Europe is struggling with the problem of Islamist extremists
Extremists are a tiny number of the 26 million Muslims in Europe, but attract a disproportionate amount of publicity. The only way of moving forward is to challenge the myth of European Muslims as outsiders with a culture and customs that make them forever ‘untrue’ Europeans.
Last week, a 20-year old man was badly beaten on a street in France. So what, I hear you say, it happens all the time. True, but in this case the man was the Muslim son of a police officer and the gang of five who beat him up were also Muslims. The unnamed victim had been enjoying Christmas lunch with his family. Following the arrest of the gang, their leader told police officers, in an attempt to justify the brutal beating, “it’s not Muslim to celebrate Christmas”. So there we have it. In the mind of some radical Muslims, if you celebrate Christmas, you deserve to be beaten.
The vast majority of Muslims living in Europe would not recognise this connection and would abhor and condemn the gang for their unacceptable behaviour. They are living peacefully and happily with their non-Muslim neighbours. Even so, when these events occur, they add oxygen to the perception of a “radical Islamisation” of Europe.
Of all the countries in Europe, France is under the greatest pressure from radical militants, having experienced a series of Islamist terror attacks in recent years. Just three months ago, three people died in the Southern French city of Nice, following a knife attack at a church. One elderly victim was virtually beheaded. The suspect, who repeatedly shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) during the attack, was a 21-year-old Tunisian national, who had recently arrived as an asylum seeker. A few weeks earlier, seven Muslim suspects, two of whom were just 14 and 15, had been charged for the beheading of their schoolteacher, Samuel Paty. That an innocent history teacher could be murdered adjacent to his school, not randomly but actually selected for murder simply for showing his pupils controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, shocked the French nation.
These were just the latest examples of atrocities carried out by Islamist extremists in France in recent years which deeply unsettled the population. Many were still recovering from the horrors of 2015, when in January two Islamist militant gunmen forced their way into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot dead 12 people. Later in the same year, as part of a series of “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” terrorist attacks across Paris, gunmen and suicide bombers launched multiple attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and adjacent restaurants and bars, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. Only six months earlier, a gunman had driven a large lorry into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
By contrast to these major events, the severe beating of a 20-year-old Muslim by another group of Muslims may not seem significant, even though the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, claimed that the beating was an “example of fundamentalist separation which erodes traditional French values”. But in countries on high alert for Muslim extremist activity, any such incident receives national and international attention. Terrorism in the name of Islam has claimed hundreds of lives across Europe over the past two decades, which many claim to be linked with mass migration from the Islamic world. This is shaking the politics of the continent and nowadays Islam and migration are highly debated “hot issues” in many European countries. Europe has recently experienced a migrant crisis that reached a peak in 2015, with an influx of refugees from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea, arriving across the Mediterranean Sea or overland through Southeast Europe. The refugees are nearly all Muslims, 86% according to Pew, and are either asylum seekers or economic migrants.
Muslims currently make up about 5% of Europe’s population, in all about 26 million. The greatest numbers live in France (9% of the population) and Sweden (8%), with noticeably only a trace in the countries bordering the eastern boundaries of Europe, such as Poland and Hungary. Because they tend to be younger, by 13 years on average, and have a higher fertility rate than other Europeans, fake news stories spread alarm that Europe will be dominated by Muslims in the near future, which is patently absurd. Even if the existing high migration were to continue indefinitely, which is unlikely due to the current strengthening of both immigration laws and the physical boundaries of the EU, Muslims will make up no more than about 14% of Europe’s population by 2050. While this is nearly triple the current share, it’s still considerably smaller than the populations of both Christians and people with no religion in Europe.
The growing Muslim population has already changed the face of Europe in a number of ways. Socially, Muslims have preferred to live more as a community than, for example, the Christians, who are more fragmented in terms of churches, beliefs and practice. Muslims are strongly attached to their beliefs and roots, with many keeping a relationship with their country of origin, particularly if they are recent migrants. Research has shown that the Muslim communities tend to vote for left-wing parties, as these are usually in favour of integrating migrants into the European society—which probably explains why so few immigrants wish to settle in right-wing countries such as Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic and Slovakia. As Muslim numbers have increased across Europe, so the society in which they live has changed; the construction of mosques, loudspeaker calls to prayers, halal products in supermarkets, and working hours adjustable to Ramadan. Nationalists use these changes to ramp up discontent among indigenous populations, who feel their way of life is under threat from “those foreigners” who are also “stealing our jobs”. In the vast majority of cases this is simply not true, but it was an effective ploy used by those campaigning recently for Britain to leave the European Union, which probably tipped the balance in favour of leaving.
Rising resentment has led to new laws targeting Muslims, such as the banning of burqa headscarves in five European countries, or laws against family reunification to control immigration. External interference by Muslim countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia has been particularly unhelpful in integrating communities. When Turkey’s President Erdogan tells Turks living in Europe that they don’t need to assimilate in their host societies and that they should have more children in order to increase Muslim power, this simply increases fear and anti-Muslim sentiment. There’s also been a strong reaction to influence-peddling by Saudi Arabia, which has poured money into Europe to finance the construction of mosques in order to spread its extreme Wahhabi form of Islam, freely preached by Saudi-backed clerics. In voicing concerns about this radical ideology, Belgium terminated Saudi’s half-century old lease of the Grand Mosque in Brussels, alarmed by the promotion of radicalism. Switzerland recently voted to ban the construction of minarets. France and Germany have also shut some mosques, noting that these encouraged young Muslims to travel to war zones, such as Syria and Iraq, to fight for the Islamic State.
All eyes are now on France following October’s attack on Samuel Paty, as President Macron introduces a controversial new bill to combat “Islamic separation”. The bill was presented on 9 December 2020, the 115th anniversary of the adoption of a law in France that strictly separated religion and the state. In requiring religious neutrality in public life, this popular and long-standing law also protects the right either to believe or not believe. Macron’s new provisions, which will go through Parliament early this year, will change France in a number of ways. It will limit the use of home-schooling as a way to escape oversight of radical Quranic teaching, make it easier for the government to inspect and shut places of worship, ban all state employees and contractors from displaying “conspicuous” religious symbols, and forbid doctors from issuing “virginity certificates” in order to protect women from pre-nuptial pressure.
In the six years between 2012 and 2018, over 2,000 French citizens left to take part in jihad in Syria and more than 250 people were killed in terrorist attacks in France. Since his election, President Macron has come to believe that tougher rules are required to protect citizens from such influences. Some critics are concerned that his new law will hand too much power to the state, infringing the right to religious practice. Others are accusing Macron of mistaking conservative religiosity for sinister intent, and of ignoring the structural racism behind the development of French ghettos. Inevitably those on the far-right criticise the measures as “too tame”, but Macron will have been reassured by the support of Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who is satisfied that the overall aim “reassures French Muslims”, since extremists are such a “marginal minority”.
And that’s the point. Extremists are a tiny number of the 26 million Muslims in Europe, but attract a disproportionate amount of publicity. The only way of moving forward is to challenge the myth of European Muslims as outsiders with a culture and customs that make them forever “untrue” Europeans. President Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel are correct in tackling head-on anti-Muslim racism and hate. They recognise that it’s the third generation of Muslim immigrants born as citizens in Europe who are feeling the full backlash of the prejudice against Islam, and it’s from these that some young men and women are susceptible to the preaching and allure of the more extreme Wahhabis, who argue that there can be no coexistence between Islam and the West.
Europe is approaching a crossroad. The shift in focus from religion to Europe’s broader equality agenda, as articulated in the EU’s “anti-racism action plan” adopted in September, is an important move in the struggle to control Islamist extremists. Empowering national equality bodies to include anti-Muslim hatred is an essential step in the journey to rediscover their pluralist and humanist traditions. After all, Europe’s Muslims aren’t going anywhere. Europe is their home and they’re here to stay.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.