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Muslims in the West >
What kinds of problems do Muslims in Europe face?

The Muslims of Europe have faced many challenges, from issues of national and religious identity to educational, economic, and social integration. (See “Who and where are the Muslims of Europe?” above.) Their situation has been exacerbated by the growth of religious extremism and terrorism, Islamophobia, and threats to their civil liberties. Radical preachers and mosques, terrorist cells, attacks in Madrid (3/11/2008), London (7/7/2005), and Glasgow (6/30/2007), and arrests in cities across Europe have underscored the dangers of domestic terrorism. At the same time, fears of growing domestic terrorism and the sharp rise of xenophobia and right-wing nationalist, anti-immigrant political parties have fed an exponential increase in Islamophobic rhetoric—calls to ban the Quran, monitor or close mosques, question the loyalty of European Muslims, deport Muslim citizens, and halt immigration from Muslim countries.

The result is the perception and charge that Islam and Muslims represent a foreign religion and peoples incapable of being integrated into democratic, pluralistic European societies, a demographic time bomb, threatening to overwhelm Europe. Modern-day prophets of doom predict that Europe will be overrun by Islam, transformed by the end of the century into “Eurabia.”

News stories in Europe portray a vanishing Christian Europe endangered by a Muslim population that has grown from twelve million to twenty million in a decade. They compare the increase in mosques in Britain, Germany, France, and Italy to empty European churches and deplore the replacement of church bells with the call to prayer. Changing demographics—a shrinking “indigenous” population overtaken by high Muslim birthrates—has led many Catholic and Protestant church leaders to decry secularization and modernity, loss of faith, and moral breakdown; some warn that Christian Europe is increasingly powerless against the rise of “radical Islam.”

The media, political leaders, and commentators on the right warn of a “soft terrorism” plot to take over Europe. Bernard Lewis, Middle East historian and adviser to the Bush administration on its failed Iraq policy, received widespread coverage when he chided Europeans for losing their loyalty, self-confidence, and respect for their own culture, charging that they have “surrendered” to Islam in a mood of “self-abasement,” “political correctness,” and “multiculturalism.”

The anti-immigrant drumbeat warning of the demise of Europe's religious and cultural identity in the face of an Islamic threat has been further exacerbated by media coverage that lumps diverse identity, demographic, economic, and social conflicts together under the umbrella of religion. Because Muslims are defined simply in terms of their faith, rioting in French ghetto areas inhabited by North African Arabs is portrayed as “Muslim” rather than as protests against poverty and hopelessness. Muslim boycotts in London protesting Danish cartoons that depicted Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban and conflicts over the hijab in France, Turkey, and Denmark are seen exclusively as “religious issues” rather than issues of civil rights and freedoms such as women's right to dress as they choose.

A common charge both with regard to Muslim-West relations and the integration of Muslims in America and Europe is that Islam is incompatible with the realities of modernity and Western culture and values. However, many of these supposed “Muslim issues,” given their nature and primary causes, are problems that require social, not religious, solutions and policies.

Religious symbols like Muslim women's hijab (headscarf) or the niqab (veil that covers the face) and burqa (garment that covers the entire body) and mosque minarets have become prominent symbols for opposition to Islam and Muslims. The French government in the mid-1990s outlawed the headscarf worn by Muslim students, claiming it violated France's secular constitution and traditions. The ban was overturned by the courts but reemerged in September 2004 when France banned religious symbols and apparel in public schools. Although the ban included all overtly religious dress and signs (including Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses), the furor over the ban has focused mainly on banning Muslim hijabs.

Subsequently, in 2010, France banned the niqab and burqa, citing reasons of security, women's rights, and national culture; Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and other countries debated banning them. Others argued that women should be free to decide how they wish to dress. As some have put it, does a country that gives women the right to wear very little, if they so choose, have the legal right to ban a burqa?

Following the lead of far right European parties in using religious symbols as issues to target Muslims, the Swiss far right chose the minaret. The campaign to prohibit minarets, fueled by appeals to popular emotions and fears about the demographic threat of Islam, used posters highlighting a Muslim woman in black niqab framed by minarets or depictions of minarets as weapons drawn on a “colonized” Swiss flag to underscore Islam's fundamental incompatibility with Swiss values. The Swiss far right scored a surprising election victory in November 2009.

The Swiss were not alone. Other far right European political parties also performed better than expected in 2009 elections: Geert Wilders's Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Danish People's Party, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Hungary's Jobbik, and the British National Party. Their “victories” in parliamentary elections emboldened their leaders to applaud the Swiss vote and encourage similar prohibitions. Wilders, who had previously warned that mass deportation of millions of Muslims from Europe might be necessary, now called for a vote to stem the “tide of Islamization” in the Netherlands.

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