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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Cover Stories
Monday, 12 June 2017

Considering Islam in Europe as an European Issue

Stefano Allievi

Islam in Europe has very different characteristics from where it is the majority religion. Specifically, the position of Islam in the public space in Europe is that of a minority in a pluralistic and secularized context: an aspect which is obvious in many ways, but the consequences of which are rarely understood in all their dimensions. This is not unique to Europe and the United States, or at least not entirely.

Islam is and has been a minority elsewhere: in India, in South Africa, and several other African countries, in Russia, in China, and many other places. But the process of secularization of Europe and the US (different in the two contexts), their progressive self-definition as plural societies (which has been historically the case for the US, though much less so for most countries in Europe), their free and democratic political systems, in which individual and group rights (including, though with limitations, those of Muslims and immigrants in general) are recognized and protected, make the Western situation very different.

From the theological point of view, the situation of Muslims in Europe could be compared to the situation of Muslims in the city of Mecca at the inception of Islam. During this period, the prophet Muhammad still had a small following and Muslims were a minority group that had no major influence, being excluded from positions of power and dominance. Only in Yathrib/Medina did Islam become the dominant, ruling worldview and there it did, among other things, produce common law. It was din wa dunya wa dawla, as Medinan Islam is often defined and self-defined in Islamic politico-religious terms – i.e. religion, everyday life and organized living (institutions, government, and in its modern form the state, and hence politics).

The conceptual problem is that, even though the present situation of Muslims in Europe resembles, from some points of view, that of Mecca before the hijra, the conception of Islam held by most non-Muslims, as well as many individual and collective Muslim actors, is often much more that of Medina. Much of the cultural production about Islam and much of what comes to us from Muslim countries implicitly refers to situations where Islam is hegemonic. This lends urgency to projects of constructing a form of Islamic religious thought that takes the minority situation as its point of departure. There are several such projects, with different emphases, one being the effort to produce a minority fiqh, in which many jurists in Muslim countries, as well as the European Council for Fatwa and Research, are involved. Another project aims at elaborating a theology of Islam in a situation of religious plurality as part of a new and different society; this appears to be the direction in which authors such as Tariq Ramadan and others have been developing their ideas.

Not only is European Islam ‘Meccan’ (in the sense of being a minority); it is also, in this respect, internally pluralistic, as it reproduces in itself different cultural, national, theological and juridical interpretations of Islam, at a degree that is hardly observable elsewhere. This characteristic of internal plurality is in fact far more accentuated in present-day Europe and in other Western countries than in the Muslim-majority world. The observable panorama shows us not only a plurality of presences and contributions in terms of law schools (all co-existing, which makes them lose much of their traditional meaning) and mystical brotherhoods (a far greater diversity of which can be encountered more easily in the West than elsewhere, and whose boundaries are easier to cross in Europe), but also a plurality of ethnic groups and of religious denominations and sects (Sunnis of all persuasions, Shi`is, Isma`ilis, and the like). Finally, it also shows us a plurality of languages, both those of the countries of origin, which are numerous (Arabic, itself often a plurality of dialects and registers, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Wolof, and many others), and the various European languages, the dominant languages spoken in the respective host countries. The latter are often the only languages in which all immigrants of Muslim origin can communicate among themselves. This becomes more true the further removed they are from the moment of immigration and is increasingly the case as the first generation of immigrants is replaced by the second, the third, and so on.

In many ways, the concept of the umma as uniting believers of all skin colours and languages corresponds more closely to what can be perceived in Europe and America than in most countries of origin, where believers will primarily find others like themselves, of the same nationality, language, belief, and interpretation of these beliefs (within a specific law school). Moreover, in European countries, Muslim immigrants who activate their religious belief (and even those who don’t, due to a certain number of ‘push factors’ coming from the non-Muslim surrounding society) may experience a need to define themselves as Muslims, which in their countries of origin would have been simply obvious and pleonastic. The internal diversity among Muslims is then, ordinarily, more evident in Europe, the USA, and in other host countries than elsewhere, and certainly more than in most countries of origin of the Muslim immigrants. The umma, in this sense, becomes a unifying concept (as a desire, as an emotion, and even as a rhetorical tool much more than as a reality) precisely because it is internally divided – and Muslims know that. And Islam, in this context, becomes intrinsically plural: ‘ummic’, we might say.

This internal diversity has important consequences. A particularly relevant example is provided by the law schools, which are so crucial for the self-interpretation of Islam in Muslim countries. All of the madhhabs are present in Europe; but the major difference with the situation in the countries of origin is that they mix much more easily, and individuals can find their way through them even more than in one of them. Thus it is no wonder that European Muslims are beginning to speak of the European school – sometimes the Western and minority one (including the United States) – as the ‘fifth law school’ in progress. The internal plurality puts traditional beliefs and practices into question and produces self-reflexivity, which in turn accelerates the process of pluralization. But this process implies the production of new Islamic knowledge, capable to deal with the situation we have described here.

Islam as a source of conflict

To understand Islam in Europe it is not enough to observe its internal evolutions. Integration is like a marriage: it works only if both parts are interested in it. So we have to take into account also the image of Islam and Muslims in Europe as they are perceived by non-Muslim populations. And here we have a serious problem.

The gap between the mainstream images of Islam in Europe as it is perceived by non-Muslim Europeans, particularly in media and in politics, and the empirical reality as is lived and perceived by Muslims, is particularly evident for those who work in this field.

Islam has, in the last decades, burst in upon the European public scene, as a topic of debate and especially as a hot issue on the political, cultural, social, religious, and academic agenda. This has happened for quite obvious reasons: the emergence of Islamic terrorism and security agendas connected to Islam at a global level, specifically affecting the West on one hand, and various problems connected with the presence of Islamic populations in Europe on the other.

Nevertheless, even reflecting about concrete Muslims instead of an abstract Islam, lead us to a problem which is strictly linked to the Islamic/Muslim presence in Europe: the fact that most of the debates derive and are interpreted in a frame that is connected to conflict, and passes through what we might call hermeneutical incidents, or communicative conflicts – ordinarily, physiologically, not extraordinarily and pathologically. Virtually all of the debates concerning Muslims in Europe are linked to some kind of conflict: related to freedom of speech (from the Rushdie to the Charlie-Hebdo killings, passing through the assassination of Theo van Gogh or the Danish cartoons affair), to gender issues (from the hijab/burqa/burkini controversies to forced or mixed marriages and many others), to the visibility of Islam in the public space (mosques and minarets, and, again, veil issues), and, of course, political language and political violence (from controversial statements about the West, to terrorism, foreign fighters Isis).

All these things are obviously important: but the secondary effect of their overwhelming visibility is that all the issues concerning the normality of the processes of integration and co-existence simply disappear and vanish: they are not part of the debate on Islam in Europe.

Islam and Europe, Muslims in Europe

Islam has become the second religion in Europe, thus making Europe not an enemy, but an opportunity: the European part of the Muslim umma. But European societies seem to consider Islam, in recent years, more a threat than an advantage. The problems European countries face is then to make these two tendencies meet, because both are true: the fact that millions of Muslims find in Europe a land of opportunity, and the fact that millions of Europeans, for good or bad reasons, fear Islam. Inevitably this process will pass through different kind of conflicts, some of which, particularly on symbolic terms, we have already seen in European societies: showing that cultural conflicts are becoming the contemporary form of social conflict. The Muslim presence in Europe constitutes in fact a dramatic cultural change for Western European societies, particularly for the countries that only a generation ago were still exporting labour force. Furthermore considering the tumultuous history of relations between the Islamic world and Europe, especially across the Mediterranean, the presence of Islam in Europe represents a historic watershed. If in the past one could talk of Islam and the West – cultural world that were not, but were perceived, as reciprocally independent and impermeable –, now we can speak of Islam in the West, and eventually through the role of second and third generation of immigrants and converts, of an Islam of Europe, if not yet of an European Islam.

Islam is no longer a transitory phenomenon whose presence is only temporary and can eventually be sent back ‘home.’ Nowadays, a population of about 20 million people, that can be considered ‘culturally’ Muslim, live in Western Europe, with no intention to go back. Among this population it is already difficult, now, and it will be even more difficult (and, in the end, a simple nonsense) in the future, to distinguish between the Muslims ‘of origin’, the ‘mixed’ populations, like the so-called second generations culturally grown up “between two cultures”, but also those coming from mixed marriages and families, and the ‘autochthonous’ Muslims (which include the converts to Islam, but also naturalized people). This presence has to be considered, in perspective, the new Muslim population of Europe: European Muslims, not Muslims in Europe.

The future of this presence depends on many different factors and tendencies. But what is absolutely clear is that, between economic integration and political refusal, between tolerance and Islamophobia, between social mixing and mediatic hysteria, between demographic change and symbolic threats, Islam will find its place in Europe, because Muslims will do, and are already doing.

Nevertheless, this process of interrelation passes through and includes, contemporarily, encounters, clashes and reciprocal feedbacks: that rarely are analyzed and taken together into account – the most diffused option being that of underlining only one side of the medal (preferably clashes…). Probably because in the case of Islam in Europe it is a whole cultural and religious history that is implied, which has very much to do with the whole idea of the identity of Europe (in cultural, religious, historical, political terms): this is what makes this issue more sensitive and delicate than others, in terms of the possible consequences of misunderstandings.

And so every single conflict (from the ‘big’ ones concerning terrorism to the least episode of a discussion on a hijab in a single local context) ends up by looking more like a discursive substitute: a transitional object, to say it in psychoanalytic terms. The single conflict is the symptom; the illness is West’s imaginary of Islam: which, like the Islamic imaginary of the West, appears more and more conflictual. But this is only the first half of the argument, the most immediate. The second is that Islam is in its turn a transitional object: which represents and signifies the pluralisation of society, and in particular, religious (and cultural) pluralism. Islam has become the discursive substitute for important changes in society, which are not tied generically to religious pluralism as such: in concrete terms they are called gender roles, clothing codes, family models, parent authority, ideas of modesty, purity, sacredness, as far as the relationship between religion and politics, religion and democracy, religion and state. Subjects that in secularised societies it has become more difficult to discuss (also) in religious terms: and that cultural and religious pluralism are bringing into the limelight.

Islam – rightly or wrongly (other diversities are often much more ‘other’) – has recently become the most extreme example of diversity and of the changes that diversity brings to European societies. These changes do not only come from Islam and Muslims. However Islam, because of its symbolic overload and the problematic history that joins it to Europe, because of the striking and formidable aspect of some of its contemporary manifestations (among which obviously the emergence of transnational Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism), but also because of the significant statistical dimension of its presence, is inevitably at the centre of the political and social debate in Europe. And it will be there for a long time. In the meantime, Islam has become the second religion, or the first of the non-Christian minorities, in all European countries. So it will be impossible from now on to understand Europe without taking into consideration its Muslim component; but at the same time it will be impossible to understand Islam without taking into consideration its European and Western component. Islam has become a European fact and its internal component. And Europe an internal fact of Islam. It is not something that is going to happen in the future. It has already happened. We have to begin to understand its consequences.

Bibliographical itinerary

Some reflections on the Islamic presence in Europe, cultural pluralism and cultural conflict, that constitute the starting point of the reflections presented in this article, has been proposed in some of my previous essays, among which How the Immigrant has become Muslim. Public Debates on Islam in Europe, in “Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales”, vol. 21, n. 2, 2005, pp.135-161; Conflicts, Cultures and Religions: Islam in Europe as a Sign and Symbol of Change in European Societies, in “Yearbook on Sociology of Islam”, n.3, pp.18-27, 2006; Multiculturalism in Italy: The missing model, in A. Silj (ed.), “European Multiculturalism Revisited”, London-New York, Zed Books, 2009, pp. 147-180. On Islam in Europe see Maréchal B., Allievi S., Dassetto F. and Nielsen J.S. (eds.), Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2003, pp. 602; Allievi S. and Nielsen J.S. (eds.), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe, Leiden-Boston, Brill, pp. 332; and more recently Van Bruinessen M. and Allievi S. (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge. Transmission and dissemination in Western Europe, London-New York, 2010, pp.196 (also translated into Turk: Avrupa’da Müslüman Öznenin Üretimi: Fikirler, Bilinçler, Örnekler, Istambul, Iletisim, 2012). On some important examples of cultural and religious conflict see Conflicts over Mosques in Europe. Policy issues and trends, London, Alliance Publishing Trust / Network of European Foundations, 2009, pp. 102 and Allievi S. (ed.), Mosques of Europe. Why a solution has become a problem, London, Alliance Publishing Trust / Network of European Foundations, 2010, pp. 402 (Italian edition: La Guerra delle moschee. L’Europa e la sfida del pluralismo religioso, Venezia, Marsilio/Reset, 2010). On the transformation of identities see also the just published Conversioni: verso un nuovo modo di credere? Europa, pluralismo, islam, Napoli, Guida Edizioni, 2017 (which has a more ancient origin in Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1998). On Islam in Italy, the fieldwork that I have worked more, see Islam italiano. Viaggio nella seconda religione del paese, Torino, Einaudi, 2003 (also translated in Arabic: Al-Islâm al-Itâlî. Rihla(t) fî waqâ’i’ al-diyâna al-thâniya, Abu Dhabi, Kalima, 2010) and I musulmani e la società italiana. Percezioni reciproche, conflitti culturali, trasformazioni sociali, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2009. My latest book is on the controversy about the burkini: Il burkini come metafora, Roma, Castelvecchi, 2017. More informations and a complete list of publications in www.stefanoallievi.it.

Translated by Francesca Simmons


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