Western Europe and its Islam

Immigration, Sociology of religion, Islam, Europe

Reviewing a ‘some-years-old’ book can sometimes be an useful experience. It can be the case when it serves to rediscover something that passed unfortunately unnoticed, and can offer new light to present times (offering the intellectual pleasure of discovering that someone have seen things before them happening, or with prospective and insightful understandings). Or, on the contrary, when it shows how rapidly society has changed, and to which respect we are now undergoing a rapid social change, that has make the situation very different from the past, if not hardly recognisable. In this case, the book is a sort of mirror that reflects more the importance of the social processes at work than reality itself.

It is the latter the case for this book, originally published in Dutch under the more respondent to reality title of Nederland en zijn Islam, i.e. The Netherlands and its Islam. And, indeed, we will consider the book as such, as an analysis of the Dutch situation, being the reference to Europe, here, limited to a short introductory chapter, and to a comparative analysis referring to Belgium and the United Kingdom, that quite obviously do not necessarily represent Europe. From this point of view, the comparative effort does not seem to represent the core part of the book, included in quantitative terms.

Continua a leggere

Muslims in the enlarged Europe

Allievi S. (2006), Muslims in the enlarged Europe, in “Temenos”, pp. 141-145

How and Why “Immigrants” became “Muslims”

Allievi S. (2006), How and Why “Immigrants” became “Muslims”, in “ISIM Review”, n.18, autumn 2006, pp.37; issn 1-871-4374

The Shifting Significance of the Halal/Haram Frontier: Narratives on the Hijab and Other Issues.

Allievi S. (2006), The Shifting Significance of the Halal/Haram Frontier: Narratives on the Hijab and Other Issues, in K. van Nieuwkerk (a cura di), Women Embracing Islam. Gender and Conversion in the West, Austin, University of Texas Press, pp. 120-149; isbn-13: 978-0-292-71302-4

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(The following text constitutes the final version sent to the editor: number of pages and notes DO NOT CORRESPOND to the published version; some other minor differences may be present in the text, compared to the published version)

The shifting significance of the haram/halal frontier

Narratives on the hijab and other issues
Stefano Allievi

The issue: why is the hijab still a problem?
The question of the hijab, the most common Arab name for what is often imprecisely called the ‘veil,’ as well as other gender issues,  has always been a very sensitive issue in European countries’ perception of Islam. It seems that, more than the issue itself, it is its symbolic perception that is crucial. The subject of women in Islam is in fact a burning issue and a source of polemics and mutual incomprehension.

At the risk of excessive simplification, two dominant positions can be distinguished in the public discourse. For the West, the Muslim woman is by definition downtrodden and the symbol of her oppression is the hijab, the veil, which she is forced to wear. For some Muslim women – and for Muslim men – it is Western women who are slaves to their obligation to be beautiful and available, on pain of being refused, and so it is they who are not free. Furthermore, they say, except for in certain situations the veil is a choice, not an obligation, as the West sees it.  The hijab is therefore a symbolic banner, waved on both sides by those who are either for it, or against it.

In addition, there is a kind of ‘semantic war’ being waged about the hijab that seems to be of some significance. The Arab word hijab is sometimes translated with no great semantic accuracy, as in the case of the French foulard. But often the choice falls on stronger words: the French voile, the English veil and the Italian velo. The word veil in itself dramatizes the debate, referring at least implicitly and certainly psychologically to something that separates, conceals, masks, or blocks the view (not to mention the word chador, often used in Italian, erroneously but perhaps not innocently as an equivalent for the preceding terms). Even if, on a symbolic and etymological level, the word is polysemic and ambiguous, in this debate the veil is always ‘that which covers,’ not ‘that which re-veals’ (the Latin root of these words shows more directly the link between veil and revelation). The semantic aspect is thus not neutral, aseptic. It turns out to be strongly ideological. The choice of words used reflects the exact way we want to put the question, and also points to the responses we wish to receive.
A significant example comes from the main European comparative research project on moral and religious values, the RAMP Project (Religious and Moral Pluralism), of which the Italian part was recently published (Garelli, Guizzardi, Pace 2003). Among the questions asked in the RAMP questionnaire was the following: “All religions require the faithful to do certain things (like for example cover their face or head [and that in itself is not the same thing! (author’s note)] or they forbid them to do others…,” and interviewees were asked if they agreed “…that girls should go to school with their head covered, if that forms part of their religious customs.” In the Italian sample the “definitely don’t agrees” came to 66%, to which must be added those that are in a middle position on a scale that goes from 1 to 7. Let us imagine how different the result would have been if the question had been about Muslim girls’ right to wear a hijab (that is, a headscarf), not the obligation to do it.[i]
In Italian there is a proverb that says: ‘the tunic does not make the monk.’ Mutatis mutandis, a garment does not make a Muslim. But Muslims – and even more so Muslim women – are continually being faced by the problem of what they wear. If not through their individual will, through the social pressure of the surrounding Islamic community. If not through this, through the no less indiscreet pressure of non-Muslim society. Muslim women are questioned if they follow a presumed Islamic code of conduct and even if they do not. This is in certain ways paradoxical and so all the more significant to understand our way of perceiving Muslim women. Quite often it is surrounding society that creates the problem of the veil, and in a way ‘insists’ on it as part of the cliché of the Islamic woman. In a certain sense there exists a ‘social demand’, which associates the veil with Islamic women, and so expects it, almost insists on it.
This can be seen in many debates on Islam typical of the French situation. From the first, in 1989, in the wake of the case of the three schoolchildren of Creil suspended from a state school, to the latest in 2003 more or less with the same dynamics. I give another example, in many ways paradigmatic, but in no way unusual. This is the case of Fouzia Ez-Zerqti, 39 years, a Moroccan and living in Padua. She has worked in Italy for many years, is emancipated, perfectly integrated and at the same time religious. A RAI TV (the Italian public television) team asked her for an interview on her experiences and the story of her life. The proposal was first accepted but then refused because RAI insisted on filming her wearing a hijab, which she had never actually worn. So in her place they interviewed and filmed another woman who responded more to the stereotype. On the contrary, a famous convert, Barbara Aisha Farina, a woman with radical ideas, always gets invited for interviews on television, which she does dressed in the Afghan burqa (Allievi 2003a). But then, from the point of view of the journalist, how can you tell if she is a Muslim (especially if converted) if she is not wearing a veil? This is just one example among many of social reproduction of stereotypes.[ii]
We may observe from these examples how issues related to the situation of women in Islam  and particularly those concerning the hijab, are raised and debated, from two different and often opposing points of view: first, that of society at large; and second that of individuals and Muslim social actors, including male and female converts. In the following section I shall analyze the point of view of society. The point of view of individual and social Muslim actors will be integrated into the point of view of converts. Converts refer to debates that are anything but new in Islam, and frequently conducted in many Muslim countries, yet they are obliged to compare them with their own European background. Before discussing these opposing points of view I shall outline diverse trajectories of conversion.

Trajectories of conversion

The greatest number of conversions to Islam is the result of something that has little to do with the search for spirituality, that is, marriage. As is well known, following the Islamic sunna, a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman without converting first. This reason for conversion may contradict the principle of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience as it has developed in the West, but it is not normally perceived as being particularly problematic by many of these candidates for conversion, who are often hardly religious at all, and consequently not particularly disturbed by their choice.
These conversions generally have no great impact on the lives of individuals and couples, and often not even on that of their offspring. Conversion under these circumstances is a means of attaining another goal (marriage), not a goal in itself. And it concerns men mainly, at least as a legal obligation. It may also concern women as a social obligation, for them to be accepted by the family of the Muslim partner, or by the ethnic and/or religious community to which he belongs, and whose judgment he might fear in case of exogamy.
In a recent work (Allievi 2002) I devoted a chapter to so-called ‘mixed’ couples, in which I distinguished not only between exogamy and endogamy, as it is usual to do, but also introduced the category of ‘selective exogamy, ’ which from another point of view might be called ‘enlarged endogamy’. It concerns, among other cases, couples in which ethnic and cultural exogamy is in some way ‘compensated for’ by a religious endogamy. In those cases in which one of the two partners is a convert, he (and more frequently she) is ‘pushed’ towards conversion through social and psychological pressure.
However, other trajectories to conversion, which, like the previous ones, may be called ‘relational,’ even if far less numerous, are those that have the greatest impact: on the lives of individuals, and also on the life of Islamic communities in Europe. In this list can be included the ‘discovery’ of Islam by meeting Muslim believers, while as a tourist or on a business trip to Muslim countries, or by meeting an immigrant in Europe and possible falling in love with him or her.
A different model of conversion is that of ‘rational’ conversions.[iii] We can refer to intellectual conversions – ‘cold’, so to speak – which are due to reading the Qur`an, even by chance, for all sorts of reasons and in the most diverse situations: either because it is received as a gift, as happened to one of the most well-known European converts, former pop singer Cat Stevens, who became Yusuf Islam, or because it was found in the prison library. Others have become acquainted with Islam through books on Islamic mysticism, especially Sufism, which have attracted a wide Western readership.[iv] Books that have influenced conversions are those of traditionalist authors such as René Guénon, Fritjof Schuon, and Titus Burckhardt, all have become Muslims. Both the intellectual way and the mystic – more frequently, probably, the second, at least in my own experience – are followed by large numbers of women.
Sufism is, however, a specific way of entering Islam, or rather a special facet of it, and leads to embracing Islam through the role of tariqa, not necessarily and not often connected to the ‘Islam of the mosques,’ where immigrants of Muslim origin can be found.
For many converts the background of conversion is political, both (even extreme) right and left. Islam, the religion of praxis that does not on principle distinguish between the ‘city of men’ and the ‘city of God’ just prefers to overlay them, and seems to be an ideal way of ‘spiritualizing’ a militant commitment that previously was only social or political. It is no accident that we find these converts in the leadership and at the intermediate levels of many Islamic associations of different European countries, in mosques, and in promoting political initiatives such as requests to be recognized by the state as a minority. In short, these converts are normally closely in touch with the Islam of immigrants.
In my research,[v] however, this way is much more – if not exclusively – a male trajectory. This is probably due to general problems of acceptance of women as part of the leadership of mosques and associations – particularly, but not only, where first generations of migrants are concerned.
Conversion, as entry into another culture and another religion, presupposes strong moments that symbolically sanction the conversion itself, and reinforce its significance as a radical change and clean break with the past. It is a process that in the definition of conversion proposed by William James (1902), with a few literary archaisms and yet widespread in the self-perception of converts, for whom it is always a ‘novelty,’ is exemplified as passing ‘from the darkest night to the most brilliant light of things.’ This ‘stepping over the threshold’ symbolizes and means ‘joining a new world’ (van Gennep 1909).
The first and principal rite is obviously the shahada, the public declaration of faith. But others take on significance, from the point of view of social recognition, that is almost equally important, and whose role and its way of being played are interesting One of these we could summarize with the Latin motto Nomen omen – the name ‘determines’ the man (and the woman). Let us see what this means for converted men and women.
The choice of name, in the case of Islam contextual to the shahada, is perhaps the most important and symbolically characteristic, also because it changes the identity of the person in some way – a typical ‘bridge-burning event’ (Hine 1970). Not by chance it is often connected to entry into a religion but also to the taking up of a commitment and a greater responsibility inside that religion, as is the case for instance of Christian monks right up to the Pope. And again, nomina sunt numina, naming things means bringing them into existence, giving them meaning.[vi] In relations with Muslims this process takes place especially where it is decided to highlight this choice by making it public. It could also have a public sanction in some official way even on the bureaucratic level with the request by individual converts and Islamic organizations of various European countries to be able to change names even on ID documents. That would make the Islamic religious affiliation visible also on the level of personal details in registry offices, and incidentally it would also be a guarantee of non-return, almost an insurance policy for the community that neo-Muslims will not change their minds, or will anyway have more difficulty in doing so. In the end, a sign of weakness, more than a sign of power.
Changing names is not actually sunna, an obligation. In Islamic tradition the story of the delegation sent by Muhammad to the Coptic governor of Egypt to convert him to Islam is well known. The governor declined the offer, but sent numerous gifts to Muhammad, among which two Coptic slaves, Mariya and Sirin. They both converted to Islam, and the first became the Prophet’s concubine, but kept their original names. Besides, in Islamized countries what prevails is the traditional custom: if Arab Muslims obviously have Arab names, that is, also Qur`anic, as the revealed Qur`an is in that language, elsewhere there is normally a co-existence of Islamic (Arabicized) traditions and pre-Islamic ones in the local language. Whereas in the West, and especially with converts, the stakes of the choice of name seem to have become symbolically higher: an element of distinction assumed and to a certain extent displayed. At times seemingly more ‘against’ something (surrounding society, Christian tradition, etc) than simply ‘for’ something.
Men and women converts are careful, more than for instance Arabs or other born Muslims, to take Islamic names, not only traditional Arab names. In this case it really is a case of nomina sunt numina. This is why the most common names start with the prefix `Abd (servant) followed by one of the 99 names for Allah, or prophets named in the Qur`an, or historical figures particularly famous from the Islamic point of view, such as the first four Caliphs called the rashidun, the well guided, or naturally the seal of prophecy itself, Muhammad. As for female converts, Aisha, the favorite wife of the Prophet, or Khadija, his first wife, or Fatima, his favorite daughter, are popular names.
The ‘naturalness’ of the choice of an Islamic name is so obvious that aspiring converts are not even informed that it is optional, not an obligation; some only becoming aware of this for the first time after our questions. Some have repented their choice and tend to make less use of the Islamic name or to abandon it.  Others have put up with it, almost a kind of compulsory toll, being sacrificed on the altar of good socialization with original Muslims. Finally others, and they are in a certain way the newest cases, belonging to more recent conversions, have had the social courage to reject this path and keep their original names.  With regard to the naming of children, some converts have chosen the practice of a double name, which allows a double appropriation. Besides changing names, changing appearance is a central and controversial identity issue.

The point of view of the host society: hijab as a public manifestation of individual rights?

The hijab is an important symbolic issue for a non-Muslim society. How the hijab is perceived by society at large, the media, the religious milieu, etc., marks a difference in its symbolic acceptance that is also related to the acceptance of Islam itself. Many studies have already analyzed this aspect of the question so I will here just recall some ‘highlights’ from debates in various European countries (see Maréchal et. al. 2003).
It is a common statement – often made by Muslim women and women converts – that just the appearance of the hijab in the public space can ‘produce’ reactions like insults, protests, or simply insistent curiosity. But it can also produce forms of intra-Muslim tension, which are not usually noted in the arena of social representation by the media and other professional observers. Actually many issues related to women’s condition must be included among these intra-Muslim tensions: between ethnic groups, between different nationalities, but also, more commonly, between urban and rural background populations, between levels of education, different opinions and attitudes of mind (more liberal or traditional, more or less militant), but also between men and women, and between immigrants and converts.
We might say that the debate over the hijab, as a state affair, is essentially a French problem. Yet, it has taken on more universal connotations through specific controversies, which have been solved in different ways, depending on the country and the particular moment. Everyone who has had the opportunity to hold courses, seminars or lectures on Islam knows just how sensitive the question of the hijab is: almost a touchstone for reflection on the presence of Islam in the public space. But everyone who has had experience of fieldwork among Muslims – and in particular converts and, especially, women – knows well how significant this issue is to them as well.

As regards the host societies, this is surprising, if examined as a principle, because the question of freedom of dress should not even be raised in the West, except possibly within the limits of respect for decency and its legal consequences.

In a certain sense, the question of the hijab is a non-issue, or an issue without a real content. Most probably, what is real in this debate is not its object at all. The most well-known debate, in Europe – which has been the paradigm of many others –, sprang from the decision not to let three pupils wear the hijab in a lycée in Creil, following the introduction of a new school rule, in the autumn of 1989, at the beginning of the new school year. This was also the year when France was celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution and its principles, which probably had something to do with the sensitivity around the issue. This led to a major debate all over France and elsewhere. It  went through three main phases. The first was in 1989 and 1990, with the events of Creil; then again in 1994-1995, when, following this long discussion, Minister Bayrou’s statement of September 1994 condemned ‘ostentatious signs’ of religious affiliation, while however accepting ‘discreet’ ones. In between we can record a long process of official and unofficial positions, ranging up to the highest authorities of the state, administrative decisions at all levels up to the Council of State, consultations, debates in the media, political controversy and electoral interests. But the case was also revived more recently, in 2003, when Minister Sarkozy confirmed, in a statement at the Congress of the Islamic organization UOIF (an official presence that was in itself a première) that wearing the hijab would continue to be officially banned. The case continued through October, this time at a lycée at Aubervilliers, where the same story was repeated. Ironically enough, in this case of expulsion of two sisters – neo-Muslimas recently converted, daughters of a Jewish non-believing father and a Catholic-raised non-believing Kabilian mother – immigration was not involved.[vii]

The discussion also had the militant aspects of an ideological battle, making some observers speak of secular fundamentalism (républicain, in French terms). Most of the magistrates involved ruled that the girls and their motivations were in the right. In some places, contorted and at times surprising compromises were sought, requested by some headmasters as gestures of goodwill, such as the suggestion to tie the hijab at the back instead of the front, seriously made by a headmaster in Colmar, while elsewhere the hijab was forbidden during lessons but allowed on the school premises (Strassburger 2000). Elsewhere again the solution found was to authorize the veil only in the presence of male teachers. Quite a paradoxical and sometimes surrealistic discussion! Furthermore, it is interesting to note that whilst French laicité declared war on the hijab, French Catholics accepted some of the girls who had been excluded from state education into their schools, so that, in an interesting reversal of positions, religious figures of different faiths accused laicité, in its French form, of sectarianism.

There have been similar cases in many other European countries, but not with the same ‘nervous’ exacerbation: the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, etc (even though, following the French example, things seem to be under change). And in some countries, such as Great Britain, this is not a real issue. This detail is not at all insignificant, and in many ways revealing. What creates the problem is not necessarily the hijab in itself, but the way it is perceived. The role of context – a basic statement for every sociological assumption – is decisive. To give one example: the same argument French Minister of the Interior Sarkozy chose to justify the banning of the hijab for ID photographs (Catholic nuns are also forbidden to wear their veils) works the other way round in other contexts. In Italy the same argument (the fact that Catholic nuns are allowed to cover their hair in ID photographs) has been used to allow Muslim women to do likewise. In both cases, the basic reference was the same: the principle of equality before the law, and of equal treatment of citizens. The difference was in the law.

It is to be noted that the hijab can in some cases become an element of integration of the presence of Islam in the public space. It happened in the case of Nabila Benaïssa, the sister of Loubna, a little girl murdered by a pedophile in Belgium. The popular mobilization around the case and the protests against the shortcomings and covering-up in conducting the investigations were enormous, leading to the immense ‘Marche blanche’ in Brussels in 1997. The figure of the young Nabila, displaying her Muslim identity with simplicity and discretion (she always appeared wearing the hijab), and showing her perfect social integration (speaking perfect French and with her calm reasoning), made a strong contribution towards creating a less offensive and threatening, ‘polite’ so to speak, perception of Islam. The drama helped to trigger off a process that on that occasion I was tempted to call “assimilation through grief” (in Dassetto 1997).

On the other hand, the debate over the hijab, and the hijab itself, is often the catalyser of what could be called ‘reactive identities’ on both sides. On the side of the host society, the reaction to the hijab allows hidden or ‘sleeping’ identities to emerge, as is the case if, faced by ‘them’ (the hijabi women and the appearance of the hijab in the public space), an ‘us’ starts to be evoked by the intervening parts (we women, we Westerners, we Christian civilization, we the secular state, etc.). On the Muslim side, the reactive identity can be seen when the hijab becomes a symbolic banner raised in order to counter society and its symbols, especially in certain militant milieus. It can be especially observed among women who were not used to wear the hijab in their country of origin, deciding to do it in the host country – but also among converted women.

The point of view of converts. Narratives and rationalizations of the hijab
A second approach to the question seems to have been less studied and analyzed. Fewer studies have in fact been conducted on the weight of social practices concerning the hijab and their meaning inside Muslim communities. For instance: how are converted women seen, and how differently, if they do or do not wear the hijab, especially in mosques and in their associated milieus? What is the meaning of this practice, for the women involved, in terms of acceptance of the mainstream local Islamic culture? Is the hijab necessary for women to be accepted by the (mainly male) Muslim social actors? And what is its role in terms of self-positioning towards non-Muslim society?
If we specifically examine the differences between narratives and rationalizations of the hijab, and more in general the haram/halal frontier, with special reference to women, offered by male and female converts, we are tempted to look for certain specific features. Both male and female converts have in common the fact of not being related to any ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ interpretation of Islam, a situation that is specific to immigrants. But their arguments often are related to ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnic’ interpretations of Islam. They necessarily have to be rooted, in order to become accepted references, in Islamic traditions, and more specifically, those of the community to which they refer (often a local and in some way ethnically characterized Muslim community, such as a mosque or the zawiya of a Sufi tariqa).
Nevertheless, the fact of being men or women often puts them in a different position, and it is interesting to understand how and why, and what the gender consequences are. I will attempt to do this, by comparing rationalizations about the hijab and other gender aspects proposed by some converted men and women.
The question of the hijab is part of a more general issue: the haram/halal frontier. Haram and halal, the pure and impure, the licit and illicit: these are the categories on which the thinking, juridical more than theological, of Islam rests. That is on the criteria of the separation of good and evil, and the recognition and separation of Muslims in respect to the rest of the world. As noted by Weber (1922), the personality of Muhammad
is free from any kind of ‘tragic’ sentiment of sin – a character that has remained fixed in orthodox Islam. ‘Sin’ appears there as a ritual impurity, or as religious sacrilege (such as polytheism), or disobedience to the positive commandments of the Prophet, or class unworthiness for violation of customs and proprieties.
An attitude that is considered typical of Islam, and similar to Orthodox Judaism (taken up in the distinction between sacred and profane proposed by Durkheim. But, as Durkheim (1912) himself implies, it is present inside almost all religious traditions, to a greater or lesser degree, in that they are immediately comprehensible and hence well-known criteria of recognition of the goodness of one’s conduct and the laws one can and must follow. Laws which, however unmotivated or irrational, offer an easy and immediate guide: orthopraxis knows immediately where to seek inspiration and who if anyone to seek advice from. In case of doubt there is always the ultimate instance of conscience; but first, and it is a particularly important fact for Islam, there are the ulama, the imam, those who know a little more, books, and second to last the jurists, some of whom (if we think of Yusuf al-Qardhawi, or for the younger generations Tariq Ramadan) are real pop (in the sense of popular) stars.

A logic and a practice, just mentioned, immediately comprehensible and absolutely identifiable with for a Muslim, even an immigrant. But for a convert? Is it accepted or rejected, or possibly mediated and accepted with reservation? And if it is accepted, is it a cultural acceptance or, at most, a response to a psychological need, a lightening of the anxiety of individual responsibility? And how much does the acceptance of a convert “cost”? Because there is a price to pay, as Primo Levi (1986) noted: “Changing a moral code is always costly: all heretics, apostates and dissidents know that”. The behavior declared (but also that which is observable) definitely goes in the direction of acceptance of revealed law as religious obligation; but in a certain sense with reserve, with mediations and nuances that, at least in part, lead back to the internal forum again, to the conscience. The law is not to be discussed, it must be accepted, better still we must become one with it. In its application however, it can be mediated with less severity, usually more severe in the initial phase of conversion, and more tempered in the more mature stages.

For men the problem is less explicit, and above all has much less to do with religion in the strict sense. As underlined by our interlocutor, responsible for an important Islamic center, whose beard is admittedly quite short, “it is not written anywhere that I have to dress like the Prophet and wear my beard long like him. If I do, it will be to my merit, but if I don’t it will not be a demerit.” There are no real religious obligations except possibly the recommendation on the part of some hadith not to wear gold, silk and precious garments, as part of that sobriety and measure that is typical of Islam. Apart from that there is only the possible literalism, at times even fanatical, of some contemporary ‘exegete.’
However the question of the Islamic veil is more problematic.[viii] The hijab is in fact a symbolic wager of a certain importance: both for Muslims, among Muslims so to speak, in establishing the boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the host society as such. Muslim men and women face this problem in various ways. In synthesis, the difference is between a literalist attitude and acceptance of Arab tradition (in other Islamic areas the veil is rare or unknown, or only a militant symbol), and a ‘modernist,’ interpretative attitude, with a symbolizing tendency.
It is particularly difficult in the case of the hijab to speak of a prevailing attitude. For some it is a symbolic act, which is followed more or less willingly, but anyway without problems, in the case of prayer in the mosque  and other possible encounters of an Islamic character. For others refusal prevails, which is asserted discreetly and never too strong since the veil is maktub, that is, ‘it is written’ in the Qur`an, and so it is best to leave it all. Refusal also marks the difference between acceptance of the original customs and a more spiritualizing and ‘Western’ interpretation, if not pure and simple disinterest. For others again it is a banner of an identity. And, in the case of men, perhaps a conditio sine qua non for matrimony, for the search for a wife: in the marriage columns that can be found in European Islamic magazines and the Internet, there is an extremely high percentage of men, immigrants but also often converts, who specify that they want a hijabi wife, veiled.
As it is not a question of personal experience (a man can have his opinions, but it is not he that wears the hijab), the male arguments probably reflect a greater degree of abstraction and intellectualization, both in the case of acceptance (or obligation) and that of refusal (or of a silent freedom of choice). This is how one of our interlocutors, Abdul Hadi, motivates his position, quite common also among women:
We find ourselves faced by the conflict that exists between the spirit and the letter of something. If the veil as a precept is to have a function, it is not to attract the gaze of men; but, in an environment like the West, a woman, especially if she is a Western woman who has decided to wear a veil, ends up by becoming the center of attention, especially if she lives in an environment in which there is not a minority presence of a Muslim religious community for which, let us say, this behavior has become habitual. This woman walks along the road and becomes the center of attention. So in this case a desire to stick to the letter produces an effect that is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the norm. For some converts who have decided to wear a veil a certain dose of exhibitionism plays a very important role. The aim of converting to Islam is not to make women pass from non-veil to veil: it is to teach women and men a certain morality and a certain kind of behavior in relations with other human beings. The fact that originally, in the environment in which Islam was born, this precept ended up in the veil does not change the fact that it is necessary to proceed and maintain this attitude even in the face of changed conditions. This is the risk that there is in all readings of the sacred text that stop at the letter.
Female arguments appear more interior and more centered on experience, both if they go in the direction of acceptance, and if they are oriented on the refusal of the veil. It is interesting to listen to some of the voices of the converted, because their arguments on wearing the hijab or not, do not belong to their ethno-cultural legacy and are perhaps more authentically religious. Aisha, a militant convert, summarizes all the reasons for wearing the veil: the identity banner, protection, self-control, formalization of belonging, sanctioning deviant behavior, even practicality in an Islamic key:
Then one day I decided that I had to wear the veil. It’s not so much the veil in itself, but I think they notice you more if you have a veil. However, apart from the fact that it is written in the Qur`an, I think the veil protects you, because that way everyone knows that you are a Muslim – apart from those that think that I am a gypsy. So everyone knows my religion, which means they treat me accordingly, or at least they should. However, at least inside the community, they treat me like that and then, it sort of helps me to feel inside me. For example, now that I go around in a veil I know that I have to behave accordingly, because I am like a walking symbol.
And then it’s true that there are people who are rude to us in the street. I find that distressing, I don’t like it, really. At times I’m upset; sometimes in the course of the day so many things happen that I feel like crying even in the street and say, I can’t take any more, why can’t they leave us alone?… But it’s as if there is protection all the same. I was reading the history of the Jews and the kippah: the reason they wear it is to keep Heaven separated from Earth… that is, to remember that they are subjected; and as in Islam aslama means ‘to subject,’ it’s the same thing. It’s like a sacralization of the whole person.
The ‘identity banner’ dimension is here taken in its strongest terms. To the point that Aisha has become a public figure after an interview in Corriere della sera, the most important Italian newspaper, and following on this has been invited by various women’s magazines and for some television appearances for having insisted on having her photo in a hijab on her identity card and passport. She is the reason for the Ministerial circular which allows it to be worn, as for nuns. Today Aisha, even more militant and radical, after marrying in a polygamous marriage (not officially, of course) with a combative Senegalese imam, and after creating a newspaper with the programmatic title of al-Mujahidah (‘The Woman Combatant’), gives interviews only dressed in an Afghan burqa, and from under it expresses support for the Taliban and also Saudi Arabia (the only real Islamic regimes in the world, in her opinion), Bin Laden and the Palestinian shahid.
The need to show and identify with one’s community of reference is often present. Exemplary in this sense is the attitude of Nura, another convert, and an example of the misunderstandings that the veil can create. To start with the time that the veil was the reason for her being dragged into the Questura, the Italian police station:
Yes, and… I really enjoyed myself, al-hamdulillah, because they were carrying out a swoop and they got me, and they were nasty. They asked: ‘Have you got a permit of sojourn?’ I looked at the policeman and said: ‘No,’ but actually they didn’t even give me time to speak; they grabbed me and took me to the police car. I had never been in a police car before – they drive like crazy, I was a bit scared, these rough people … and so I found myself at the police station. They took me up, dragging me by the jumper, and took me upstairs. At a certain point a policeman sent me to another person, who does the registering of names. So I gave my name, date of birth and everything. And so we went to the Commissar, he was given this sheet of paper: so there we were standing in front of him and the Commissar said: ‘Who is this lady M.F., born in …?’ I looked at him and said ‘Me.’ ‘Who? You? But… you’re… Italian!’ And the Commissar said: ‘But why didn’t you say so before?’ I said: ‘Look, you asked me for my permit of sojourn. It’s obvious that I haven’t got one. But if you had asked me for ID, I would have said OK, here it is! You can’t treat people like this!’
This was not an isolated episode for Nura:
At times on the bus it really came to violence because of my refusal to admit to being Italian. Because they took me for a Moroccan. One person said to me, ‘Move over, Moroccan!’ and gave me a punch, literally. I said to him: ‘Who do you think you are, you bully, who do you think you are? Do you really think you can shove people around like that even if there’s plenty of room?’ So one of them gave me another punch and said: ‘But you’re not… Moroccan.’ And I said: ‘Yes, yes, I am.’ In that moment I insisted that I was Moroccan; never would I have admitted for any reason in the world that I was Italian.
For Shahida on the other hand the veil is inscribed in a sort of family continuity:
I always used to wear one, ever since I was small. We went to church and wore a veil. I lived in the country, down in Potenza [in Southern Italy] and in the summer period it was boiling hot, and then there was the cutting of the corn, the harvest, we were always out, around, there was the threshing with us all around. Incredibly hot, and so we wore a scarf over our heads, and so we had it on all the time …
Q.: It was like going back to your childhood?
A.: Yes, it was a return, practically, yes. A headscarf has never been a problem for me; and anyway I don’t like luxury, nor showing off, so I don’t want to wear things to make people look at me.

If for Shahida it is a return to the past, for other women it is something new and problematic. Fatima, whose parents separated, lives with an elderly granny. She followed her granddaughter’s gradual approach to Islam closely and with a certain apprehension. Fatima, much better than anyone else, stressed how much the problem is not so much the conversion of the heart (the ‘circumcision of hearts’ of which St. Paul speaks), as the complex, intrusive and above all over-visible ‘contour’ that accompanies it (the ‘circumcision of the body,’ to remain inside the Pauline metaphor):

When I put on the veil I was practically thrown out of the house. Just as well it was August, so I took it as an opportunity to go on holiday. Jokes apart, I stayed with friends for a while. You know, I live with my grandmother, and my grandmother naturally with her mentality – mind you, I’m not blaming her – was upset by what had happened. The family, it’s not that they have anything against Islam, it’s the veil, that is, the outward show, the fact that everyone knows that I am a Muslim.

Other converts however take a position of doubt, of individual refusal. This position hardly ever extends into a general refusal, even less a condemnation.
Zeynab has interiorized its meaning:
I’ve changed in these things, in this way of thinking: that’s why I’m not interested in them any more. Even if I admire those sisters who are trying to affirm their identities, wanting a photo in a hijab on their identity cards, I understand: you have to be able to choose…
Q.: – Do you understand it and admire it or do you understand it and that’s all?
A.: – No, I say that you have to be able to choose, you have to be able to have the right to pray in the work place, if you want your photo in the hijab you must have the right to have it.
Q.: – But you don’t feel the need for it…
A.: – No, I don’t feel the need. I can’t wear the hijab in my office, I have never asked but I know I could never do it. Anyway I’m not interested in these outward signs; I have realized that the hijab is the symbol of a kind of behavior… In my opinion that’s all it is: like lots of other things, like the rules for starting to walk with your right foot, using your right hand, according to me they are just symbols.

Maryam thinks the same, with some timidity in front of those who wear the veil, and so looks for more social reasons:

Each one of us must be ourselves, even in Islam, and live our lives a bit … in our own way. Even if there are rules, and I know perfectly well that there are. Me, for example, I don’t wear a veil outside the mosque, and Muslim brothers often make observations on this. But seeing that in Islam the finest thing we can discover is exactly this direct relation with God, without intermediaries, so there is no priest who absolves you and… So, I know perfectly well that there are just me and Allah before me. Allah knows the reasons why I don’t wear the veil because … I also think that some things were introduced during the period in which the Qur`an came down to us.

Q.: – So it is really your choice, this; I mean, it’s not a transition stage.
A.: – No, I don’t know if I’ll ever wear it. I’ve got no preconceptions against the veil because I know anyhow that it’s a beautiful thing, because when you put it on for prayer that’s when you have the real value of the veil, in that moment. But for the rest of my life, no, because I live in Italy, I’m not living in a Muslim country, where everything would help me to live my Muslim being.
More widespread among Muslims women by birth, is a defensive position that corresponds to that of Cardinal Bellarmino in Brecht’s Galileo, who, faced by the hypothesis that it is the sun, and not the earth, that is at the center of the solar system, is worried by the fact that if we start by putting one little thing in doubt the whole edifice will then collapse. In sociological language it is the position stated by Berger on more than one occasion, when he theorizes the fundamental role of ‘plausibility structures’ in helping to uphold one’s religious faith. Plausibility structures are even more important as religious pluralism increases and hence as society does not ‘confirm’ for us the evidence of our faith and our belonging, especially if we belong to a minority. They are even more important if we have been converted to another religion, which explains the tendency of many neo-converts to marry people belonging to the new religion that they have embraced.
Berger maintains that for a religious faith to be upheld in a person’s conscience, it must form part of the plausibility structure that is peculiar to that very faith. Which means, above all, that in the social environment of that person there must be a community continuously professing this faith. “It will be rewarding if those who have the greatest emotional importance for the person we are speaking about (that is, those who George Herbert Mead called the ‘significant others’) belong to the community that professes this faith. It will not count very much if the person’s dentist is not Catholic [in our case Muslim, (author’s note)], but everything will certainly be better if his wife and most intimate friends are” (Berger 1969).
Yet, the position taken by many women converts as well as women of Muslim origin not to wear hijab is also important. Of these, however, less is said for this precise reason since they are not noticed. Some reached this decision after having thought about it, even if perhaps fleetingly; others did not even consider it a problem.
The question of the hijab, in any case, can be considered only as a case study of a more general problem, which should be related to other issues concerning the haram/halal frontier, particularly relating to the behavior allowed between men and women. We will see how converts deal with this.

Women and the haram/halal frontier: a further comparison

The pure-impure dichotomy touches upon many aspects of relations between the sexes. A frequent problem, and one that is widespread throughout society, as it is a question of a sign actually preceding or at least accompanying knowledge of someone, is shaking hands. The problem is that whereas a Muslim man knows perfectly well that it is not done, a non-Muslim usually knows nothing of these practices, and so his ignorance can be a source of misunderstandings. Latifa, a shi`ite convert says:

If I am talking with a person and this person wants to shake my hand, I can’t say that I can’t give him my hand because Muslims cannot touch. Because it will seem that that is all Islam is interested in. Whereas it’s nice if a fellow Muslim doesn’t offer his hand, because he knows what the situation is. It’s a different respect that exists between us, because we are brothers in Islam. If a Christian gives me his hand, I know that his intentions are honorable; if I leave him there with his hand outstretched he will be left with a bad impression of me, too hard.

In this case too a more pragmatic attitude can resolve the cultural problems of incomprehension that may arise. Latifa develops her theory further:
The fact of not being able to shake hands and other little prohibitions have never been a problem. But I’m quite old and maybe a young girl would find them bigger problems. In my work [she is an interior designer (author’s note)], when I sometimes meet a person for the first time and he wants to shake hands I shake hands the first time because otherwise I might give a bad impression. Then I explain that there is this rule that it’s better for men and women not to have direct contact unless they are close relatives, and I apologize if the following time we don’t shake hands. Everyone has understood this and they have never created any problems. Probably if on first meeting I refused to shake hands I might be considered stuck up, or anyway I wouldn’t be understood, but this way no. What’s more, in my job it often happens that a customer sends me to an acquaintance and I’ve noticed that they’ve already been informed, they get in touch with one another. So often I have no need to shake hands because they have already been told about these rules. Anyway, 90% are women customers not men. He [she is referring to her husband who is present at the interview and converted to Shi`a Islam many years before her (author’s note)] is more drastic than me and often appears with something in his hand so as not to have to shake hands with a woman, or he immediately tries to broach the subject.
On the other hand there are many male converts who prefer not to shake hands with a person of the female sex, sometimes with an even exaggerated naturalness, and sometimes a deliberately provocative attitude. In this way they may damage their relations with non-Muslim women, who may consider this a lack of respect towards them. This exaggerated form of a kind of behavior, that immigrant Muslims practice relatively seldom, is a demonstration of refusal on the part of the person in question to accept any physical contact with a person of the opposite sex outside the marriage bond.
A case similar to shaking hands – and a fortiori kissing the cheek during greetings –  is connected with respect for other eminently cultural norms typical of the Arab world such as for example those that regulate relations between the sexes within the private sphere, the home. It is especially related to norms that forbid a man and woman not of the same blood to be alone in the same room. When for example I went to interview Samira, divorced from her former Egyptian husband, at her house, even though she knew there would be no Islamic witnesses, out of respect for those rules she was waiting for me with a Christian female friend, who had come especially for the purpose, and who at the beginning of the interview retired to the neighboring room:
Q.: You have chosen a rigorous attitude in practicing Islam. Even this fact that I was coming here and as I was a man you invited a female friend of yours to be present is something that no Western women would have felt the need to do….
A.: There are rules and I like to follow them. When I decide to do something I like to do it properly. I have thought carefully about it, because it wasn’t just a question of deciding overnight. I thought hard, and when I was sure of myself, I was at peace with myself, I was serene, I took this step. And having taken this step I now want to respect what there is to have respect for.
The hijab and identity: the price to pay. Full identity for half the cost?
Wearing the hijab has a price. To what extent are women willing to pay this price? And what are the consequences on their lives? Let us give a clear example of a price that is not just psychological or symbolical. How to deal with the question of looking for a job?
We’ll start with a positive example. The decision to wear the hijab does not always have a high socio-economic price. The above-mentioned case of Latifa, interior designer before and after her conversion, is in this sense interesting:
I have never had any sort of problem at work. I am an interior designer and my work takes me to the homes of people of various social levels, from low to high class, but they have never said anything to me (…). If anything, I can say that I noticed an increase in confidence in me after I became a Muslim. It has been a great experience. The girls I go around with who are younger than me and so give more importance to clothes, I say to them that if they wear it proudly, but without being ostentatious, normally, calmly, they will see that people will respect them. I’ve had no problem in getting on with others. The only problem I had to deal with was in the beginning, inside myself. I was nervous about being rebuffed, in fact I stopped wanting to go to my customers, because I didn’t know how they would react. This fear lasted for two months, and I didn’t put my headscarf on when I was at work, but only on other occasions. At a certain point I asked myself what sort of Muslim was I anyway, and so I decided to wear it, and no one said anything.
Not all experiences are so positive however. On the contrary. It is not so much the risk of losing one’s job; even if some women decide out of fear not to even try wearing a hijab. The risk is greater for those who do not yet have a job, and know that their range of possibilities will be reduced drastically. Aisha (the radical militant mentioned above) at the beginning of her conversion, when she still wore the hijab and not the burqa (a choice that coincided with her leaving her job, for a militant and womanly commitment full time), was in telemarketing. The problems she had was not that much with the customers –  they did not see her and she did not see them-  but with her workmates. This is what she said in an interview at that time:
They ask me the most absurd questions, whereas I just wanted to be left alone to work. As it is, I do a job there that drives you crazy. If between one call and another you have to explain what the tawheed is, it’s impossible. But you have to answer somehow. You’re torn between two things. On the one hand you would like to be left in peace – but perhaps that’s not my role, to be left in peace… And so I am forced to accept the confrontation with the others, it’s only natural. Because if I stay in my corner and say that I am living my own life and am not going to speak to anyone, well, what am I doing here? I’ve got to transmit this [the Islamic faith (author’s note)] and so it’s normal for you to talk to people.
Finally, for others the fact of wearing the hijab will lead them to inventing and setting up religious (or cultural) businesses connected to Islam (teaching Arabic, or teach in Islamic schools, or Islamic publishing) and the veil itself, as in the case of those who have opened Islamic fashion boutiques, or even designing islamically correct clothes. The veil is an infinite source of discussion and polemics, even among Muslim women. Various sensibilities emerge: ‘ethnic’ (Arab women often appear to converts as more subdued to tradition than sub-Saharan African women) or ‘cultural’ (converted women appear to be more extreme than non-converted). Khalida gives a good description of this conception:
I have this idea that, as the only Muslim women that I see are Somali women, and they don’t wear a veil or they wear it in their own way, perhaps they have a way of seeing things that is closer to my way than Arab women and other converted Italian women.
The discussion between the converted women who accept or even uphold the hijab, and those who on the contrary do not accept it or leave it in the background is not one of the easiest: the former pay a price that the latter do not consider worth paying. And given that the cost of this practice is not low, it is difficult to agree to share a ‘full’ identity and to recognize it with those who retain that they are going to pay a price that is undoubtedly much lower. An attitude that not seldom has repelled even those who were approaching Islam by other routes. A university teacher of the Arabian language, a convert, gives an example:

I had the opportunity of meeting a woman student who was strongly drawn to Islam, who had studied a lot, and who asked me to introduce her to some women of the community. She came away from the encounter absolutely terrified and she changed her mind, just because of the rigidity and intolerance shown by these women.

This seems however understandable, and explains the harshness of the dialogue between these two kinds of converts: the ‘rigorists’ and the ‘flexibles.’ The first are paying an extremely high price for their choices of identity, and they therefore do not wish to concede a similar ‘identity license’ to those women who have chosen to pay, so to speak, only half price. Half the price in their eyes is not worth an entire identity. Hijabi women will often think that the others are after all not real Muslims or not enough so, or at least less than hijabi women. This is why often these two kinds of converted women do not represent only two tracks running parallel and never meeting up. Often, rather than tracks, they are scissors whose blades start from a common point (the choice and moment of conversion) and gradually diverge and separate irremediably. The former will in fact often mix with other ‘rigorists’ to confirm to each other the fullness of their identity and their exclusive legitimacy. And the latter will no longer find a common terrain of confrontation and will drift off, often more due to a feeling of exclusion than to any precise decision. After all, the latter do not deny the former any legitimacy – nor could they – and might even want to continue having relations with them. But it is the former that are less interested in these relations, which for them are destabilizing. And they use their greater ‘centrality’ to progressively marginalize, even exclude, the others. An interesting aspect is that often the support of male cultural power and cultural legitimacy is used in this process, as well as male attitudes to the hijab itself (whether those expressed by classic theology or by the district imam).
The arguments of those women who wear the hijab often show a gradual drift towards a ‘feminist’ position, defending the practice of wearing the veil (see also Badran, Roald and other articles in this volume). Layla, an ex-feminist, bears witness to:
And what have they become? [she is speaking of feminists (author’s note)]. If we have an army of women all using the same lipstick, perhaps that vivid mauve lipstick is in fashion that I used once, and everyone wears it, all the same miniskirts, and anyway they all follow the same pattern, and then they have the nerve to ask me ‘Why do you wear that?’ I can’t stand it… Because they are different, but from what? They are more conventional than me in the end, that’s what it is; and then what I can’t stand any more is all this competition, this frenetic emphasis on how you look.
Q.: – In fact in the past you have been involved in fights for abortion, for divorce, for freedom of choice, for…
A.: – The first two years after my conversion I spent asking God for forgiveness. Every evening I asked God for forgiveness for these things, because I didn’t understand…
She goes on:
At the bottom of all this there is something very profound, which has something to do with the equality of women, real equality… which is not in the fact that… I show myself like this or like that, but it really consists in the fact that all of us, at least on a physical level, are all equal before God.
The harshness, from the Western point of view, of Islamic rules concerning women, which makes their conversion decidedly a more ‘heroic’ and in any case a more costly affair (at least in its social consequences) than that of men. “For a woman it is not easy to change her garments, she needs courage. For a man it is easier because if nobody points it out to you, you don’t even realize, whereas we are immediately picked out,” one of my interviewees told me. It does not stop women from converting in proportionally significant numbers, and not only for marriage.[ix]
Some active Shi`ite groups like to use women as a sort of warhorse for their arguments against the image of Islamic oppression. One of the animators of the Italian Shi`ite community says:
More women than men enter the Shi’a. I don’t know why. Obviously the message is fascinating and attracts women, probably because we have a central figure, Fatima, whom we often talk about. I realize that it must be hard for women to become a Sunnite Muslim through marrying an Arab, with their mentality: it’s a shock. With us it’s different, women are much freer.
His wife adds:
Perhaps Shi`ite women are no better than Sunnite women, but women in the Shi`ite world are treated as the Qur`an says, and the Qur`an says that women must be treated very well.[x] Even if they are then happy to point out that there are more women converted to Islam among Shi`ites because Iranian women, contrary to Arab women, do not stay at home: once they have put on the veil, they go out, talk in public, get involved in politics, etc.[xi] They are veiled, but for that very reason they can do anything; while in the Arab world women are locked up culturally, so it would be difficult for a Western woman to become Sunnite.
The greater ‘cost’ of conversion for women does not therefore seem to prevent the conversions themselves. There is often talk of a prevalence of female conversions, at least in some countries (see van Nieuwkerk this volume). Yet, it is not sure that this corresponds with figures for other situations, or that they can be generalized to all situations. Nevertheless, it has certainly become an important element of the Islamic ideological construction on the subject.

Shifting significances: some reflections

What is true for the convert is also true for the researcher: the meaning of symbols is shifting and slippery. My initial intention was to describe the differences between the meanings that men and women converts give to the hijab, and the different use they make of them. But my analysis and observations have led me to a quite different position. Before dealing with that, we need to advance a more general point. As a sociologist specialized in religions and cultural change, and not only or exclusively in Islam, I am more and more convinced that we must de-Islamize (if I may use this expression) the study of Islam and Muslims, especially but not only in Europe. Too often, even in serious works and not only in journalistic vulgarization, Islam is considered a special if not unique case, both theoretically and empirically. Islam is different. Muslims are different. This is the usual starting point. Is this the case? I am not at all so sure.
In the theoretical part of my book on converts I compare different theories of conversion, and empirical studies on conversions to different religions (1998; see also several contributions in Social Compass 1999, and in this volume). There are obviously many differences, in both theories and empirical observations, but they are much less related to observable ‘intrinsic’ differences among religions than to individual cultural, social and psychological factors. In the push-and-pull (or supply-and-demand) process that conversion is, demands are often similar. This is why some types of conversion, such as the ‘relational type’ that I have described, are very common and even conventional in their trajectories in many religions: an ideal type in the proper Weberian sense. What is more often different is the role of the religious ‘supply,’ which may respond to different demands. In this sense Islam, as other religions, is significant: but Islam does not only have one offer. Like other complex religious systems, it has many, depending on the context, the moment, and what the individual is seeking. The ‘supply,’ under the name of Islam itself, is wide and articulated. A person can convert to Christianity in search of mysticism, a ‘total institution’ (such as monasteries or religious orders).[xii] The same can be said for Islam, which can offer, for instance, a sort of sacralization of political engagement in a spiritual community, or, on the contrary, a response to a highly individual spiritual and mystical thirst. Both these trajectories can frequently be observed among converts to Islam.
If we consider gender issues related to religion, there are far fewer specific Islamic issues than the public opinion (included most professional observers) think. In comparative studies, common sense statements on subjects such as ‘the condition of woman in Islam’ lose much of their expected self-explanatory meaning. This fact is also true for conversions. I have extensively researched both Muslim converts and immigrants within the Islamic champs religieux, to use Bourdieu’s expression. In this case too, Muslim positions are not that significantly different. The differences are internal to both groups, and to men and women in both groups, as much as between the two groups.
Let us take the most sensitive example. It is quite easy to find different personal attitudes and feelings about the hijab between men and women: simply because women really wear and experience it, probably. It is less easy to find such differences in what they say about it. In fact, the reasons used to justify their choice are not that different: if a woman convert decides to wear the hijab, frequently the reason for it, the rationalization, will be supported by traditional theological arguments, elaborated and transmitted by a typically ‘male’ theology – the level of stereotyping is high as well. Differences, then, are already among men and among women, not only between them. To summarize my argument on this point in a short expression, the gender issue does not seem to be necessarily gendered in its motivations and justifications. The difference is located at the level of individual experience. Hence it is not easy to distinguish male and female arguments on the hijab. For the same reasons, it is not easy to distinguish the positions of immigrants and converts, even if different ‘accents’ can be found. Similarities are more easily observed when we need to legitimize the hijab: differences may emerge more often when it is a question of refusing it.
The same can be said for the positions of the first and second generations, the latter being more similar to converts (Allievi 2000). In both cases, the accent is more on choice than on tradition. Although there are differences in the figures, we find veiled and unveiled women in both categories. It is easier to find differences in Sufi and Sunni arguments on the hijab, but again we can find veiled and unveiled women in both, even if – probably – in a different percentage. I have underlined these aspects to show that both the dimension of continuity and that of change are important. The cultural dimension often ‘continues,’ while personal lives change.
This aspect leads me to the last point: the importance of what I call the ‘T’ factor (T for “time”). Individuals change in their lives: they change attitudes, opinions, and behavior. This is equally true also for those who have changed religion. This aspect raises a serious methodological problem. If we elaborate statistics and percentages (for instance, of hijabi or non-hijabi converts, but also of converts), we have to face a general problem that has more obvious consequences on our topic: we normally interview our informants only once. But they change their mind and behavior even in their post-conversion life, and more than once: this is why in the literature on conversions concepts such as the ‘conversion career’ and similar have been introduced (see Allievi 1998). This is true for the choice of wearing the hijab, but also for conversions themselves. People de-convert and also ‘revert,’ but we normally interview only the converts, and not the de-converts, for the simple reason that, unless it is by chance, we do not find them in the same places in which we are looking for converts.[xiii]
This aspect is important also for the shifting meaning of hijab. Opinions about it change, both in men and women converts, for instance, at the initial stage, immediately after conversion, or many years after (see Hermansen this volume). I know and frequently meet converts with whom I have remained in close contact: their opinions have changed a lot over the years. This can sometimes be measured through interviews, particularly through life-stories. However, only self-confident and well-established converts are able to talk at ease, over a distance of time, about the changes in their attitudes and even beliefs, with a high level of self-criticism. Many others are not.
As regards our topic, there may be changes in both directions: from being veiled (initially) to being unveiled seems quite frequent. But we can also observe trajectories going in the opposite direction, when the conversion is not a ‘moment’ (as in St. Paul’s ideal type of sudden conversion), but a step-by-step process, in which the ‘converting’ persons progressively acquire familiarity with certain references, and progressively ‘include’ them in their personality-building process. Why these changes, these shifts?
There may be many factors at play. The main ones refer probably to the fact that the meaning of the hijab differs depending the moment, the person, the situation, the context, and its importance in establishing the haram/halal frontier. From this point of view, the main functions of the hijab seem to be the following. First, it helps women to convert (oblige them, from a certain point of view), to keep to the new choice, to ‘enter’ it in a radical way; like circumcision for men (which is far more ‘definitive’). Second, it helps them to be accepted by the new ‘significant others.’ This is particularly true for women who see immigrants and pray in mosques, attending the Friday prayer and other moments of gathering, such as Sunday meetings, etc. The problem here is the ‘plausibility structure’ they refer to. This is even more important if they want to marry a Muslim man, in order to ‘complete’ their ‘plausibility structure’ as Muslim women. [xiv] For some women there is also the idea of integration and solidarity with ‘de-privileged’ women, as we saw in the case of Nura. Third, it helps them to establish and maintain the haram/halal frontiers: which in themselves, in the Western context, are shifting, unclear and not at all stable. This is true not only for converts, but also for some ‘reborn Muslims,’ particularly of the second generation, who recuperate the hijab explicitly or implicitly with this function. Some ijtihad elaborated in Europe and some ‘new Islamic theology’[xv] plays exactly this role of re-establishing the haram/halal frontier: and the hijab is one of its topics of discussion. It can also be used to maintain or establish this frontier: “I am a walking symbol,” as stated so effectively by Aisha. An interesting consequence of this statement offers us a key to a better understanding of why the hijab is so often a polemical tool in debates on Islam in the European public space.
Conflicts need symbols, and the hijab is the perfect symbol to use for conflict, with its implications in different fields (cultural, social, political, juridical), and its polysemy. For instance, it can be understood by its opponents as a symbol of the structurally ‘primitive’ character of Islam in general, but also specifically of the oppression of women. Women have always been – and still are, as anthropologists and historians have shown on many occasions – the typical ‘object’ of appropriation by various cultural, ethnic or religious groups, and the typical enjeu in conflicts and clashes. On the other hand, it can be understood and even more used as an instrument of emancipation, as often happens among second generations. And, of course, it can have many other meanings. This is why in many European countries the hijab has become a public issue, at the macro level, and will continue to be such at the micro level, until we have become accustomed to it as something normal: something which will not happen in the near future.

In more than a dozen years of fieldwork among the Muslim communities of Europe, and of observations of reactions to the presence of Islam in the European public space, I have become more and more convinced that what Europeans refuse about Islam is not its difference and otherness (Islam as the paradigmatic example of ‘the absolute other,’ the other more other than is conceivable), but its similarity: Islam, in a way, returns to Europe not what is ‘other’ in its history, but what is familiar to it. Islam is not different: it is not the contrary of what we are, it is ‘us’ – one generation ago, or more. What we see in the mirror of Islam is not the portrait of something that is unknown to Europe: it is Europe (a part of it, and of its cultural legacy) – perhaps a little younger than now (and not even in all cases – sometimes it is very contemporary). As Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955) stated: “I know very well the reasons for the uneasiness I feel in front of Islam: I find in it the universe I come from; Islam is the West of the East”.
This is true for some ‘hot’ topics concerning the links between religion and politics; but it is also true for many gender-related issues, the hijab included. We have to admit that many women converts find Islam interesting: not in spite of its ‘otherness,’ but precisely because of its ‘otherness’ (or what the mainstream culture defines as otherness, but is not perceived as such by the individuals attracted by it). Something that is not alien to their mentality, but, on the contrary, familiar to it. The problem is, as Yvonne Haddad declared during the workshop in which the papers of this volume were discussed, that it is easier to say: “It is my religion, it is my duty as a woman in this religion, it is the will of God,” in order to justify a preference, than to say: “It is my choice, I want to be a woman in the ‘traditional’ way – having different roles for men and women, for instance.” Some women do not feel strong enough to counter the current cultural debate on women in the West, the sort of thing that is found in female models of mass communication. They need a ‘plausibility structure’ to sustain their alternative position. They cannot find it anywhere. But Islam offers just such a position.
Stefano Allievi is a Professor in Sociology at the University of Padua. He is specialized on migration issues, in sociology of religion and cultural change, and has particularly focused his studies and researches on the presence of Islam and the religious pluralization of Europe. He wrote numerous works on these topics. Among others: L’occidente di fronte all’islam [The West facing Islam] (1996 Franco Angeli, Milan) (ed.); Il libro e la spada. Le sfide dei fondamentalismi [The Book and the Sword. The challenge of Fundamentalisms] (2000 Claudiana, Turin) (with D. Bidussa e P. Naso); Un Dio al plurale. Presenze religiose in Italia [A God in the plural. Religious presences in Italy] (2001 EDB, Bologne) (with G.Guizzardi and C.Prandi); Musulmani d’occidente. Tendenze dell’islam europeo [Muslims of the West. Tendencies of the European Islam] (2002 Carocci, Rome); Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe (2003 Brill, Leiden-Boston) (ed. with J.S.Nielsen); Islam italiano. Viaggio nella seconda religione del paese [Italian Islam. A Journey through Italy’s Second Religion] (2003 Einaudi, Turin); Salute e salvezza. Le religioni di fronte alla nascita, alla malattia e alla morte (2002 EDB, Bologne);
Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society (2003 Brill, Leiden-Boston) (ed. with B.Maréchal, F.Dassetto and J.S.Nielsen). He is the author of  Les Convertis a l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’ Europe (1998 L’Harmattan, Paris).


Allievi, St. (1998) Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe. Paris:
Allievi, St. (2000) Nouveaux protagonistes de l’islam européen. Naissance d’une
culture euro-islamique? Le rôle des convertis. Florence: European University
Institute, Working Papers, n.18.
Allievi, St. (2002) Musulmani d’occidente. Tendenze dell’islam europeo. Rome:

Allievi, St. (2003a) Islam italiano. Viaggio nella seconda religione del paese. Turin:


Allievi, St. (2003b) “Il pluralismo introvabile. I problemi della ricerca comparativa.”
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Sacred. New York: Doubleday.
Dassetto, F. (1996) Facettes de l’islam belge (ed.). Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia-
Durkheim, E. (1912) Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: Alcan.
Hine, V. (1970) “Bridge burners: commitment and participation in a religious
Movement,” In Sociological Analysis, 31: 61-66.
James, W. (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Collins.
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Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society. Leiden-Boston: Brill.
Ramadan, T. (1999) To be a European Muslim. Leicester: Islamic Foundation.
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Europe. 46 (3). Monographical issue.
Straßburger, G. (2000) “Fundamentalism versus Human Rights: Headscarf
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Individus, Sociétés et Discours dans l’Islam européen contemporain / Islamic
Words Individuals, Societies and Discourse in Contemporary European Islam. F.
Dassetto (ed.), pp. 125-144. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose.
van Gennep, A. (1981[1909]) Les rites de passage. Paris: Nourry. Italian Translation I riti di passaggio. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri.
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Italian Translation Sociologia delle religioni. Torino: Utet, 1976.


[i] It must be stressed that the RAMP project is considered the most advanced point of comparative research on the subject of pluralism, to such an extent that it also involved researchers from the more well-known EVS project (European Values Systems), which was then to become WVS (World Values Systems), on which are based for example the well-known theories of Inglehart on the “silent revolution” and the progressive individualization of Western societies, by many criticized above all from a methodological point of view for their incapacity to really grasp the dimension of religious pluralism outside the Christian context. For further work on these subjects, see Allievi (2003b).
[ii] On the role of the media, see my chapter in Part III of Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen (2003), a comparative research work written on the request of the European Commission.
[iii] I have developed the distinction between relational and rational conversions in a detailed model of trajectories to Islam in my book Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe (Allievi 1998).
[iv] It must be acknowledged that Sufism is the aspect of Islam that attracts Westerners most, even non-Muslims: books on Sufism can be found on the shelves of many bookshops, and particularly in New Age environments, where we can find references to Sufi music, Sufi healing, etc.
[v] A three-year research project (Allievi 1998), conducted between 1994 and 1997, with 46 in-depth interviews (many of which concern persons that I met on more than one occasion, and in different places: home, mosque, etc.), and periods of participant observation during Islamic moments of sociability. These moments included meetings, conferences, congresses, and involved both immigrants and converts, but also specific meetings of converts, the hadras of Sufi groups, etc. Some periods of observation lasted up to two or three days. The number of converts contacted, and to whom I spoke personally, I cannot give, but they were in the hundreds. Those, with whom I explicitly talked about conversion issues, in face-to-face discussions between a researcher qualified as such and a subject accepting to be ‘researched,’ with field-notes being taken, come to another one hundred or more. Roughly, one third of them were women. Contacts and interrelations with converts continued after the end of the research, and are still continuing, with systematic meetings and occasional structured interviews.
[vi] The Biblical and Qur`anic example of Adam who gives names to all the animals thus giving them a meaning and a function is in this sense more than clear.
[vii] At the moment of writing (December 2003) the latest proposal, made by a Commission des sages led by Bernard Stasi, is a legal ban on the hijab and other ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols. President Chirac supports the proposal for a ban law.
[viii] Even if it is an ancient problem and not only Islamic: “’Why,’ wondered Plutarch, ‘do we cover our heads to adore the divinity?’ The answer is simple: to separate ourselves from the profane person (…) and to live only in the sacred world” (Van Gennep 1909).
[ix] Remember à propos that it is the man who is obliged to convert, in order to marry a Muslim woman, while for a woman she is only, so to speak, ‘warmly advised,’ or possibly there is an obligation connected with the couple’s relationship, on the request of the Muslim partner, but in any case not a legal duty, or an obligation of the sunna.
[x] There follows a list of the classic arguments, we might say the vulgata on the subject, basically similar for Shi`ites and Sunnites. We give this exposition without any comment, even though much could be said, both as regards the ideological construction and the deliberate confusion between the ideal plane and that of reality, to finish with the more conspicuous part: the omissions. “There are many rules for woman to be protected and respected. Women have many rights. In the Shi`ite world women nearly always manage to have these, in the Sunnite world no, because being prevalently Arab, it is based on pre-Islamic rules which men have no intention of renouncing, because it is handy for a man to have women to serve him. There are many negative things that are imputed to Islam, but they are not true. They are things instead that the Arabs have brought down over the centuries, and which they have not managed to free themselves of through Islam. Whereas in the Shi`ite world this does not happen, because women enjoy great protection. Also in marriage. The advantages for women are so many that probably, seeing how Islam is considered in the West, they will not be believed. It is not true that the woman becomes a slave of the man. It is true that before marriage, in her father’s house she is under his protection, but after she has married there are a thousand rules. The woman does not even have the obligation to do work in the house if she does not want to do so. She does not even have to breastfeed her children if she does not want to, because in Islam they belong to the father, they carry his name. If a woman brings a dowry this dowry cannot be touched. If she works after getting married the husband still has to keep her, the money she earns all belongs to her. Of course she puts it into the house, she helps the family, but not because she is obliged to do it. If she so wishes, she can put her money away. There are a great number of rules that protect the woman and therefore if a girl knows the Shi’ite world, it is easier for her to choose this path because she knows that she will be protected more.”
[xi] Similar instances of this Shi`ite ‘pride’ are given in Roald (this volume).
[xii] It will be enough to refer here to the well-known typologies elaborated by Max Weber, concerning asceticism and mysticism and their internal differences to understand how different and articulated what we usually call the religious offer may be, as if it were only one.
[xiii] I have personally met some of them: but, I should say, randomly.
[xiv] Which by definition, in Islam, includes the fact of being married. Theologically, this is true also for men, by the way: al-zawaj nisf al-iman, i.e. marriage, is half of faith; but, socially, this is ‘less’ true for them.
[xv] Of which Tariq Ramadan is the most well-known expression. See, among others, Ramadan (1999). I have underlined some significant elements of this attempt in a long foreword to the Italian edition of the book.

Is Islam in Europe becoming European? An Open Question.

Allievi S. (2006), Is Islam in Europe becoming European? An Open Question, in “Africa e Mediterraneo”, XIV, n.54, marzo 2006, pp.11-16; issn 1121-8495 A R e R/I

Conflicts, Cultures and Religions: Islam in Europe as a Sign and Symbol of Change in European Societies

islam_new_europe_front islam_new_europe_back islam_new_europe_index1 islam_new_europe_index2

Allievi (2005), 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


In this paper I attempt to analyze some key-concepts (such as multiculturalism, globalization, identity, community, and pluralism) using the presence of Islam in the European public space as a case-study.

The aim is to define how important it is in understanding the change in European societies, of which it forms an important part, but also a symbol laden with significance.

Pluralism, or rather pluralization, is a determining concept in defining the new Europe being built: on the social, cultural and religious level plurality is no longer pathology, but physiology. To the point that the very idea of Nation-State that we have inherited seems no longer either explicative or representative, and perhaps not even descriptive of the social and institutional landscape of the various European countries.

In this framework a kaleidoscope of cultures is taking shape, whose pieces (identities and cultural communities) are in continual movement and transformation, and of which European Islam is an important element, from both the numerical and symbolic point of view.

This is however a presence with peculiar characteristics in respect to the Islam of the countries of origin: with “Meccan” rather than “Medinese” characteristics, in which being a minority becomes a constitutive and transformational element.

In this situation of ever greater pluralization and hence of inevitable confrontation, reactive identities and conflicts are developing to play a determining role in the designing of the map of European Islam, but also of Europe itself.


Islam in Europe as a sign and symbol of change in European societies


Stefano Allievi

Changes in the European cultural and religious landscape

The fact that, despite religious practice being widely considered to be in decline all over the continent, the definition of Europe, or better European specificity, can perhaps be understood in terms of religion rather than any other defining criterion, is a possibility that deserves closer examination with all the necessary caution.1 As much of the research shows, religion is not just a “cultural heritage” that may be on the way to being abandoned, a fact of tradition without any obvious consequences for today or with a diminishing importance. On the subjective (individual) level, it is under transformation and displaying less coherence and fewer non-linear attitudes of belonging, but significant forms of participation and involvement. On the objective (structural) level, the demand for forms of recognition and institutionalization (which come not only from the dominant Christian institutions in the relevant countries, but also from significant sectors of public opinion) is not on the decrease. On the contrary, from the financing of religious schools to the debate on bioethics, from certain neo-conservative political positions to the recovery of a public symbolism that we might consider a form of “re-traditionalization” from above, there is no lack of signs of institutional visibilization of religion, at times re-inventing forms of civil religion.

Clearly, the second of these phenomena could simply be interpreted as a sign of weakness caused by the first. Thus, the attempts to re-establish consensus from above merely show that the established religions are losing presence, capacities, and power. However, this interpretation may not be sufficient to allow us to understand fully this complex phenomenon which seems too profound to be explained by a simple interpretation in terms of balance of power or economic (market) rationality. We may admit that the secularization paradigm is not working as expected by its more naive interpreters (Casanova 1994).

Among other factors, a certain degree of reemergence of religion in the definition of nationhood, which is included in the “identity” of Europe by cultural and political forces, also appears to indicate that the religious reference is much more than mere remains of the past. This evolution is internal to Europe. However, the presence of new religions – and in a very special way Islam – that arrived in the wake of the waves of immigration is producing changes that are more than significant and should be acknowledged as radical or even historical due to the effects that they will presumably have on European societies.

A standard situation of pluralism

The presence of ever-increasing numbers of immigrants in the European social landscape it is not merely a quantitative fact with different consequences for many social and cultural dynamics. Changes in the quantitative levels of so many different indicators (economic, social, cultural, political, religious) not only produce quantitative change, they alter the scenario completely. Overall, the indicators that are currently changing as a result of the presence of immigrant populations in Europe are producing and creating new problems, new processes of interrelation, new conflicts, and new solutions to them. In a word, they are producing qualitative change, i.e. nothing less than a different type of society which is quite different to that imagined with the rise of the nation state and its founding principles. A society for which we have no plans or rules and for which we can only proceed by trial and error, learning through experience.

Among the changes taking place, one of the most visible is the so-called “return” of cultures – and in particular religions – to the European public space. Incidentally, religions are profoundly embedded in cultures, and vice versa – even if we tend to overlook it, it is no coincidence that cult and culture share the same etymology. This fact tends to be ignored in the West (and even more acutely in the universities which, in my view – and this is a small and entirely unacknowledged sociological fact – is not extraneous to the “academic” underestimation of the persistence, force, and social effects of religion in a social context) where processes of secularization appear to be secularizing readings of reality. It is demonstrated particularly strongly by immigrant communities, some more than others, and arouses surprise and even amazement in observers, including multi-culturalists, sometimes reluctant to grasp the religious specificity of these cultures. A public space which used to be described in terms of secularization is now increasingly described as a territory in which a “return of religions” is one of the main ongoing processes.

Even if it is not the only case in point, Islam – and in particular Islam in Europe – is often considered the most problematic and “problematized” expression of this process. In fact, if only because of the significant numbers involved and, of course, the historical legacy associated with the relationship between Islam and the West, it offers a great deal of substance for reflection. It incorporates various ethnic sources, a number of autochthones (i.e. converts) and second generations born on European soil and progressively “integrated”, as well as a broad series of environments in which it produces a contested imaginary, often despite the will of Muslims themselves: from the rebirth of fundamentalisms to gender relations, through the relations between the state and religious communities and the dynamics of mixed marriages. Although Islam is not the only religion that finds itself in this situation, it demonstrates more than others the growth in and difficulties surrounding cultural pluralism, and, more generally, the ever-increasing weight of the “C” factor, i.e. culture in the wider more anthropological than sociological sense of the term, in Western societies. And finally, as many observers note, Islam shows more than other indicators the fact that religion is back on the agenda.

Excursus: on mobility and religions

As has always been the case, the mobility of religions is also linked with human mobility. Thus it forms part of the more general “mobiletic revolution” involving the movement of information, goods, money, and ideas as well as the movement of men and women. It is an increasingly rapid process and is, in turn, part of the more “problematized” process of globalization. One of its effects is the inCreasing coexistence of an ever-expanding cultural and religious plurality on one and the same territory, which is emerging in the processes of change that are sweeping over Europe and beyond, despite the significant resistance and reaction to it. Islam, i.e. the presence of Muslim populations in Europe, is the most debated example of this process. On one hand, we still have the habitual religious presences that are a constant, i.e. very much more present – even if only for reasons of inertia – both in terms of social and cultural roots and institutional incardination, than the emphasis on change and the new religious modes manage to comprehend. On the other hand, however, there is change itself, the dynamisms that more than troubling the waters, actually modify their composition.

The “religious moment”2 as currently being experienced by the West is characterized by two concomitant phenomena which are sometimes considered by the social actors who interpret them as competing. Firstly, together with the religions traditionally present in Europe (the various Christian faiths, the Jewish presence, and various scattered elements which at one time would have been defined as pagan), today we find other religious actors who are increasingly articulate and visible. Secondly, with the arrival of new immigrant populations, an event usually described in sociology, from Poulat and Bourdieu onwards, using the perhaps debatable yet very effective economic metaphor of “a religious market”, has been made even more complex. The supply of religious goods, which is already widespread and increasingly visible for reasons of its own, has found a fecund new niche of the market in which to expand, as well as new social entrepreneurs of the sacred and different modes of consumption; new channels for religious import-export activity have also been opened. What this means, in short, is that there is an ever greater presence of old and new religious traditions that have arrived with the immigrants.

These two phenomena are neither separate nor mutually exclusive: they interweave, interpenetrate, influence each another reciprocally, and retroact on the society into which they are inserted, in the same way as the latter retroacts on them. These new religious presences are not actually neutral. And their consequences are not limited to themselves: the presence of these new “lodgers” is susceptible to influence and, indeed, is already influencing the old “landlords” too, i.e. institutions, social systems, and – a fact that is much less reflected on – religions themselves. Furthermore, this represents an interpretive challenge to sociology which does not yet appear to be fully equipped to understand it (Allievi 2003a).

Synchronic pluralization: the new geo-religion of Europe

The presence of immigrants of different cultural and religious backgrounds is one of the engines driving society towards a change that is much greater than their presence: in fact, their presence also has important if not crucial effects on the “host society” (an expression that should be used with some irony as this connotation is becoming less credible now than it was in the past). As we have seen, the presence of immigrant populations is neither culturally nor religiously “neutral”. The immigrants do not arrive naked: they bring with them, inter alia, visions of the world, traditions, histories, faiths, practices, values, moral systems, images, and symbols. And they turn to these as indispensable identity references.3 Furthermore, they often turn to these references – or, better, they use them – not only individually, but also collectively and as communities (another crucial word that should be used more carefully than is usually the case).

In short, religion, and more precisely religion lived collectively and on the community level, has its space and role in the construction of individual and collective identity of large numbers of immigrants. This process brings about a radical change of paradigm in the strong sense of the word as used by Kuhn. And this is also an effect – and one of the less perceived ones – of the process known as globalization which has, however, a range of meanings, ranging from those of Robertson and Harvey, Bauman and Beck, through the specific focus which is more attentive to the cultural aspects of change of Appadurai, Featherstone, Lash and Tomlinson, and of anthropologists such as Hannerz and Geertz.4 In terms of this process I intend here to underline a phenomenon that is at once one of the causes of globalization and most conspicuous effects (but also one of the least studied in terms of its cultural consequences): migration. Furthermore, in terms of migration processes, I refer here more to aspects of cultural pluralization than those of homologization and “Westernization”, to use Latouche’s expression. In particular, I intend to highlight the phenomenon I refer to as synchronic pluralization which is the most conspicuous effect of the growing mobility of men and cultures, i.e. the co-existence on one and the same territory of populations and cultures that were previously distant or separated or at least far more distant and separated than they are today, and an effect of migrations, but even more of what Tomlinson (1999) has called “complex connectivity”, and other writers (from Lash to Hall, from Semprini up to Castells) have preferred variously to highlight as interconnections, fluxes, or networks. Our interpretative key, our case study, our possibility for empirical verification, will be European Islam.

As we have seen, the implications of the globalization process produce a radical change of paradigm in our interpretative criteria and, even prior to this, in our perception, our experience, and our lives. One of the things that have changed dramatically, even if we are hardly conscious of it, is our idea of our country of origin, of what we call our “native land”. We usually have, or believe we have, a clear notion of the nation state, whose elements in the classical doctrine are: one territory, one people, and one normative system (i.e. one law). An implicit corollary of this, which is not part of the doctrine but is rooted in the collective unconscious of many, is also one religion, or at least one common religious heritage with the possible inclusion of some recognized religious minorities (this is also the implicit common interpretation of classical sociology, such as that of Durkheim – an interpretation of religion as implicitly majoritarian, despite the fact that he, the son of a Rabbi, belonged to a religious minority).

For various reasons, which we cannot go into here, all of these elements are undergoing a profound change. Territories are multiplying through both processes of devolution and separation, but also processes unification and federation. Peoples are pluralizing through migration, but also internal processes of cultural differentiation. And even normative systems are pluralizing, i.e. through the differentiations between the national level, European level, the jurisdiction promoted by the International Court of The Hague, and through the incorporation of elements of allochthonous systems, such as the Islamic shar§ia in family law, i.e. marriage, divorce law etc.5 Finally, cultures and religions that are not part of any historical heritage are finding their place in society in a more or less “integrated” or “separated” way, based on different interpretations, but apparently with a certain degree of success. Incidentally, a secondary effect of this process is to make the repetition of ideological interpretations of society, such as those familiar from the 20th century, e.g. “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”, factually impossible. This may be considered as progress, I suppose. In effect, however, it is possible that the increasing pluralization of societies will have the systemic effect of triggering greater democracy in our societies and not less as many would have it.

Today, the co-existence of many religious entities, which are made even more visible and in a certain sense dramatized by the conspicuous presence of immigrant communities who look to religions that are more or less extraneous to European history or are at least perceived as such, obliges us to reckon with what appears to me pertinent to describe as a different “geo-religion”, to borrow an expression from the recent philosophical debate (Allievi 1998). People, cultures, religions, live together on the same territory: they come into contact with each other, they may or may not mix with each other, however they co-exist and cohabit. From being a pathology, plurality is now becoming physiology. It is, or is becoming, “normal”. And, furthermore, in many situations it is also becoming the ‘norm’. The problem is that our constitutions were written and our founding principles defined when the normality, the physiology, were different, and homogeneity – real or presumed – prevailed. Incidentally, this is what makes a popular interpretative paradigm such as the thesis of the “clash of civilizations”, popularized by Huntington (1996), sociologically implausible. He describes civilizations as separated, “here” and “there”, rooted in different territories and clearly definable. This is precisely what they are not, or no longer, and not only in the United States and Europe. Clearly, the fact that civilizations are not as separate as they are assumed to be does not exclude conflicts and clashes, in particular on cultural and religious grounds. They simply have to be re-interpreted differently: i.e. more as the effect of contact and interconnection than of separation. Like certain imprudent but lucky doctors, Huntington has probably understood the evolution of the illness correctly, but has completely mistaken the causes (the diagnosis), not to mention the treatment.

This change within and of society is irreversible. Homogeneity, if it has ever existed –historically it was more (and not only) a romantic myth than reality, but a myth with many “real” consequences as demonstrated by Thomas’s theorem – is no longer a criterion for the definition of society at the social, cultural, political, economic, and religious level. Thus, pluralization is occurring on all levels. Moreover, pluralization is not only a fact (implying a greater cultural, social, or religious supply disposable): it is a process that is changing society and us along with it. It is changing us and the other actors involved in the process, i.e. primarily the immigrants themselves. It is transforming our and their individual and collective identities. Good or bad, this situation already exists and we are now dealing with the consequences of this process.

The kaleidoscope of cultures or the importance of the “C” factor

Globalization and migration have had the paradoxical and certainly unintentional effect of making other remote, unknown, or misunderstood cultures “disposable” on a global scale. They are now bouncing back at us, so to speak, projected on to a global scenario, and re-localized elsewhere, in particular in the West where the macro-process of globalization also originates. This is an effect that has been observed, perhaps earlier and more accurately, by certain anthropologists who have direct contact with other cultures and their changes. Hannerz (1996), for example, who refers to “global oecumene”, is one of those who stresses that although the world has become a network of social relations, there has not been any homogenization of systems of meaning. On the contrary, in terms of the flows of exchanges of meanings, the cultural production of the peripheries, in the direction of the centre – and, through the centre, between themselves – has not only increased, but is in some way a response to the political and economic dominance of the centre.

In short, there is a process of de-territorialization of cultures in progress that is showing outcomes of a certain interest and is basically reducible to two processes (this was previously dealt with in Allievi 2004a). The first of these is the “discovery” (on our part) or re-discovery of the cultures and knowledge (including religious) of others which we find in distant territories, appropriate, bring back “home”, and compare with both our current knowledge, for example, that produced by “scientific reason”, and our “traditional”, e.g. religious, knowledge, developing diachronic comparisons that are beginning to produce results of some interest. The presence in the West of increasing numbers of “representatives” of these different kinds of knowledge is another way of making mentalities, knowledge, symbols, and visions of the world move around. The second is the arrival, through migration, of what we may call shared (included religious) knowledge: what is involved here is not only knowledge of and ideas about the world, but widespread social and cultural practices shared within ever-expanding social groups (immigrant communities) which can live these practices, reproduce them, and also “contaminate” them with different forms of knowledge and experience.

The most immediate and evident effect of these processes is the increase in the level of pluralization of the – not only “theoretically” but concretely and immediately available – supply, which has thus strengthened the possibility of choice, including religious choice, actually offered to each individual. Thus, it is becoming (or becoming once again) crucial and strategic that we reflect on the implications of what I call the “C” factor, i.e. the “culture” factor. It is no accident that more and more expressions are emerging in relation to the “mosaic of cultures” or “religious patchwork” that appears to be forming. However, these expressions highlight only the rigid, static aspect of the process currently unfolding, i.e. the increasing cultural pluralization of our societies. This is actually a dynamic and rather complex process which is better described by the image, not static but dynamic, and of continuous change, of a culture kaleidoscope whose pieces, both large and small – (and, leaving aside the metaphor, the old and new cultural forms that were monopolistic in the past and remain dominant or at least more institutionalized) are in constant movement. The “C” factor, in a broad sense, is increasingly decisive. To borrow the title of a well-known book by Nathan Glazer (1997): “We are All Culturalists Now”. Like the presence of immigrants, cultural exchange constitutes some of the engines that drive the culture kaleidoscope. And the overlap of the various pieces, the new ones and the existing ones, produce new forms and new shades of colour, that is, they produce phenomena of “métissage”, syncretism, and cultural hybridization. The most important of these elements include, of course, Islam.


The acceptance of the term “multiculturalism” is considered as given, at least in terms of its descriptive meaning, despite the fact that it contains a serious original defect: the vast majority of contributions to the debate on multiculturalism, or at least in the more important ones, are substantially monocultural, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, also from the linguistic perspective .6 Thus, this debate starts from empirical premises and theoretical references that seriously underestimate other empirical situations and other possible theoretical references. This is already true if we limit ourselves to the Western context and much more so if we think on a global cultural scale. The main problem is probably due to the definition of (collective) identities which is too often implicit in the debate. This term is, in fact, ambiguous and anything but clear. Religious or political definitions of identities are very different from the way identities are perceived and tested at individual level. Scholars from different fields rarely understand each other when speaking of multiculturalism, identities, communities, etc. (“What is culture?”, the question raised in the earliest days of the social-anthropological disciplines, remains the question and one with too many answers.) What political philosophy often takes for granted is described in an entirely different way, or simply not accepted, by sociology, anthropology, and psychology (the human sciences). If (collective) identity is a problematic concept, any abstract consideration of suggested “politics of recognition” of these same identities will be even more problematic (I clearly refer here to Taylor and many others).

It is not my aim here to analyze the concept of (collective) identity. I simply wish to suggest that the debate would gain significantly if the concept were applied to the case study of “Islam in Europe”. More than discussions on Aboriginal populations in Australia, the French population of Quebec, or references to homosexual rights or the women’s movement, the empirical case of Muslim populations in Europe appears to offer an ideal point of reference for the comparison, challenging and, probably also, rejection of many of the theories of multiculturalism and their implications.

What is culture? What is religion? What is identity? What is community? What is individual? And how do all these references – too often considered as static – change? And how fast? All of these questions could be challenged in a very interesting way by empirical observations from this field, particularly if it were to be studied from a sociological perspective and with a socio-historical sensitivity: men, women, identities, communities, societies, change – because thay want to, because they are obliged to, or sometimes simply due to the fact that time is passing (something sociologists should know, even if they often forget it, but which political philosophers hardly ever take into consideration). What I have elsewhere referred to as the “T” factor (“T” for time) is central to any serious analysis of ongoing processes, for example, the perception and forms of change undergone by a migrant, from the initial moment of migration to five, ten, twenty years after settlement in a different country and, even more, across generations. Furthermore, it is not only individuals who change. Their cultural references change also. Thus, the questions arise as to how Islam in Europe has changed over the generations, whether the Islamic references of the fathers are the same Islamic references as those of the so-called second generations,7 how the Islam of converts and other neo- or reborn Muslims has changed,8 and how they influence each other and move together towards change. Studying sociologically means taking change and movement as defining elements of the description of a phenomenon, included that of cultural pluralism in a given society: a thing that is very rarely done, if it is not completely uncommon, in both the multicultural debate and the liberals versus communitarians controversy, that too often imply static definitions of cultures.

In its present terms, the debate still appears to be too “rigid” in that it deals to a far greater extent with the hypostatization of cultures and identities than with reality. All too often forms of hybridization, of being “in-between”, of métissage (of both cultures and identities) are not considered at all. Or, conversely, in some cases, they are proposed “ideologically”, as a criterion for understanding society, in the place of a factual evidence that must be empirically verified, in the same way as for hypostatic descriptions of the same cultures and identities. The spaces of regulations must be identified. The role of boundaries at the cultural level must be emphasized along with the frequent tendency, at social level, to cross them.

Excursus: the meaning and role of boundaries

Most research has studied the Muslim populations in Europe, we might say, in themselves, i.e. taking for granted the existence of these communities and focusing mainly on their basic elements and on the consequences of their presence. However, the question needs to be raised as to how the Muslim presence “happens”. In other words, how do these communities “produce” themselves and by what means and what are the effects of this “production of community”.9

A process of construction of transnational and non-ethnic Muslim communities is taking place in Europe through Islamic networks and through the use of (mass) media. Thus, we should probably be studying identities and communities in a different way. These cannot be easily defined as is often the case. The emphasis should not be placed exclusively on the sociological and cultural data often stressed when we use the words “identity” and “community” – terms wrongly implied as self-evident. On the contrary, we need to pay more attention to their “boundaries”, i.e. the boundaries of the communities and the boundaries of the society in which they live, and to what happens when these boundaries are crossed, i.e. how the individuals and groups “use” them and their function. Although it is not often used in this field, the metaphor of the boundary appears promising because it opens up unthought of horizons, projecting us out of the usual world – as the Greek etymology metà-phérein suggests, beyond and out. “To create a boundary is an act that generates reality, an act that gives shape to the world by introducing a discontinuity where before there was homogeneity. It is a violent act, a show of force, a manifestation of power” (Colombo 2001).

The concept of boundary – in Italian confine, the same etymology of the English confined and confinement – is intrinsically polysemic: it signifies that which marks the difference between two things, i.e. subjects, states, ethnic groups, religions, and at the same time what they have in common. The Latin cum-finis, i.e. the end “finis” one has in common with, i.e. “cum”, someone or something else, contains both meanings although the latter sense has been lost in everyday language and usage (Cassano 1995). As Maturana and Varela (1980) have written, albeit in an entirely different context, a universe comes into being when a space is divided in two. The ambiguity of the boundary and its profoundly tragic nature are due above all to its artificiality, its conventionality – a drama to be found in all the laws of men who, not by chance, have often tried to invent for themselves a security that they do not have in a divine origin, the guarantee that they cannot produce in a God who in turn will guarantee them – knowing, however, that it is a question of convention, of invention (this is precisely what gives depth to Greek tragedy). It is significant, however, that the concept of boundary immediately evokes the concept of alterity which, in turn, evokes that of identity. This is a logical chain that should prompt reflection. This reflection should focus, on one hand, on the utility of boundaries (logical and material) so as to enable it to ask the right questions: as Pascal noted, what is true one side of the Pyrenees is often not true on the other side, which makes us wonder about what – if anything – the two slopes of the same mountain range have in common. On the other hand, it already shows us the possible drift, often measured in history, of the acceptance of the boundary: the fact of entering directly in dynamics such as inside/outside, in-group/out-group, and amicus/hostis, as in the politological definition of Carl Schmitt.

Some processes appear provoke a crisis in the concept of boundary. The internet, which nullifies the idea of a world constructed on the basis of the centre-periphery model and makes us speak instead in terms of nets, links, and about communication that is no longer only or primarily unidirectional, but is multi-directional and allows interactivity, is a typical example of this. In a certain sense, physical space is losing importance: connections are being developed between different and geographically remote worlds in a process of intensification of social relations on a global scale. To see the world as a network does not naturally mean that there are no longer “centres” (economic, technological, political, but also ideological, anyhow of power), nor does it mean that boundaries are disappearing: if anything, perhaps the opposite is true and some centres are stronger than before and some boundaries are even becoming insurmountable barriers (beginning with the barrier that separates those who have access to the web and those who don’t, and the respective worlds they belong to, i.e. the world of those who count in a certain order of things and those who can only be counted). And we need to have no illusions about the meaning of this process: as has been observed, the society of global interconnection is as remote as the classless society, and in the same way as the latter it is above all an ideological product and as such probably destined to follow the same curve as that other better known utopia.

We are living increasingly under the sign of Hermes, god of the gate, the threshold of the city, but also of crossroads (Augé 1992). However, if the external boundaries appear to be disappearing, this does not mean that the internal ones between me and the other whom I don’t know and between me and the very idea of alterity are not reproducing. Furthermore, who is the other? Is it not the boundary that determines and “decides” it? One of the consequences of globalization processes is that they bring societies that were once distant and separate into contact with each other. Thanks to this contact, there is a greater level of multi-ethnicity and multi-culturality in an ever-increasing number of societies and this, in turn, produces additional links with and between distant societies. In fact, the simultaneous presence of different cultures and identities “relativizes” those in which we grew up and, at the same time, may drive us to search for that same identity and those same roots that have gone into crisis and even make us invent new ones. This is why these “returns to the roots”, which seem “natural” and rooted profoundly in history to us, are often actually recent and “invented”, in the sense of constructed. In short, they are cultural creations, as we have seen, for example in relation to nationalisms in books with significant titles such as The Invention of Tradition (Hobsbawm) or Imagined Communities (Anderson). What Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures”, i.e. those social structures that make life in association “plausible”, by repeating its foundations, even without explaining them, are now in crisis.

Thus, “the world” has become a concept that is more present in the minds of many of its inhabitants, even if this does not mean that it is neither more peaceful, and nor more integrated as a certain naive functionalism would have us believe and as a certain kind of laissez-faire ideology, which mainly seeks to legitimate processes of economic globalization, often repeats. There is a dramatic aspect to this that is underlined by Bauman (1998): the idea of universalization incorporated the hope, intention, and determination to create an order – the same does not apply to globalization. What this world shares is the synchronic principle, i.e. it is free of roots, diachronic depth and hence history, comprehension of the roots of the past – both of ours as well as those of others – and of the history of our relations with others. The following comment by Jabès (1989) may be useful in this context: “A tree is foreign to another tree but with this it participates in extending the forest”. Today more than ever before alterity returns us to interdependence. We believe it is not an accident that many currents of 20th-century Western philosophical thought all involve digging for the sense of this relation: phenomenology, existentialism, as far as Lévinas, and Ricoeur, and Jabès. And the same can be said for anthropology (by definition a science of, or at least research into, the other), psychoanalysis, much of sociology, not to mention a great deal of literature. And the identity of the other leads us to ours: “L’étranger? L’étrange-je”, writes Jabès in an untranslatable play on words.

This observation is not merely a cultural metaphor, it can also have important sociological consequences. And it points to some interesting considerations, if applied to the situation of Islamic communities in Europe (Allievi and Nielsen 2003). Among other things, it shows that one of the major consequences of the Islamic presence is in fact that these populations (groups, associations, ethnic communities) are entering the European public sphere as a new social actor with cultural/religious references that did not previously exist in this public sphere. It also shows us that these same references are changing (Van Bruinessen and Allievi forthcoming, 2005) and that the societies are changing too. Identities (and communities, and cultural and religious references) seem more and more like balls rolling on a billiard table which represents the public sphere in which they move. Their movement is not linear (it is often easier to get from one point to another better by using the cushions or this is simply what happens to beginners, i.e. those who have little control over their paths and plans); the balls often touch and change position and change the positions of the actors. Furthermore, some balls are lost or end up on the outside in the course of the game. What the metaphor of billiards does not show us is that, as in set theory, the circles can also overlap, incorporating one another, grow larger or smaller – in short, be transformed.

On multiculturalism

Thus, the presence of immigrants of various ethnic and religious provenance and the progressive structuring of communities that are based on these have important consequences for society. We can no longer be content with studying the presence of immigrants (who from the second generation on are no longer immigrants as they have never actually moved anywhere) as an aggregate of individuals alone as is the case in many of the analyses of the arguments that are most frequently used concerning their presence, from those dealing with their occupational structure and the give and take of their presence in the economy to the many studies based on indicators of social privation, i.e. from marginalization to criminality to problems of housing, access to social services, and so on. Immigrants are not in fact all the same, as implicitly suggested by many studies on these sectoral issues. Furthermore, their presence does not only concern the immigrants themselves; the same, e.g. religious specificities, of which they are bearers, also involve native populations, even if they do so in different ways.

In other words, these immigrant are not only that: they are also groups, associations, communities – in short, collective social actors. As such they organize themselves and make their voices heard, and as such, finally, they are or are beginning to be perceived by professional observers and, increasingly, by public opinion in general. Thus, we must analyse cultural specificities, as it is considered a privileged object of multicultural studies. But this multiculturalism cannot be satisfied to merely indicate these general dynamics of society and, more specifically, cannot be reduced to a vague support for action or mere ideological statements. On the other hand, cultural communities are not static, nor are they completely inclusive and omni-comprehensive; they are born and built socially, but action within them and through them is also individual. Thus, when considering communities and the individuals who pass through them, we must also, and above all, highlight the dynamics of change and modifications in process, which are no less relevant than forms of continuity and cultural “inertia”, and the connections with the parallel processes of individualization, which are no less important than elements of communitarization and no less significant also in terms of the self-definition of these same identities, both from the individual and collective point of view.10 In this context, it would appear useful to recall, with a certain irony, the scientific expression “multikulti” which is current in Germany that has ended up by being appropriated by everyday language and drags multiculturalism down from the heavens of metaphysics (a sociological or “sociologicizing” metaphysics also exists) to a more prosaic and irreverent everyday dialectic. It is here, in this multiculturalism, or rather in multiculturalism conceived in this way, that Islam, like other cultures, expresses itself in the everyday. Think of the pervasive – and decisive in terms of the development of our “habit of plurality” – role of the “market multiculturalism” that is expressed in food, music, “ethnic” fashions in clothing, furnishings, etc. (see Martiniello 1997).

The presence of Islam has not created a multicultural situation in Europe.11 However, it has certainly contributed to a great extent to creating an awareness of it and making it more visible and topical, more than other “othernesses” which are less visible or symbolically charged (also historically) or perceived as less conflictual – in short, less “other”. Multiculturalism, by which I mean not the adhesion to a specific political philosophy, but the simple recognition of a plurality of competing cultural options present in the same territory and of competing cultural universes associated, in particular, with the arrival of populations which have these as their own heritage of reference, is now part of the European agenda. Naturally, this does not mean that before this there were no clashes of opinion and references. However, it is plausible to hypothesize that with the arrival of the new immigrants, cultural and religious plurality has not only increased in terms of potential references, but has found new collectively-shared forms of presence and has triggered at least partly new dynamics on the Old Continent. In Europe the introduction of the term “multiculturalism” has marked the shift from an immigration perceived solely as economic and temporary to a permanent presence of populations. However, the picture outlined in the early 1990s by one of the first comparative analyses of the Muslim presence in Europe still appears to be reliable and can be summarized by the three following elements: a liberal myth of a multicultural Europe, which is indeed still a myth; the social reality of a multicultural Europe, which can be found in the field; and the unreality of any real cultural encounter in Europe (Nielsen 1992).

On communities

The term “community” tends to be polysemic and therefore needs interpretation; in particular, its use differs significantly the “high” academic-scientific register and the “low” register of both common speech and policy. As a scientific concept, “community” has no value. As an instrument for the creation of the social imagination, it occupies a fundamental place and is destined to last (Busino, quoted in Bagnasco 1999) .12 The language of social actors is even more explicit and very insistent when it comes to the concept of community. The Muslim community/-ies is/are among those that frequently use this vocabulary. But this “communitarian temptation” is present everywhere, i.e. among both the majority religions and the historical minorities. Some important Muslim exponents theorize that integration can work better if it comes through the community and not through individuals (Rachid al-Ghannouchi, personal interview, May 2002), even if, perhaps aware of the mistrust that weighs on the idea of community, some European Muslim intellectuals propose a version that is conceptually on the defensive, i.e. “community against communitarianism” (Ramadan 1999). Moreover, the term has often been used in the language of the media and of social and political operators with a certain lack of awareness that reflects deep-rooted thought processes. As referred to by both the civil authorities and minority groups the notion of community has become “as vague as it is comfortable” and, as has been noted, it is now invoked without defining a fundamental resource of ethnic (and also religious) mobilization that has led to the emerging “politics of religion and community” (Vertovec and Peach 1997).

Thus, the category of community, which never really went out of fashion even if it was abandoned by academics, has returned. However, it is now accompanied by an overload of ideological elements, both on the part of its supporters and its detractors, which makes it very difficult to use it in a semantically “neutral” way. In the case of Islam, the conceptual ambiguity stems from the fact that the term can refer to both social relations that involve the individual in his totality and communities delineated both territorially and by religious characteristics (e.g. neighbourhoods with a majority of Muslims) and the meta-community of the Muslim umma – also when used by the social players involved. It is of little importance that, as we have seen, like national communities, religious communities can also be imagined or invented. It is a fact that reference to them in the lives of those who refer to them is solid, material and not at all virtual. Furthermore, in the case of Islam in Europe, communities appear to form a sort of third, hybrid space between insiders and outsiders (Eade 1997). Reflection on community self-organization would appear to be indispensable for an understanding of the processes of insertion and integration. Muslims who have moved to Europe are not only immigrants: they are also groups, associations, communities – i.e. collective social actors. On the other hand, however, it is not possible to concentrate solely on the above specificities: the links with the parallel processes of individualization are no less important than the elements of communitarianism, and no less significant for the self-definition of these identities, both from the individual and collective point of view.

The European Islamic world is going through a process of extremely rapid transformation.

In particular, it is of strategic interest to see how the processes of structuralization of Islamic communities will proceed in this crucial phase in which they are no longer ethnic communities coming from elsewhere, i.e. with the passing of a generation they have lost their ethnic character and identification with the countries of origin at least in part, but, for reasons associated as much with culture and customs as citizenship ,they are not yet fully autochthonous communities nor, above all, are they perceived as such. In other words, if they are Muslims, the youths of the second are not so because they are Moroccans, Turks, Egyptians, or Pakistanis, but precisely because they are no longer this, even if they are not yet Belgian, German, Spanish, or Italian; indeed, in many European countries, with the remarkable exceptions of France and the United Kingdom, the majority of Muslims, including the second generations, are not legally citizens of the countries in which they live. Thus, they are Muslims, albeit in a different way to their immigrant parents, but they are not yet Europeans of Muslim faith, as is the case with the converted.

Seen from this perspective the very notion of Islamic “community” ends up relinquishing this idea of opposition to the “individual” which it maintains at least implicitly, and often explicitly, in many analyses of the Islamic phenomenon in Europe, thereby demonstrating their over-simplistic and simplifying character. In the new panorama that is being defined, community and individual are not alternative ways of being Muslims, but on the contrary concomitant ways that even reinforce each other. Thus, it is not correct to formulate the debate in terms of communitarianism or individual integration (or simply individual paths). This is a false alternative which is not confirmed by empirical analyses of the phenomenon of Islam. Instead, we must speak of communitarianism and individual integration involving in not a few cases the functional/instrumental use of the community for the purpose of supporting strategies of individual promotion, which furthermore use cultural bi-nationality to create a favourable position in a double market (often also economic) or, it could be said, to “bi-position” themselves.

Meccan and “ummic”: on minority Islam

European Islam is an Islam in a minority situation (the consequences of which I have studied in Allievi 2002). Thus, it cannot be equated with the Islam defined as din, dunya wa dawla, which is religion, everyday life (literally, the low temporal existence, earthly life) and organized living, i.e. institutional, government in its modern form, state, and hence politics. On the other hand, this image, which is often used to interpret majority Islam, is probably a mere intellectual construct. It is also interesting to note that the Arabic root of the word dawla, which is used to indicate a reign or dynasty, and by extension a power, also means alternation, change, and instability, almost as though to underline the inevitable transient dimension of any political and institutional structure. Incidentally, this also applies to religious structure in that no legitimizing centre exists that is able to issue licences of orthodoxy or heterodoxy, and this dimension is therefore substantially subject to the logic of de facto powers of contractualization and contestation, but also permanent regeneration. The imbalance is experienced in a very modern way as largely structural. And if this is true for majority and hence hegemonic Islam, it is all the more true for minority Islam.

Nevertheless much cultural production on Islam and much production that comes to us from Islam implicitly considers Islam as a majority religion. It could not be otherwise: Islam defines itself as such, even theologically – hence the importance of constructing a minority theology starting from the European situation which authors like Tariq Ramadan and organizations like the European Council for Fatwa and Research in London are attempting to do. It is no coincidence that Islam instituted its calendar at Yathrib-Medina at precisely the moment in which it became a majority religion; this shift from Mecca to Medina, in the hijra of 622 AD was its date of birth. Islam was not born with the birth of the Prophet, but with the community founded by him. For, as Lewis notes, while Muhammad preached Islam in Mecca, in Medina he could practice it. By transferring from Mecca to Medina, Islam itself changed from being a minority religion and marginal sect in contemporary terms to became a majority one and, therefore, law and government. And from being the guru of a movement of religious revival which tended to seek its followers at the lower rather than higher end of the social scale at Mecca Muhammad became what he was only for his few followers: prophet and envoy of God, religious but also political, legislative, juridical, even military authority. It was at Medina, and only here, that the Muslim umma was truly born in the historic sense that gave it its character and identity.

Fate would now have it that present-day European Islam finds itself in a situation that is far more similar to that which prevailed in Mecca than Medina, i.e. it is a tolerated minority religion that is sometimes stigmatized and sometimes integrated and institutionalized, but it remains a minority religion. Moreover, being a minority religion has important sociological consequences. As Mirdal points out, from a psychological point of view, Freud was not a practising believer and his opinions on religion in general are well known; however he used the term “identity” only once, and that was with a religious connotation in reference to his own Jewish identity. But “it is doubtful that Freud would have considered his Jewish identity particularly important had he lived in a country with a Jewish majority. Likewise, Turkish immigrants in Europe…” (Mirdal 2000). Not only is European Islam “Meccan”, it is also “ummic”. In the history of Islam, starting from the Arabian Peninsula where it was born, expansion has always originated in some kind of ethnic drive, even if the ethnic groups leading Islamic supremacy and the responsibility for its spreading have changed: from the original Arab combatants (plural in their internal relations), to Persians, Turks, Mongols, or many others who took into their hands –not only metaphorically – the sword of Islam.

This characteristic of internal plurality is far more accentuated in present-day Europe. The origins are multiple, and even in those countries in which there is an identifiable ethnic group or dominant geographical provenance among Muslim immigrants (e.g. Germany, United Kingdom, France), in reality it is difficult to identify it, or it is becoming less and less identifiable: there is no single origin nor an original centre of power that is easily identifiable. Instead, 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 confraternities (a far greater diversity of which can be encountered in the West than elsewhere and whose boundaries are easier to cross in Europe), but also a plurality of ethnic groups, a plurality of “religious families” (Sunnites of all kinds, Shiites, Ishmaelites etc.). Finally, it also shows us a plurality of languages both those of the countries of origin which are numerous (first and foremost Arabic,13 Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Wolof, and many others) and the European languages, the dominant languages 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 even more applicable 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, third etc. and no longer definable as such.

In many ways, the umma is far more visible in Europe than in the countries of origin where believers can only find other persons like themselves, of the same nationality, language, belief, and interpretation of these beliefs (within a specific law school). Only on the occasion of the hajj (and in this case, of course, to a greater extent) can a Muslim experience the umma as a concrete and visible reality and not only as a symbolic one in the same vivid way that the common believer can usually experience it in many mosques and Islamic organizations in Europe. The internal diversity among Muslims is more evident in Europe, the USA, and in other countries of migration than elsewhere, and certainly more than in the countries of origin of these immigrants. And 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. All of the madhhab in Europe are “living”; but the major difference from 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. To use the words of one of my interviewees, born in Africa but of Yemeni origin and living in London: “I am shafii, but I have to follow the most common madhhab here which is the hanafi one. Personally, as far as the hajj is concerned I am hanafi, for jihad I am maliki, for the conception of minority I am hanbali…”. Thus it is no coincidence that European Muslims are beginning to speak of the European school – sometimes the Western and minority one (including the United States) – as of the “fifth law school” under construction.

Islam in Europe

As it is not possible for me to discuss this topic in detail here, I will limit myself to summarizing an entire historical cycle of relations between Islam and Europe in a few sentences.

During a prolonged first stage, Islam and (Christian) Europe, which were conceived and saw themselves as mutually impermeable and self-centred, stood in opposition to each other despite reality and history which show how the permeability of philosophical ideas, scientific notions, artistic – and also economic and commercial – forms and exchange were more the norm than the exception. During the second stage, it was Europe that penetrated far into the lands and culture of Islam in the age of Empires and the period of colonization and then in contemporaneous neo-colonization, which passed through the processes of both economic and also symbolic globalization, and that of consumerism, media etc. Thus, here we see a penetration by Europe into Islam. The third stage, which is more recent (in some countries, like France, it had already begun in the period between the two world wars, but in most cases it started from the post-war years of reconstruction and then following on the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s in central-northern Europe, and even later, from the end of the 1970s onward, in southern Europe), marks the start of the presence of Islam in Europe through migration. During a fourth stage we see the birth and consolidation of an Islam of Europe as a result of the progression through generations and a more general cultural change which took place primarily at a personal level. The natural follow-on of this process should be a fifth stage, of which we can now only see the uncertain beginnings, involving the formation of a real European Islam with a proper and marked identity which differs to that of Arabian Islam, for example. When referring to this Islam we should speak of European citizens of Muslim origin or of Islamic culture and/or religion instead of Muslims living in Europe. Even if it is possible to detect signs of the onset of this fifth stage, most countries today are somewhere between the third and fourth stages.

As it is not possible to provide even minimal demographic or economic data on the Muslim presence in Europe, I shall limit myself to stating this as an accepted fact (see however Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto, and Nielsen 2003). What we can say, while undoubtedly summarizing too much, is that we are faced with simultaneous processes of widespread integration and conflictual perception. The widespread integration is what we see at work, school, and in many neighbourhoods. The conflictual perception is what emerges from the cultural (and sub-cultural) debate, the perception of Islam in part of the media and the political world and also in parts of the cultural and religious establishment. On the one hand we have the normality of immigration and the exceptionality of its perception, on the other; this is not found in similar forms and modes in other cases of immigration, even if they are not less “other” in the context of European history than Islamic immigration. It is obvious that there are many good reasons for the exceptionality of this interpretation which mainly originate in the current geo-political situation and the growth of trans-national Islamic terrorism’s capacity to strike the West and its imagination. However, it is equally true that this does not explain everything. The conflictual interpretation of the Islamic presence in Europe and the popular spread of a Huntingtonian vulgata of the “clash of civilizations” precedes September 11 2001 and can be found in the widespread use of the word jihad in the press, in conflicts concerning the hijab, in urban conflicts concerning mosques and cemeteries and in political parties, religious movements and movements of opinion that had identified Islam as a target well before that “black September” (see my chapters on The Media, pp 289-330, and Relations and Negotiations: Issues and Debates on Islam, pp 331-368, in Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto, and Nielsen 2003).

Thus, the problem precedes geo-politics and terrorism and has profound roots and a symbolic overload that must be kept in consideration. This alone can explain the ferocity of certain attitudes to Islam which circulate in the European public space and in which sometimes it would suffice to substitute the word “Jew” for “Muslim” to understand their gravity and negative potentiality – I prefer not to refer to this phenomenon as “Islamophobia” as is all too often the case, starting with the famous report of the Runnymede Trust (1997) with its politically correct and victimized tone. This word is just too easy for Muslims as it heaps all of the responsibility on the host societies. This is clearly not the case and Muslims, their leaders, their imams and their associations bear significant responsibility for its diffusion, for the hypocrisy of some positions and the abstractness of others, for the violence of certain positions and the incomprehension of certain basic categories and methods of common European thinking, for certain extremes of language and lexical hair-splitting and for the open choice of violence by some of their number – from Mohammed Atta, who flew the aeroplane into the World Trade Center to Muhammad Bouyeri who murdered Theo Van Gogh. Naturally, a more general process of social construction of fear plays a crucial role in this process of demonization of Islam which is part of that more general transformation of our society into a “risk society” (Beck 1992). This fear has now translated into a “long-term tendency” of the contemporary West, from which many draw advantages, and its specific anti-Islamic dimension is also leading to the development of political and intellectual positions and extremely concrete economic gains – we only have to think of the media and anti-Islamic libels here: what people forget to say is that this is a literary genre that sells very well, much better than any dialogue about civilization or religion.

Reactive identities

Objective transformations in and of social reality trigger or are accompanied by subjective transformation in and of personal identity. This is a debate that transcends the religious reference and constitutes a problem in itself. However, I shall limit myself here to stating that identity must be increasingly considered and can be read and interpreted “not as a ‘thing’ like the monolithic unity of a subject, but as a system of relations and representations” (Melucci 1982). (These issues are explored in greater detail in Allievi 2004b.) Thus, today, identities are less and less attributed from birth and immutable, and we can speak increasingly of transitory identities that are freely chosen (and in the case of some religious groups of the “sect” type somewhat less freely abandoned) and assumed through “elective socialities” which codify but also allow entry into the modern tribes that Maffesoli (1988) refers to, that are temporary character and, in many cases, ultimately multiple. Given that we appear to be witnessing the progressive drawing apart of increasingly uncertain identities and the veritably systemic social need to distinguish and re-know them, which probably no accident as the former appears to imply the latter, this process is not without consequences for the identities themselves or their perception. However, the reason we are interested in analysing this process here is that concerns not only individual identities, but also collective ones, and the social perception of both.

Globalization has created a world in which, in a certain sense, geography has become detached from other variables and space has “contracted” and relinquished significance (there is no lack of sociological reflection on this subject, from Giddens to Harvey to Robertson and many others). It is precisely the apparent overcoming of all boundaries or the extension of boundaries to encompass the entire globe that brings back the need for boundaries, i.e. small motherlands. Religious fundamentalism, political localism, ethnicism, racism, micro-nationalism and metropolitan neo-tribalism also respond almost always unwittingly to this need. The prevailing situation is one of Jihad vs. McWorld as Barber (1995) described it. However, to be more precise Jihad and McWorld are consubstantial, the one is indissoluble from the other in that one is the effect of the other in a process of circular causality. Globalization actually divides as much as it unites and, as Bauman (1998) reminds us, in a certain sense divides precisely because it unites. It is no coincidence that Geertz (1996), who was accustomed to studying small and definable societies, now sees himself obliged to reason in terms of globality so as to arrive at a real understanding of these societies: cosmopolitism and provincialism are no longer antitheses, if anything they are interconnected and reinforce each other. Geertz reminds us correctly that it is not a question of the “global village” because this world does not know the solidarity or tradition of a village “it has no centre nor boundaries and is completely lacking in unity”.

This is how what I call “reactive identities”, identities that are such only in opposition to someone else, are born and develop – in Europe also. We find them again among the numerous people in Europe today who have been rediscovering their own Christian roots on the political and intellectual level since the emergence of the Muslim presence. This is expressed, perhaps, by the recent controversies surrounding religious symbols, e.g. the crucifix in Italy and the hijab in France. Interestingly, these positions tend to be stated even more vociferously by declared atheists such as Oriana Fallaci and Michel Houellebecq than by believers. However, they can also be found among Muslims who have rediscovered their roots and readopt customs they had abandoned before living in Europe, from attending the mosque to insisting on the hijab, or used to practice in a different and more relaxed way. Part of this process is the same use of one’s own self-definition in terms of “community” on the part of both Muslims and natives, i.e. as if they really were that, as if there were really only one, as if all the members of the supposed community belonged to it or really recognized themselves in it.

Conclusion: on conflict and change

As we have seen, fear is the first general key concept to be kept in consideration and is a backdrop to the specific fear of the other, i.e. of the Muslim by the European, of one’s own annihilation by both the majority and minority, and therefore leads to conflict. It is no accident that this conflict is often about symbols rather than modes of behaviour and social practice (Allievi 2003b). However, sociologically conflict has a positive function. Furthermore, it is basic and, as the classics of sociology have taught us, from Marx to Weber and Simmel, cannot be eliminated. As Heraclitus said: “It is necessary to know that justice is conflict” (cited in Hampshire 2000). After all, crisis prompts the discussion of a problem – always too late, but always better late than never. Crisis and conflict also help us to discover how far we can go and which social boundaries cannot be exceeded. Leadership is forged in conflict. In conflict we have to ask ourselves about a sense of common responsibility which must not produce harmful excesses that may rebound on those who produce them: we measure our real strength, but also that of others, and that of society, its rules, its tools for regulation. Through conflict we test who we are, but also who others are and the idea of alterity. In conflict situations we learn to measure the difference between what we are, what we want, and what we can obtain. Moreover, conflict is a means of bringing to bring to the surface of consciousness what lies and bubbles in the depths. Taking opinions to extremes has a function, which is precisely this: to make visible what is not usually visible, make the unconscious conscious, the unaware aware and letting words say what is not usually said.

As is the case with couples and families, the healthy ones are not those that do not experience conflict, but those in which conflict finds channels to emerge, be dealt with, and resolved. When this does not happen, families break up, or their members continue to live together in a state of constant unhappiness. This is not a good solution or one to be desired. As happens in democracy, which after all is a method not for avoiding conflict, but facing it without recourse to violence, instead of killing my adversary, I vote. As happens in the case of social conflict, for example, in the workplace, i.e. conflict arises and is inevitable, but can be dealt with through a revolution or a strike. Society is conflictual by definition. In a real sense, conflict is the only way we have to avoid war. By taking it into consideration and managing it, we manage to avoid any explosion of violence. However, if we have learnt to regulate political conflict (representative democracy) and social conflict (industrial relations), we have not yet found a stable system for regulating cultural and religious conflict that is accepted by all. It is no coincidence that today the preachers of conflict and of cultural clash are enjoying great success on different sides. This is the reason why what could be a physiology of social conflict, developed in a cultural form, risks becoming a pathology: it is always like that, when and as long as those who gain from conflict are in greater numbers or simply play their cards better than those who do not want conflict to be overcome (because that is not possible) but simply regulated and made to lower its tone a little. Moreover, there will always be people who have an interest in fomenting or even creating and “inventing” conflict where it does not exist or could be diminished, solved, or dealt with.

From this point of view, the danger we face is great: the clash of civilizations – not only on a planetary scale, but also in our cities and neighbourhoods – may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is by dint of repeating it, recalling it, invoking it, that we produce it and we make it real. In a certain sense it is a hole that we are digging for ourselves with our own hands. Furthermore the conflict is not only, and perhaps not mainly, between cultures and religions or better, more accurately their exponents, it is internal to cultures, religions, and communities. Today, society is divided on different questions to those on which it was divided the past. With the decline of class distinctions (at least in the common ideological interpretations and intellectual and media opinions, albeit less in reality), we are increasingly divided today over factors of inclusion and exclusion that are often very material (expenses, interests, costs and benefits, taxes, services), but equally often cloaked in ethnic, racial, cultural, or pseudo-cultural and religious justifications. Diversity, or alterity, is becoming a problem or even a flaw in itself. This means that other social actors (including religious ones) are also being divided increasingly not only and not so much among themselves, but within themselves, i.e. between those who engage in dialogue and those who do not, those who are open to change and those who are not, those ready to put themselves on the line and/or put society on the line and those who do not even consider this (also in the face of the facts and changes that have already taken place which they do not even wish to consider), and between those who are hence ready to measure up to diversity and alterity and those who deny their very bases. These positions are, of course, complemented by all manner of conceivable intermediate attitudes.

On the other hand, precisely because, for the reasons set out above, conflict is necessary, constitutive of society, physiological, and inevitable (in particular in the presence of such significant changes and the fact that Islam is today the second religion in Europe cannot be considered a detail of history), we can hypothesize that in its present form with its extensive radicalization and visibility it is only one inevitable stage, even if this stage is unlikely to be short (or perhaps has yet to peak), that is unfolding while we wait to find forms of regulation more suited to the conflict itself. In this sense we can try to be optimistic or have some reasonable hope of emerging from the crisis. A new level of equilibrium may be born. This may be the new society we spoke of at the beginning, for which we do not (yet) have any plans and rules, but which we are trying to construct. This may be indicated by the long-term trends we are seeing within the Islamic communities of Europe – tendencies that could generally be referred to as the Europeanization of Islam, i.e. the adaptation of its cultural and normative framework (a Europeanization that ranges from gender relations to theological changes, from forms of family and cultural integration to economic integration and consumer models).

Islam in Europe is changing. However, in the process of making itself European, by becoming a European reality and an internal social actor, it is also changing Europe. Furthermore, through personal links and organized networks as well as the old and new media, the Muslims who live in what we could call the European part of umma also influence their Islamic areas of origin, including those from which first generations of immigrants originated, through numerous feedback effects. In the same way, due to the mere existence of the Islamic presence, Europe is changing. To mention just one example, this is visible on the micro-level this is visible simply in the different attitude that teachers of religion are forced to adopt if they have pupils of different religions, or none at all, in their classes (the example can be extended to an infinite number of potential situations and social roles, most obviously to the case of “mixed” couples and families), despite the fact that he or she may or may not be prepared for this change or may or may not be subjectively open to it. The simple fact of being physically confronted with “the other” forces them to think more profoundly. On the macro-level, this change is visible in politics and policies about the legal regulation of religion in the public space and, more practically, in the everyday functioning of social services and reform of school programmes.

As I tried to demonstrate at the outset, religions are becoming crucial again. And as I have noted elsewhere, from now on it will not be possible to understand the history and the social and religious evolution of Europe without taking its Islamic component into account. In the same way it will not be possible to understand the history, social and theological evolution of Islam without taking into account its European component. The history of Europe has become Islamic history – at least in part – and the history of Islam has become European history.


Allievi, Stefano (1998) Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe, Paris: L’Harmattan.

Allievi, Stefano (2002) Musulmani d’occidente. Tendenze dell’islam europeo, Roma: Carocci.

Allievi, Stefano (2003a) “Il pluralismo introvabile: i problemi della ricerca comparativa”. In Franco Garelli/Gustavo Guizzardi/Enzo Pace (eds.) Un singolare pluralismo. Il pluralismo morale e religioso degli italiani, Bologna: Il Mulino, pp. 249-295.

Allievi, Stefano (2003b) “Konflikte um islamische Symbole in Europa”. In Journal für Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung, n.2, pp. 6-31.

Allievi, Stefano (2004a) “Corpi migranti. Culture, religioni, salute e malattia in una società plurale”. In Gustavo Guizzardi (ed.), Star bene. Benessere, salute, salvezza tra scienza, esperienza e rappresentazioni pubbliche, Bologna: Il Mulino, pp. 285-342.

Allievi, Stefano (2004b) Inmigraciones y religiones en Europa. Identitades individuales y colectivas en trasformación. In Gemma Aubarell/Ricard Zapata (eds.) Inmigración y procesos de cambio. Europa y el Mediterráneo en el contexto global, Barcelona: Icaria-IEMed, pp. 319-350.

Allievi, Stefano/ Nielsen, Jorgen (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe, Leiden-Boston, Brill.

Augé, Marc (1992) Non-lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris: Seuil.

Bagnasco, Arnaldo (1999) Tracce di comunità, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Barber, Benjamin (1995) Jihad vs. McWorld, New York: Times Books.

Bauman, Zigmunt (1998), Globalization. The Human Consequences, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society. Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Casanova, José (1994) Public Religions in the Modern World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cassano, Franco (1995) “Pensare la frontiera”. In Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia, n°1, pp. 27-39.

Colombo, Enzo (2001) “Confinando, ovvero la fabbrica dell’altro”. In Servitium, n.133, pp. 21-32.

Dassetto, Felice (2000) Paroles d’islam/Islamic Words. Individuals, Societies and Discourses in Contemporary European Islam, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose.

Eade, John (1997) Living the Global City. Globalization as Local Process, London: Routledge.

Foblets, Marie-Claire (2003) “Muslim Family Laws before the Court in Europe : A conditional Recognition”. In Brigitte Maréchal/ Stefano Allievi/Felice Dassetto/Jorgen Nielsen (eds.), Muslims in the Enlarged Europe, Leiden-Boston: Brill, pp. 255-284.

Geertz, Clifford (1996) Eine Welt in Stücken, Wien: Passagen Verlag.

Glazer, Nathan (1997) We are All Multiculturalists Now, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hampshire, Stuart (2000) Justice is Conflict, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hannerz, Ulf (1996) Transnational Connections. Culture, People, Places, London-New York: Routledge.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1996) The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jabès, Edmond (1989) Un Etranger avec, sous les bras, un livre de petit format, Paris: Gallimard.

Maffesoli, Michel (1988) Le temps des tribus, Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck.

Maréchal, Brigitte/Allievi, Stefano/Dassetto, Felice/Nielsen, Jorgen (2003) Muslims in the Enlarged Europe. Religion and Society, Leiden-Boston: Brill.

Martiniello, Marco (1997) Sortir des ghettos culturels, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Maturana, Humberto/Varela Francisco (1980) Autopoiesis and cognition. The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht: Reidel.

Melucci, Alberto (1982) L’invenzione del presente, Bologna: Il Mulino.

Mirdal, Gretty (2000) “The construction of Muslim identities in contemporary Europe”. In Felice Dassetto (ed.), Paroles d’islam, Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, pp. 32-53.

Nielsen, Jorgen (1992) Muslims in Western Europe, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ramadan, Tariq (1999) Etre musulman européen – Etude des sources islamiques à la lumière du contexte européen, Lyon: Tawhid.

Runnymede Trust (1997) Islamophobia. A challenge for us all, London.

Simmel, Georg (1989) Gesammelte Schriften zur Religionssoziologie, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot.

Social Compass (1999) Les Conversions à l’Islam en Europe, London: Sage Publications.

Tomlinson, John (1999) Globalization and Culture, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Van Bruinessen, Martin/Allievi, Stefano (forthcoming, 2005) Producing Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe, London-New York: Routledge.

Van Nieuwkerk, Karin (forthcoming, 2005) Gender and Conversion to Islam in the West, Austin: Texas University Press.

Vertovec, Steven/Peach Ceri (1997) Islam in Europe. The Politics of Religion and Community, London–Basingstoke: MacMillan & St. Martin’s Press.

1 Some of these premises and their consequences were developed and expanded in my chapter on Relations between Religions (pp. 369-414) in Maréchal, Allievi Dassetto and Nielsen (2003).

2 The expression was coined by Simmel (1989) in reference to the relational values that constitute a religion. This “moment” is subject to profound transformations hic et nunc and in the European situation.

3 I prefer the more neutral expression “identity references” to “identity systems” for a number of reasons: in particular because, from the subjective point of view, identities are not systems, a word whose connotation is too “coherent. With respect to religion, a possible theoretical reference could involve reflection ideally linking Simmel to Berger. In terms of a wider debate on identity, we can refer to approaches such as those of Melucci, Bauman, and Kaufmann.

4 As this is not the focus of this essay, I shall refrain from weighing it down with detailed bibliographical references. I trust, however, that the frame of reference of the literature that is implicitly referred to here and the theoretical problems it poses are clear.

5 The progressive internationalization of law has been the subject of much inquiry, from J. Rawls to O. Höffe. On the incorporation of Islamic references into European legal practice, see Foblets (2003).

6 It is not possible here to even attempt a summary. In terms of an introduction to the topic, I refer to Taylor, Kymlicka, and Walzer and, to compensate in part for the monoculturalism of the debate (but not sufficiently for its monolinguistic character), almost all the most recent essays by Bauman, Habermas, and Touraine. The bibliography on the subject, in particular the English-speaking literature, is quite copious, as is inevitable for a successful paradigm.

7 On this subject and on how Islamic knowledge is constructed in a minority context, see Van Bruinessen and Allievi (forthcoming, 2005).

8 Another crucial subject in the context of the transformation of European Islam: see Allievi (1998), Social Compass (1999), and Van Nieuwkerk (forthcoming, 2005).

9 For some tentative answers to this question, see Allievi and Nielsen (2003).

10 On processes of individualization in European Islam, see Dassetto 2000.

11 Some of the observations that follow are taken from my chapter on Relations and Negotiations: Issues and Debates on Islam in Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen (2003) which deals with this subject in greater detail.

12 The debate on this subject is wide-ranging, and involves – to mention just the better known – writers as diverse as Dworkin, Etzioni, Habermas, Kymlicka, Lasch, MacIntyre, Maffesoli, Rawls, Sandel, Selznick, Walzer, etc.

13 And it would in this case be more correct to use the word in the plural.

How the Immigrant has become Muslim. Public Debates on Islam in Europe

REMI_front REMI_back REMI_index1 REMI_index2

Allievi S. (2005), 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; issn 0765-0752

English abstract

Among the ‘figures of otherness’ that sociology have conceptualised, there has been a shift from ‘internal’ foreigners (belonging to a minority: Jews, members of ethnic and religious minorities, etc.), to the different, the foreigner, and lastly the immigrant, which has been for a long period the ideal type of the other, and the most studied. Now it seems to become, in more recent years, the Muslim.

There are many reasons to explain this shift, both internal, connected with the transformations of migrations in Europe, and external, connected to the emergence of Islam as a global political actor. But there are also long-term reasons, which are related to the renovated salience of religious categories in the European public space, such as the pluralisation of religious offer, of which Islam in Europe represents in the public debate, correctly or not, the extreme case.

The main interpretative problem is that, on the one hand, the religious specificity of Islam is relatively bad acknowledged; on the other hand, it is excessively used as a self-evident explanation of phenomena related also to non religious reasons. Research approaches to Islam risk then to be condemned either to reductionism or to essentialism.

This seems to be equally true for the political, religious and particularly mediatic debate about Islam in the European public space.

One of the paradoxes of this situation is that today, when Muslims are more and more integrated in European societies, the perception of them and of Islam is more and more conflictual.

In this situation of conflict – not necessarily real, but described as such in part of the public imagery – in which the interpretative paradigms (also those of common discourses, not only scientific) are still weak and little attested, reactive forms of identity emerge, both among the autochthonous populations and the immigrant communities. A good example of reactive identities can be seen in the conflicts on Islamic symbols in Europe (hijab, mosques, etc.).

We analyse here a case of media/intellectual cultural clash concerning Islam, and particularly the ‘method of discourse’ which is behind some widespread interpretations of the presence of Islam in Europe, epitomised in the popular books of Oriana Fallaci and others.

Notwithstanding the necessity of ‘de-islamise’ the debate on the Islamic presence in Europe, in order to better understand it, some field observations lead us to conclude that the ‘Islamic diversity’ will be with us for a long time in the European public debate.

French abstract

Parmi les ‘figures de l’alterité’ que la sociologie a utilisée, on a pu voir le passage de l’étranger intérieur à l’immigré, qui a été longtemps le visage le plus étudié de l’autre, et plus récemment au musulman.

Ce passage de l’immigré au musulman est due à plusieurs raisons, qui concernent soit les transformations de l’immigration en Europe, soit l’émergence de l’islam comme acteur global, mais il y a aussi des raisons de long terme, liées à l’importance du facteur religieux et des catégories interprétatives basées sur la religion dans l’espace public européen, desquelles l’islam semble représenter dans le débat public, à tort ou à raison, le cas extrême.

Le problème interprétatif principale semble être, d’un coté, la mauvaise connaissance des spécificités religieuses de l’islam, et de l’autre son utilisation comme une explication auto-évidente, même quand des raisons d’autre genre (non religieuses) sont à l’origine de certains phénomènes. La recherche, tout comme le débat politique, religieux, et surtout médiatique sur l’islam, semble donc osciller entre l’essentialisme et le réductionnisme.

Le paradoxe de cette situation, est que dans le même temps que le processus d’intégration des musulmans dans la société européenne poursuit, sa perception et la perception de l’islam devienne de plus en plus conflictuelle. Une bonne exemplification de ce processus peut être vue dans les conflits sur les symboles islamiques en Europe (hijab, mosquées, etc.).

Un autre exemple est visible dans les cas de conflit médiatico-intellectuel à propos d’islam, comme dans les livres très diffusées d’Oriana Fallaci et d’autres, à propos desquels on fera ici référence en particulier à la ‘méthode du discours’ à l’oeuvre.


Stefano Allievi, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of Padua, where he teaches at the Faculties of Sciences of Communication and of Political Sciences. He is specialized on migration issues, in sociology of religion and cultural change, and has particularly focused his studies and researches on the presence of Islam in Europe, to which he has dedicated many publications. Among others: L’occidente di fronte all’islam (ed.), Franco Angeli, Milano, 1996, pp.224; Les convertis à l’islam. Les nouveaux musulmans d’Europe, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1998 pp.383; Musulmani d’occidente. Tendenze dell’islam europeo, Roma, Carocci, 2002, pp.194; Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe (ed. with J.Nielsen), Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2003, pp.332; Islam italiano. Viaggio nella seconda religione del paese, Torino, Einaudi, 2003, pp.272; Muslims in the Enlarged Europe, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2003, pp. 601 (ed. with B.Maréchal, F. Dassetto and J. Nielsen).

Public debates on Islam in Europe

How the Immigrant has become Muslim


Stefano Allievi

“Fondement – Toutes les nouvelles en manquent”

Gustave Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées reçues

Premise: conceptualising otherness

The 20th century could be defined from the point of view of Western thought the ‘age of the other’1.

The entire history of contemporary philosophy, from phenomenology to existentialism, right up to Ricoeur and Lévinas, is actually a reflection and a continual re-conceptualisation of and about the ‘other’, and the identity-otherness polarity. Psychology, from Freud onwards, has made us familiar with the idea of the ‘other’ as a mirror of oneself, making us see the other’s gaze as a constituent element of our own identity: without which we do not exist, or find it difficult to define ourselves.

All modern anthropology, as opposed to “missionary” ethnology (included the one that supported and collaborated with the imperial conquest and colonisation, following the idea of “the white man’s burden”, a secular mission, so to speak), is based precisely on the recognition of the other as such, on the acceptance of the other’s identity and on making legitimate the other’s diversity, leading us to search for it and also to safeguard it: recognising that the loss of cultural diversity, far from being a victory of “progress”, is in itself negative (a recognition without which there would be no anthropology, nor would it be possible in any proper sense, as we have learned through Lévi-Strauss and many others).

These idea of the ‘other’ can be summed up in the synthesis, unfortunately difficult to translate properly, that Edmond Jabés made in a precious book (Jabés, 1989): “L’étranger? L’étrange-je”. Something similar is implicitly fomulated in the expression alter ego: without alter, ego does not exist; and at the same time alter has in common, with me and with everyone, the fact of being ego.

Sociology has gone through a significant curve of development. Tempted from its beginnings and right up to the great functionalist syntheses, above all by “social modellism”, which had an effect of uniformity and was in a certain sense conceptually authoritarian (from Comte and Durkheim to Parsons), it found itself having to measure up with the figure of the ‘other’: above all the deviant, precisely he who deviates from the norm and normality, the outsider. Following on which it set about, with the great classics (in particular Simmel, Sombart, Schütz, and then with Park – who had followed Simmel’s courses and influenced the Chicago school with his personality – Elias and others), and up to many classics today’s sociologists, to observe the figures who actually threw the idea of uniformity and homogeneity into greatest crisis, and so implicitly the idea of system, in itself unitary, uniforming and stable. These ‘figures of otherness’, which have had a certain importance, and have been properly conceptualised, have been above all ‘internal’ foreigners (belonging to a minority: historically Jews, and then members of ethnic and religious minorities, and successively also defined culturally or differently: think today of certain interpretations of sexual minorities, for example), the ‘cosmopolitan type’, and lastly immigrants.

We could stop here: the ideal type of the other, the most recent, the most studied, for a long period has in fact been that special type of foreigner that is the immigrant. Seen usually as a worker and often, in the Anglo-Saxon sociology (much less in the Continental one) through the lens of race relations.

For many years the analysis (quite rightly contested) passed through various kinds of reductionism: the immigrant seen only as homo œconomicus, so as labour force, and with his economic consequences (on the GNP or unemployment rates, the Welfare state, etc.) – remember the synthetic criticism of this view of the immigrant implicit in the Swiss writer Max Frisch’s statement: “We were expecting arms [for work]2, we received men”. Successively research broadened out to include what is attached to the arm, so to speak: the arrival of men, with all the complexity of their needs, their expectancies, their social and religious practices, their appurtenances. And then, much later, the discovery of the gender dimension of immigration: not only men, but women, families, and with them children, the “discovery” of the second generations, and their problematic specificities. Following on this, the dimensions of mixité: conjugal, but also more generically cultural, with which the concepts of hybridisation made their way into the field of study (with authors such as Gruzinski, Amselle, Bhabha), métissage, creolization, all in all a different and opposing analytical point of view, more attentive to the dynamics of change than to those of cultural continuity. A point of view, it is worth noting immediately, that is singularly little used when Islam is spoken of: as if it were more difficult or impossible for it, as if it were incapable of mixing and creolization. We already observe here the essentialism that a great deal of research attributes by default to Islam, but much less to other cultures and religions.

Why are religious categories so salient today in the study of migrations?

The other, the different, the foreigner, the immigrant. And today the Muslim. A path that has unravelled in the course of the decades and which in particular has transformed one category into the other, through a semantic shift and a selective perception of not little importance, which corresponds only in part to real changes.

If in fact right from the years of the post-War reconstruction and the economic boom it was the category of the immigrant that prevailed, from the 70s, and in a more decisive manner afterwards (with many differences according to the country, and the respective migratory situation) the Muslim became increasingly visible, for many reasons.

In central-northern Europe the turning point came in the 70s when, following on the oil crisis and the consequent economic crisis, immigrants began to realise that they would have to consider their presence in Europe as no longer transitory, but definitive. Or, more brutally, they found themselves faced by the alternative of returning home, which would make it impossible for them to re-enter Europe (also in the wake of the progressive approval practically everywhere of more restrictive immigration laws, which would make the coming and going that in many cases had previously been the norm impossible), and a definitive acceptance of their European horizon, with the consequent need to put down roots, also culturally – also following the presence of those who are wrongly called second generations, but which, not having ever moved, are actually the first generation of autochthones.

We can quite rightly say that the immigrants coming from Muslim countries brought Islam with them, in their suitcases. But for many years they left it there: not only were they not perceived as Muslims (the Turks in Germany were just Turks, the Indo-Pakistanis in Great Britain only immigrants from the ex-colonies, as were Algerians in France – and everywhere in Europe classification, perception and also study were limited to ethnic and national variables), but they themselves considered themselves essentially immigrants, transitory to boot (the weight of the “myth of the return” in all this, typical of the first generations of immigrants, should be considered)3. Their Islam, the weight of the religious variable, all the more so if lived collectively and in a community, was, all things considered, secondary: Islam, if it was there, often remained in the suitcase, or at most was relegated to the private sphere, with few exceptions4.

In Southern European countries the situation was different. Italy, Spain and others became countries of immigration only in the 70s after having had for centuries countries of emigration. For them the change was even stronger and more rapid. They too passed through the stage of sole ethnicisation of immigration (perceived on the basis of the countries or areas of provenance). But the stage of Islamisation of immigration, to use a deliberately strong expression, came first, and already with the first generations, without any need for a second generation towards which they would feel the need to transmit their cultural and religious capital.

There were many reasons for this:

  • the diversification of countries of provenance, which actually prevented identification, both at the institutional level and that of perception, with a single country and, on the contrary, favour the identification with religious rather than ethnic references;

  • the greater speed of entry and settlement, and the more recent arrival, in a situation in which also in the countries of origin Islam had in the meantime become central in the construction of the public space, on the religious, political and cultural plane, (much more than in the 70s and early 80s, for example, when most immigration took place in central and northern Europe);

  • the scarcity of arrivals from ex-colonies with pre-existing ties (for example of culture and language), and a tradition of mutual knowledge;

  • the important role played by the converts in the “social production of Islam” (in the associative world), cultural (media visibility, reviews, websites, publishing, translations), and political, with a more general role of assistance in the organisational problems of the Muslim immigrants, and with a clear interest in making interpretative categories of the religious kind prevail;

  • the greater dispersion in work and housing, which does not favour the phenomenon of the “ethnic threshold”, and a lack or relative weakness, at least for now, of associative secular interlocutors (ethnic and cultural) of any representative weight, which make the social and religious role played by the mosque network even more relevant.

Mosques, in short, and everything that revolves around them, seem to play in these countries a more important role, if only because highlighted by the inadequacy or weakness of other interlocutors, than they do in other European countries.

So it seems strange if seen with the eyes of the present cultural debate, but there was a time, not so far off, when Muslims in Europe were only immigrants. Why has the situation changed?

There are internal reasons connected with the world of migrations we have already seen. Then there are reasons connected with the emergence of Islam as a disruptive element, also on the symbolic plane: as a global geo-political actor (from the local crises connected with Islam – Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, the always significant but ever more Islamically interpreted Palestine, Cechnya and many others – up to trans-national Islamic terrorism and the impact of the terrorist attack upon the Twin Towers, and then, still in the West, the attacks upon Madrid and elsewhere); as an instrument and interpretative category (from Huntington onwards, in a very widespread literature, above all in its more popular versions); as a social and political actor of ever greater importance also in the countries of origin of the European immigrants.

But there are also long-term reasons (the deep currents, to use an expression dear to Braudel, more important even if less observed than the histoire événementielle, which does not represent anything but the froth on the surface waves), internal to the European West, which do not have to do only with Islam, but more in general with tendencies of religions as a whole.

The last thirty years, in particular, have led to a radical transformation in the religious field in various European countries: which have become (all, even those traditionally religiously monopolists like Catholic Italy and Spain), on the religious level, more and more plural. This process has taken place for two reasons: a process of pluralisation inside the dominant religious field (whether Catholic or Protestant, and in various grades in-between), and a progressively greater presence of other religions, or of other ways of being religious, as well as non-religious options, or of abandonment of the religious field altogether.

This second element of pluralisation was in its turn due to two tendencies: an internal pluralisation, autochthonous, produced in the resident population; and the arrival of allochthonous populations, with religions different from those already present in the country (and at times different ways of belonging to the same religions).

If the fact of progressive religious pluralisation was considered both as a fact and a tendency in progress, it was not perceived as being such to the same degree: the public, media and political discourse on religion remained still essentially very close to the dominant religious institutions as majority religions (or too hastily identified as such).

This change in the religious field took place in a period that, in contrast to other periods in the recent history of Europe, was seeing religion ever more present in public discourse (Casanova, 1994), for reasons connected as much with processes of globalisation and their cultural consequences (Kurtz, 1995), as the effect of media visibility that only had in part the same origins.

In speaking about Islam, why am I referring to a more general and undifferentiated pluralisation of the religious field? Because I have the very strong feeling that in public discussion Islam has taken on a crucial role among other religions, because in a certain sense it represents the extreme case (or to be precise, the case perceived as such) of pluralisation itself: discussion of and on Islam, with the historical and symbolic overload it carries with it, reassumes and in a certain sense replaces discussion about pluralisation, which has taken place and is on the increase, but is not at all understood and even less digested, metabolised, by the social body.

This is a problem that is strongly present specifically in the social sciences, which still need to really come to terms with religious pluralisation and its persistent and perhaps increased salience in social experience. And, above all, they do not yet dispose of an adequate conceptual and methodological range of instruments to grasp and understand it5.

Religious specificity as object of study: a sociological problem or a problem for sociology?

One of the elements of otherness that foreigner bring with him is naturally the religious element. And I say naturally because in some cases we are dealing with foreigners coming from cultures (you come from a cultural universe in a more radical and significant manner than you come from a country, even if we find this latter expression, wrongly, more congenial) in which religious identity is central and crucial for defining the cultural and also personal identity of the individual, as well as certain important social subjects.

This in itself, far from being an explanation, is for Western social scientists a problem: because they do not necessarily find themselves in the same situation. Actually, they nearly always find themselves in a situation that is very different: and this may even cause them problems of understanding and being at one with the situation.

And when the religious universe in question is Islam, the difficulty of comprehension can become much greater and change into a serious interpretative handicap (even if the fact that it is serious does not necessarily mean that it is taken seriously) and this for various reasons.

The first is that Islam itself is a world that is very little known, a bit all over the West, which is the heir of a long historical period in the course of which Islam was not only another world, different, unknown, but actually the enemy; and when you have to describe the enemy you do not usually worry about treading too heavily, nor do you worry about being objective. This legacy is more alive now than ever before; more in any case than we would tend to believe. And it is also visible in the attitude, at least implicit, of not a few works on the subject: also in the scientific and academic field (to take one example, think of Huntington, 1996, and the conspicuous line of inquiry, or rather interpretation, that he has produced). But this is a trend that is getting stronger and stronger, with best-selling books and not only, above all since with the fall of the Berlin wall the West lost its traditional enemy to the East; and, in the thinking and practice of some, it is replacing it with a new enemy, to the South (who because of intrinsic features, but above all because of the complicated play of mutual perception, lends himself very well to this role). September 11 did the rest, by making Islamic terrorism break in and explode – literally – on the public scene, inevitably giving the coup de grace to any non-emotional or politically correct reading of Islam.

The second reason regards sociology specifically. When this has been applied to the religious phenomenon of Christianity it has nearly always stooped to analysing its role, however intended (see Weber in the Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, one of the works that have left a mark on sociology, and not only religious). Or perhaps, already with Durkheim, aware that “religion is the first of all social phenomena”, it went to seek in religious phenomena at a primary stage the “elementary forms” of what at a more elaborated stage was to be found also in contemporary society. Other religions, like Hebraism, have possibly for different reasons been given greater attention (think of Sombart, among others). Islam has instead remained among the great unknowns of sociology.

First of all because (as opposed to Hebraism) it was not present in Europe, not even as a minority (and it was a minority, after all, from which Christianity derived, so there was a reason for interest in it, too)

Secondly because Islam as a subject of study has been up to most recent times the prerogative of Classical Oriental studies, and so also a prisoner of its methods of study and its interests, only rarely enriched by any sociological sensibility.

Last but not least, because there is no possible reference to an attested tradition. Islam is only now starting to enter sociology books, and badly, often in a banal way: perhaps just for the sake of making a necessary reference to a phenomenon that cannot be avoided, but often for less noble reasons – simply to sell.

Sociology and Islam: notes for a history

The study of Islam by sociology is a complex problem. Complex, and in no way defined, not even in its broad outlines. Sociological study of Islam is in fact relatively “young”, much younger than a discipline which is itself young, with little more than a century of life, even if the offspring and heir of other contributions. And it is like this despite the fact that the study of religious phenomena, which has now become a specialised sociology and, at least in Europe, secondary (the sociology of religions, for the record), was instead, at the beginnings of the discipline, the centre itself and the main object of its reflections: think of Durkheim, but also, in a different manner, Comte, not to mention Weber, who dedicated most of his intellectual energies to it, to the point of attempting a gigantic comparative work, in his Sociology of Religions, left unfinished.

This was however a sociology that was essentially centred on the phenomenon of Christianity, as we have seen: it took this as its starting point and proceeded in continual confrontation with it, often polemically and to a certain extent ‘in competition’ with it. A confrontation that went on beyond any ‘universalising’ ambitions, those daughters of the age in which sociology was born and of its Illuministic presumption, evident as much in Comte’s law of the three stages as in Durkheim’s Elementary forms of religious life – both convinced that they had found general laws, applicable everywhere, of universal value.

Islam however was not able to enjoy so much attention: much less, I would say, than the “primitive” religions, as well as the Aboriginal ones that served as a basis for Durkheim. And the pre-comprehensions about Islam and the polemical legacy of theological interpretation undoubtedly weighed heavily, as did the authority but also the peculiar distortions of the Orientalist legacy, too. At the same time sociology was less implicated than its cousin disciplines – I am thinking of anthropology – in the fieldwork (including its notorious colonial “complicity”). There were many reasons for this, of which one would seem to be decisive even if completely absent from the debate on the subject: the fact that sociology was born as an inquiry into the effects of modernity (whatever we may mean by this term), and the changes induced by it in developed societies: so it was born as a Western and modern science. And Islam, like other cultural worlds, was, or rather was and is still often perceived as, whether rightly or wrongly, non-Western (when not anti-Western) and non-modern (when not anti-modern). Here is the explanation for the delay of sociology – to blame certainly, but inside this framework it is understandable – in dealing in general with other cultural worlds rather than Western ones (not only of Islam, but also of Islam); as well as, in other ways, the failed or weak development of sociology in Muslim countries, despite the call, often purely rhetorical, to the legacy of Ibn Khaldun.

Here are, in synthesis, some of the reasons that make sociological study of Islam a discipline (I deliberately avoid the term “science”, even if it is used, with too much presumption and lightness, in other disciplines too), still young. Which makes it difficult to speak of different schools, for example. At this stage we are still at the beginning: at the building of the foundations.

Perhaps, to use a synthetic expression (which, however could be, as Karl Kraus said of aphorisms, “either half-truth, or a truth and a half”), it is Weber’s fault, and the lack of attention on the part of sociologists to Islam goes back to the fact that Weber did not manage to introduce it in time in a systematic manner into his vast comparative edifice, a necessary point of reference for any social scientist wanting to study religions. Others did it after him (Turner, 1974; Carrè, 1986), but without his authority, and actually with not many results and very few intuitions, in addition nearly all close to the ‘political’, macro, dimension.

In fact even today sociology texts on Islam can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or not much more (Charnay, 1977), and those that are entitled to this position often speak of something completely different and are not sociological works at all (Shari’ati, 1979). Only recently have we seen some rare attempt to make Islam the object of study in itself (Dassetto, 1996; Pace, 1999). And unfortunately an autochthonous sociology of Islam, born from within the Islamic countries themselves, has been late in appearing, for reasons that would be too long to go into here (Sabagh and Ghazalla, 1986; Maatouk, 1992; Abaza, 1993). It took time for it to be born and developed, and although able to count on noble and ancient forbears (the already cited Ibn Khaldun, perhaps considered with some exaggeration a sort of forerunner of social studies, and not only in the Islamic world), with the exception of important but not sufficient exceptions, it suffers from difficulties in its context (including – not a small problem – repression and lack of democracy, that clearly do not help freedom of research) and a lack of means at its disposal. Even if it is more lively and interesting than is generally known or admitted in the West.

The overall result is that a great number of studies of Islam, and consequently also Islam in Europe, are also in their theoretical foundations if not necessarily in methodology, differently derived from sociological ones. Furthermore, in some hot subjects, there is an excessive number of studies with a political bias, with all the consequences and all the “vices” and deformations that arise in these cases: among which the overexposure to political Islam, and excessive attention to fundamentalist movements. Maybe comprehensible, in the wake of present geopolitical events; but less ethically “neutral” than we might legitimately believe, when applied perhaps too lightly to a reading of social processes inside Europe. With important consequences in the formation of the social public imagination.

How and when the immigrant became a Muslim

In the last thirty years, as we have seen, a new element of reflection, and a new analytical point of view, has burst on to the scene: privileging reflection of a cultural nature, specifically religious. At the risk of producing a new reductionism: immigrants always seen more as Muslims, less as workers, students, parents, children, etc., starting, that is, from their (pre-supposed) identities, rather than the roles they have. A way to re-introduce the category not only of diversity, but also otherness, if not extraneousness, and even, as a consequence that is sometimes theorised, incompatibility, in situations in which it was no longer verifiable and demonstrable from other points of view (think in particular of the second generations: no longer immigrants, less and less ‘other’, always less different – but who, when “Islamised”, re-become ‘other’ and different and even extraneous, according to the interpretations).

This is a debate that was born outside academia and social research: in debates that are invading the public space, in politics, in the media, in certain religious considerations, in many popular essays. But which are also entering sociology strongly. First of all, as a response to a lack, an underestimation, that might be considered indecent and most unscientific, of the cultural and religious element, obvious both in only social interpretations and in the race relations approach, which aimed at a specific interpretation of racism and tended to underestimate other aspects. Then as a path of research: it is the case of much research on European Islam that at a certain point not only the sociological debate began to enter but also that of the wider public, a sign of an already mature interest. Lastly, as an element of social debate and in more deleterious cases of a new, more subtle and more potent form of xenophobia.

The literature that sees the Muslim as different, the ‘other’, at times the enemy (mostly extra-sociological, it must be said, even if there are exceptions), is spreading, together with the research that just makes Islam its subject of research and its fieldwork. Lately however, at least at the level of the wider public, the first seems to be getting the better of the second.

One of the paradoxes of this situation is that today, when we find ourselves in a not-simple moment of transition between an Islam in Europe and an Islam of Europe (with signs already of the construction of a European Islam), it seems that the situation of the Islamic presence could be synthesized with this slogan: substantial integration, conflictual perception.

We have no space here to even mention the figures, not only demographical and economic, for the Islamic presence in Europe, which I will just take for granted (see however Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen, 2003).

I would just say that substantial integration – no different for Muslims in its positive and negative aspects from for other immigrants – is what we see in the workplace, in school, in many districts. Perception of conflict is what the cultural (or sub-cultural, because it often would be too much to call it that) debate reveals, in one part of the media, in the political world, but also in parts of the cultural and religious establishment.

On the one hand we have the normality of immigration, on the other the exceptional nature of how it is perceived (which is not found in similar forms and modes with other immigrations, even if they are not less “other” that the Islamic one in respect to European history).

It is obvious that the exceptionality of the interpretation has many good reasons on its side, which come to us mainly from the present geo-political situation and the growth of trans-national Islamic terrorism’s capacity to strike (the West and its public imagination). But it is equally true that this does not explain everything. The conflictual interpretation of the Islamic presence in Europe, and the spread of a popular Huntingtonian interpretation of the ‘clash of civilizations’, in fact precedes September 11, 2001, and we find it in the press, in the popularity of the word jihad, in conflicts over the hijab or in urban conflicts concerning mosques and cemeteries, as well as in political parties and religious movements and movements of opinion which had chosen Islam as a target well before “black September” (see my chapters on The Media and Relations and Negotiations in Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen, 2003).

So the problem precedes geo-politics and terrorism, and has profound roots and a symbolic overload that must be held in consideration. Only this can explain the fierceness of certain attitudes to Islam circulating in the European public space, in which sometimes it would suffice to substitute the word “Jew” for the word “Muslim” to understand their gravity and negative potentiality.

Naturally, in this process of demonising Islam, a more general process of social construction of fear plays a crucial role, which is part of that more general transformation of our society into a “risk society” (Beck, 1992). A fear whose general meaning is now a “long-term tendency” of the contemporary West, from which many draw advantage, and whose specific anti-Islamic aspect is also creating advances in political and intellectual positions, and extremely concrete economic profits (think of the media, or anti-Islamic libels: what people forget to say is that this is a literary genre that is selling very well, much better than any dialogue about civilisation or religion).

European Islam

The case of “European Islam” deserves special attention because of one simple but decisive fact: in the space of one generation, in just a few years in some countries, it has become the second religious presence in Europe, after the Christian presence seen globally: a presence that can be considered definitive and irreversible. A turning point that is not emphatic to call historic.

And it is not an entity in transition, only temporarily present, perhaps against its will – as some would like – returnable to the sender: like the foreigner in Simmel (1908), he is not the one “who comes today and goes tomorrow, but (like) him who comes today and tomorrow remains”. It is the distant subject that has become near, to remain inside the Simmelian terminology.

To Muslims by origin we have to add a not-overwhelming number, but becoming increasingly significant, of European converts, whose role and function in some countries, is becoming more important than the statistical evidence would seem to show (see Allievi, 1998; Social Compass, 1999; van Nieuwkerk, forthcoming). Furthermore a second and third generation of Muslims can call themselves European to all effects, and represent – together with the converts, but with greater numbers and more complex qualitative implications – the first real autochthonous European Islam (often –particularly in France, UK, and in other countries with lower percentages – also “citizen” to all effects, and so endowed with full rights, including political ones, see Khosrokhavar, 1997; Vertovec e Rogers, 1998). An Islam that is changing, evolving, which for many reasons is no longer the Islam of the fathers, without for this in any way losing its identity by being dispersed in the sea of the indeterminate and undifferentiated.

An Islam in evolution, then, but which in this very process sanctions its progressive stabilisation, and offers its candidacy to become part of the cultural identity of the new Europe in the process of a difficult construction. An Islam furthermore that is minoritarian, which in this condition and with little hope of changing has to play its role and negotiate its space in society, on a par with other religious and cultural minorities: not a small change, also “theological”, all still to work out, but which promises interesting results and a feedback effect in the future with Islamic countries of origin– implications that European Islam is only now beginning, and with difficulty, to be aware of (or perhaps it is not even beginning: it may be simply riding them out). Islam is changing, but Europe is changing too: “reality in change, but also of change” (Dassetto, 1996).

But how is it being studied, this changing Islam?

The sociological analysis of Islam in Europe often tends to compare the situation in the different countries of Europe by comparing different national cases (France, Great Britain, Germany, sometimes Holland and Belgium and less frequently the Mediterranean countries of Southern Europe and the Scandinavian countries). Often these works are not really of comparison, because they are not the product of the work of a single researcher or team of researchers: they simply put together papers or essays by various authors, rarely with a common structure and objectives6.

Another frequent approach is to study the presence of Muslim populations in a particular local environment, or in a specific country7.

A third kind of research includes the study of a specific ethnic or national group (for instance the Senegalese in Italy or the Turks in Germany), in some cases with part of the research conducted in the countries of origin8.

Only rarely has a synthesis of the different processes at work been attempted, on a more general level, by specialists who have attempted to describe different implications of the presence of Islam in Europe9. In very rare cases, the synthesis has been the outcome of a research project (Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen, 2003).

Approaches to Islam: the risks of research, between reductionism and essentialism

The risks that research on Islam in migration runs are, I believe, essentially twofold: one is being misunderstood and the other, the contrary and a mirror image of the preceding one, is an excess of prominence.

Being misunderstood is obviously all about not considering its being above all a religious fact, even if social too (social and religious, and perhaps, according to the teaching of some of the classics, social because religious); it leads to the common temptation to consider it one cultural element among the many, explainable, today that reductionisms of an economic and historicist kind are no longer in fashion, in terms of the sociology of migrations; a factor that can also be manipulated by host societies as by many others, in tension like all of them (the immigrant as a subject between two cultures, etc.) and like many others easily re-absorbable by the stronger culture.

The excess of prominence consists instead in the highlighting of only one – supposed – peculiarity, defined a priori (usually in ways that also owe much to an unconsciously Orientalistic approach), with which is explained, or there is an attempt to explain, every possible act and form of behaviour of Muslims – also what could be attributed to other factors.

Often the first approach only sees the individual dimension of Islam, and can predict its absorption (this at least was what it was like initially, and emphasised more in French sociology, or sociology influenced by it). The second approach instead tends to accentuate the communitarian dimension of Islam, and often fears (or at times exalts) its irreducible diversity.

If in the intellectual prejudice that ‘forgets’ the religious aspect the risk (and for some, ‘pre-judicially’ we might say, the aim) is the failed recognition of a specificity, the desire to read it at all costs in another key – a form of reductionism – the incomprehension of the reality can also manifest itself in the opposite way.

A good example may be a certain kind of Orientalism (or worse, its mass media version) incapable of distinguishing between the Islam described in books and that lived (or even not lived) by Muslims, who recognise themselves more or less (or do not recognise themselves) in it: a form of essentialism, which basically proceeds from a predefined image of what Islam is, in which it tries to bodily collocate in flesh and blood those Muslims that find themselves in its path. And if they do not fit, too bad for them… An approach that is not limited to Orientalism. Many of these (theologians, political experts, journalists and sociologists) who, in second-hand works, borrow concepts about the Islam of Muslim countries (majoritarian Islam) and apply them slavishly to the Islam of Europe (minoritarian), and do not grasp their fundamental diversity, are carrying out precisely this sort of essentialist operation10.

Essentialism, the search for “what a thing cannot but be”, which in other fields led to fertile developments, runs the risk of being quite misleading in sociology (specifically in the sociology of Islam), even if it responds to some characteristics that make it attractive as a method from the point of view of the scholar: it is relatively easy to study, it has an undoubted didactic efficacy, it gives the illusion of immediate comprehension and thus satisfies any anxieties as to interpretation, and it adapts very well to academic rituals (cultured citations, footnotes, attachment to a tradition, ritual homage to past masters, etc.). It also has debatable results in the kind of “reflexivity” it produces on society, leading to a pre-interpretation in cultural and religious terms that is both scientifically and politically problematic in its consequences (Martiniello, 1997).

A way of proceeding, this, that makes it difficult to distinguish – an operation which is heuristically indispensable – between three levels of reading that are conceptually distinct, but which often overlap in the analysis: Islam “in itself”, so to speak (theology, legal studies); Islam as a model (social, political, cultural, religious) that exists concretely, but which has many and diverse applications and articulations in the Muslim world; and lastly Islam in Europe, which finds itself in a completely different situation from that of its countries of origin (but what origin, from the second generations on, born in the European context?), as different from that described by Islam as a principle of reference, the one that I have called for want of a better term Islam “in itself”.

These are the reasons for which scholars and researchers, who at a certain point had begun to deal a little more closely with the phenomenon of immigration, have not so far fully understood (with important exceptions) the weight of this religious specificity. They too, they above all, have been the victims of a peculiar form of cross-eyed vision.

In part because of pre-judicial questions, to be understood as we have seen in a literal sense: the emergence of the religious factor as the characterising factor of a social phenomenon is something that is intellectually extraneous and ideologically troublesome for a consistent opinion, also, and perhaps above all, in the intellectual milieu (“the speaking class”, as it has been called), which has often revealed itself to be, especially in the past, not well equipped to understand it as such, and in some cases not very willing even to want to recognise it. On the other hand a-critical emphasis on the religious factor itself, the tendency to explain everything as stemming from it, underestimating or completely forgetting the social, cultural and political dimension, is in a certain sense the other side of the preceding error, and shows the same incomprehension. Which means that – to give an example of the mechanism at work – if an Egyptian beats his wife who is, say, Spanish, the initial interpretative factor is religious, and there we go to look for explanations of the behaviour; level of education, social class, rural or urban provenance, but also just the pure and simple psychological variability of individuals, tend to get lost (for example, much reflection on so-called mixed couples suffers from this over-representation of the role of religion: on both religious sides, in the media, etc.).

Those who want to study “sociological” Islam should move between reductionism and essentialism, in a delicate balance which is not easy to keep, above all if they intend to start from the concrete behaviour of Muslims: so dealing with lived Islam, using the Islam described in the pages of newspapers and books only as an indispensable instrument of analysis, and knowable and recognisable through these. In any case, between reductionism and essentialism, and before these, there must be the observation of the phenomenon (and a phenomenon, it must be said in brackets, that leaves very few written traces: so that either you observe it directly, in its empirical manifestations, or it simply escapes us).

The problem is that direct observation is tiring and costly, and uses up much time and money. It is not strange, therefore, that today many people, not only journalists, are choosing easier interpretative shortcuts: telling us for example what is happening in European mosques without feeling any need to set foot inside them. What is surprising is nobody finds this surprising; that it is accepted both in its deontology and in its conclusions. The interpretation of a phenomenon cannot logically precede observation and description. The fact that there are many people who are prepared to theorise before having analysed and described is not only an intellectual perversion that goes well beyond the subject in question, but is a sign that the subject is hot, sensitive (from many points of view: political, cultural, religious, of customs, even sexual) and a symptom of that frequent and peculiar over-exposition to media to which Islam is subject. All the more reason for insisting on proceeding more carefully.

So there is a need for much more inquiry, both qualitative and quantitative. The quantitative is still too scarce, above all in respect to the excess of “explanations” offered on the subject, which suffer from having a definitely inadequate empirical base. But more than large surveys, it is the specific and qualitative inquiries, of ethnic communities, associations, or the most diverse groups, that can be more precious at this stage. Perhaps because despite the passing of the years we find ourselves in a phase that is relatively approximate in development, it would be better not to let the second precede or prevail, that is, the quantitative research over the qualitative. The contexts of the various countries are in fact different, as are also the migratory components and the times and modes of the migratory and economic cycles; so that also from the conceptual point of view there is need for theoretical refinement and contextualisation of conceptualisation itself. In short, as always, both are necessary, qualitative and quantitative research (after all they respond to different research aims). Remembering however that the first may be empty without the second, but the second without the first is blind. In short, we need the scientific humility of being able to start from the beginning again: also in “qualifying” and conceptualising.

All in all it would seem to be useful for everyone to attempt to shift from systemic comparisons to an empirical analysis of the data offered us by the reality of the Islamic presence in Europe, and also by the changes in progress in the countries of origin: from Islam to Muslims, or if we prefer, from systems to social actors. To then return, supported by a more solid basis for verification, as is right and necessary, to the systems.

Reactive identities

In this phase, in which the interpretative paradigms (also those of common discourses, not only scientific) are still weak and little attested, identity conflicts and reactive identities are emerging: that is, identities that are such only in opposition to someone else11. We find them today in Europe among the very many people who on the political and intellectual plane have been rediscovering their Christian roots only since the Muslims have been present, and in opposition to them, perhaps through controversies over religious symbols, as is the case in Italy of those over the crucifix and in France the hijiab (and it is symptomatic of this identity reactivity that these positions are often found again, even more vociferous, among declared atheists – think of the Oriana Fallaci case, or Michel Houellebecq – than among believers). But we find them also among Muslims who have rediscovered their roots, manifesting them through customs they had interrupted (ranging from attending the mosque, to the insistence on the hijab itself, as far as self-segregation in ghetto-like communities) since they have been living in Europe. The same use of self-definition, on the part of Muslims (as well as of ‘anti-Muslim’ autochthones), in terms of “community” is part of this process: as if they were really so, as if there were only one, as if all the members of the supposed community actually belonged to it, or adhered to it, or recognised themselves as part of it. To paraphrase a well-known book by Nathan Glazer (1997): We are all Culturalists now.

A good example of reactive identities is conflicts on Islamic symbols in Europe.

Conflicts on Islamic symbols in the European public space

The presence of Islam inside the European public space could not pass unobserved, either socially or culturally. It is too visible and ‘bulky’ not to lead to debate and tension: a sign that it really is an event that touches sensitive chords, or that is perceived as such. To the point that, if we measure its effects, we at times have the impression of an open and thorough confrontation (on the subjects discussed in this section, see Maréchal, Allievi, Dassetto and Nielsen, 2003).

Islam is disputed in sé, often through essentialist and simplistic interpretations of the kind of rapport between religion and politics that it proposes. Islam is then disputed in some of its aspects, in how they manifest themselves especially in Muslim countries: of these aspects, the most mediatised are certainly the condition of women and fundamentalism. Lastly, it leads to debate on the foundations of our societies, on the limits of their possibilities of “openness”, on their boundaries, on the many interpretations of possible “tolerance thresholds”. All this happens without there often being a direct confrontation/clash with Muslims: often it is a question of internal debates in the host society, about Muslims and Islam.

These debates on Islam are very wide-ranging, even if what sets them off and their temporal recurrences can be brought down to a limited number of issues. There are however some issues that also imply a social and cultural confrontation/clash which involves Muslim social actors directly (but not necessarily the Islam communities as a whole, as people too readily tend to say), and which have led to discussions, shows of hostility, forms of refusal or afterthoughts.

One has the sensation however that the debate that is emerging from these forms of tension has a common theme, and that this is what integration is, and how it can be attained: whether it be the Islamic schools or the hijab, mosques or associationism of radical inspiration, and in general anything that creates discussion and tension around Islamic subjects.

The question of the hijab is a typical case. Anyone who has had occasion to hold courses, seminars or conferences on Islam knows how sensitive, how intensely felt, this subject is: almost a point of reference for any discussion on the presence of Islam in the public space, and in general on the question of women in Islam and comparisons between the Western and the Islamic model, both too easily taken for granted.

From a controversy discussed in the public space, like that of the hijab, we pass to a controversy about the public space. Another issue frequently discussed is in fact that of mosques and cemeteries, not simply as such, but perceived as symbolic and central places for making Islam visible.

A point that seems even more crucial, implying as it does a perception of control of territory, and its symbolic imprinting. An aspect that even with all due caution could be studied not only with the tools of cultural sociology, and sociology tout court, but also with the categories proper to ethology and sociobiology. Control of and on territory, after all, is not only a cultural and symbolic fact: it is also (and remains, despite everything) a very concrete and material sign of dominion, of power.

Think in particular of the building of mosques, but also simply of the visibility of prayer halls in European cities: questions to which we can add the possibility of spreading the adhan, the summons to prayer, outside the mosques themselves, and the building of cemeteries or the granting of specific cemetery spaces. The latter a problem around which the level of hostility is sometimes surprising, considering the fact that granting burial to foreigners is a custom that goes back thousands of years, to be found in all cultures and religions, a fact of human pietas, not to mention religious traditions. And considering that, on the other hand, the fact that the immigrant no longer asks for his body to be sent back to the country of origin is, so to speak, a form of post mortem integration: the recognition at the very highest symbolic level that the ground in which he wishes to repose for his final sleep he considers his home.

The question of mosques is important for various reasons. On one hand, in fact, the presence of foreign communities would seem to presuppose as a quite obvious consequence that they would desire to have their own places of religious encounter according to the religion they belong to, as is the case with “internal” autochthonous minorities. But there have been at times surprising conflicts around this question: the sign of discomfort and refusal that is more profound than its specific target in this case. Conflicts that make one think that the question is not the fact in itself (hardly anyone who opposes them would say that they want to stop anyone praying: the reason evoked is always different), but something more profound, connected with symbolic appropriation of territory, which has also something to do with history and its re-construction, but also with deep psychological and social dynamics, to understand which we would perhaps have to venture on to the insidious and slippery ground of cultural psychology. Without forgetting ethology, as I said before.

But other subjects are also often being discussed: from fundamentalism to multi-culturalism, that is, from what we consider unacceptable and impossible to integrate in Islam, to the limits themselves of our capacity for and possibility of welcome.


Social processes are never simple. We may at times try to describe them in clear colours, but they actually always appear in chiaroscuro. The process – Islam settling in Europe and becoming visible – “is happening”, that is true. But, even more, it is the object of discussion: and less for what it is, for its manifestations that are empirically observable on the ground, than for what it is in the public imagination, literally pre-judicial (in the sense that the judgement is given before the observation), which surrounds it and in a certain sense anticipates it.

It is this that transforms the robes or the beard of a pious traditionalist Muslim into the uniform of an Islamic militant. And this is why the desire to erect mosques as a place of worship and assembly of the community is as it were semantically over-determined, overloaded with meanings that it does not possess, which are connected with fundamentalism and terrorism, or more often with the general fear of a cultural invasion, or the introduction of elements that are extraneous and potentially of the “enemy”. This also an example of the “cultural overload” (Pace, 1995) that often affects debates over Islam.

The media play a decisive role both as the expression of a culture – in this case Muslim cultures, in the plural – and as an instrument for reading and interpreting these same cultures, through news of Muslims spread by general and specialised media. What is more, they play a significant role, even if underestimated, as a means of building the Muslim communities and the keeping up of ties with the countries of origin. Lastly, the media are a sounding box for problems, and constructing criteria for interpretation of the same. Let us start from the question of the production of the social public imaginary12.

The public imagination is crucial. In a certain sense even more than the reality of ongoing social processes, it is from perception of these that much of the direction that they take and their “success” depends. This aspect is of fundamental important also for policies around Islam: which do not so much influence, as depend in great measure on the perception of the phenomenon.

I will not underline, even though it would be necessary, on the importance of history. I will just limit myself to say that in the case of Islam factors come into play that in the case of other Eastern religions and other cultures do not. I refer in particular to the long past of confrontation/clash with the European West and Christianity, through the Crusades, the long period of maritime conflict against the Saracens and barbarian pirates, but also more recently of colonisation and the complex drift of de-colonization. A story that is not yet over, which also includes the consequences of the Arab-Israel conflict, the Gulf war, and other moments of crisis. Not last, September 11 and its consequences, with the attack on Afghanistan and the War in Iraq today.

“L’Islam vis-à-vis de l’Occident, c’est le chat vis-à-vis du chien”, wrote Braudel. And Delumeau, in his history of fear in the West, does not forget the role played by fear of Islam, traces of which are still to be found not only in history but in the lived reality of folklore (“Saracen” and “Moor” games, among others), in town-planning and landscapes (the “Saracen towers” that dot the Mediterranean coastlines), in proverbial lore (the Italian “mamma li turchi” – Help! The Turks!): a legacy that it would be ingenuous to think has no effect on the present day. And which weighs at least as much as the Orientalist tradition stigmatised for its defects, with some lack of generosity, by E. Saïd (1978). The media are unwitting offspring of this mentality, and they take it on board, and in doing so they re-produce it and so make it real, thus turning a legacy from yesterday into a problem of today.

In this complex mechanism of construction of the cultural public imaginary the media have a central role, which turns out to be more and more determining today, also because their role, following on the processes of globalisation, of which they are at the same time effect, cause and accelerator, is no longer just to inform, but actually to build our worlds of knowledge. And to build them not only through the traditional effects of vertical integration, inside single nation-states or single societies, or single public spheres, in the words of Habermas (1962), but also by connection and horizontal integration, inter-, trans- and super-national (the word integration, incidentally, must not fool us: it is anything but a-conflictual, in the same way as a-conflictual, at least from the sociological point of view, is not a word that we could use for society, whose equilibrium is by definition unstable, and in which conflict plays a physiological and determining role). These processes cannot be comprehended in a ‘mediacentric’ view, so to speak (as happens in some studies on the relations between the media and Islam), and be limited to the social and cultural effects of the media themselves, but must be perceived as being capable of seeing their role inside wider social processes.

Of many other factors, the presence of Islam, with the apertures and connections that it implies with other national public spheres and other cultural worlds, is a non-secondary element of construction and ‘complexification’ of this unusual form of public sphere, interrelated and necessarily, also beyond the will of its actors, open, and rich with consequences, often unexpected. In fact there is a process in progress, even if with counter-tendencies and withdrawal symptoms, that seems to be going in the direction of a substantial co-inclusion of Islam in the public sphere, as more in general in society, through the various paths of integration.

Lastly, the world of media visibility is also the world in which and through which Islam is also seen. And at the same time Muslims are indirectly the means by which Islam is being discovered: something that some seem to have a certain awareness of.

One of the ways of making Islam visible is what happens in exceptional cases, which we may interpret as hermeneutic accidents, a jamming in a certain sense of the interpretative codes, and of the representations of these. Think of the Rushdie case, the question of the headscarf or hijab in France and elsewhere, and other more local ones.

Here I just wish to note their basic logic, which helps to give a certain image of Islam (conflictual, for example), which also reverberates through the perception of the phenomenon as a whole, and on to the welcome reserved for the social actors who embody it.

Think also of the fate of concepts like jihad, that burst into the Western public imaginary as a decisive aspect, at least in the perception of it, of Islam and therefore of Muslims, and therefore also of Muslims in Europe; an interesting example of generalisation of a local(isable) concept at a global level, and along this path of its assimilation into a perception that is now trans-national.

One of its expressions is what a work that has had a certain amount of publicity has called “Islamophobia”, an expression that has become much-used in all European countries where the Islamic question is important, among experts and especially among social actors, first of all obviously Muslims themselves (Runnymede Trust, 1997, known also as the Islamophobia Report).

The word Islamophobia has however an unpleasantly ring of victimisation to it. While it does refer to social facts that do definitely exist, and which it is important to monitor, its use is particularly seductive for Muslims, putting all the responsibility for its existence on to their host societies. Now, while it is no doubt true that inflammatory anti-Islamic messages have been spreading over Europe, which I look at below, Muslims and their leadership, their imams and their associations, bear a non-secondary part of the responsibility for their spreading: for the hypocrisy of some messages or the abstractness of others, for the violence of certain verbal attitudes (occasionally with too weak condemnations from other Muslims) or for the incomprehension of some basic categories and methodologies of common European thinking, for certain extremes of language or defensive lexical hair-splitting, as well as the explicit choice of violence of some people (from Mohamed Atta, who flew into the Twin Towers, to Muhammad Bouyeri, the murderer of Theo Van Gogh, to the suicide bombers operating on European soil – as in Madrid – or, beyond Europe, in the Islamic world, in Palestine as in Casablanca). Obviously they do not concern all the Muslims in Europe, and not necessarily the majority of them; but quite comprehensible they fall over all of them.

Islamophobia does not regard only, nor perhaps even mainly, the media, which are almost more an effect than a cause of it, even though they act as multipliers and driving force. It is present in politics and theologies, as well as in academia, at various levels and in the most diverse disciplines. It seems to me however that one of the successful elements of the term among the Islamic communities and politically correct spheres close to it is also to discharge the communicative responsibility of Islamophobia entirely on to non-Muslims. Now, if the mass media often have an “exaggerated” perception of Muslim positions, this is partly because the Islamic leaderships sometimes express them in that very manner.

Having said this, let us see how the Islamic enemy is constructed.

The ‘method of discourse’: a case of media/intellectual cultural clash

The debate in the public space on Islam is becoming more and more heated. But how are we to deal with it? To overturn Descartes, I think that “the method of discourse” can be summarised as follows. I will take some examples from the case of Italy, which I know best, but which can be found also in other European countries (on the case of France see for example Geisser, 2003).

Often, in attitudes concerning Islam, we shift (but I fear not unconsciously, even less ‘innocently’) from a consideration – more or less profound – about Islam, ‘abstract’ so to speak, or connected to the situation in some Muslim countries, to one on Muslims in Europe, and even to immigrants in general. I limit myself here to underline that to continually overlap the two levels, that of the image that we have of Islam (often based only on extreme cases) and that of ‘normal’ immigration, is a dangerous game. The minimum that can be said is that it is not an incentive to integration. On one hand in fact it offers to autochthones a false vision of reality which only increases already pre-existing phobias, which have a ‘foreign’ as well as ‘historical’ origin, but effects that are all ‘internal’ (as we are taught by sociological constructionism, it does not matter if a thing is real or not : it is enough for it to be believed to be real, to produce real effects). On the other hand it favours responses in tune with the stimulus, which go from motivated rage to a defensive sense of being victimised, up to a generalised sensation of ‘extraneousness’. With the result that this obsessive insistence on the Islamic ‘wolf’ risks becoming a particularly dangerous and disturbing example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is often a “expectation effect” around Islam, which brings about what the semiologist Ugo Volli has called “fattoidi” (factoids): strange creatures that resemble facts without actually being them. Possible, expected, even if not real, and more easily malleable and manipulated than reality itself; but which produce what the same observer has called semiotic pollution – a form of pollution that is less observed but not less dangerous: if not of pollution of places and bodies, then of consciousnesses. They have a ‘logic’ that we have often seen at work: among the more significant examples, at the time of the Catholic Jubilee, the various G8 meetings, but also at elections and at Christmas, when possible risks of fundamentalist terror attacks are feared. The same happens cyclically, in many European countries, with the publication of reports from the respective intelligence services, on ‘expected’ dangers from Islamic terrorism. Possible: who can say the contrary? But it is above all the alarm that is real, and it is this that gains the opening pages of newspapers and TV newscasts. And its effects, above all else cumulative, remain.

To quote from a specific but interesting case, the ‘cultural’ debate on Islam developed relatively late in Italy, as opposed to other European countries. If only because the Islamic presence itself came later, and is still now numerically much lower than in most other countries. To compensate, it seems to be now recovering lost ground very rapidly, and even exporting its arguments and maîtres-à-penser to countries in which the debate is of earlier date and more mature (I am thinking of the many translations of journalist Oriana Fallaci’s books, 2001 and 200413, but also political scientist Giovanni Sartori, 200014, and Cardinal Biffi’s statements spreading beyond the Alps).

But how has this debate developed? How has it been formed? What is it based on?

Let us see a few recent examples of the ‘cultural’ debate on Islam in Italy.

First of all, the method. A culture, a civilisation, a religion, is defined a priori, starting from knowledge that is often completely patched up, scraps of information, second-hand readings: from this abstract definitions, ‘empirical’ Muslims are ‘deduced’. This is the ‘Sartori method’. Or one can start from personal experiences here and there, in different times and places, and again the deduction is: Muslims here and now. This is the ‘Fallaci method’. Or yet again one can give a theological definition of the ‘other’, show his diversity and incompatibility with ‘our’ principles, and then conclude that there is ontological incompatibility. This is the ‘Biffi method’. All others are only variations on the theme.

Sartori, in synthesis, says: the Islamic model contemplates an overlap between religion and politics in a theocratic key (the implication is: not us), therefore Muslims think that, therefore they are dangerous for our way of life, therefore they cannot live among us.

Fallaci, in synthesis says: I have seen dangerous fanatics in Pakistan and Iran, Arafat thirty years ago blessed suicide bombers, today Muslims have carried out a terror attack on the Twin Towers (the subtext is: they are always like this), therefore Muslim immigrants are intrinsically dangerous, therefore we have to get rid of them.

Biffi, in synthesis says: we are Catholics, they are not (the subtext here is above all that we are Catholics: but also that they are completely other-than-us), they have theological structures and therefore of thought and therefore of behaviour that are different from ours, incompatible with ours, therefore we have the duty to protect ourselves, therefore the state must not let them in.

These are in synthesis the positions expressed. With success, because in an age in which things are much less clear than we would wish, pedlars of cheap certainties – a drug not less dangerous than many others – are very successful.

The major political consequence of this way of thinking can be seen in the odious campaign of the Lega Nord (North League, a xenophobic political party which is part of the coalition presently in power) against the Mosques and Muslims in general, with its corollary of visceral and primary oppositions. But the social and cultural consequences are much larger than this empirical example.

It would be easy to deconstruct one by one the arguments advanced to motivate the incompatibility of the systems of thought and therefore of life. On the level of principles: they are often described differently from how they are defined by those who live them – our definition does not correspond to the self-definition, which should lead us to have some doubts (are we sure we have understood properly?). On the historical level: starting from the same principles, different political and social systems have been constructed in different times and places – which should make us cautious in front of too facile ‘deductions’. On the social level: the situation to which we are referring today – that of Muslim immigrants in Europe – does not correspond to those of the Muslim countries to which we are referring to motivate the incompatibility. The category ‘Islam’, used in this way, far from having any explicative value, risks to become completely useless if not misleading: more or less, as Saïd (1981) already denounced, like the category ‘negro-mentality’ in order to understand black people.

There is more. There are some considerations to make also about how we define ourselves and our societies: are we sure that they correspond to our ideal types? For example, is the Christian identity of our land so evident as certain secular intellectuals and certain political leaders claim, even more than certain religious figures?

But the problem of interpretation can be reassumed in the therefores and the premises with which I reassumed the theorems cited. And in one basic idea.

The implicit presupposition in fact is: if a person belongs to a certain faith, this person cannot be different from what he or she is supposed to be, that is to how we define that particular faith. Pity that things do not work like that. Not even practising Catholics are simplistically ‘deducible’ from an abstract definition of the basic principles of Catholicism. Imagine the non-practising ones, even if they are baptised…

The idea of shari’a, for example, with everything that it leads to in terms of relations between religion and politics, actually presupposes that the Muslims are the majority, and are working the levers of power. The problem is that where they are not the majority, and do not have power, the entire conceptualization of shari’a, and its consequences for the individual, changes, often radically. What theology do they follow then, in concrete terms? And again: are a Muslim in Morocco and one in Egypt equal (and neither of these will be the same as those who come from Senegal or Indonesia), the same Muslim once he has emigrated to Europe, the same individual twenty years later after his emigration, and yet again his son who was born here? Obviously not. Not even in their way of being Muslims. Probably not even in the things in which they believe. Certainly not in the way in which they believe.


There is in the background to the fear of Islam what seems to me to be a long-lasting trend in Western societies, increasingly manifested in recent decades: the generalisation of the social construction of fear, its systematic spreading, its omnipresence in the media, its political exploitation15. And as a consequence the spread of mentalities, even before policies, of obsession with security: in some cases also frankly paranoiac. The phenomenon is not new in itself. It seems to me that it is new in its modes of operation. And naturally in the choice of object (scapegoat?) of reference.

One of its effects is the steady disappearance from the public scene of other diversities: polarisation, at present, is on the Islamic one. Which is keeping up an incomparable level of visibility in respect to other cultural and religious phenomena, and also in respect to other problems that immigration does create, and which seem to have been pushed to the sides of the stage, including those of security, deviance, crime, even if extremely popular with the media. The only possible way out from this tendency seems to be a progressive de-islamization of the discussion on Muslims in Europe: a way out to the ‘exceptionalism’ attributed by default to Islam. Something that does not seems to be on the agenda, at present.

We can easily foresee that the ‘Islamic diversity’ will be with us for a long time in the European public debate. The path we traced at the beginning – the ‘other’, the diverse, the foreigner, the immigrant, the Muslim – does not appear to be leading to anything new. At least for now.


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1 As well as the century that saw the rise and fall of the most devastating forms of totalitarianism (that is, the negation at the roots of any diversity) and some of the greatest massacres that history has ever known. I do not here intend to enter into the relations between the two things: search for the otherness and negation of the other (tempting and risky at the same time). I will just limit myself to touch upon the first aspect.

2 Same meaning presupposed in expressions such as the French main d’oeuvre or the Italian manodopera.

3 Nostalgia as a peculiar form of mental disease, on which Frigessi Castelnuovo and Risso (1982).

4 A detailed periodisation, which compares migratory cycles and “Muslim cycles”, can be found in Dassetto (1996), and more synthetically in Allievi and Dassetto (1993).

5 On the two aspects, theoretical and empirical, respectively, see the essays by Guizzardi and Allievi in Garelli, Guizzardi and Pace, 2003. For a more general discussion of the difficulty of using the category of religious pluralism in sociological theory, see Allievi, 2004b.

6 Some examples, normally the outcome of a seminar, are Gerholm and Lithman (1988), Shadid and van Koningsveld (1991 and 2002, to quote just the oldest and the more recent), Lewis and Schnapper (1992), Waardenburg and others (1994), Nonneman, Niblock and Szajkowski (1996), Vertovec and Peach (1997), Ferrari and Bradney (2000), Haddad (2002), Hunter (2002).

7 The local studies are too numerous to quote them. They constitute an important literature to refer to, when in search of empirical works: too often, unfortunately, with lack of theoretical profundity. Some examples of texts on national situations, which from different point of views have opened the debate on the Islamic presence in their respective countries, have been, among others, Dassetto and Bastenier (1984) for Belgium, Kepel (1987) for France, Landmann (1992) for Holland, Allievi and Dassetto (1993) for Italy, and Lewis (1994) for Britain.

8 To quote only two examples, Schmidt of Friedberg (1994) and Amiraux (2001).

9 Among others Dassetto and Bastenier (1988), Nielsen (1992), Shadid and van Koningsveld (1995), Dassetto (1996), Allievi (2002).

10 On minority Islam, on its “Meccan” and “ummic” character, see Allievi 2002 and 2005).

11 I develop the concept further in Allievi (2005).

12 For further discussion see the chapter on the media that I wrote for Maréchal et alii (2003).

13 On which I have extensively commented and to which I have tried to respond in Allievi 2001 and 2004a.

14 To which I have responded all the same in Allievi 2001.

15 I have given some further indications in Allievi, 2005.

Sociology of a Newcomer: Muslim Migration to Italy – Religious visibility, Cultural and Political Reactions

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Allievi S. (2005), Sociology of a Newcomer: Muslim Migration to Italy – Religious visibility, Cultural and Political Reactions, in A. al-Shahi and R. Lawless (a cura di), Middle East and North African Immigrants in Europe, London, Routledge, pp. 43-56;

I musulmani in Italia: chi sono e come ci vedono – Arabic

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Allievi S. (2004), I musulmani in Italia: chi sono e come ci vedono, in “Limes” (numero monografico su “Il nostro Islam”), n. 3, pp. 97-107; A R/I