Europe struggles with Muslim identity crisis

Copyright Jewish News of Greater Phoenix Feb 27, 2009

JTA News & Features

Ishtiaq Ahmed, who works as a spokesman for the Bradford Council for Mosques, lives with three generations of his family in a luxurious British home built by his father, a successful Pakistani-born businessman.

After the July 7, 2005 public transit bombings in London, which killed 52 people, Ahmed woke up, looked around his neighborhood and was troubled by what he saw. Three of the four bombers were from nearby Leeds and, like him, they had Pakistani backgrounds.

"There is a growing section of Muslim young people 16 to 25 who are increasingly becoming alienated, disillusioned and angry about a host of issues, such as unemployment, racism and British foreign policy," Ahmed said.

Many of these young people, he said, believe the British government is against them.

"They see the government is willing to spend millions of dollars fighting Muslims in Iraq but not help them with their problems at home," Ahmed said.

That can make them ripe for recruitment by Islamic extremists. Even if only an estimated 3 percent to 4 percent of Muslim youth become extremists, Ahmed said, "that is still far, far too many."

The London bombings, like the Madrid train bombings in March 2004 and foiled terrorist plots elsewhere in Europe since, have forced Europe to focus on homegrown Islamic radicalism. Beyond implementing security measures needed to prevent terrorist attacks, Europe is trying to understand the sense of fury and alienation many Muslims feel, which in a few rare cases might lead them to try to murder their neighbors.

To be sure, the number of European Muslims engaged in terrorism is minuscule compared with their overall numbers. Of the roughly 17 million Muslims living in the 27-country European Union, 242 were charged with terrorism-related crimes from -2001 to 2006, according to a study by the Netherlands Institute for International Relations.

Support for terrorist attacks, however, appears to be fer more widespread. Roughly one in seven Muslims in France, Spain and Britain believes suicide bombings against civilian targets can be justified at tames to defend Islam against its enemies, a 2006 Pew Research Center survey showed. And with the Iraq war, the Afghanistan campaign and Israel’s recent war in Gaza, experts say al-Qaida’s notion that Islam is under attack by the West is gaining currency among Muslims in Europe.

A 2008 survey by the market research agency YouGov found that 32 percent of British Muslim university students believe killing is justifiable either "to preserve and promote" religion or "if that religion was under attack."

Another survey of British Muslims, by Populus in 2007, found that 13 percent of Muslims aged 16 to 24 "admire organizations like al-Qaida that are prepared to fight the West." The survey also found that 37 percent of Muslims in that age group say they would prefer to live under Islamic law rather than British law.

In Britain, the government and some Muslim groups are trying to counter the threat of extremism with tougher law enforcement and the implementation of an unprecedented number of deradicalization programs. It will be years, if not decades, before their success can be measured with any accuracy.

Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, says an identity crisis among Europe’s Muslims is at the crux of the problem.

"European Muslims feel torn between the culture of their parents they do not identify with and Western culture that does not really accept them," he said. "This is true for all immigrants, but the key difference is that there is no ideology for Hindus, for instance, saying that the West is at war with your religion and that there are Zionists and crusaders who want to kill you."

Traditionally much more ethnically homogeneous than the United States, Europeans have been slower to accept the estimated 17 million Muslim immigrants in their midst.

In Switzerland, some second-, third- and even fourthgeneration immigrants do not hold citizenship. Unlike the United States, not all European countries automatically grant citizenship to natural-born residents. Up to 50 percent of Europe’s Muslims are not actually citizens of E.U. countries, analysts estimate.

With Muslims now roughly 5 percent of Europe’s population and demographers predicting their proportion to double over the next 20 years due to birth rates that are two to three times the European average, the continent’s Muslim population is playing an increasingly significant role in European politics.

In some cases, politicians are catering to Muslim interests and concerns with an eye toward winning votes. In others, anti-Muslim and antiimmigrant political parties are capitalizing on Muslim demographic growth and fears of terrorism, painting Muslims as an alien group that threatens the European way of life.

Complaining about Muslims has become a common and acceptable part of public discourse. According to numerous European government studies, Islamophobia – the fear, hatred, discrimination or negative stereotyping of Muslims – has become a leading form of xenophobia in Europe.

"The notion that the presence of Islam in Europe, in the form of its Muslim citizens and migrants, is a challenge for Europe and European norms and values has taken a strong hold in European political discourse and has also created a climate of fear," said a 2006 report, the European Union’s first study documenting Islamophobic incidents.

Some argue that Muslim fundamentalists exploit the charge of Islamophobia to silence legitimate criticism of Islamic fanaticism, including honor killings, forced marriages and sympathy for terrorism.

"In Denmark, if you speak out against forced marriage, Islamiste say you are Islamophobic," Nasser Khader, a member of the Danish Parliament who describes himself as a secular Muslim, told JTA.

Last September, the Pew Research Center released a study that found unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims in the European countries with the largest Muslim populations. Of those surveyed, 52 percent in Spain, 50 percent in Germany, 38 percent in France and 25 percent in Britain registered negative attitudes toward Muslims. By contrast, a 2006 Pew Research Center survey in the United States found 25 percent of respondents had negative attitudes toward Muslims.

Experts are divided over whether race, socioeconomic status or association with terrorism is at the root of Europe’s often troubled relationship with its Muslim minority.

Sami Zemni, a Muslim political science professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium, says the focus in Europe on Muslim fundamentalists has created a distorted view of Muslims in Europe. "There are days-long debates by European lawmakers on whether women should be allowed to wear burkas when there are like 10 women per country actually wearing them," he said.

Often stereotyped as religious fanatics or potential terrorists, most Muslims have learned to live with the negative image reflected back at them through personal encounters, political discourse and the media.

But this can have dangerous consequences, warns Navid Akhtar, director of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism in London, as radical groups seek to capitalize on the alienation of young adults who have suffered from years of casual racism.

"The al-Qaida narrative is that Muslims are despised and hated by the West," Akhtar said. "If you live in Bradford and you tend to spend most of your time with people of your own ethnic background, you might be more likely to buy into that narrative."





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