The Future of European Muslims – An Essay by Tarek Osman

In recent months, the rise of far-right parties in different European countries and events such as the UK’s vote for Brexit have prompted heated debates about immigration and cultural integration across Europe and the world. Tarek Osman, author of Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World, places the debate within its historical and socio-political contexts and speculates about the future of Muslims in Europe.


IslamismThe Future of European Muslims by Tarek Osman

Europe’s pace is deliberately slow. Slow pace has elegance to it; it is in sync with how Europe has come to see itself: as – so far – the epitome of human social experimentation.

But a slow pace can be dangerous. It makes ordinary people gradually come to accept ideas and “realities” that, were they to be introduced suddenly, would have elicited acute rejections.

This characteristic has been a key factor in the rise, over the past two decades, of far-right parties in the Continent and the UK. Slowly, what seemed shocking a decade ago – say that Austria almost elected an extremely far right politician as president, or that such parties would command significant presence in European parliaments – came to be seen as normal outcomes.

For some, this phenomenon is a threat to the liberal-democratic order upon which post-Second World War Europe was built. In this view, the rise of the far right is not just a consequence of populism at a moment of economic weakness; it is a peril to what Europe came to mean in the last few decades: a sanctuary of freedoms, political and civil rights, plurality, and individuality, all anchored on, supposedly, deeply held lessons gained from colossal mistakes that cost the lives of tens of millions of people.

Other Europeans see Europe differently. Wide sections of the middle and especially working classes, regard Europe not as a political project situated in a historical context, but as a social order: a set of shared values and various yet relatively similar ways of living. Many Europeans won’t be able to clearly define what “European” means; but they would be able to identify that which, for them, does not culturally fit their Europe. And so, for a significant percentage in these social segments, the rise of the far right in Europe is a consequence – or reaction – to the entrance of new, and what they sense are culturally unfit, elements in European societies.

In this view, these elements are non-ethnically European, and especially Muslim, immigrants. For at least a decade now, these feelings about cultural fitness have been interacting with gloomy economic trends in large parts of Europe and have already created strong nationalistic – and nativistic – political currents that see non-ethnically Europeans, and especially Muslims in Europe, as a problem.

This is a different view from the one held by those who regard Muslims in Europe as a threat. The latter get most of their facts about Islam, Islamic history, and Muslim communities in Europe, wrong; and generally they have antagonistic positions towards Islam and Muslims. But those who see Muslims in Europe as a cultural problem (not a threat) have no quarrels with Islam as a religion or with Muslims as individuals. However, they believe that the inherent values that are engendered within the largest segments of Muslim communities – in or outside Europe – are incompatible with the way of life, social norms, mannerisms, and indeed values, of European societies. And so, from their standpoint, the rise of the far right in Europe, though highly distasteful, can be explained as a (crude) defence mechanism against elements that the European body is uneasy about.

Those who invoke the rise of the far right as a threat to Europe’s liberal democratic order, typically, see immigration as one problem among others, in the complex challenges facing the European project of the past half century. And so they put immigration in perspective: about 15 million Muslims, the vast majority of them peaceful, productive members of society, in a continent of almost 500million people. But for the large social segments who are less obsessed with the ‘European project’, immigration, and that specific concern of cultural fitness, is the single most important challenge they want addressed – now.

Some factors make the urgency understandable. After half a century of slow but continued growth of Muslim communities in Europe, neither Europe nor the majority of European Muslims have figured out a workable and sustainable emotional link between the two sides. Many, especially in Francophone and Germanic Europe, continue to see Muslim communities as immigrants, outsiders who even if they would never leave, would also never become part of “us”. For most people here “us” is not a race-based collective; it is the reservoir of society’s cultural heritage. On the other side, many European Muslims, especially of the elder generation that had settled in Europe in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, were keen to acquire and pass to their children European passports, but they abhorred that those children would “God forbid, become, Europeanised”.

That emotional detachment – from both sides – is becoming more fraught. Unlike their parents and grandparents, second and third generation European Muslims are not overly sensitive to the apprehensions of the majority of their fellow citizens. They see the cities and towns they grew up in as their homes. They believe – and have solid legal, political, and moral reasons to back them – that they have equal claim to Europe as ethnic Europeans do. But political correctness aside, that belief, confidence, and justified sense of entitlement is seen, from the other side, as another reason to address the “immigration problem” now. The segments that see most Muslims as culturally unfit outsiders want a strict and quick limit on the number of “immigrants”, and especially Muslims, who would be “at home in our” societies. It is easy to succumb to knee-jerk accusations of bigotry. But that does not alter the fact that these feelings are increasingly one of the most powerful trends in European politics.

The second reason justifying the urgency is that all major integration and assimilation strategies of the past few decades seem to have failed. Time was supposed to bring about a meeting of minds, values, and lifestyles. For most Europeans this meant that the Muslims in their midst were expected to gradually discard the world-views of their original countries and adopt the values of the societies they chose to come to. Despite the cultural condescension inherent in that view, it was reasonable to assume that second and third generation European Muslims would indeed transcend many cultural barriers and internalise a lot of the values and mannerisms of the societies they grew up in. Some did. Many demonstrated the classic desire for success, characteristic of minorities all over the world, and so we see in Europe a lot of doctors, lawyers, and professors (especially in scientific disciplines) of Islamic background. But the majority, even in the second and third generations, did not internalise the values of their new societies.

Partly, this was the result of the fact that most of the Muslim migrants who came to Europe in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s belonged to the lower middle, working, and poor classes of their original societies. Their exposure to their home countries’ experience of modernisation (in the century from the mid 19th to mid 20th century) was limited. And so, they were particularly susceptible to the cultural shock of being in-rooted in extremely modern, secular, liberal, and individualistic societies.

Partly, it was the fault of the European elite that wanted them to come as cheap labour, especially in the two decades after the Second World War, but never invested in enabling them to integrate and assimilate. This was understandable in the 1950s and 1960s. But, by the 1980s and 1990s, it became one, among several, confirmations that many in Europe’s elite defined Europe narrowly; they failed to imagine a European norm that transcends the foundational culture.

The third reason is that most of the ‘solutions’ that seem to have some authority, the ones that European Muslim intellectuals put forward, have limited resonance amongst most European Muslims. These ‘solutions’ delve into Islamic theology to prove, both, to the large European audience that Islam is peaceful, tolerant, and has no quarrels with secular modernity, and to European Muslims, that they can find, within the recesses of Islamic jurisprudence, flexible answers to any dilemma they might have about being Muslims living in today’s Europe. Many of these interpretations are selective and could easily be refuted. But the real flaw of this approach is that it assumes that a significant percentage of Muslims are waiting for philosophically rich discussions of centuries-old concepts, put forward by scholars they hardly have heard of, who supposedly have the ability to forge interpretations of what a European Muslim means, or how he or she ought to see his or her identity, and live life. It is amazing, and yet fully understandable, that a cottage industry has grown around that illusion.

Actually, these ‘solutions’ exacerbate the problem. Approaching the place of European Muslims in their societies through theology, even if by the most enlightened Islamic scholars, entrenches the distinction between Muslims and the rest. It is also misguided. It frames the question as: how can we reconcile the most dominant interpretations – which are far from the most enlightened – of fourteen-centuries old religious rules with the norms and values of the most liberal and modern group of societies in human history. This framing addresses a different problem.

And then, of course, there is militant Islamism. Whether organized or the acts of “lone wolves”, the more Islamists attack Europe, the more difficult the positioning of European Muslims would be. The majority of Europeans will not condemn their fellow Muslim citizens as guilty by association (though increasingly, some do). But feelings of unease and anguish will deepen.

Because of the declining competitiveness of most European economies relative to Asian ones and concurrent technological advances, joblessness in Europe will increase and living standards will suffer. Expectations, however, will not adjust quickly. And so, many in Europe will lose both, the resources and patience, they have had when dealing with intractable problems, such as immigration.

The changing nature of European politics will exacerbate the problem. Many talk of a leadership crisis in Europe. But irrespective of assessments of personalities and capabilities, European politics will become more prone to populism. As most European societies grow older, and face adverse economic conditions, young Europeans will face mounting financial pressures. The gap between their economic expectations and the reality of their lives will become increasingly painful. Many will grow disillusioned with their countries’ political-economic systems. Anger, and the need for a scapegoat, will rise.

The far-right and far-left will become much more powerful across Europe. Many European legislatures and governments will face difficult situations in which wide segments of the electorate will demand discriminatory policies that favor ‘the natives’. And whilst some European countries have strong and deeply entrenched cultures of fairness and equality, many will succumb to the pressures from below. As a result, there might be a rapid change in the relationship between the state and some of its citizens, especially European Muslims. State neutrality with regard to race and religion could face a serious shock.

‘Young European Muslims have no choice but to take ownership of the problem’

Top-down solutions will not work. Young European Muslims have no choice but to take ownership of the problem. The widespread abdication of responsibility many European Muslims have towards their own future will give rise to colossal challenges, and potentially threats, to their presence in Europe.

Three points could be a start. One: stop focusing on Islam. There are, at least, half a dozen major interpretations of the key theological foundations of this 1500 year old religion. And for each, there are different views on how to reconcile that interpretation with secular modernity. Anyone with a decent command over Islamic history (which spanned three continents and vastly different political and socio-economic epochs) and an above-average exposure to its multiple disciplines can pick and choose from a stupendously rich heritage, to forge an argument for or against “Islam’s” compatibility with secular modernity. All of these arguments are, by default, selective and subjective. None will be the final word. And it won’t make any difference, in terms of credibility, or resonance within European Muslim communities, if some European, Arab or Islamic governments endorsed the most flexible and liberal of these arguments.

Two: focus on Islamism: the different manifestations of the myriad of interpretations of Islam in politics, legislation, social dynamics, and identity. Invariably, these manifestations are functions of bottom-up socio-economic and country-and-often-community-specific circumstances. Local cultures play a crucial role in shaping and developing these manifestations. And in the context of the situations of European Muslims, a lot of the heritage and circumstances surrounding – and making – the local cultures – pose problems to any cultural reconciliation with today’s Europe. But only through understanding these local versions of Islamism (in different European societies) would serious and practical solutions emerge. And almost certainly for these solutions to be implementable, they would have to come from youths within these local Muslim communities.

And third: apply the emerging ideas through working with the local civil society – not state vehicles, religious authorities, or political parties. The objective is to get the small educational, occupational, entertainment, and other social organizations that serve local Muslim communities to interact with counterparts that serve the ‘rest’. ‘Communities’ is the key word here. Hundreds of thousands of European Muslims have rich, varied, and multi-faceted interactions with their wider societies, but many of those are at the upper (affluent) segments of European Muslim communities, which as a whole, often have shockingly limited exposure to the ‘rest’. Working with these local civil society organizations would not only expand Muslims’ realm of interactions with their wider milieus, but also channel these interactions away from top-down structures (including political elites) who have nothing to offer, and whose interventions are likely to complicate these community-based interactions. Gradually, significant percentages of young European Muslims (primarily at the lower socio-economic segments of Muslim communities) will build and gain trust, become less detached, and experience commonalities with their countrymen and women. This is a key basis of any collective identity. As simple as this might sound, it has not taken place on any major scale in almost any European country with a sizable Islamic presence.

Community leaders and financially successful young Muslims (the thousands of high earning professionals) should support artistic work and initiatives, in particular. Because of many of the background factors highlighted above, the first generation of European Muslims (in the past four decades) had a limited contribution to mainstream European art, philosophy, and culture in general. This is changing, though at a very slow pace. And the vast majority of emerging Muslim European artists tend to focus on amusement and farce, for example stand-up comedians in the UK. In addition, in the past two decades, the vaguely defined sensibilities of Muslims, and especially European Muslims, have set them apart as a group that should be protected from freedom of expression. All of this meant that, despite half a century of being a component of some of the largest and most dynamic European societies, Muslims have not yet left a mark on Europe’s contemporary collective consciousness. This is particularly saddening given that the presence, integration, and future of European Muslims have become a key issue in Europe’s socio-politics. That is why Muslim communities should strongly encourage their young’s artistic endeavors, experimentation, and entrepreneurship. Art – in its broadest definition – has always been the most effective, and noblest, medium through which the ‘other’ manages to shed the layers of alienism and the ‘rest’ sees the depth beneath the veneer.

All of this would not magically solve the problems that have bedeviled the situations of European Muslims. But they could mitigate against the host of emerging challenges. On the contrary, characterizations of “Islam”, empty political talk that eschews real problems, and rhetoric steeped in theology will yield nothing – as has been the case in the last few decades.

If young European Muslims fail to take ownership of their future in their societies, they might find themselves in an acute predicament, sooner than many of them think.


Tarek Osman is the author of Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World (Yale, 2016), and the prescient and internationally bestseller Egypt on the Brink (Yale, 2010). He wrote and presented the BBC documentary series ‘Sunni-Shia: Islam Divided’ (2016), ‘Sands of Time: A History of Saudi Arabia’ (2015), and ‘The Making of the Modern Arab world’ (2013). He has appeared as a commentator on most major international news networks and is a regular contributor on the Arab world and Islamism for many leading newspapers and magazines worldwide. Tarek is the senior political counsellor for the Arab world and Turkey at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD).

Watch a series of short videos with Tarek Osman


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