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A Strained Triangle: Europeans, Muslim Migrants, and Jews

Amikam Nachmani
Bar Ilan University

These are hard times, all the more so for migrants and minorities in Europe. Both past and recent histories have led to the Continent's haunted present, where Europeans, Muslims and Jews find themselves enmeshed in a human dilemma not of their making. The uniqueness and relative security of modern Western Europe have created an attractive destination for economic migrants, refugees from war-torn countries and political asylum seekers of many ethnicities, cultures, and languages. Despite the concerns about this rising trend, immigration as a whole contributes to the wealth and wellbeing of the Continent. Indeed, Europe's economic output has come to rely more and more on immigrants, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The modern discourse on Muslim immigration often cites the European-Jewish narrative as a guiding precedent—one to follow or one to avoid. As a result, new insights, views and experiences are taking shape. Among the topics discussed are the contributions of Muslims and Jews to Europe's culture, economy and society; the painful European-Jewish record and its implications for European-Muslim relations; Holocaust memory and denial; reciprocity (i.e. the demand for equal rights for Christians in Muslim lands); violence, terror, and anti-Semitic activity in Europe; European legal restrictions against Muslim and Jewish religious rites, dress forms, and institutions; and many other issues.

Europe's readiness to coexist with its Muslim communities, to include them in its culture and wealth, and yet not forcibly Europeanize them, has been challenged in a number of political and academic venues. At the same time, Muslim migrants' willingness or lack thereof to adapt and assimilate to European culture and lifestyles is also being challenged, from within the community and without. And, as unlikely as it may sound, certain public figures and politicians have questioned whether the growing Muslim population is attempting to somehow Islamize the native population—an accusation that has gained traction among the far right in Europe.

The present narrative often emphasizes the contrasts between Europeans and Muslims—as if many of these Muslims were not already European (Bosnian Muslims, for example)—rather than potential shared views and values. In that sense, Muslims in Europe are sometimes referred to as the Continent's "new Jewish problem". According to one op-ed, "They are the new Jews of Europe: its Muslim minorities"(2011). Occasionally French Muslims even title themselves as the "new Jews". Though this comparison may not be entirely accurate, the future of relations between Europe and its Muslim migrants can be laid out against lessons drawn from the European-Jewish past.

This modern challenge evokes the centuries-old Jewish religious experience under similar conditions. Jewish theologians and lawmakers have long recognized the law of the host country through the principle of Dina de Malchuta Dina, or "the law of the kingdom is the law." Only if the law of the land should grossly contravene Jewish law (Halacha), such as demanding the worship of idols, is this principle suspended by a system of rabbinic rulings (Responsa). Other highly relevant Talmudic or Biblical rules include: "Pray for the peace of the kingdom, since but for the fear of it, men would have swallowed each other alive" (attributed to Rabbi Hanina, the deputy of the High Priest, Mishna, Aboth, Chapter 3, No. 2); or, from Jeremiah 29:7: "And seek the peace of the city into which I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it: for in its peace shall you have peace." These rules—abiding by the county's laws and praying for its peace, well-being and law-enforcement powers—stress that without accepting the jurisprudence of the adopted land, minorities face disintegration, marginalization, and even extinction.

In contrast, traditional Muslim sources did not foresee the possibility of Muslims living as minorities. Moreover, some Qur'anic verses discourage association, interaction or cooperation with non-Muslims. Only since the post-World War II period have large groups of Muslims voluntarily chosen to leave the Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and live in the West or Dar al-Harb (the abode of war) for economic, political, and educational reasons. Mass migration has compelled Muslim philosophers, thinkers and theologians both in Muslim-majority countries and abroad, to adapt Muslim law to the new reality, a field of research known as Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat (the jurisprudence on minorities). The Qur'an, the basis of Sharia law, though primarily obliging Muslims to live in Muslim countries, is also considered applicable to all humanity, and therefore is flexible and adaptable. The Fiqh uses the Qur'an's hermeneutics to enable the believers to leave Dar al-Islam and reside as minorities in non-Muslim countries.

Accordingly, the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR, established in 1997), among other bodies, rules on myriad questions ranging from issues of food, dress, property and finances to matters of military service, political participation, citizenship and national loyalties. The need to preserve the rules of the Muslim religion and to protect the unity of the Muslim nation (Umma) are critical, given that well over one hundred million Muslims presently live as minorities in non-Muslim countries. Occasionally, the attempts to develop the Fiqh refer to Halachic precedents, and point to similarities but also to differences between Jews and Muslims. For example, the official Jewish adoption of monogamy (dated roughly to year 1000 in what is now Germany), could be used as a precedent for Muslim jurists who seek to adapt traditional Muslim marriage practices to modern Europe. Likewise, in adapting to the European prohibition on using firearms in wedding ceremonies, it was mentioned that many Arab citizens of Israel had agreed to abide by the Israeli ban on the practice (and use fire-crackers instead).

My recent research posits a number of examples where Dina could serve as a model for the emerging Fiqh. It should be noted, however, that many Muslim sources express caution: acting according to the Dina, which practically means adoption of receiving countries' codes, can have detrimental consequences for the community as a whole. A frequently cited issue among European Jews is their plummeting birth rate, which has brought them in line with the general negative population trends throughout the Continent. Moreover, the increasing assimilation, secularization, and intermarriage of Jewish people, as well as the adoption of other secular Western influences, have yielded an annual net loss of five per cent of the Jewish population. Coined "the silent Holocaust", this phenomenon presently means 58 percent of assimilation among American Jews (71 percent among non-orthodox American Jews), in comparison to 17 percent in the 1970s (Shilon, 2013).

Apart from the minority status of both Jews and Muslims, the two religious bodies share common practices—male circumcision, slaughter of animals, distinctive attire (for example: Jewish and Muslim veiling or head cover), etc.—which arouse criticism, reservations and objections in the European setting. As a result, the Muslim and Jewish communities often find themselves on the same side when engaging European and national governments.

Indeed, laws and policies directed against Muslims and Islamic religious tenets directly affect the Jewish population, and thus have that united Jews and Muslims in surprising, contradictory, complex, and convoluted ways. It can be argued that the Jewish people stand between the Muslim migrants and Europe's attempt to assimilate them. For example, the various attempts to ban Muslim dress codes, especially women's, are made to look discriminatory when compared to what the Hassidic sects are allowed to wear. The use of financial penalties on women's headscarves and burqas in the Netherlands and Belgium are reminiscent of special taxes levied on European Jews in the past. Judaism and Islam share similar methods of slaughtering animals that contravene EU laws requiring stunning the animal before its dispatch. In the struggle against restrictions on male circumcision and ritual slaughtering, Muslims have often left the legal battle to the Jewish community because, given recent history—the Holocaust and other issues—Jewish arguments and demands are more likely to be heard.

Moreover, conspiracy theories about Muslims taking control of the EU are reminiscent of accusations regarding Jews striving to control the world through its financial sector, a form of bigotry that links the two groups together. Wider issues such as the building of mosques, the de-Christianizing of Europe, and racism and bigotry (which Jews have often actively opposed, as demonstrated in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the modern struggle against the Trump Administration's restrictions on Muslim immigrants), make cooperation between Muslim migrants and European Jews possible, even essential, despite the conflicts between them.

Right-wing elements, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon in European politics, target both Jews and Muslims. Yet the European Right—certainly its radical sectors, which are traditionally anti-Semitic—has nevertheless supported Israel in its conflict with the Arab and Muslim worlds. In a strange twist, many right-wingers (many of whom are Holocaust deniers and deeply anti-Jewish) have courted Israel to gain legitimacy for their nationalist opposition to what they claim is a looming Islamic caliphate. Alternatively, the European Left tends to cooperate with minorities and Muslim migrants, and to sympathize with the Arab side in its various conflicts with Israel. A steep increase in verbal and physical anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, as well as conflicts outside of the continent (such as violent intermittent eruptions in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the Iranian atomic threat, internal strife throughout the Middle East, and more), occasionally set Jews and Muslims against each other across Europe, on the streets, in the media, and in schools and universities.

Each nation in Europe provides a case study in how a growing white nationalist movement has targeted Jews and Muslims, and has often pitted them agbrainst one another. In the Netherlands, where Muslims make up 5.5 percent of the population and live in "Muslim ghettos," Dutch liberalism and tolerance has rankled certain Islamic conservative sensitivities. A Dutch minority government—with the support of the far-right Party of Freedom (PVV) and its controversial leader Geert Wilders, who has likened the Qur'an to Hitler's Mein Kampf—has passed some of the toughest restrictions against immigrants in Europe, including a ban on the burqa and dual citizenship. A "Pig Day" in Bologna, Italy, protested (with the actual participation of live pigs) the planned construction of a mosque. In Sweden, once anti-Semitic skinheads and racists moved on to targeting Muslims. At the same time, however, young Muslims have torched synagogues and attack Swedish Jews in reaction to Israeli Middle Eastern policies. The internet, with its far-reaching potential to recruit new supporters to causes of all extremist persuasions and to spread hate propaganda, has become a free-for-all tool for many individuals, groups and political parties.

A number of factors have contributed to a rise in anti-Jewish violence coming from Muslim populations. The aforementioned recent events in the Middle East, for example, such as Israel's winter 2008–2009 operation in Hamas-controlled Gaza, have triggered backlashes against European Jews. In one famous example, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel and European Jews for masterminding the 2013 military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood's President Muhammad Mursi in Egypt. Erdogan's evidence consisted of words spoken by the Algerian-born, Franco-Jewish philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy in 2011. The Turkish Prime Minister saw his writings as proof of a longstanding Israeli plot to deny the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt, even if the latter won an election by fair and democratic means. In responding to a question about how he would view an electoral victory by the Brotherhood, Henri-Lévy compared such a possibility to the kind of "democratic coup" that allowed Hamas to take power in Gaza in 2006, and Hitler to become Germany's chancellor in 1933. Asked directly, "If they [the Muslim Brothers] were to win a legitimate election, you would urge the military not to allow them to take power?" Henri-Lévy replied, "I will urge the prevention of them coming to power by all sorts of means, yes. I said that in Algeria and I don't regret it. It opened a terrible period of disturbance, chaos, murders and so on, but I believe it would have been worse if we had let them come to power …" (Mackey, 2013). Erdogan thus conflated Diaspora Jews with Israel, a strong enough proof for him of Israel's conspiracy against Mursi. This time Diaspora Jews did not suffer because of Israeli acts against the Palestinians, but Israelis were criticized because of a Jewish Diaspora activist.

Though studies show that the majority of Europe's Muslim community members are primarily concerned with local and daily family life rather than external issues, extremist elements do exist. The 7/7 (July 7th) London Transport terrorist attack in 2005, the shooting deaths at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France in 2012 and the 2006 brutal murder of the French Jew Ilan Halimi in Paris were perpetrated by Muslims, most of whom were born in Europe. At their foundation, Muslim anti-Jewish attitudes and acts are in part the product of religious training by imported imams teaching that Islam is under attack; anti-establishment, anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist education, especially in parochial schools; and social and ethnic issues that include police brutality, crime and imprisonment, and low self-esteem and self-worth in an alien environment.

Two questions put into perspective the implications of European-Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, as they relate to the present encounter between mainly northern Protestant Europeans and Muslims. The first is advocated by immigrants who argue for the isolation and separation, non-integration, multiculturalism that can lead to the "parallel society" and to ghettoization. In a paraphrase it amounts to this: Have you ever come across a community like the German Jews who were more German than the Germans? Did it help them? If not, then why bother integrating? The second question, bizarre as it may be sound, is asked by those who believe in the supremacy of blood and country: Why are there so many Muslims in Europe? The answer: because of the Jews! According to this point of view, the sense of collective guilt regarding the atrocities inflicted on Jews during World War II has over-stepped itself in that it now forces nations to demonstrate politically correct behaviour and overly deferent tolerance towards Muslims. Present Muslim immigrants are thus viewed as the main beneficiaries of the painful European-Jewish past. Such conduct has become problematic, because multiculturalism taken to its extreme encourages unassimilated minorities to remain religious, linguistic and social islands in the sea of Europe.

It should be made clear that various factors shape European-Muslim migrant relations, and European-Jewish precedents are but one of them. Along with the issues mentioned above, there is also the ongoing power struggle within the European Union, in which the issue of immigration provides a perfect avenue for individual states to reassert their authority. The 2016 Brexit vote serves as a ready example of this. The determinism that emanates from history, which partially explains mutual patterns of behavior to Europeans and migrants does not exempt or relieve either side from actively removing the obstacles that they have created and are responsible for. On the contrary, the lesson for Europeans and those who have recently entered their domain is clear: you should strive hard not to repeat the past.

The present shape of Europe's "triangle" of Christians, Jews and Muslims is very much in flux, and the angles of its future shape are difficult to predict. Despite the difficulties, the future is perhaps not entirely bleak. Muslims residing in Europe see the positive facets of Western culture produced by the Judeo-Christian experience: free enterprise, education, political tolerance, and human rights As a result, their views of Jewish people tend to be less hostile than among Muslims in their native lands. The attitudes of the three sides of Europe's demography suggest that exposure to each other leads to improved understanding, common interests, mutual values, and civic activity.

Amikam Nachmani is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and is the author of Haunted Presents: Europeans, Muslim Immigrants and the Onus of European-Jewish Histories (Manchester University Press, 2017).


Elfersy, Daphna. The Muslim civil ethic and the concerting of secularism. Islam in France and the Netherlands. Paris Institute of Political studies, Sciences Po Doctoral School, Center for International Studies and Research, CNRS, National Centre for Scientific Research, CERI, Doctorate in Political Science, jointly supervised with Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv. Ph.D. dissertation submitted to the Senate of Tel Aviv University, Fall 2014, p. 272.

Mackey, Robert and Sebnem Arsu. "Israel Behind Egypt's Coup, Erdogan Says." New York Times, 20 August 2013.

Shilon, Avi. "Who is an Assimilated Jew?" Haaretz, 10 October 2013.

Vaknin, Sam. "Op-ED: Muslims are Europe's New Jews?" Digital Journal, 26 July 2011. Available at: http://digitaljournal.com/article/309558

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Western Immigration Policies
Europe, Muslims in
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Diaspora and Exile
Great Britain
Scandinavian States
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