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Europe, Muslims in

Dilwar Hussain
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Europe, Muslims in

The presence of Muslims on the European landscape has been a constant since the arrival of the Ummayads in southern Europe from the late seventh century. Most notably the arrival of Tarīq bin Ziyād (d. 720), who gave his name to Gibraltar (Jabāl al-Tarīq—the mountain of Tarīq), is recalled as the beginning of Muslim rule in Spain. As the Muslim presence in Andalusia diminished and eventually gave way to the reconquista, the Ottomans were poised to enter Europe from the East see ISLAM, subentry onISLAM IN EUROPE. This eventually led to the fall of the Balkans, parts of Greece, and Asia Minor into Muslim hands. The presence of Tatar Muslims in eastern Europe can also be traced back to the fifteenth century, and a small remnant of this group still exists. The mention, in Arabic, of the Muslim declaration of faith on coins minted by King Offa (d. 796), a king of England, is a cryptic example of some of the early contacts between the British Isles and the Muslim world. Such contact of trade and also maritime treaties seems to have been overshadowed by concerns surrounding the growth of Islam, the Crusades, and a fixation with the Orient (Said, 1978). Nevertheless, the interaction between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the southern parts of Europe allowed for a transfer of Eastern philosophy, mathematics, and scientific ideas to Europe more broadly (Watt, 1972).

In recent years debates around the visibility of Islam have had a very different context. Muslims have migrated to and settled in Europe from the eighteenth century and have formed small groups and communities. Of particular importance is the twentieth-century migration and settlement. A key reason for this was that after 1945 the postwar European economy needed laborers. Additionally, in the recently decolonized regions of the world, economic and educational conditions were not satisfactory. This led to a “push–pull” effect that, over two decades, brought a significant number of Muslims to Europe, mainly from the rural areas of the Muslim world. The old colonial and national relationships were important in determining migration patterns, such that North Africans settled in France, South Asians in Britain, and Turks in Germany, the latter based on the German-Ottoman alliance of the early twentieth century. Along with those who trace their roots to the Muslim world, a small number of converts to Islam can be found across the European Union (EU).

Settlement of Muslim Minorities in Europe.

The settlement of Muslims and other peoples in Europe has created a vociferous debate around the diversity of European societies. To appreciate the nuances of this debate in each national context it is important to consider the historical place of minorities in the different states in Europe. Shaped by diverse historical factors, the various states have adopted complex approaches to dealing with diverse citizenry and minorities. Shadid and Koningsveld (1991) have identified three important factors that bear upon the social model of each nation:

  • 1. The relationship between political and religious authorities.
  • 2. Extent of decentralization of political power.
  • 3. The legal status of migrants in the host country.

These differences impacted upon the type of integration policies and structural models that were used to cater for minorities. In addition to economic migration, more recently migration into Europe has also been connected with political refugees and asylum seekers. Muslims from various countries including Bosnia, Eritrea, Somalia, and, more recently, Kosova, Afghanistan, and Iraq have added to the pronounced debate around immigration, the future of Europe, and its identity. On the whole there have been three main social models utilized by EU states (Entzinger, 1994):

  • 1. The guestworker model where migrants were seen to have a temporary presence. This was deployed in Germany, but also in Austria and Switzerland in some modified form.
  • 2. Assimilation, where migrants were seen to be permanent and therefore strategies were employed for individual integration into the culture of the state and the formation of “communities” of migrants was discouraged. France is the primary example of such a country.
  • 3. Ethnic minorities model (varying forms of multiculturalism), in which there was room for the preservation of cultural identity and some degree of pluralism was institutionalized. This model tended to be followed in the Scandinavian countries, though the U.K. is best known for it.

The settlement experience of Muslims gave rise to a number of challenges including representation, recognition, debates around identity and discrimination, as well as the gamut of everyday issues such as the provision of halāl food, burial services, planning permission for mosque buildings, provision of Muslim schools, and dress requirements. The latter has been the subject of one of the most vociferous debates spanning much of the E.U.—the issue of wearing the headscarf and veil—and is most pronounced in France, where a law was introduced in 2004 banning religious symbols in schools. Almost as a twin to this debate, discussions around the limits of free speech have also been prominent—the Satanic Verses affair in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s, in which a book was considered to be blasphemous toward Muslims, the murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was critical of Muslim cultural practices, and the “cartoons controversy” in Denmark in 2005–2006, during which a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the prophet of Islam with a bomb in his turban, among other scenes, are prominent examples of this.

One of the reactions to such issues across the EU has been an intense search by Muslim communities to represent their voices to government. This coincides with a reciprocal desire for interlocuters or conduits through which government departments could address what has at times been seen as the “Muslim problem.” The process of representation and recognition has followed different paths. In some countries Muslim nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been established, often competing with each other for authority: in Spain the king signed a treaty with the Islamic Commission, in Austria a law of recognition dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed the Ḥanafī Madhhab to be recognized, in other countries governments have established councils or endorsed a chosen partner, and in some the discussions continue.

Although Muslims are now considered to be settled citizens in many European nations, reference to them as “immigrants” can still be heard in places, even after three or four generations of presence. There has been much discourse on the identities of Muslims, especially given the history of migration and settlement. Some researchers speak of a shift from an ethnic based identity toward a more overarching Islamic identity. Ethnic and even old tribal differences, however, remain pronounced in many communities. This is complex debate that is affectedby the political climate in the world, and also by activism in the name of identity politics, often articulating a position against perceived anti-Muslim sentiment. As such, major world events, and very significantly events such as 9/11, seem to have an impact on Muslim identity discourse.


It was a UK-based race relations think tank, the Runnymede Trust, that popularized the term “Islamophobia” with the launch of their 1997 report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All.See ISLAMAPHOBIA. The Runnymede report has not been alone in pinpointing the direct and indirect discrimination that Muslims have faced and continue to face in British and European society. The issue was also highlighted by numerous British and European reports—particularly one by the European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) on racism and xenophobia—which identified (Nielsen and Allen, 2001) a significant rise in physical and verbal attacks on Muslims, as well as a heightened climate of discrimination, after 9/11. Growth in extreme right-wing organizations has had an impact on anti-Muslim discourse. The EUMC, the Open Society Institute, the European Network Against Racism, and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and more recently the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), have all continued to monitor and document the phenomenon of anti-Muslim prejudice across Europe.

The terrorist attacks, and attempted attacks, in the United States and more directly in Europe have no doubt had a profound impact on Muslim communities and citizens across Europe. In a highly significant way, a spotlight was focused on the lives of Muslims and a number of debates—many of which were ongoing issues long before 9/11—became cast in a security and anti-terror prism. Discussions concerning the “radicalization” of young people, the role of mosques and religious leadership, the training of imams, and the loyalty and citizenship of Muslims have gone hand in hand with structural changes such as anti-terror laws, increased periods of detention without trial, enhanced surveillance, and targeted “stop and search” measures by police. Perhaps most worrying, some of the attacks and foiled attempts were led by people who were born and raised in Europe. Although the precise reasons for this radicalization are probably yet to be understood—factors such as: social exclusion, foreign policy concerns, and theological justifications seem to feature prominantly—they are intertwined in a very complex way.

There has been a strong critique of the way in which some Muslim theologians have asserted notions of the “Other.” While there is no shortage of those who interpret Islam to be a force for dialogue and cooperation, some have interpreted Islam in such as way as to create an unassailable dichotomy between Muslims and kuffār (unbelievers). This has been exacerbated by notions such as dār al-harb (the abode of war) and dār al-Islām (the abode of peace) taking root in some Muslim geopolitical thought, and the interpretation by some that the West is the abode of war. This minority view is challenged by established Muslim discourse, but also by the reality of the context and the opportunities accorded to Muslims, for example, those seeking asylum in European countries when fleeing from Muslim countries. Such contradictions, along with concerns around gender equality, freedom of conscience, and enhancing positive relations with non-Muslim society, have given rise to trends calling for a critical approach to and reform of a jurisprudential framework that originated in a historical context when Muslims were a ruling majority, leading to an emerging discourse of a “fiqh for Muslim minorities.” Debates among religious authorities around the contextualization of the faith to a European environment have remained quite sensitive. Nevertheless, many have now adopted the discourse of being British/European as well as Muslim and a number of fatāwā have been generated regarding citizenship, voting, civil participation, duties to the state, and exploring the notion of a social contract with the state. Leadership, capacity, and the deficient infrastructure of Muslim networks have also been a point of discussion with sometimes strong disaffection in community representation and leadership.

Some of the challenges facing European Muslims seem to be rooted in the relatively poor socioeconomic base of Muslim communities in Europe, as compared, for example, to those in the United States. The ancestors of Muslims living in Europe today migrated there from rural parts of the world, often with a minimal educational background. However, Muslim migration to the United States was significantly motivated by a desire to further education. Some of the data within a European context that compares ethnic groups, such as Indians and Pakistanis, who display differential levels of educational standing at the point of migration, also shows significant differences in outcome, with Indian Muslim children performing better in educational terms and adults having a lower rate of incarceration, or having higher employment rates. It is important to bear in mind that there is internal diversity and complexity among European Muslim communities and citizens. In fact, it is difficult to consider the European Muslim experience as a singular one.

The presence of Muslims within the European context has been a profound experience—for Muslim communities, as well as for Europe itself, particularly the European Union. Increasingly debates about Muslims seem to reflect wider concerns about the identity and future of Europe itself. As Muslims move to a more rooted modus of thinking in which they view themselves as European Muslims, Europe itself seems to be grappling with what the future should look like. How should diversity be dealt with? How can a nation balance respect for difference with an overarching national narrative that unites and binds citizens together? And does the possibility of Turkish accession to the EU threaten the identity of Europe? In this pursuit, the old certainties seems to be crumbling—the confidence in multiculturalism in light of terrorism, the assertion of assimilationist republicanism in light of race riots that ravaged the banlieues of France in 2005—and the search goes on for a new way to be European.


  • Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Edinburgh, 1960. Find it in your Library
  • Djaīt, Hicham. Europe and Islam. Translated by Peter Heinegg. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. Find it in your Library
  • Entzinger, Han. “A Future for the Dutch ‘Ethnic Minorities’ Model?” In Muslims in Europe, edited by Bernard Lewis and Dominique Schnapper, pp. 19–20. London, 1994. Find it in your Library
  • Laurence, Jonathan. The Emancipation of Europe's Muslims: the State's Role in Minority Integration. Princeton University Press, 2012. Find it in your Library
  • Nielsen, Jorgen, and Christopher Allen. Summary Report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001. Anti-Islamic Reactions within the European Union after the Recent Acts of Terror against the USA. Vienna: 2002. Find it in your Library
  • Said, Edward W.Orientalism. New York, 1978. Find it in your Library
  • Shadid, W. A. R., and P. S. van Koningsveld. The Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. Kampen, The Netherlands, 1991, p. 19. Find it in your Library
  • Watt, W. Montgomery. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Edinburgh, 1972. Find it in your Library
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