Life with citizen Islam

Stefano Allievi says Islam has become a European fact despite its symbolic overload


Islam has become the second religion in Europe in terms of the number of followers, thus making Europe not an enemy, but an opportunity: it is the European part of the Muslim ummah. But, in recent years, European societies seems to consider Islam 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 some kind of conflicts, some of which, particularly on symbolic terms, we have already seen in European societies, which shows 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, now, one 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 a 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 lives 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 a situation of mixed marriage and the ‘autochthonous’ Muslims (which include the converts to Islam, but also naturalised people). This presence have 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 and between demographic change and symbolic threats, Islam will find its place in Europe, because Muslims will do it too, and they are already doing it.

Minarets, mosques, but also veils and burqas, or other conflictual issues related to the presence of Islam in Europe (included on principles: from the Rushdie affair to the Danish cartoons controversy) will reveal at a certain point as being false problems. The real problem is greater than all this: it is the relationship of Europe with Islam, on one hand; and the relationship that the Muslims have with Europe and the West, on the other.

If the conflictual issues are the symptom, the illness is the Western imaginary of Islam, which, like the Islamic imaginary of the West, appears more conflictual in the recent past. If Europe wants to solve these conflicts, it has to pass through them, making the reasons of the sentiments and behaviours of significant parts of society, the fears that move them, the drives that they contain, emerge. And, Muslims in Europe need to enter into these discussions, even when put in unpleasant forms.

It will be necessary to discard the idea of Islamic ‘exceptionalism’, the presumption that Muslims are always different, that they need unique and peculiar instruments. The European approach must remain firmly anchored to the universalism that characterises the European juridical construction: to the principle that the law is the same for all, that rights are personal and inviolable, that it is not possible to do away with the principle of the universality of the law, which is at the foundation of the idea of the West, the justification of its history and its legitimate pride.

Reflection on these themes must leave the short term, the agitation of the present – a horizon that for the political entrepreneurs of fear rarely goes beyond the next elections – and enter in the perspective of the middle and long term, shifting from elections to generations. Because the new generations (second and third, and tomorrow fourth) of Muslims are already in Europe and are different from those that preceded them, from their immigrant fathers and mothers; but in the same way the new generations of Europeans are no longer people who have seen Muslims arrive from somewhere, but persons who have always been side by side with them from their birth: in the neighbourhood as at school or at work.

If policies and politics change rapidly, institutions are a guarantee of coherence and duration, or at least slower and more meditated change than that which drives social and political forces. And, despite everything, they are more solid than they seem: and, they work in the direction of integration, universalisation, the extension of rights and their consolidation, not in the direction of cultural opposition and social conflict. This process is also taking place on the religious level. There is a common religious grammar that ends up by comprehending and recognising the religious needs of others and their meaning: praying, also in the community, fasting, having clothing codes, an idea of modesty, specific gender and sexual roles, the sense of pure and impure… In this there is the possibility of obtaining recognition and building alliances, and constructing relations of trust and confidence. But, for this Muslims need also to understand that the idea of reciprocity, so often evoked off the point (as when a Moroccan immigrant group which wants to set up a prayer room is crushed by the reply that in Saudi Arabia you could never build a Christian church), has instead a profound and socially significant meaning, when it asks to mutually share the pain of an injustice, of a discrimination, of a religiously motivated act of violence, wherever it may take place, in Europe or in Muslim countries towards Christians or Jews.

Islam – rightly or wrongly (other diversities are often much more ‘other’) – has recently become the most extreme example of alterity and of the changes that alterity 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. As we have stated in the beginning, 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.

Stefano Allievi is a professor of sociology at the University of Padua, Italy.