Islam’s European Hope

Mohamed Merah’s killing spree in and around Toulouse in March, like the 2004 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 suicide attacks in London’s Underground, has highlighted once again the dilemmas that Europe faces with regard to its growing Muslim minority. No social-integration model has proven to be free of flaws. But is the picture really so bleak as those who despair of an emerging “Eurabia” would have us believe?

Neither the multicultural ethos (respect for “cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance,” as British Labor Minister Roy Jenkins put it in 1966), nor official indifference to religious identities (as in France, where the state, as the nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet put it, “takes the place of God”) has worked as planned. Multiculturalism in Britain has entrenched almost self-contained Muslim communities and turned Islam into a badge of identity to counteract exclusion. Similarly, imposed laïcité(France’s strict republican secularism) seems to have deepened French Muslims’ attachment to their religious identity.

Devastatingly high unemployment rates among European Muslims (three times higher than the national average in most countries) aggravate their social marginalization and cultural self-segregation. Isolated, destitute, and in a state of permanent rage, the French banlieues and immigrant ghettos of British cities have turned into powder kegs where young Muslims easily fall prey to radical religious preaching and political extremism.

At least 85 sharia courts are now operating in Britain’s parallel Muslim society, while the number of mosques (1,689) now almost equals the number of Anglican churches that have recently closed (1,700). Mohammed is the most popular name for baby boys in Britain. For Prime Minister David Cameron, all of this, as he implied at the 2011 Munich Security Conference, represents the spoiled fruit of multiculturalism.

In fact, it should come as no surprise that enthusiasm for religious self-assertion is strongest among young, second-generation immigrants. Their parents, still influenced by life under the repressive autocracies from which they fled, tend to be submissive to the powers that be. Younger generations rebel precisely because they have internalized the values of freedom and choice offered by democracy. In a way, their rebellion is the hallmark of their Britishness or Frenchness.

True, some young European Muslims have traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq; some went as far as Yemen and Somalia, and came back as hardened radicals, soldiers in a war against a West that, in their view, dishonors Islam. As the young Muslim Briton Mohammed Sidique Khan put it (speaking in a heavy Yorkshire accent), he participated in the London Underground bombings “to avenge my Muslim brothers and sisters.”

But becoming a murderous fanatic like Merah or Sidique Khan is the personal choice of a pathological mind, not the trend of a generation. Social rejection has not turned young French and British Muslims into mass murderers, and the infatuation of many with al-Qaeda has not overwhelmed their desire to fit in.

The massive influx of Muslims into Europe in the last two generations, it should be remembered, is the largest encounter between Islam and modernity in human history, and it has yielded invaluable benefits, such as a growing Muslim middle class, an emerging intelligentsia, and greater freedom for Muslim women. Polls in France – where the rate of intermarriages is the highest in Europe – have shown that the majority of Muslims do accept laïcité, gender equality, and other key republican values.

Moreover, sizeable segments of the Muslim community are upwardly mobile in socioeconomic terms. About 30% of those born before 1968 have become middle or senior managers. More broadly, Islam has failed to supersede other identity patterns, such as class and economic status.

In Britain, too, immigrants have been changing the ethnic profile of the middle and professional classes. Increasingly educated and financially successful, Pakistani Britons are also actively engaged in political life, with more than 200 representing the main political parties in local councils. In the 2010 election, the number of British Muslim members of the House of Commons doubled, to 16. The most influential Muslim woman in British politics, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (also the Conservative Party chairperson), joined other Muslims in the House of Lords, such as Lord Ahmed, the most senior Labour peer, and Baroness Kishwer Falkner, a Liberal Democrat.

To consider Islam as a civilization that is not susceptible to change is an historical fallacy. Religious moderation, if not secularization, remains the key not only to social integration, but also to Muslims’ opportunity to influence Europe’s future.

The example of European Jewry is not entirely irrelevant. An oppressed tribe of Ostjuden, destitute immigrants from the shattered communities of Eastern Europe, was transformed in just two generations from God-fearing shoemakers, tailors, and wandering peddlers into a community of writers, philosophers, scientists, and tycoons.

That happened precisely because they reformed their Judaism in the light of Western values. They knew that there was no other way to seize the opportunities for human improvement presented by the West. Reform Judaism in Germany resulted in religious and cultural particularism yielding to a far greater degree of universalism than was envisaged at any time in the Jewish past.

Any religious minority in quest of a place in the European project would do well to reflect on that theological shift.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is the Israeli foreign minister who came closest to devising a viable peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.
Project Syndicate