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

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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.


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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.