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.

What is more interesting in the book is the detailed analysis of the Dutch situation, provided with a significant and often insightful historical background (useful to remind ourselves that not everything is ‘new’), and an accurate analysis of the field in the late Nineties. This situation seems even more interesting to bring back to the memory, if it is understood through the lenses of someone who already knows the spectacular change (in the empirical situation, in the political interpretative dominant paradigms, which involve both politics and policies, in the social reactions, in the mediatisation, in the political language, etc.) that the Dutch society has undergo in its comprehension and level of acceptation of the presence of Islam inside its borders, since this book has been written, and particularly after Van Gogh’s homicide, and the reactions it has involved.

The introductory chapter opens up to important questions, that are effectively ‘European’, even though exemplified through essentially Dutch examples. Living aside the estimates on the quantitative dimension (the very first line of the chapter refers to 5-6 millions of Muslims in Europe, while they are now at least the triple, which is in itself not only a quantitative, but a qualitative dimension of change), it deals particularly with three questions: the creation of Muslim institutions, that render the presence of Islam visible in the public space; the subjects (i.e. the factors and agents) that play a role in the process of institutionalisation; how the political discussion on it is conducted, i.e. which are the reactions of society (not only at the political level) towards the increasing presence of Islam in the public space.

The first question (institutionalisation of Islam) is understood through a sufficiently complex model which refers to seven spheres: the religious, the legal, the educational, the social (in the strict sense of health and social care), the socio-economic, the socio-cultural and, finally, the political sphere. The second question (factors and agents) include both local, national and international key factors and actors at play, Muslim and non Muslim. The third question is more linked to what are here defined as ideological issues. We limit ourselves to observe that on all three levels of questions raised, the role of what we might call the mediasphere has proved to be much more important than in the past, and it will probably be even further in the near future: and it might have needed a specific observation. The public discourse on Islam, from being a specialists’ topic, has now reached a massive and mass interest: and the widespread of opinions on Islam (and the kind and ‘kindness’ – or lack of it – of these opinions) has much to do with the possible integration of Muslims in European societies. From this point of view, the book offers interesting arguments on those which are considered the ‘ideological concepts’ surrounding the issue and influencing its processes. Having the knowledge of what has happened in more recent years all over Europe, even in significantly secularised states such as The Netherlands, we would probably pay closer attention to the cultural and particularly the religious discourses in the public sphere (intellectual, mediatic and political debates related to the previous), instead of those related to ethnicity and race, for instance.

The book offers a detailed analysis of the Dutch situation, particularly on the three aspects considered as the more crucial: the religious sphere (places of worship, imams, call to prayer, circumcision, religious festivals, ritual slaughter, symbols such as the headscarf, spiritual care in public institutions, etc.), the educational sphere (Muslim schools, religious teaching, etc.), and the political one – still probably missing the importance of the role of media and mediatic and/or mediatised debates, in influencing the three.

Very important, in our opinion, is the analysis at the local level, particularly comparing the situations of Rotterdam and Utrecht. This particular aspect of the analysis is of enormous importance, particularly because it challenges the common idea, widely diffused even in social academic research, that we are confronted with ‘national’ different models (usually quoting the so-called ‘opposed’ French and British examples, the first considered assimilationist and the second multiculturalist, in confront with which the other possible models are positioned, or considered obliged to position themselves). Comparing different local models positioned under the same national frame can show us of how much importance is instead the local dimension, to which the research should pay much more attention that it has done in the past.

The two local cases analysed seems to be particularly significant in order to understand the importance of this sub-national dimension. The analysis in term of comparison of national cases, after all, seems to be updated and, in any case, already over-researched. Lots of books on “Islam in Europe”, containing chapters on Islam in the Uk, in France, in Germany, etc., have already been published (too often, by the way, forgetting or at least underestimating that Europe has also a Mediterannean and a Scandinavian dimension – and nowadays, after the enlargement, an Eastern one). And the sensation that the reader has after reading this kind of books is that most of what was necessary to say has already been said; much of what is being said, besides the statistical updates, is not that much significant; and that a lot of what is interpreted in terms of difference of national frames could and should also be interpreted, more significantly, in other ways and through other frames. More and more the subdivision in national cases appears to be very similar to the subdivision in centuries while studying history: practical in pedagogical terms, useful in order to memorise notions, but with limited knowledge implications and, in the end, simply untrue. The local and the transnational dimensions are linked together, with significant implications on both, and we can learn a lot in studying them, even not taking into account the national dimension (or, better, giving it a more modest role). Do we have not learned anything in a decade or more of studies on globalisation and glocalisation, on transnationalisms and diasporas? From this point of view the contribution of the book, offering a detailed analysis of different practices and decision, even when starting from similar situation and debates, is insightful.

Remaining on comparatism, even asserting, as we do together with the authors, that the local context is important and often ‘makes the difference’, we might not necessarily completely consent, as it is stated in the conclusions of the book, relating here on the international dimension, “that the outcome of the process of institutionalisation is to a far greater degree determined by the societies in which Muslims settle, than by Muslims themselves”. “Far greater”? We do not know. We prefer to add a bit more of complication in the model: the society, the way it deals, is also influenced by the actors playing in it, in this case by the kind of attitudes and behaviours of Muslim, and by their strategies of representation, not necessarily only on the religious level. The differences in the Rotterdam and Utrecht cases, for instance, are also differences among the Muslim actors, not only a mere question of political context, even though it obviously plays an important role. Muslims are not a simple result of the kind of society they happened to get in. It might be too simple to state, with the very last phrase of the book, that “every society gets the brand of Islam it deserves”. The processes of interrelation seems to be far more complicate. And, probably, much has still to be seen. It will take decades to really understand not only how Muslims change while staying in Europe, and how differently following the different national and local situations, but also how Europe is changing and will change because of their presence.

Prof. Stefano Allievi, Department of Sociology, University of Padua, Via Cesarotti 10, 35123, Padova, Italy, stefano.allievi@unipd.it

Stefano Allievi is Professor of Sociology at the Faculties of Sciences of Communication and Political Sciences 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 on cultural pluralism in Europe. Among his publications on these issues, Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe (eds. S.Allievi and J.Nielsen), Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2003; Muslims in the Enlarged Europe, Leiden-Boston, Brill, 2003, pp. 601 (eds B. Maréchal, S. Allievi, F. Dassetto, J. Nielsen).

WESTERN EUROPE AND ITS ISLAM, Jan Rath, Rinus Penninx, Kees Groenendijk, Astrid Meyer, Brill, Leiden-Boston-Köln, 2001, pp. 308 (index included), ISBN 90-04-12192-7

Allievi S. (2007), Western Europe and its Islam, in “International Sociology”, n.22, pp.197-200 BR R e R/I