Islam in Europe: A Changing Faith

Islam in Europe: A Changing Faith

Young Muslims are crafting a new brand of their religion reconciling

traditional practices with the realities of life in the West

BY NICHOLAS LE QUESNE,9868,188641-1,00.html

There's standing room only in a converted warehouse in the decaying

industrial hinterland north of central Paris. It's mid-October, just 


after the first U.S. bombs fell on Afghanistan, and the French magazine 


Mdina  which serves as an outlet for the country's Muslim population  


organized a public meeting on the significance for Islam of the Sept. 


attacks and their aftermath.

The atmosphere is electric. The men are in jeans and sportswear, while

most of the women wear scarves over their heads. With few exceptions, 


audience is made up of North Africans in their mid-20s. On the podium,

39-year-old Swiss university professor Tariq Ramadan  whose grandfather

founded Egypt's Islamic revival movement the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928

begins to speak. "Now more than ever we need to criticize some of our

brothers," he tells the packed hall. "My dignity depends on saying,

'You're unjustified if you use the Koran to justify murder.'" The 


establishment  with its traditional mistrust of religion  views Ramadan

with suspicion, but tonight he sounds like the voice of reason.

Then a young woman steps up to the microphone. With her black hijab she

could be from almost anywhere in the Muslim world, but her accent is

unmistakable  it's pure northern Parisian: "It's urgent for Muslims 


to do everything they can to make the truth about their religion

understood." The crowd bursts into thunderous applause.

Although most media have focused on a hard-core fringe calling for 


struggle against America, the overwhelming majority of Europe's Muslims

see their religion as a moderate one. A survey carried out by the Mori

agency for Eastern Eye, Britain's biggest selling Asian newspaper, 


that 87% of the Muslims polled are loyal to Britain, even though 64%

oppose the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan.

These people and thousands of others like them are crafting a new 


of Islam, one that aims to reconcile the basic tenets of the faith  


as social justice and submission to the will of God  with the realities 


contemporary European life. Though this process has been under way for

some time, the events of Sept. 11 and afterward have lent it new 


For many of Europe's 12.5 million Muslims, now is the time to redefine

Islam in the context of their identities as believers who were born and

bred in Europe. The result is a kind of Euro-Islam, the traditional

Koran-based religion with its prohibitions against alcohol and

interest-bearing loans now indelibly marked by the "Western" values of

tolerance, democracy and civil liberties. This new vision could well 


up influencing the world these young Europeans' grandparents left 


For this new generation, Euro-Islam is not a zero sum game: it is 


to be Muslim and European at the same time. In fact, unlike that of 


Christian neighbors, the religious faith of Europe's Muslims is getting

stronger. A survey published by French newspaper Le Monde in October 


that people from Muslim backgrounds are praying more, attending mosques

more often and observing the Ramadan fast more assiduously than they 


in 1994, when the survey was last conducted. The increased devotion is

particularly marked among those who have been to university. In 


more women are wearing the hijab today than 10 years ago.

Euro-Islam is a bridge between two cultures, providing young believers

with a way of respecting inherited traditions while living in a 


world. It also gives them the confidence to practice their religion 


openly, unlike their parents or grandparents who thought their sojourn 


Europe was temporary and so were content to express their faith in

private. Their children view Europe as their home and see no reason not 


worship more publicly.

During Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that ended last week, Ahmid  


Moroccan-born imam at an Islamic cultural center in Rome  was selling

Korans and cassettes of Muslim preachers at his stall outside the 


mosque. A practicing Muslim back in Morocco, Ahmid has become more 


since arriving in Italy 13 years ago. "The immigrant turns to religion 


support," he says. "Muslims have always gone anywhere in the world and

adapted to learn to live as they must  and let others live their 


As Ahmid suggests, the story of Islam in Europe is a story of 


During the Continent's reconstruction after World War II, Britain and

France turned to their former colonies in South Asia and North Africa 


fill their manpower shortages, while Germany opened its doors to "guest

workers" from Turkey. Most of these guests never went home again, and

their children were born and grew up as Europeans. Today, the Muslim

communities in these three countries are the biggest in Europe: 5 


in France, 3.2 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain. These 


have been augmented by more recent waves of immigration to countries 


Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and the Scandinavian region.

But Islam itself is nothing new in Europe. After advancing as far as 


in 732, the Arabs remained in Spain until 1492, when they were driven 


Granada. Over those centuries they bequeathed the Spanish their

distinctive pronunciation of the letter J as well as masterpieces of

Moorish architecture. The Islamic scholars Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd

reintroduced Greek philosophy to the West during the Middle Ages, while

Arab mathematicians revolutionized science with the invention of 


And when the Ottoman armies pushed west through the Balkan peninsula in

the 14th century, they established Muslim communities in Central Europe

that still exist today.

In Sarajevo, the imams' calls to prayer from reconstructed mosques 


with the chimes of bells from Orthodox Christian medieval churches and

19th century cathedrals. "I have more in common with Bosnian Serbs than

Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan," says former Bosnian Interior

Minister Muhamad Besic. His words offer striking testimony of the 


of Islam's historic roots on the Continent, given that not 10 years ago

his city was under siege from those same Bosnian Serbs. But they also

speak of an assimilation that even war could not affect.

What's different now is that for the first time in their 14-century

history, Muslims are living as minorities in secular societies.

Traditional Islamic theology divides the world into two zones: the dar

al-Islam, or house of Islam, and the dar al-harb, or house of war. This

world view assumes that Muslims will never be able to practice their

religion properly in non-Muslim lands and so should not settle there. 


second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe quickly discovered that

this was a false opposition. Fresh ideas were needed, such as the dar

ash-shahada, or house of testimony: a new concept referring to any 


where Muslims can make their profession of faith and live according to 


precepts of their religion.

Tariq Ramadan is one of the most prominent exponents of this new 


"As a Muslim I can be at home anywhere I'm safe and where the rule of 


protects my freedom of conscience and my freedom to worship," he says. 


this new environment, my responsibility is to bear witness to the 


of my faith."

European Muslims don't necessarily differ from other Muslims when it 


to the basic tenets of that faith, but according to Dilwar Hussain, a

research fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, they do have

"greater flexibility, greater awareness of the wider society and more

liberal attitudes." Witness the growing number of Muslim girls 


the Rutgers Women's Health Foundation in the Netherlands for abortion


Hussain says that Europe's liberal attitudes are forcing the faithful 


reassess their own beliefs. "The younger Muslims are going back to the

text and asking: 'What my parents used to do, is that really part of my

faith or is that part of their cultural tradition?' Drawing that

distinction between faith and culture is very important. You may find 


things in the Islamic texts, and then the cultural setting can lead to 


particular interpretation. When the cultural setting changes, those

interpretations will naturally change." Says Lhaj Thami Breze, 


of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France: "We're forging our own

way of practicing Islam, and it's going to be different from the way 


done in Morocco, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. Islam needs to free itself 


imported customs."

For Yakob Mahi, 36, a Moroccan imam living in Belgium, adapting Islam 


new environments has been central to the development of his faith. He

cites the concept of Shari'a, the way of life ordained by God for 


which he says many countries have turned into a code of punishment  


though less than 1% of the Koran consists of penal rules. In Europe, 


says, "We can see Shari'a not as law, but as a path to be understood in

its context. When we transform it into daily European life, we see that

Shari'a doesn't mean cutting off the hand of a thief. Rather it's a 


present in many things we enjoy in Europe: the principles of democracy,

the rule of law, the freedoms of expression and association." That

innovative interpretation makes Muslim law compatible with its Western

secular counterparts. So Mahi advocates a doctrine of "spiritual

citizenship" in which Muslims "respect the laws [of the secular state] 


try to give a spiritual impulse to everything they do."

In Europe, Muslims must also confront social questions  such as

euthanasia, abortion and sexuality  that are suppressed in many Islamic

countries. Nowhere is this confrontation more obvious than in the

assertive roles being claimed by women. After all, the 7th century

doctrines of the Prophet Muhammad considerably improved their lot,

forbidding the then common practice of female infanticide and making 


education of girls a sacred duty. "It's not the religion that holds 


women but the culture  and the men," says Fatma Amer, head of education

and interfaith relations at the London Central Mosque. "It's up to the

women to organize themselves and not accept everything their 


tell them they must do."

One area in which both women and men are asserting themselves more

vigorously is marriage. In Britain, increasing numbers of young women 


resisting arranged marriages to cousins back in Bangladesh or Pakistan. 


France, too, young people are clashing with parents who always assumed

their children would marry someone from their own village in Morocco or

Algeria. "We want to choose the person we marry," says Fouad Imarraine,

who runs the Tawhid Cultural Center in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

"It doesn't matter what color their skin is as long as we're of the 



Imarraine describes how the attitudes of Europe's Muslims have changed.

"When we went back to North Africa on holiday, we realized we had 


ties in France," he says, sipping coffee in a caf nestled at the foot 


concrete tower blocks. "Very few of my generation made it to university

and Islam provided us with a refuge from failure at school and feeling

shut out of society. But there's now a younger generation using Islam 

as a

way of establishing the universal values they have in common with those

around them. Defining their own identity as Muslims is a way of

interacting with the rest of society."

This generation has grown up thinking of Europe as home, even if it has

often seemed inhospitable. Schoolgirls have been expelled for wearing 


hijab in France, while in British Islamic communities like the one in

Luton, Muslims are twice as likely to be unemployed as other townsfolk.

But for this new generation, being Muslim and European means their 


has become a matter of individual choice rather than social constraint.

"Younger Muslims are far more individualistic in the way they interpret

the Koran, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're any less devout,"

says Mustapha Oukbih, a 36-year-old journalist who lives and works in 


Hague. The Dutch website, for example, has hosted chat rooms 


discuss whether it's okay for Muslim newlyweds to have oral sex. "They

want to decide for themselves how to live their lives," Oukbih says. 


emphasis on personal choice is providing many Muslims with a new vision 


politics, too.

"Strictly religious problems are becoming more marginal," says Hakim El

Ghissassi, editor of France's La Mdina, referring to the widespread

availability of mosques and religious instruction. "Young people today 


more concerned with resolving the social issues facing Muslims:

employment, equality in the labor market, political representation and 


way that history is taught in schools. Muslims are going to make their

voices heard more and more on these issues. They're going to want to 


part in government at the local, national and European level."

For the moment, though, Muslim political representation is small. With 


Muslim population of 800,000, the Netherlands has seven Muslim M.P.s.

Britain has only two, and France none. Yet people like Bassam Tibi, a

professor of international relations at the University of Gttingen who

coined the term Euro-Islam, insist that the integration of Europe's

Muslims depends on the adoption of a form of Islam that embraces 


political values, such as pluralism, tolerance, the separation of 


and state, democratic civil society and individual human rights. "The

options for Muslims are unequivocal," says Tibi. "There is no middle 


between Euro-Islam and a ghettoization of Muslim minorities."

In Britain, that view is shared by the writer and critic Ziauddin 


who came to the country with his Pakistani parents as a child in the

1960s. "If there is a sociological change there will be a theological

change as well," he says. "In Islam, law and ethics are the same thing. 


you change the ethics, you change the law. There will be a new

interpretation of Islam."

This new interpretation is taking shape in different places at 


speeds. Although non-Muslims often view Islam as a monolithic bloc, the

religion is characterized by its diversity. With over a billion 


scattered across every continent, as well as separate Shi'ite and Sunni

traditions, the Muslim community (or ummah) has long been a 


construct rather than a demographic reality. That's true in Europe, 


Muslims are divided by country of residence as much as by country of

origin. "The problems Muslims are facing here are deeply influenced by 


institutions of the countries where they live," says Farhad 


a professor at Paris' School of Post-Graduate Studies in Social 


"But the influence of democracy and religious tolerance is bringing 


a meeting of minds."

And that influence could well spread to the Muslim world as a whole. 


Zaki Badawi, chairman of the Imams and Mosques Council of Britain, 


in the West are helping to answer the question that has haunted Islam 


the past century: how to reconcile tradition and modernity. "Islam, 


any other society, finds modernity challenging," Badawi says. Although

that challenge is felt more acutely in the developing world, 


in those countries don't have the freedom to analyze the problem and 


effective solutions. "The tension between Islam and modernity will be

answered by thinkers in the West," Badawi says, "and transferred back 


our native countries."

It would be symbolically and historically fitting if the next great 


of Islam came from the diaspora in the West. After all, the starting 


of the Muslim calendar is not the year of Muhammad's birth but the day

1,379 years ago when the Prophet led his followers from his birthplace 


Mecca to found a new community in Medina. "The very foundation of 


civilization was built on diaspora, on the move from Mecca to Medina,"

says British Muslim writer Sardar. "This is where the diaspora is very

important: in creating a truly moderate tradition for the future." The 


diaspora of Muslims in Europe already has that task in hand.

With reporting by JEFF CHU/Birmingham, ABI DARUVALLA/Amsterdam, HELEN




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