Muslims in Europe Sept02
me invite you to Oldham, a town in the North West of England just north of
Manchester. We can see church steeples rising above the roofs of terrace
housing; pints of ale are being pulled in the pub called "The Hare
& Hounds" and there is a short queue of people at the local fish
and chip place not far from the pub.
is still England, but it is not quite the England of Robert Browning. This
is Oldham, a decaying cotton town where litter blows in the street,
dilapidated brickwork of cotton mills scar the landscape but which, in the
19th century, made Lancashire rich. However, the children coming out of
the building opposite the pub are clutching their Korans and the girls
wear headscraves. These are young Muslim children leaving their daily
religious instruction class. Similar scenes can be found in many towns and
cities in Western Europe these days. It is hardly a novelty to see women
in saris, men in turbans or signs outside specialist shops written in
strange scripts. Mass immigration has been a fact of life for certain
European countries like Britain, France, Holland and Germany as their
economies grew and sucked in the labour force required for the low-paid
jobs in the transport and service sectors. Whilst there was concern about
immigrants in general, the Muslims have been particularly singled out ever
since the terrorist attack on New York in September 2001.
has precipitated such public fear of the Muslims? The international media,
especially the CNN, has been obsessed with Osama Bin Ladin, his "army
of terrorists" and his Muslim faith. The daily broadcast of film and
commentary on every minutae of Muslim life refer to and imply that Islam,
fundamentalism and terrorism are linked and perpetuated by cells of
extremists who are supported by Muslims at large. Such broadcasts and
press coverage have sustained public perception of Muslims as suspect,
disloyal and fearsome. The whole of the non-Muslim world instantly
recognises the name Osama and it associates terrorism and extremism with
Islam. CNN has made Osama more famous than prophet Mohamed. Such public
perceptions and fears must be challenged. Osama´s actions or values do not
represent Islam. Osama´s actions are not
supported by Muslims. Islam does not support terrorists or terrorism. Like
Chritianity and Judaism, Islam promotes peace, compassion, respect and
and Americans have been bombarded with images of downtrodden women,
zealots chopping off limbs of those who are in breach of Sharia or Islamic
law and adulterers stoned to death. Millions of Muslims living in Europe
and the USA, peaceful and law abiding, are simply baffled by the curtain
of fear, suspicion and hostility that has descended between them and the
host population of the country they live in. They have no problems living
with neighbours having different faiths and lifestyles. They have no
intention of challenging the democratic values and political systems of
their host country. Islam has co-existed with Judaism and Christianity for
over 1500 years. Muslims traded with western Europe for centuries.
Christians and Jews thrived in Spain and north Africa during the 800 year
rule of the Moors.
including extremists who seek political power, have no religious authority
to make political statements. Oil rich sheikhs who deny their people
democracy and subjugate their women use Islam to perpetuate their
autocratic rule. Military dictatorship and pronouncements of Iranian
ayatollahs are not supported by Islamic values. Palestine suicide bombers
have no blessing of Islam. If political frustrations drive people to
commit violent acts then we need political solutions. It is the politics
of power, not religion, that sustains the violence in northern Ireland, India
and in Palestine.
in Europe, especially the young, should make greater effort to integrate
more with their peers in the host community. These young Muslims can and
should adapt to the western lifestyle whilst retaining their traditional
costumes for attendance at their mosques or community functions. Some
employers reluctant to employ westerners courting outrageous hairstyles,
tattooes and over causal dress at work will also be reluctant to accept
Muslim employees in burkhas and veils as they will also project a
different corporate image.
some European politicians have misjudged Islam and undervalued the
economic and social contribution of Muslim immigrants. Berlusconi is
alleged to have declared that Islamic civilization was
"inferior" to western civilisation; Pim Fortuyn in Holland
called Islam a "backward religion" and Joschka Fischer
questioned whether Islam was compatible with the values of modern western
societies. Such pronouncements have undermined race relations in Europe
and damaged the confidence of immigrant communities in developing a sense
of duty and loyalty to their host countries.
immigrants in Oldham in England came in the 1970s to work in the booming
textile mills . They came to work for a limited period expecting to return
to their villages on the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, the North
Africans came to France and the Turks to Germany in the 1960s as "Gastarbeiters"
- guest workers expecting to return to their home countries. Like other
immigrant groups, many Muslims come from rural areas in poor countries -
countries ruled by oppressive dictators or embroiled in civil war.
Declining economic standards and unstable political systems in these
countries offer no opportunity or prospect for these immigrants to return.
The older generations of immigrants, lacking linguistic and technical
skills, find themselves excluded from work. Their young, whilst trapped in
the old traditions of faith and respect at home, face the challenge of
integration with peers who enjoy the freedom and choice that modern
western values support. They encounter xenophobia and discrimination -
subtle as well as outright - socially and in employment. They are
restricted to poor housing in immigrant areas. Such an environment
disadvantages and excludes immigrants from the host society.
groups in Germany and Indian groups in England, sustain their culture to
reinforce identity. They should also promote cultural and social exchange
with their host communities. This social exchange can offer the
opportunity to demonstrate that the immigrant cultures do indeed share the
same community of values. It enlightens the host community of immigrant
traditions that give them their identity. It diminishes, for both
communities, the pride, prejudice and social arrogance that damages the
very fabric of society.
most immigrants in Europe are likely to stay put then they must be given
the opportunity to be good and faithful citizens of their host country.
They should have equal opportunity to housing, education, health,
participation in political life. Integration and co-existence are
more important than assimilation. Second and third generation immigrants
will face progressively fewer problems to adopt the western lifestyle.
UK can claim better race relations than France, Germany, Holland and
Denmark because immigrants - not just Muslims - were offered citizenship,
an official channel for directing grievances (Commission for Racial
Equality) and an opportunity for employment albeit in poorly paid jobs in
transport, health and catering. The lack of equivalent opportunities in
the rest of Europe have created an underclass of people who are
disadvantaged and socially excluded. They cannot easily establish small
businesses and be economically self-sufficient. It is, therefore, not
surprising that they remain trapped as dependants either on their family
or on the state. State handouts to these immigrants, widely reported by
the sensational press, are resented by the indigenous population. It is
true that some Islamic practices seem to be quite alien to Europeans e.g.
ritual slaughter of sheep at the end of the annual pilgrimage in Mecca and
burial without coffins. However, it must be noted that although there are
almost 4.2m Muslims in France, there is only one Muslim cemetry at Bobigny.
Germany, with its 3.2m Muslims, has none. This situation precipitates a
serious problem for Muslims as their tradition requires burial before
media's portrayal of Muslim immigrants as one homogeneous mass must be
challenged and changed. Muslims in Europe represent a rainbow of ethnic
origins and nationalities portraying a vast difference of life styles that
reflect their historic backgrounds. The Turks, Saudis, Bangladeshis and
the Indonesians are all Muslims but they do not share a common dress,
cuisine, language or lifestyle. The education, lifestyle and indifference
to religion of the East African Asian contrasts sharply with the Muslim
from rural Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Aga Khan, as leader of over 5
million Muslims worldwide, has a lifestyle that differs from both the King
of Saudi Arabia and the Iranian ayatollahs.
Fortuyn was wrong in thinking of Islam as an "inferior"
religion,; Berlusconi was wrong in undermining Islamic civilisation and
Fischer need not worry about the compatibility of Islam with the European
Christian values. It is true that some Muslims are intolerant of
homosexuality but western society has only recently changed its stance on
this issue. It is true that women are disdvantaged in certain Muslim
countries but Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia have had women as their
heads of State whilst the USA, Germany, France and Holland have still to
elect a woman as their Head of Government. The Koran has a whole chapter
devoted to women and their place in society, including their rights. This
was set in stone in 470 AD, long before women in UK had their first vote
in 1929 and women in France won their right to sign bank cheques in 1962!
Marrying only within the faith for Jews and catholics was common until the
1950s and the Jewish faith continues to exclude those born of non-Jewish
mothers. These traditions weaken over time. It is likely to be the same
for second and third generations of Muslims who will, in time, embrace the
like Judaism, has no hierarchy - there is no Pope or any such equivalent.
Such a religion, without an infrastructure and hierarchy, inevitably
creates numerous groups that compete for political influence.
Imams in mosques, ayatollahs and oil rich sheikhs may influence
their congregation or populations but they have no religious authority or
public mandate to incite violent acts or pronounce any Fatwa or Jihad.
Some groups use violence to secure attention of the media whilst others,
infiltrated by corrupt elements, are driven by financial greed and
Muslim prays directly to God and not through an intermediary. The prayer
can be offered anywhere as God is deemed to be everywhere and with
everyone. There is no mosque in the world that can legitimately portray a
picture of any human or even Prophet Mohamed. Faith in Islam, like other
religions, is a matter of personal conviction. Such faith nurtures and
sustains our integrity, goodwill and compassion for fellow human beings
and belief in an almighty God.
Arab states have so far not been able to offer the intellectual stimulus
for developing civic and democratic institutions worldwide. There is a
need to demonstrate that Islam shares, with Christianity and Judaism, a
common philosophy and
a community of values. Syria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq with a
distinguished history of ancient civilisations have the intellectual
capacity to offer much in this respect. Unfortunately, the politics of oil
and territory that has destabilised the Middle East, has also prevented
the intellectuals of these countries to make a significant contribution!
European Union champions the belief of a Europe sharing a community of
What are these values? My friend and colleague, Professor Hans Gert
Poettering, President of the PPE-ED Group
in the European Parliament, has summarised them well in his recent
speech. These values cover our respect for human rights, racial and
religious tolerance, democracy, liberty, freedom, the rule of law and
individual responsibility. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, champions
these values. If the lack of a hierarchy in Islam has prevented Muslims
from conveying this messsage to the Europeans then conferences like this
today certainly help in offering an opportunity to discuss, inform and
January and February of this year, I was invited by the UK Foreign Office
to visit Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. I was honoured to meet
in Saudi Arabia: two brothers of the Saudi King and Members of their
Majlis al Shura; in Cairo I met: Pope Shenuda of the Coptic Church, the
Chief Imam of Al-Azhar, the Egyptian Foreign Minister and Egyptian
Parliamentarians. I detected considerable political frustration,
especially with respect to the plight of the Palestinians. There was
considerable concern about the US intentions in Iraq. However, I did
observe a new confidence, especially amongst the younger Saudis and
Egyptians. They do analyse political developments in the US and the EU;
they do understand the politics of oil and water in the Middle East; they
are aware of their weak public relations with the international community
and they have identified the need for a think tank to match the one Israel
has in Washington. They need the help of European academics, politicians
and citizens to promote goodwill and understanding of Islam in Europe and
of us need to promote, project and establish the fact that Islam and
Christianity are compatible - they are like two wheels of a bicycle bound
by a common chain of philosophy, values and the belief in one God. This
bicycle of faith and common values functions well because of such a common
chain and because most of us -Christians and Muslims are willing and happy
to pedal in the same direction!