Muslims in Western Europe
AT THE end of the street stands the church, its steeple rising high above the roofs of the neighbouring terraces. The roads on either side are named after English county towns—Cambridge, Stafford, Warwick and so on—and in the pub on the corner of Warwick Street the pints are being pulled. Oh, to be in England. But this is not quite the England of Robert Browning; this is Oldham, a decaying cotton town just outside Manchester, where litter blows in the street, buddleia sprouts from the brickwork of the factories that made 19th-century Lancashire rich—and the children running into the building opposite the pub are Muslims arriving for their daily measure of Koranic instruction.
Similar scenes can be found in many towns in Western Europe these days. It is hardly a novelty to see women in saris, men wearing turbans, or signs written in strange scripts. Even the riots that erupted in a part of Oldham last summer seem a bit familiar: mass immigration has been a fact of life for West Europeans for several decades now, and so have its concomitant problems. What is new is not concern about immigrants in general but about Muslim immigrants in particular.
September 11th and Osama bin Laden's justification of violence in the name of Islam were enough to arouse all sorts of worries about the Muslim world, where theocracies flourish, women tend to be downtrodden, zealots chop off limbs for breaches of the law and adulterers may be stoned to death. That several of the perpetrators of the attacks on the twin towers had apparently lived for years in western countries raised further worries about the enclosed societies that seemed to exist within the West, societies in which hate could be preached and treachery plotted while all around non-Muslims remained utterly unaware.
Then, in May, came the Dutch general election and the bewildering success, until his murder, of Pim Fortuyn, the gay critic of the Netherlands' consensual political establishment. Part of Fortuyn's message was simply anti-immigration: the country was “full up”. But it was not only racists who responded to his views about Islam. It was, he said, a “backward religion”, intolerant of homosexuals and women's rights. This struck a chord well beyond the Netherlands, as may be judged by some remarks of Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, at the end of May. It was necessary, said Mr Fischer, whom no one would consider illiberal, to find out whether Islamic traditions and teachings were compatible with the values of modern western societies.
Up in Oldham, Riaz Ahmad could be forgiven for feeling a bit hurt. Having been elected mayor of this town of 220,000 people, 11% of them Muslim, only three weeks earlier, he had just started to use his new position to bring people together. He considers the main problems of everyone in Oldham to be the scarcity of jobs and decent housing and all the other handicaps associated with poverty. These afflict immigrants even more severely than longer-established citizens.
The immigrants who arrived in Oldham in the 1970s and 1980s came to work in the textile industry, expecting to go home to the Indian subcontinent in due course. The Turks who went to Germany as “guest-workers” from the 1960s onwards, and the North Africans who went to France around the same time, all had similar reasons for leaving home, and similar hopes of returning. But, for most of them, the return has never happened. Meanwhile, they have failed to learn English (or German or French) very well and, to make matters worse, most of their original jobs have gone. Now, in Oldham at least, any work to be had is in offices or banks or dry cleaners, where a command of the language is far more important than in a textile mill. So Asians find it hard to get jobs, while their children, held back by poor English, often fare poorly at school. Some schools are over 90% Asian.
Mr Ahmad mentions other difficulties faced by Oldham's newcomers. Many grew up in rural areas in Bangladesh and Pakistan, a far cry from urban England, and they were unskilled. Moreover, some brought their feudalism with them, and also the loyalty to the clan associated with it. This means that today an extended family of up to 500 people may vote as one.
This kind of behaviour is not confined to Oldham: as many as 600,000 of the 2m or so people in Britain who originated in the Indian subcontinent came from just one region, Mirpur, in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. Like others from South Asia, Mirpuris congregate together, bring girls and boys to Britain to marry their sons and daughters in arranged (and occasionally forced) marriages and thus help to constitute the “parallel society”—the term is used in an official report into last year's riots—which exists in Oldham.
Such habits obviously make it harder for these communities to fit into British society as a whole—and Britain has been quicker than, say, France or Germany to come to terms with the idea of integration, whereby immigrants may keep the culture and religion of their homeland, rather than assimilation, whereby they are indistinguishable, except perhaps by colour, from the natives. In themselves, these habits have little to do with Islam. Yet some aspects of Islam do reinforce the isolation of Muslims in Western Europe.
The position of women is a case in point. Whether for cultural or for religious reasons, women tend to come a poor second to men in Islamic societies. After marriage, they often spend much of their time indoors, cut off from the sorts of activities that might bring them into contact with their non-Muslim neighbours. Another consequence, says Pierre Bédier—who, until he became a government minister in June, was mayor of Mantes-la-Jolie outside Paris—is that they spend much of their time watching television, and not just the standard diet devoured by most people in France. The television beamed into the homes of French Muslims comes from the Middle East or North Africa, with programmes that constantly dwell on the tribulations of the Palestinians and the “victimhood” of the Arabs in general. In the main square of Le Val Fourré, the Muslim quarter of Mantes-la-Jolie, where an electioneering President Jacques Chirac was spat upon by youths earlier this year, few women are to be seen, and in the café the people drinking mint tea are all men.
That is not to say that all women are subjugated. Far from it: Le Val Fourré's hammam—Turkish bath—is run by Fatima Jaadane, a successful entrepreneuse from Morocco, and several young women are serving beer in the recently opened nightclub nearby. Such behaviour would not go down well in Oldham, though. A few girls do go clubbing there, says Zaffer Ullah, a 28-year-old community worker, but they probably do not tell their parents, and many do not drink. He says he is “not religious”—he goes to the mosque once a week—but, unlike Oldham's whites, “We don't like to go to pubs.”
Phil Woolas, a local MP, says Islam's ban on alcohol was a significant contributor, along with testosterone, to last year's riots. If you're an unemployed youth, with dim prospects, sharing a bedroom with five brothers and forbidden by your parents to go out with girls or have a drink, and along come some provocative white racists, you're tempted to take them on.
Most of Germany's Muslims are Turks, whose attitude to Islam is much more relaxed than that of Pakistanis. But in Germany, as in Turkey, some Muslims are becoming more devout, and even more are choosing to assert their Muslim identity as a form of self-expression, a way of saying that they are not ashamed of their origins. Many women do this by wearing the headscarf, an act no more objectionable, you might think, than Sikhs wearing the turban or Jews the yarmulke, but one that is a constant reminder to those around them that they are not going to reject their background.
Cem ?zdemir, one of only three members of the Bundestag of Turkish origin, sees no problem with this. So long as Muslims respect the German constitution, speak a bit of the language and accept the values of society—which are universal, he notes, not specifically Christian—their readiness to fit in should not be questioned. Yet he admits that Muslims have sometimes been responsible for attacks on gays and lesbians in Germany, to their dismay as well as injury, since homosexuals have often been in the forefront of campaigns against all kinds of discrimination.
Certainly, some Islamic practices seem jarring to Europeans. The ritual slaughter of tens of thousands of sheep at the annual feast known as Aid al-Adha draws a shocked response each year in France. Less upsetting but still awkward are Islamic burial requirements, some of which (the ban on coffins) conflict with public-health laws. Since exhumation is also strictly forbidden under Islam, and bodies must be buried as soon as possible, 90% of Germany's Muslims are flown home to be buried once they die. France has only one Muslim cemetery, at Bobigny, and Germany none, though land at Tempelhof in Berlin may yet be used. In Le Val Fourré, the bodies of older Muslims are also sent home, though the young are usually buried in the Catholic cemetery.
Such practices serve to perpetuate the links with the homeland. So does the reluctance of many states to grant citizenship to their immigrants, sometimes even to the children of immigrants born in Europe. But nothing perpetuates these links as worryingly as the Muslim organisations that exist in Europe and the mosques in which Europe's Muslims worship.
In Germany, for example, the biggest organisation for immigrants is DITIB, an arm of the Turkish government's office for religion. Turkey is a secular state, thoroughly hostile to fundamentalism, so DITIB is far from Islamist, but it does not do much for integration. On the contrary, since its main concern is the pursuit of Turkey's national interest, it encourages Turks in Germany to think of themselves as Turks. So do Turkish-language press and television. The German edition of the Turkish paper Hurriyet is, in Mr ?zdemir's words, “more nationalist than the Turkish one”.
Only a small fraction of Germany's 3.2m Muslims belong to the country's 19 Islamist groups but, according to the authorities, they add up to nearly 32,000 people. The largest organisation, Milli Gorus, is linked to the main Islamist party (whose name changes according to the latest banning order) in Turkey. It does not preach violence, but its 27,500 members are likely to be taught that integration into western societies is treason under Islam. Other fundamentalists may belong to the Islamic Cultural Centres, a group headquartered in Cologne that operates in half a dozen other West European countries. Or they may, if they are brave, belong to the Caliphate State, banned last December, with 1,100 members in Germany.
Many Islamic organisations perform vital tasks neglected by others—for instance, helping immigrants to find housing or work (the unemployment rate among Berlin's 180,000 Turks is over 40%, compared with 17% among Berliners at large). But both the number and the structure of these groups make it difficult for outsiders, whether the government or Christian churches or others seeking to build bridges, to know whom to deal with.
This pattern, or rather absence of pattern, is mirrored in the mosques. Most in Berlin are organised on a national basis. Most do good work, organising programmes for women about health care or child welfare. They win praise for their anti-drug activities. But what is taught by their imams, both in the mosque and in the school (or madrassa) that is generally attached, is often unknown to outsiders.
It may be well known that venomous sermons are preached in the Finsbury Park Mosque in London by Abu Hamza al-Masri, a one-eyed sheikh with a special distaste for America. It may be that the Italian police have long known, as George Bush said last year, that the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan harboured a terrorist cell. But for most people what goes on in Europe's mosques—which are usually flats or halls or garages, not the domed and minareted buildings of the Levant—is a matter for conjecture. That inevitably turns to suspicion when news breaks, as it did recently, that leading imams in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague had apparently been inciting their congregations to violence.
Europe's imams are usually sent and paid for by the governments of Muslim countries. Secular Turkey, through DITIB, sends imams and provides Islamic lessons for children in Germany. Morocco and Algeria do the same in France. In Le Val Fourré the mosque, a handsome affair by any standards, was built by Saudi Arabia, and for a while, until the French intelligence service “organised a change”, had a fundamentalist imam. Why do governments believe it their duty to provide mosques and imams in a foreign country? Perhaps to stop their expatriates falling prey to radicalism; perhaps because the distinction between church and state is never clear for theocratic Muslims.
A fear of extremism is not confined to non-Muslims. Ghoul Moulay, an imam in Marseilles, frankly expresses his fear of fundamentalists not just from Somalia or Yemen but also from Britain. Soheib Bencheikh, the grand mufti of Marseilles, says “Muslims must become immunised against outside radicalisation.” Like many others, they believe it essential that imams should be trained in Europe, not in the Middle East, the Maghreb or Pakistan.
But where will the money come from to build and run the necessary colleges? Secular, anti-clerical France is constitutionally forbidden to give state money to religions, though the long-established Christian churches and their Jewish counterparts receive tax benefits. Mr Bédier, the ex-mayor of Mantes-la-Jolie, thinks a solution could be found. First, government buildings could be rented out to Muslim groups for peppercorn sums. Second, a state school could be set up to train imams in Alsace-Lorraine, which was not a part of France when the crucial law on separation of church and state was enacted.
A similar effort is needed in Germany to promote suitable Islamic education in schools. The German constitution says all children have the right to religious education, and in L?nder (states) such as North Rhine-Westphalia about half of all kindergartens are organised by the church, though they are 60% financed by the state. Jewish children receive teaching overseen by the Central Council of Jews, but the country's 3.2m Muslims receive no Islamic education from the state—leaving the field wide open to the unsupervised madrassas. In Germany, the Central Council of Muslims may fill the breach, and one institute to train teachers is getting going in Münster, but many more are needed. Spain lags even further behind, chiefly because the government is still searching for a Muslim authority with which to reach agreement.
Generalisations about Europe's Muslims need heavy qualification: their cultural and national backgrounds, which vary enormously, may play a bigger part in their ability to integrate than their religion. So may the culture and politics of the countries they now live in: all Commonwealth citizens enjoy the vote in Britain, for instance, which means that Muslims from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and parts of Africa can vote in British elections as soon as they arrive. Their children, moreover, are British if they are born in Britain. In France and Germany, by contrast, citizenship has been granted only grudgingly.
One broad conclusion is clear. Pim Fortuyn was wrong: nothing in Islam makes it impossible for Muslims to fit into West European society, as the successful integration of many thousands already attests. In particular, he was wrong to think Islam was necessarily, and therefore immutably, intolerant. It is true that some Muslims are intolerant of homosexuality and treat women badly, but homosexuality was a crime in most western countries until recently, and women did not have full voting rights in Britain until 1929. In France they were not allowed to sign cheques until 1962. Given time, and effort on all sides, most Muslims will lose their censoriousness, as well as their insistence on marrying within their communities. And anyway, how many Catholics would still prefer their children to marry a Catholic rather than a Protestant?
But integration is hindered both by cultural and, to some extent, by religious factors. The critical mass of the Muslim immigrant communities, which makes it easier for individuals to survive unintegrated, is a serious impediment, just as it is for Latinos in the United States. So, in one respect, is the strength of Islam as a religion. That strength brings several benefits. Muslims are generally good, law-abiding citizens. They tend to have strong family values. Their children who have gone through religious education often gain a self-confidence that helps them in their other school work. But Islam is a religion that is readily open to extremist distortion, as all religions are to some extent, and it is ill-equipped to impose restraint on its wilder followers: 70% of the imams in France are self-proclaimed, laments Imam Moulay in Marseilles. If an association wants a fundamentalist, no one can stop it.
The lesson is that, if integration is the aim, everyone must work at it. In Britain, the most residentially segregated of all immigrant groups are the Bangladeshis, many of whom are crowded into a single borough, Tower Hamlets, in East London. The next-most-segregated are the Pakistanis, followed by the Indians, with the Caribbean population relatively well integrated. Indeed, Ceri Peach of Oxford University argues that the Caribbeans are following an “Irish”, assimilationist path, whereas the predominantly Muslim South Asians are following a “Jewish”, pluralist path in which they are economically integrated but socially encapsulated. It would be wrong to assume that what happens in Britain will necessarily happen elsewhere, just as it would be wrong to attribute the South Asian Muslims' lack of progress in society only to their religion. But it would be odd if Islam had nothing to do with it.