Europe’s Long Road to the Mosque

Increasing numbers of Muslims on the continent are only part of the story. The real problem is not immigration but integration

Justin Vaisse is not yet a household name but this young man may go far. Of North African background, he has taught at Sciences Po in Paris and been a speechwriter for the French Minister of Defence. Currently at Washington’s Brookings Institution, he is the leading French expert on — and the nemesis of — the neoconservatives. The fact that he is spending time in America may not necessarily affect his political prospects. After all, Georges Clemenceau did the same. Of late, he has discovered and given publicity to what he calls a new genre in American literature: Eurabia. Among the chief protagonists in this new genre he mentions above all Bernard Lewis, the greatest Orientalist of our time, and Bat Ye’or, who popularised the term “Eurabia” to warn against the Islamicisation of Europe. In view of the homeric struggle between the two sides — Lewis has been accused of appeasement, if not worse, by the other side — it seems somewhat far-fetched to find a common denominator for them, but Vaisse is a resourceful man. 

Among the European protagonists of the Eurabian thesis, Vaisse mentions Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was born in Somalia and now lives in the US. I am also named, although it helps him very little that in Last Days of Europe (Thomas Dunne, 2007) I devoted several pages to my unhappiness with the very term “Eurabia” which, for a variety of reasons, I have never used and thought misleading. The great majority of Muslims in Britain are not Arab but Pakistani or Bangladeshi in origin. In Germany, the Turks greatly outnumber all other Muslims. In France, the majority is North and West African. In Belgium, Turkish and Moroccan, and so on. These are not minor, pedantic issues because traditions, culture, language and even the forms of Islam practised differ considerably in Europe. While the Arabs have tried to attain positions of leadership in the European Muslim communities, this has merely given additional impetus to tensions (and among the Arabs there is a bitter struggle between Shias and Sunnis). Arabs traditionally believe that only they are the true sons of the Prophet, giving them a feeling of superiority over other Muslims.

Vaisse has not been alone in his campaign against the prophets of Eurabia. He found several sober, level-headed and well informed experts such as Jocelyne Cesari at Harvard or Jytte Klausen, a Danish scholar at Brandeis. Dr Cesari argues that there has been in the Muslim communities a strong trend towards conservativism, but that this is not tantamount to support for terrorism. This is true and some in the West have paid insufficient attention to it. But even here a word of caution is necessary. Most of our knowledge on the mood and the political orientation of Muslim communities all over the world rests on public opinion polls, most prominently those carried out by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. How reliable, though, are these polls? To give an example: a figure of 13 per cent is usually given for those in Britain sympathising with al-Qaeda. But can it be taken for granted that those asked will reveal to strangers (who, for all they know, may be agents of the security forces) the secrets of their hearts and minds? The answer seems obvious. 

To return to Vaisse’s fellow experts: Professor Klausen is a happy soul. The author of Islamic Challenge (OUP, 2005), she reached the conclusion that there was no such challenge. She had interviewed some 300 professional Muslim men and women in various European countries, all middle- or upper-class businessmen, professors, lawyers and physicians, all of them reasonably content with their life and circumstances, identifying with their new countries and eager to collaborate in their social, political and economic life. There are indeed such people: the emerging Muslim elite. But the fact that these contented people are only so far a happy few seems not to have occurred to Professor Klausen. What influence do they have in their respective communities? Do the young people listen to them or to the imams? To what extent do they still identify with their erstwhile community? In Europe, most of them have moved out of Muslim ghettoes. This is not the case in India, where the Muslim middle- and upper-classes prefer to live with their coreligionists. 

Professor Klausen attained fame a year later as the result of the Danish cartoon affair, having written a book about the subject. Yale University Press, the publishers, decided to delete the controversial cartoons rather than use them to illustrate the text. This, in turn, generated some protests, but Yale did not budge, and the impression was created that Professor Klausen in her book was breaking a lance for freedom of expression. Her intention, however, was to criticise the Danish government and even its society, which she thought intolerant. This was based on the belief that if integration did not work, this must have been the fault of the state, the authorities and the ethnic majority, not the religious or national minority, for it was the former that had to make the concessions. 

Vaisse’s and Dr Cesari’s points of view were shaped largely by the French riots of 2005. The view can be summarised briefly but not unfairly as: “It’s Marx, not Muhammad, stupid.” In other words, the deeper causes of the unrest in the banlieues (housing estates) were social and economic, not religious fanaticism. This point of view is not entirely wrong, for if the people in the banlieues were as prosperous as Professor Klausen’s happy few, it would indeed be less likely that they would engage in burning cars or in suicide missions. This generalisation should not, however, be pressed too far. Osama bin Laden and many of his intimates never went to bed hungry and did not come from poor backgrounds. For the deeper reasons, we do not find an answer in Das Kapital. How do we explain the fact that Muslim immigrants in Europe have not been doing remotely as well as newcomers from other countries? How to account for the fact that pupils in European schools from other cultures, for example China and India, have often been doing better than their classmates born in Europe — and that Muslim students have been doing much less well and that the dropout rate among them has been so high?

Optimism with regard to the prospects of multiculturalism (or more recently of integration) usually went hand in hand with optimism concerning the future of Europe and its standing in the world, and it is easy to see why. In the Last Days of Europe, I tried to point to the important social and cultural changes taking place in Europe and to the other grave dangers facing it. These arguments were neither sensational nor very original. Leo Tindemans, the former Belgian Prime Minister, had written in a position paper in the 1970s on the future of Europe that a house half finished would not last and that economic unity without a greater measure of political union would not work. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the father of the euro, had expressed similar concerns. But the views I had expressed were not popular. They were criticised in the Economist and the Financial Times. It was not the message one wanted to hear. Only a few years have passed and one does not now see many new books or articles predicting that Europe will be the world’s leading superpower and that the whole world will try to emulate the European model. The prophets of the European superpower have turned to other subjects whereas the critics of the Eurabian model have not given up so easily.

Justin Vaisse: Against the prophets of Eurabia 

Before taking our discussion of Eurabia any further, there’s need for a brief historical reminder. Those indignant about the use of the concept seem to be unaware that its origins are by no means Western and were not concocted in the cabals of the neoconservatives. It is a Muslim, or rather specifically Arab, concept. Among Middle Eastern public figures and writers, the idea that Muslims would be a majority in Europe goes back a long time. One early well-known example is the speech made in the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 by Houari Boumedienne, the then President of Algeria, in which he argued that in view of the high birth rate of Muslim women (and the low and declining birth rate in Europe) such a development was more or less inescapable. He was referring specifically to the “wombs of our women”. Boumedienne was not among the leading demographers of his generation (nor was Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who made a similar statement in 2006) but no special training was or is needed to observe the changes taking place in Europe’s cities. 

The idea he voiced has been repeated on countless occasions in speeches and on placards displayed in demonstrations in many European countries. The changing European situation has been described in great detail in books and articles in the Arab media. One recent example should suffice: an article written in May in English by Aijaz Zaka Syed (by no means an extremist) in the Saudi Arab News, observed from Brussels that “the capital of the new Europe increasingly looks like Beirut, Istanbul or any other great city in the Middle East”. He is pleasantly surprised by the impact of the growing Arab and Muslim population on life in Europe, adding: “This is not just Brussels, scenes like these can be found in London and Paris, in Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.” He reports that European media have been buzzing with talk that “the Muslims are coming” and about the demographic time bomb. He advises his European colleagues not to get overexcited and wish the immigrants away but to accept the facts. Those who are invading Europe will transform its profile forever. But they are needed to rejuvenate an old and exhausted continent: “Like them or hate them, Europe has to learn to live with its Muslims.”

Recent years have witnessed a flood of demographic literature, professional and less professional, about the number of Muslims already living in Europe and also projections far into the future. According to the UN, by the year 2300 Europe will be a black continent. There have been endless debates about whether to include in these statistics only new immigrants or also the second and third generation and those who acquired the citizenship of their countries of adoption. Those warning against alarmism have pointed out that the high birth rate among Muslim communities is declining and in all probability will continue to decline. This seems to be true, and it is also doubtful whether Muslims will continue to come in droves, but it is also true that the considerably lower European birthrate will probably not recover to any significant degree. It has nowhere reached reproduction rate (2.1 per family). In countries such as France, which is close to reproduction rate, the figures are probably misleading because they include births in the immigrant community. In any case, for the achievement of major political, cultural and social influence, 51 per cent is not the magical figure.

How significant are these demographic discussions? With all the differences of opinion there is some common ground. Everyone agrees that the present number of Muslim immigrants in Europe is relatively small — between five and ten per cent. But it is also true that their number among the younger age cohort is two or three times larger, which means that within one generation their percentage in the general population will be considerably higher. Five percentage points is a low figure, but if the five per cent consume 40 per cent of the social service budget at a time of severe cutbacks and provide a similar proportion of young inmates of the prisons, this is bound to generate political problems. There are certain concentrations of Muslim immigrants where the percentage of immigrants is at least one third: in Brussels, Roubaix in northern France, Malmö in Sweden, Duisburg and its vicinity in Germany, Bradford, Leicester and other towns in the East Midlands of England.

However, the demographic aspect is only part of the story, and less important than the cultural one. The history of Europe (and of other continents) is the history of migrations. Given its low birth rate, Europe can preserve its standard of living only with new immigrants-young, strong, intelligent, law-abiding, eager to work (to follow the definition of our Saudi visitor to Brussels). But where to find such paragons? Pakistan or the Middle East? Moreover, women in many Muslim communities are not permitted to work outside their home. The second and third generations of immigrants tend to be more radical than their parents. This radicalism by no means stems from deep, fundamentalist religiosity: the most radical are not the most pious believers who pray five times daily and scrupulously fulfill the other religious commandments. This is a generation of resentment, because unlike other groups they did not make it. Why did they not make it? Not because they were school dropouts, they believe, but because the dominant society discriminated against them in every way. They see themselves as the victims par excellence and their frustration turns into aggression. Their ideology is a mixture of religious and nationalist elements, combined with an enormous number of conspiracy theories, the more absurd the more popular. There is a distinct danger that out of these victims (as they perceive themselves) a new underclass is developing in some ways similar to what French 19th-century historians called classes dangereuses.

True, some of them did make it, sometimes against heavy odds. Some of these successful Muslims are showing greater toughness and realism vis-à-vis their communities than their non-Muslim counterparts. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam, holds both Dutch and Moroccan nationality. This has not prevented him from advising those of his coreligionists who did not like it in the Netherlands to go back to their country of origin. Job Cohen, the  former mayor of Amsterdam, would hardly have dared to make such a statement, not in any case before he resigned as mayor to become head of the Dutch Labour Party. Since then, he has been considerably more outspoken. Nyamko Sabuni, an 

African Muslim and the Swedish minister for gender equality, suggested a medical investigation of Swedish schoolgirls to find out the extent of genital mutilation. Nothing became of her initiative but it is unlikely that any of her Swedish-born colleagues would have dared even to mention a subject like this. 

The decisive issue is not the numbers but the integration of the new immigrants. About half of the newcomers — more in some countries, fewer elsewhere — have expressed their wish to adopt the values and customs of their new homes, but half are rejecting them as incompatible with Islam. The authorities in some countries (notably France and the Netherlands) claim that Muslim integration has been more successful than generally believed. No major terrorist attacks have succeeded in Europe in the last five years since the London and Madrid bombings and the murder of Theo van Gogh. However, these claims cannot always be taken at face value. In Germany, the optimism is based on an investigation of all immigrants, including the many who came from Russia. In England, glowing accounts have been published about certain state-supported Muslim schools. But on closer investigation, it appeared that they were preaching that most things British were sinful, including Shakespeare and cricket. Many dozens of young Muslims from Germany, Denmark and the UK have gone to fight the infidels (or their own brothers) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere. But the issue is not terrorism, important as it is, but integration or the “rejuvenation” of Europe. 

What then of the second and third generation? A well-known Berlin imam has said that “the road to the mosque is long and the temptations are many”. It is not clear what temptations he had in mind: probably not Western political philosophy but those of the flesh such as the less savoury aspects of contemporary Western civilisation — drugs, drinking, pornography. While the second and third generation of Muslim immigrants is generally more radical, this may well change over time. But it is unlikely to change soon. It may take several more generations. Islam once had a great civilisation and there could be a revival after centuries of stagnation and decline. But what kind of “rejuvenation” can Europe expect in the years and decades to come? 

It will probably be impossible to keep Muslim communities residing in the West in isolation from the outside world however intense the internal pressures and ideological indoctrination. The most obvious example is gender equality. Orthodox Muslim society is opposed to it and to more sexual freedom in general, which is considered corrupt and deeply sinful. Undermining this fundamental attitude would mean undermining male domination in society and there will be tremendous resistance against it. It is not ethical purity and moral superiority that is at stake, but domination. Why some women should participate in the process of keeping their status in society inferior by wearing the niqab and in other ways is a fascinating psychological problem that certainly deserves further study. The same is true with regard to secularism in general: concessions to secularism undermine not just deeply rooted and cherished beliefs, but the rule of the mullahs, who will not easily surrender.

How far will European societies go in accommodating a fast- growing minority that not only faces great difficulties with social and cultural integration but is to a considerable extent opposed to it? Positive discrimination helped in some societies but not in others. A German minister recently stated that a Muslim prime minister was no longer unthinkable, and a Dutch minister has expressed the belief that sharia may become the law of the land. But what kind of prime minister and what version of sharia? European banking systems have adjusted their financial procedures to conform with sharia principles. But it is doubtful that even the most liberal archbishop will justify honour killings, genital mutilation and similar practices in the foreseeable future. 

Meanwhile, there has been growing resistance to the most striking manifestations of Muslim “otherness” in various European countries such as Belgium and France. This refers to mosques and minarets in Switzerland and niqabs, hijabs  and burqas in France. The ban on wearing these in public was supported by not a few Muslims but attacked by others as a restriction of the freedom of religious practice. Wearing them is not stipulated in sharia; they are sectarian inventions and are political in motivation, designed to make it clear that the wearer wants nothing to do with the culture and way of life of the others. It is a form of protest against integration. 

European societies have indeed learnt to live with their Muslims as the cities of Europe begin to look like those of the Middle East. This process increasingly affects not only outward appearances but the general quality of life as well as competitiveness and most other aspects of culture and the economy. And it is also clear that this process has an impact on the foreign policy of European governments. The discussions as to whether such changes are taking place should cease: in Arab vernacular, they are kalam fadi (“empty talk”). Debates should now focus on the future. The problem is not a “takeover” but gradual and probably irreversible changes. How far will they go? In any event, “rejuvenation” is hardly the most fitting term for this process. There is bound to be a backlash, but to maintain political and social peace accommodation might still be inescapable. 

One major country is usually ignored in the discussions on Europe’s future, the one with the greatest number of Muslim citizens. Russia. Books with such titles as The Islamisation of Russia appeared in Moscow well before Western Europe. The number of Muslim citizens in Russia is estimated at 25-30 million. Some, especially in the Middle Volga region, are highly assimilated; unlike in Europe, there has been a fair amount of intermarriage. Moscow is believed to have between 1.5 and two million legal and illegal Muslim inhabitants, the majority of whom have made it clear that they have no wish “to return to the Middle Ages”. Others, as in the Northern Caucasus, are engaging in terrorism and guerrilla warfare against Russia, just as their ancestors did in the 19th century. The Russian government has tried to accommodate Muslims but this policy has collided with the growing xenophobia not just among the Russian Right and the Orthodox Church but with wide sections of the general population demanding “Russia for the Russians”. The demands of the moderate Muslim communities, while not extreme, have been growing and are increasingly influencing Russian foreign policy; Russia is now a member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has asked that the deputy head of the Russian state should by law be an ethnic Muslim. Since their birthrate is much higher than the Russian average, the importance of Muslims in Russian life is increasing. In a decade from now, it is estimated that one in three recruits to the Russian army will be of Muslim origin. These and other tensions are unmistakable. They might be contained, except perhaps in the Caucasus. But the real test is bound to come after the retreat of Nato from Afghanistan, when the Taliban and other such groups will be free to devote their energies to the former Soviet central Asian republics, considered by Moscow as part of its “privileged zone of influence”. At present, many Russians, including some in high places, believe that they are doing the West a great favour by permitting supplies to reach coalition troops in Afghanistan. There could be a rude awakening.

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