'What my parents used to do, is that really part of my faith or is that part of their cultural tradition?' Drawing that distinction between faith and culture is very important. You may find some things in the Islamic texts, and then the cultural setting can lead to a particular interpretation. When the cultural setting changes, those interpretations will naturally change." Says Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France: "We're forging our own way of practicing Islam, and it's going to be different from the way it's done in Morocco, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. Islam needs to free itself from imported customs."
For Yakob Mahi, 36, a Moroccan imam living in Belgium, adapting Islam to new environments has been central to the development of his faith. He cites the concept of Shari'a, the way of life ordained by God for mankind, which he says many countries have turned into a code of punishment even though less than 1% of the Koran consists of penal rules. In Europe, Mahi says, "We can see Shari'a not as law, but as a path to be understood in its context. When we transform it into daily European life, we see that Shari'a doesn't mean cutting off the hand of a thief. Rather it's a spirit present in many things we enjoy in Europe: the principles of democracy, the rule of law, the freedoms of expression and association." That innovative interpretation makes Muslim law compatible with its Western secular counterparts. So Mahi advocates a doctrine of "spiritual citizenship" in which Muslims "respect the laws [of the secular state] but try to give a spiritual impulse to everything they do."
In Europe, Muslims must also confront social questions such as euthanasia, abortion and sexuality that are suppressed in many Islamic countries. Nowhere is this confrontation more obvious than in the assertive roles being claimed by women. After all, the 7th century doctrines of the Prophet Muhammad considerably improved their lot, forbidding the then common practice of female infanticide and making the education of girls a sacred duty. "It's not the religion that holds back women but the culture and the men," says Fatma Amer, head of education and interfaith relations at the London Central Mosque. "It's up to the women to organize themselves and not accept everything their communities tell them they must do."
One area in which both women and men are asserting themselves more vigorously is marriage. In Britain, increasing numbers of young women are resisting arranged marriages to cousins back in Bangladesh or Pakistan. In France, too, young people are clashing with parents who always assumed their children would marry someone from their own village in Morocco or Algeria. "We want to choose the person we marry," says Fouad Imarraine, who runs the Tawhid Cultural Center in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. "It doesn't matter what color their skin is as long as we're of the same faith."
Imarraine describes how the attitudes of Europe's Muslims have changed. "When we went back to North Africa on holiday, we realized we had deeper ties in France," he says, sipping coffee in a café nestled at the foot of concrete tower blocks. "Very few of my generation made it to university and Islam provided us with a refuge from failure at school and feeling shut out of society. But there's now a younger generation using Islam as a way of establishing the universal values they have in common with those around them. Defining their own identity as Muslims is a way of interacting with the rest of society."
This generation has grown up thinking of Europe as home, even if it has often seemed inhospitable. Schoolgirls have been expelled for wearing the hijab in France, while in British Islamic communities like the one in Luton, Muslims are twice as likely to be unemployed as other townsfolk. But for this new generation, being Muslim and European means their faith has become a matter of individual choice rather than social constraint.
"Younger Muslims are far more individualistic in the way they interpret the Koran, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're any less devout," says Mustapha Oukbih, a 36-year-old journalist who lives and works in the Hague. The Dutch website Maghreb.nl, for example, has hosted chat rooms to discuss whether it's okay for Muslim newlyweds to have oral sex. "They want to decide for themselves how to live their lives," Oukbih says. This emphasis on personal choice is providing many Muslims with a new vision of politics, too.
"Strictly religious problems are becoming more marginal," says Hakim El Ghissassi, editor of France's La Médina, referring to the widespread availability of mosques and religious instruction. "Young people today are more concerned with resolving the social issues facing Muslims: employment, equality in the labor market, political representation and the way that history is taught in schools. Muslims are going to make their voices heard more and more on these issues. They're going to want to take part in government at the local, national and European level."
For the moment, though, Muslim political representation is small. With a Muslim population of 800,000, the Netherlands has seven Muslim M.P.s. Britain has only two, and France none. Yet people like Bassam Tibi, a professor of international relations at the University of Göttingen who coined the term Euro-Islam, insist that the integration of Europe's Muslims depends on the adoption of a form of Islam that embraces Western political values, such as pluralism, tolerance, the separation of church and state, democratic civil society and individual human rights. "The options for Muslims are unequivocal," says Tibi. "There is no middle way between Euro-Islam and a ghettoization of Muslim minorities."
In Britain, that view is shared by the writer and critic Ziauddin Sardar, who came to the country with his Pakistani parents as a child in the 1960s. "If there is a sociological change there will be a theological change as well," he says. "In Islam, law and ethics are the same thing. If you change the ethics, you change the law. There will be a new interpretation of Islam."
This new interpretation is taking shape in different places at different speeds. Although non-Muslims often view Islam as a monolithic bloc, the religion is characterized by its diversity. With over a billion believers scattered across every continent, as well as separate Shi'ite and Sunni traditions, the Muslim community (or ummah) has long been a philosophical construct rather than a demographic reality. That's true in Europe, where Muslims are divided by country of residence as much as by country of origin. "The problems Muslims are facing here are deeply influenced by the institutions of the countries where they live," says Farhad Khosrokhavar, a professor at Paris' School of Post-Graduate Studies in Social Science. "But the influence of democracy and religious tolerance is bringing about a meeting of minds."
And that influence could well spread to the Muslim world as a whole. For Zaki Badawi, chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council of Britain, Muslims in the West are helping to answer the question that has haunted Islam for the past century: how to reconcile tradition and modernity. "Islam, like any other society, finds modernity challenging," Badawi says. Although that challenge is felt more acutely in the developing world, intellectuals in those countries don't have the freedom to analyze the problem and find effective solutions. "The tension between Islam and modernity will be answered by thinkers in the West," Badawi says, "and transferred back to our native countries."
It would be symbolically and historically fitting if the next great reform of Islam came from the diaspora in the West. After all, the starting point of the Muslim calendar is not the year of Muhammad's birth but the day 1,379 years ago when the Prophet led his followers from his birthplace in Mecca to found a new community in Medina. "The very foundation of Islamic civilization was built on diaspora, on the move from Mecca to Medina," says British Muslim writer Sardar. "This is where the diaspora is very important: in creating a truly moderate tradition for the future." The new diaspora of Muslims in Europe already has that task in hand.
The Communists were right about one thing: Their philosophy's survival depended on keeping their people isolated from the West. When the Iron Curtain became porous in the 80's, it let Western-style freedom seep into the Communist world. This proved to be strong poison for Communism, though Gorbachev thought he was merely freeing Communism of corruption & bringing it up to date.
You're missing the point. These people are trying to turn it into a tolerant faith that fits with modern day life. If they succeed, give it a hundred years and the Christian majority may be no more through purely voluntary conversions.
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