Vol. 4 Num 217 Sat. January 03, 2004  

Post breakfast
Muslims in France and Europe in general

France's efforts to preserve the country's secular identity while integrating France's Muslim population (the largest in Western Europe) has drawn attention once again to the Islamic identity as existent in Europe. The very fact that a Presidential Commission was set up (headed by former minister Bernard Stasi) to seriously investigate the implication of religion in a secular culture is itself significant.

The idea that conspicuous religious symbols like Jewish skull-caps, prominent display of Christian crosses or head scarves can hurt the imparting of education in educational institutions has now transcended social boundaries and assumed political overtones. President Chirac's support for a law in this regard has lent greater importance to this idea. Apparently, henceforth, discreet medallions and pendants which merely confirm a person's religious faith will be allowed. It is being assumed that such a manifestation will not affect social peace and national cohesion.

The problem probably lies in the fact that in France, secondary education is part of the central responsibility of the State. That connotes the factor that nothing can be encouraged that might affect the principle of secularism that is state policy.

This has raised important questions -- the first being one of identity and what it means to be French. To this has been added the latent fear of a radicalised French Islam. Unfortunately, the dynamics in recent times has been such, that some of the far right, ultra conservative elements in France have ended up in stigmatising French Muslims.

The 'Economist' has pointed out that Muslims are hardly new in France and history of migration from North Africa to France goes back to the early 20th century. They have however observed that contrary to earlier practice, the Muslim girls are choosing to wear their head-scarf young, and continuing to do so into adulthood. This trend also appears to be most marked among the educated teenagers, whose mothers in most cases either never wore the veil, or actively fought to be liberated from it.

What makes the sociological implications that much more interesting is the fact that the two schoolgirls from Aubervillers, an industrial suburb of Paris, who started this controversy have an Algerian-born mother who does not wear a headscarf and that their father is Jewish. That indeed is a melting pot. This situation that has developed in France is symbolical of a greater and wider phenomenon that is presently sweeping across Western Europe and also some parts of the USA, Canada and Australia.

The wearing of scarves by young Muslim girls denote not only their efforts to send a protective message about themselves to potential harassers, but also a reflection that they have a separate ethnic cultural identity. This appears to be more of a second-generation trend, where ethnic individuality is more marked in the children of immigrants than among their parents who originally arrived in a new socio-cultural frontier. By doing so, these young people are rocking the boat of integration that is being sought so earnestly in the wider Europe.

In France, the issue has acquired several connotations. The contentious nature of the debate now also includes subjects like separate hours for Muslim women in public swimming pools and whether veils can be worn in public offices or in public schools. The differences have divided France and as an analyst has put it, "cut across left and right". Unfortunately for the sociologists, educationists and the culture gurus, the situation has acquired added political resonance with regional elections in France due next March.

One aspect is clear. The question of Islam and the status of Muslims in Europe have come into sharp focus once again.

There is today a changing perception of Muslims in Europe after the events of 11 September. While the number of Muslims in Europe have steadily grown (currently about 19 million), incomprehension and fear seem to dominate the minds of the non-Muslim Europeans. It is against this scenario that the policy makers throughout Europe are trying to stimulate dialogue and with it a better understanding of the issues at stake. It is being hoped by the European leadership that this will contribute to the dissemination of best practice among all stakeholders and decision-makers.

Particular attention is also being paid to the role of he media and civil society in shaping issues surrounding the inclusion of Muslims in European societies. The urgency for finding an acceptable solution for the successful integration of its Muslim citizens is also stemming from he awareness that this will have an impact on Europe's wider relationship with Islamic countries. European policy makers believe that they can contribute not only to the integration of Muslims in Europe but also towards further mutual understanding on how to strengthen a democratic and multicultural Union with shared common values.

This positive approach of trying to find common denominators has started with steps to recognise he important civilising role which Muslims have played in the historical development of Europe. It is being stressed in this context that intercultural dialogue is "the only way to build a bridge to the wold of tomorrow" and that questions of culture and its understanding should not be ignored in a world dominated by security concerns.

This approach is the correct path. Furthering cultural and religious understanding is definitely necessary to reinvigorate Euro-Mediterranean relations. This has been impacted by the radicalisation of opinions prompted by changing world events. It must not be forgotten that there are tremendous challenges ahead both for Europe and the Mediterranean regions -- EU-enlargement, the inclusion of new languages and religions, changes in migratory flows, etc. It needs to be also remembered that the substantial majority of Muslim migrants to Europe are from North Africa. Pluralism is needed and this can only come through increased dialogue.

We have to remember that one of the detrimental aspects of globalisation is potential increase of already existing social asymmetries and erosion of the social fabric. This is particularly true among the less fortunate percentage of the population. In Europe, the economically challenged include most of the Muslim community. Their economic status has also led them to become more insular. They also sadly suffer from the fall-out of prejudice. It is this situation that also makes it necessary for intercultural dialogue to be based clearly on mutual respect, equality and solidarity. Different sides in Europe should not lose sight of the historical and cultural ties that bind them closely together. Islamic and European civilisations could not have developed, one without the other.

The most important component in this regard has to be education. This has to be the main pillar on which dialogue and understanding needs to be built, not only for women and children, but also for adults. What is needed are long-term and short-term action, with a focus on shared 'best practice' as has been set forth in the European Union's Wider Neighbourhood agenda. This will help in defeating the clashes of ignorance.

A key problem in Europe today, particularly in comparison with the US, has been the comparative 'disassociation' of Muslims within the European cultural melting pot. Comparably, Muslims in the US appear to feel more integrated. This is probably because no matter how critical Muslims might be of current US foreign policy, they tend to speak as citizens. American Muslims have also been recognised by leading US parties as a political force to be reckoned with. This was reflected in the way the Republican Party embraced them before the 2002 elections. This gave them a so-called psychological clout. Currently, similar behaviour by established European parties would be difficult to imagine. Such a course of action would probably lead them to risk losing, not gaining votes.

Another area which continues to suffer is the lack of Muslims in leadership positions in Europe. There is a marked lack of representation. While there are a few Muslim parliamentarians in Germany, not a single Muslim is a federal or state Minister. Including Muslims in leadership positions is crucial. In this context the key lies in education changing people's perceptions. The media can also play a crucial role in furthering open-discussion.

Young, second and third generation Muslims sometimes feel culturally and intellectually alienated in Europe because they do not know sometimes to which culture they belong. At times they also feel that their political views go unnoticed. What is required is true inclusion. This will then reduce the impact of the bloodline being the sole entitlement to citizenship and foster a sense of civic belonging which has gained ground among the immigrant community in the US and in Canada.

The real debate is not what to do with Muslims in the midst of Europe but whether Europeans are going to consider integration as a two-way street. This has to become a reality. This can be greatly facilitated through the exchange of values and opinions between the two cultures. This is crucial.

This will not be easy. Muslims in Europe are not a homogenous group. They are divided by linguistic, social, sectarian and political factors. Nevertheless, this obstacle can be overcome with patience and understanding. In the long run that will make Europe richer. This would be the best way to reduce the unfortunate rise of xenophobia and Islam phobia in many parts of Europe.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador.