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Islam in Europe


Earlier this year, I visited the famous basilica of Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. I admired the magnificent tombs and funerary monuments of the kings and queens of France, including that of Charles Martel (“the hammer”), whose victory over the invading Muslim armies near Poitiers in 732 AD is traditionally held to have halted the Islamization of Europe.1 Stepping out of the basilica, I walked a hundred yards across the Place Victor Hugo to the main commercial street, which was thronged with local shoppers of Arab and African origin, including many women wearing the hijab. I caught myself thinking: So the Muslims have won the Battle of Poitiers after all! Won it not by force of arms, but by peaceful immigration and fertility.

Just down the road from the basilica of the kings, in the discreet backyard offices of the Tawhid association, I met Abdelaziz Eljaouhari, the son of Berber Moroccan immigrants and an eloquent Muslim political activist. He talked with fluent passion, in perfect French, about the misery of the impoverished housing projects around Paris—which, as we spoke, were again wracked by protests—and the chronic social discrimination against immigrants and their descendants. France’s so-called “Republican model,” he said furiously, means in practice “I speak French, am called Jean-Daniel, and have blue eyes and blond hair.” If you are called Abdelaziz, have a darker skin, and are Muslim to boot, the French Republic does not practice what it preaches. “What égalité is there for us?” he asked. “What liberté? What fraternité?” And then he delivered his personal message to Nicolas Sarkozy, the hard-line interior minister and leading right-wing candidate to succeed Jacques Chirac as French president, in words that I will never forget. “Moi,” said Abdelaziz Eljaouhari, in a ringing voice, “Moi, je suis la France!”

And, he might have added, l’Europe. For the profound alienation of many Muslims—especially the second and third generations of immigrant families, young men and women themselves born in Europe—is one of the most vexing problems facing the continent today. If things continue to go as badly as they are at the moment, this alienation, and the way it both feeds and is fed by the resentments of mainly white, Christian or post-Christian Europeans, could tear apart the civic fabric of Europe’s most established democracies. It has already catalyzed the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties, and contributed very directly to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 (hijackers such as Mohamed Atta were radicalized during their time in Europe), the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004, the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and the planned attempt to blow up several passenger planes flying from Britain to the US, foiled by the British authorities on August 10, 2006.

Europe’s difficulties with its Muslims are also the subject of hysterical oversimplification, especially in the United States, where stereotypes of a spineless, anti-American, anti-Semitic “Eurabia,” increasingly in thrall to Arab/Islamic domination, seem to be gaining strength.2 As an inhabitant of Eurabia, I must insist on a few elementary distinctions. For a start, are we talking about Islam, Muslims, Islamists, Arabs, immigrants, darker-skinned people, or terrorists? These are seven different things.

Where I live—in Oxford, Eurabia—I come into contact with British Muslims almost every day. Their family origins lie in Pakistan, India, or Bangladesh. They are more peaceful, law-abiding, and industrious British citizens than many a true-born native Englishman of my acquaintance. As the authors of an excellent new study of Islam in France point out, most French Muslims are relatively well integrated into French society.3 Much of the discrimination Abdelaziz Eljaouhari complains about, which exists in different forms and degrees in most European countries, applies equally to non-Muslims of immigrant origin. It is, so to speak, indiscriminate discrimination against people with darker skins and foreign names or accents; plain, old-fashioned racism or xenophobia, rather than the more specific prejudice that is now tagged Islamophobia.

Across the continent of Europe, there are a number of very different, albeit overlapping, issues concerning Islam. The Russian Federation has more than 14 million people—at least 10 percent of its rapidly shrinking population—who may plausibly be identified as Muslim, but most Europeans don’t consider them as part of Europe’s problem.4 In the case of Turkey, by contrast, a country of nearly 70 million Muslims living in a secular state, Europeans hotly debate whether such a large, mainly Muslim country, which has not been considered part of Europe in most traditional cultural, historical, and geographical definitions, should become a member of the European Union. In the Balkans, there are centuries-old communities of European Muslims, more than seven million in all, including one largely Muslim country, Albania, another entity, Kosovo, which will sooner or later be a state with a Muslim majority, and Bosnia, a fragile state with a Muslim plurality, as well as significant minorities in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro.

These Balkan Muslims are old Europeans and not immigrants to Europe. However, like the Turks, they do form part of the Muslim immigrant minorities in west European countries such as Germany, France, and Holland. Within a decade, most Balkan Muslims will probably be citizens of the European Union, either because their own states have joined the EU or because they have acquired citizenship in another EU member state. The shameful feebleness of western Europe’s response to Serbian and, to a lesser degree, Croatian persecution of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s has fed into a broader sense of Muslim victimhood in Europe. That west Europeans (and the US) intervened militarily in Kosovo to prevent an attempted genocide of Muslim Albanians by Christian Serbs is less often remembered.

When people talk loosely about “Europe’s Muslim problem,” what they are usually thinking of is the more than 15 million Muslims from families of immigrant origin who now live in the west, north, and south European member states of the EU, as well as in Switzerland and Norway. (The numbers in the new central and east European EU member states, such as Poland, are tiny.) Although counting is complicated by the fact that the French Republic, being in theory blind to color, religion, and ethnic origins, does not keep realistic statistics, there are probably somewhere around five million Muslims in France—upward of 8 percent of the total population. There are perhaps four million—mainly Turks—in Germany, and nearly 1 million, more than 5 percent of the total population, in Holland.

Most of them live in cities, and generally in particular areas of cities, such as the administrative region around Saint-Denis, which contains some of the most notorious housing projects on the outskirts of Paris. An estimated one out of every four residents of Marseilles is Muslim. In his fascinating new book, Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma cites an official statistic that in 1999 some 45 percent of the population of Amsterdam was of foreign origin, a figure projected to rise to 52 percent by 2015, with the majority of those people being Muslim. And Muslim immigrants generally have higher birth rates than the “native” European population. According to one estimate, more than 15 percent of the French population between sixteen and twenty-five years old is Muslim.5

So with further immigration, high relative birth rates, and the prospect of EU enlargement to the Balkans and perhaps Turkey, more and more citizens of the EU are going to be Muslim. In some urban neighborhoods of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Holland they will make up anywhere between 20 and 90 percent of the population. Most of them will be young; far too many will be poor, ill-educated, underemployed, alienated—feeling at home neither in the place they live nor in the lands from which their parents came—and tempted by drugs, crime, or political and religious extremism.

If we, the—for want of a better word—traditional Europeans, manage to reverse the current trend, and enable people like Abdelaziz and his children to feel at home as new Muslim Europeans, they could be a source of cultural enrichment and economic dynamism, helping to compensate for the downward drag of Europe’s rapidly aging population. If we fail, we shall face many more explosions.


Ian Buruma—half-Dutch, half-British, and wholly cosmopolitan—has had the excellent idea of returning to his native Holland to explore the causes and implications of the murder on November 2, 2004, of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker and provocative critic of Muslim culture, by a twenty-six-year-old Moroccan Dutchman named Mohammed Bouyeri. Arriving on a bicycle, Bouyeri shot van Gogh several times on a public street, then pulled out a machete and cut his throat—“as though slashing a tire,” according to one witness. He used another knife to pin to van Gogh’s chest a long, rambling note, calling for a holy war against all unbelievers and the deaths of a number of people he abhorred, starting with the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to whom the note was addressed. Van Gogh and Ms. Ali had together made the short film Submission, which dramatizes the oppression of women in some Muslim families by projecting quotations from the Koran onto the half-naked bodies of young women, as they intone personal stories of abuse. Bouyeri’s murder note concluded:

I know for sure that you, Oh America, will go down

I know for sure that you, Oh Europe, will go down

I know for sure that you, Oh Netherlands, will go down

I know for sure that you, Oh Hirsi Ali, will go down

I know for sure that you, Oh unbelieving fundamentalist, will go down

One question that preoccupies Buruma in Murder in Amsterdam, a characteristically vivid and astute combination of essay and reportage, is: Whatever happened to the tolerant, civilized country that I remember from my childhood? (He left Holland in 1975, at the age of twenty-three.) What’s become of the land of Spinoza and Johan Huizinga, who claimed in an essay of 1934 that if the Dutch ever became extremist, theirs would be a moderate extremism? Van Gogh’s murder was, Buruma writes, “the end of a sweet dream of tolerance and light in the most progressive little enclave of Europe.” Yet part of his answer seems to be that the reality always differed from the myth of Dutch tolerance—if one looks, for example, at wartime and postwar attitudes toward the Jews. And he quotes a remarkable statement by Frits Bolkestein, a leading Dutch politician and former European commissioner: “One must never underestimate the degree of hatred that Dutch people feel for Moroccan and Turkish immigrants.” Not “Muslims,” note, but immigrants from particular places.

Now Buruma revisits the verdant suburbs of his childhood (the words “verdant” and “leafy” recur), talking to intellectuals and those he ironically calls Friends of Theo, hearing their accounts of how the Dutch model of multiculturalism, with separate “pillars” for each culture, broke down. Too many immigrants were allowed in too fast, and they were not sufficiently integrated into Dutch society, linguistically, culturally, or socially. The parents were brought to Holland to work as what the Germans call Gastarbeiter, guest workers, but their children are mainly left unemployed.

  1. 1

    732 is the date generally given, but two French scholars argue that it actually occurred in 733; see J.H. Roy and J. Deviosse, La Bataille de Poitiers—Octobre 733 (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

  2. 2

    Originally the title of an obscure journal, the term “Eurabia” seems to have been popularized by a writer called Bat Ye’or. The jacket copy of her Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005) summarizes its thesis: “This book is about the transformation of Europe into ‘Eurabia,’ a cultural and political appendage of the Arab/Muslim world. Eurabia is fundamentally anti-Christian, anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic.” Much of Ms. Ye’or’s argument, which has a strong element of conspiracy theory, is built around the alleged secret guiding influence of an organization called the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD).

    Here is an example of her fair and balanced tone: “Is the European Union’s covert war against Israel, through its Palestinian Arab allies, the secret Schadenfreude fulfillment of an interrupted Holocaust?” She describes the United Nations as “an international antisemitic tribunal, seeking to impose on Israel the Islamic condition of dhimmitude.” Bruce Bawer, in While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within (Doubleday, 2006), uncritically repeats Ye’or’s thesis, going on to suggest that “Europe may simply persist in its passive ways, tamely resigning itself to a gradual transition to absolute sharia law and utter dhimmitude.” Despite these dubious antecedents, the word “Eurabia” recently gained the ultimate seal of transatlantic respectability—to be used on an Economist cover. See The Economist, June 24–30, 2006.

  3. 3

    Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings Institution, 2006).

  4. 4

    Estimates of their number vary wildly, from as low as 3 million to as high as 30 million. In 2003, when advancing Russia’s case for being a member of the Or- ganization of the Islamic Conference, Vladimir Putin named a suspiciously round number of 20 million. See the authoritative discussion by Edward W. Walker in Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 46, No. 4 (2005), pp. 247–271. I am most grateful to John Dunlop for this reference.

  5. 5

    See the very useful article by Timothy M. Savage, “Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Summer 2004), pp. 25–50.

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