Muslims in Europe Sept02

Let 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.

This 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.

What 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 humility.

Europeans 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.

Imams, 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.

Muslims 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.

Sadly, 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.

The 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.  

Turkish 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.

If 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, employment and  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.

The 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 sunset. 

European 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.

Pim 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 European lifestyle.

Islam, 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 communal power.

A 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.

Autocratic 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!

The European Union champions the belief of a Europe sharing a community of values.  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 enlighten.

In 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 beyond.

All 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!