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Identity Crisis: Old Europe Meets New Islam by Marlena Telvick
Europe's 18 million Muslims represent the continent's fastest growing religion; however this community of immigrants who share religious and ethnic bonds has largely failed to integrate into European societies founded on secular principles. Here is an examination of this clash of cultures.

To many, it all started in 1989.

That was the year Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning British author Salman Rushdie to death for his polemic account of Islam in The Satanic Verses. The controversy was largely seen as an intrusive threat -- an unwelcome import from Iran that played out on Western soil, targeting a man that had been a British citizen for two decades.

But European intellectuals and cultural critics who blasted the fatwa at the time were stunned to learn many British Muslims, born and educated in the U.K., openly supported the death sentence -- in defiance of Western law and European civilization no less.

"Suddenly it seemed that Islam was not compatible with European political principles and values," says Jocelyne Cesari, a principal research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), visiting professor at Harvard University and author of When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and the United States. The controversy, she says, challenged long-rooted European traditions of secularism that maintain a separation between religion and citizenship.

Since then, the debate over secularism seems to be widening, driven in part by globalization and demographic trends: In 1945, there were less than 1 million Muslims living in Western Europe; today there are an estimated 18 million. The proposed entry of Turkey into the European Union would increase this number to nearly 90 million.

In the past year, there have been several high-profile flashpoints between secular Europe and its Islamic population, most prominently in France, which in the spring of 2004 passed a controversial law forbidding "conspicuous religious signs" or apparel, including Muslim headscarves, in its public schools.

Months later, respected historian and author Bernard Lewis told a German newspaper in a widely circulated quote that Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century "at the very latest." Then in the fall, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker with lineage to the impressionist painter, was brutally murdered in the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist angered by his controversial and provocatively titled film Submission, which was harshly critical of Islam's perceived treatment of women. The circumstances of Van Gogh's murder were seen by some as a redux of the Salman Rushdie affair more than a decade earlier and sparked further questions of whether democracy and Islam were in fact compatible.

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The response to the various controversies has been varied and extreme, from proposals by German lawmakers to require prayers in mosques to be conducted in German, to calls from a Dutch politician to halt all non-Western immigration into Holland for five years.

However, such proposals are driven by dangerous and ill-conceived associations between Islam and terrorism, according to Dr. John R. Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve professor of sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. The background assumption to relate the two automatically is wrong. "It's a non-starter," he says.

He argues that the main problem is that these governments, dictated by concerns over internal and external security, have veered from one extreme to another, from the neo-colonial paternalism of "Let the Muslims be Muslims because they will return home soon anyway" to "Get in line right now."

What is happening in Europe is a complex scenario, experts say, consisting of a potent mixture of national and continental identities, with millions of followers of a minority religion seeking to find a real and permanent framework for their place in European society.

+ Who is European?

Today, national identities, changing in the face of increased immigration, have prompted many to question what it means to be European, says Olivier Roy Ph.D., a research director in the Humanities and Social Sciences division of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, and author of Globalized Islam. "Are we secularists? Is the continent, as the Catholic Church is, struggling to promote a prevalently Christian entity or something else?" He says Turkey's possible entry into the European Union and the continuing expansion of borders poses an even more fundamental question, "Who is European?"

This question is inextricably linked to whether Muslim immigrants as a whole are willing to respect Europe's deeply-engrained secular traditions, which Europeans insist is the key component to working towards greater integration. "What Europeans share is a very strong feeling that religion has nothing to do with citizenship," says Harvard's Jocelyne Cesari. "One of the big misunderstandings between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe has to do with the fact that Muslims have to build a religious minority in a context where religion doesn't make sense anymore in the public space for most Europeans."

Immigration from Muslim countries into Europe largely began after the destruction in Germany and France during World War II. The labor shortages generated by economic growth that continued until the recession of the 1970s were key factors leading Western European states to import migrant labor from relatively poor countries around the Mediterranean basin and beyond, many of which were Muslim.

By officially labeling these labor migrants as "Gastarbeiter" (guest workers), countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland were "clearly signaling that they were temporary residents who were liable to be packed off back home should the labor market turn bad," says Florida State University Professor Alec Hargreaves, author of numerous books on the North African immigrant community in France. When the recession in the 1970s triggered rising unemployment, these migrants, mainly Turks who had by then begun to take root in German and Austrian society, proved unwilling to leave, he says.

"The governments of the day resisted this idea, refusing to see them as populations destined to be integrated in those countries," Hargreaves says. "On the contrary, they were systematically marginalized. It is only comparatively recently that Germany has begun to work seriously towards the integration of its Turkish minority."

"There's a majority sentiment in Europe that is 'uneasy' [about] whether or not Muslims are going to assimilate, how they're going to assimilate, and what the consequences will be if they assimilate or not," says Professor Martha Crenshaw, a professor of government at Wesleyan University who studies political psychology and terrorism. "Because if they do assimilate, even a very thorough assimilation will change the society and if they don't you have a growing unassimilated minority" vulnerable to extremism.

Olivier Roy says there has always been racism against immigrants in Europe. "But what we see now is a shift in European public opinion from ethnic racism to Islam bashing," he says. "We cannot say there are more tensions now, it's just that they are framed in a different way than say 20 years ago."

According to Roy, the current tensions in Europe today can largely be traced back to the 1980s, when Muslims began recasting their identity on religious terms, which he compares to the born-again Evangelical movement in the United States. From the 1960s to the 1980s, he says, Muslim immigrants weren't seen as "Muslims," but instead as "foreigners." The argument then was "They should go back to their countries of origin, and if they stay they should be like us," he explains. "But these second-generation immigrants began to say, 'We are European and we want to be recognized as Muslims,' not, as say Algerian or Moroccan."

For years, the argument was made that because European societies never formally integrated the group they'd invited as laborers, this fostered a form of de facto segregation based on economics that in turn left people vulnerable to extremist ideologies targeting the various "host" countries of Europe.

But Dr. Paul Silverstein, assistant professor of anthropology at Reed College in Oregon and a specialist on Algerian emigration to France, disagrees, saying it is "erroneous" to try to read a direct line from the socioeconomic exclusion of immigrants and their children to their recruitment into extremist organizations. "Socioeconomic and political exclusion does not breed extremism," he says. "But it does constitute one of the conditions of possibility for anti-state orientations, which could translate into some form of jihadism."

This exclusion also manifests itself in other forms, from refusals to learn European languages to petty crime to more traditional forms of protest. "There are some young French women, who because of the hostility and tensions used the scarf as a way of resisting, to say 'Because I see that you are not comfortable with who I am, I'm going to accentuate that in different ways,'" says Harvard University's Jocelyne Cesari.

+ Case Study: The Headscarf Issue

In March 2004, the French parliament voted to ban "conspicuous" religious items from its public schools as of September that year. Although the ban included the wearing of turbans, large Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, it was largely seen as targeting the growing number of Muslim girls wearing hijabs, or headscarves. When the law passed, thousands of Muslims took to the streets throughout the country to protest the right to freely express one's religious identity.

The French battle over the headscarf in schools, while it has become the most visible issue of the debate, is not unlike similar battles in Turkey's Parliament in the late 1990s or the contentious debate in the United States over prayer in schools or the display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses. It has as much to do with protecting a country's constitution as protecting its identity.

Some argued that in addition to safeguarding European secularism, legislating around the tensions would discourage further fracturing of Muslim society. "The issue is not a piece of cloth," Dr. Gilles Kepel, author, chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris and member of the commission debating the law banning headscarves from French public schools, told Newsday in December 2004. "The issue is building defensive citadels of identity. When you look at the people who are arrested for terrorist actions, you see how step by step, this evolution started with their sporting jellabas and growing beards. Then, they severed cultural links. And then they became easy prey to be recruited by these jihadist generals."

"Either you nip this thing in the bud," he said, "or you allow the development of a separate society until one day, one of these kids stabs a Theo van Gogh."

Others are not so sure.

Effectively, Washington University's Bowen says, recent French state efforts are sending the message that to be a full French citizen, one has to stop being a practicing Muslim. "That is exactly the wrong message to send," he says. "French Muslims generally see themselves as both French and Muslim, and that double belonging should be fostered and encouraged."

He argues that because the French media turned the issue into a threat, what did not happen was a dialogue with Muslim leaders about the range of possible adaptations to the local society.

"People get caught up in these associations that aren't really there. They take an event like the Van Gogh killing and hold it up as symptomatic of something, when the person that killed him was perfectly integrated into Dutch society and wasn't some loose radical trained in an Afghan camp."

+ Moving Forward

Despite the efforts of groups like Al Qaeda and others to turn the European Muslim community into sympathizers, it has routinely challenged the notion that it can be mobilized into extremism.

In the fall of 2004, the kidnappers of two French journalists in Iraq demanded the rescinding of the headscarf ban or the hostages would be slaughtered. However, their attempts to capitalize on the controversy in France failed.

A vast majority of French Muslims publicly denied the kidnappers the right to speak in the name of Islam. Even radical European Islamists told the kidnappers that this was not a good idea.

Clearly, further efforts need to be made to address socioeconomic problems and racism against these communities, experts say. Paul Silverstein of Reed College says that in addition to empowering and funding neighborhood associations in the housing projects, and providing employment opportunities for young women and men, France needs to push through legislation that makes Islamophobia and discrimination against North Africans as much as a crime as anti-Semitism.

John Bowen agrees the focus needs to be on jobs and education. One way, he says, is to concretely address what he calls the "ladder of social mobility" that hasn't happened for Muslim immigrants. The other is through the public schools, which France decided more than a century ago would be free of religious control. "Everybody agrees that the schools are the place to make fully-functioning citizens out of the immigrant community, and the place where France can send its clearest message to reinforce the century-old values of French secularism."

"What Europe needs is less ideology, and more pragmatism," says Dr. Stefano Allievi of the University of Padova, Italy. He argues that Europe needs to make room for the Muslim community, particularly at the local level. At the same time, he cautions not to institutionalize them too quickly, instead allowing the necessary time for the Muslim community to self-organize.

Both sides have to take important steps, he says. Muslims can show their integration at the cultural level and isolate the radicals and extremists.

To some, like the CNRS' Olivier Roy, neo-fundamentalism is a "short-term generational issue" for Europe which will runs its course. And if Turkey joins the E.U., as is expected, bringing another 70 million Muslims within Europe's borders, Islam will become much less of an immigrant religion, and more of a European religion, turning the dynamic on its head.


Marlena Telvick reports from San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, American Journalism Review and in reports by FRONTLINE and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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