In the Middle Ages, Islam made a huge contribution to the rationalism, secularism and modernity of western, that is, European, thought. However, Muslims do not feel comfortable in Europe today – some even talk of a climate of “Islamophobia”. A series of actions and events have conspired to create an image of Islam as a repressive and violent religion. From the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie to the excesses of the Taliban, from the suicide bombings in the Middle East to the daily horrors in Algeria and the terrorist attacks in America, Bali, Madrid and London – all have contributed to a climate of fear and hostility.

In turn, many Muslims are having a hard time in Europe. The road to coexistence is a minefield, not so much because of discriminatory legal systems but because of an increasingly widespread prejudice that Islam and Muslims are “incapable of integration”. This indicates an urgent need for education and information. An obsession with those who destroy (a minority on the margin of the margin) prevents the public from being aware of the great progress that has been made in the area of “living together” by those who build (the majority of Muslims).

Why such poor relations?

Part of the explanation for the poor integration of Muslims into mainstream European life is that – since the Moors were expelled from Spain and the Ottomans repelled at the gates of Vienna – they have not been in Europe for that long, 60 to 70 years at most. It took other national and religious minorities, such as the Jews or Orthodox Christians, centuries of debate and conflict before they found a place for themselves and won rights in their new-found homes. Is it reasonable to expect Muslims to integrate within one or two generations? Furthermore, the first waves of Muslim migrants were poor labourers from North Africa, Turkey, India and Pakistan. Defining a European Islam was a luxury few could afford.
Then, international events such as the Iranian revolution of 1979 have reinforced existing suspicions about the “backward” nature of Islam.

In addition, hostility towards immigrants and their offspring in general – regardless of religion or origin – has become more pronounced in the context of the social crisis engulfing Europe as a result of unemployment.

The generation game

Succeeding generations of Muslims in Europe are changing the way they see themselves and also how they interact with European society. The renewed fashion for religious observance among young Muslims has led to the creation of a large number of Islamic associations. In 20 years, their numbers have doubled, perhaps even trebled. Young Muslims, who were born in the west and who are often graduates of western universities, see themselves as having a right to be in Europe and expect their civil rights to be recognized.

Their dynamism and western culture have pushed their elders (often former members of Islamic movements in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia) to a thoroughgoing reappraisal of their ways of working and their intellectual stance on Europe.

There have been important debates within Islamic communities, particularly among Islamic scholars (the ulema). When consulted on questions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), the ulema have had to re-evaluate their positions, pronouncing new judicial opinions (fatwa) more in line with the realities of life in the west.

Young Muslims are now Europeans and are asking questions that demand explicit answers. Should the west still be considered – in the term used by the ulema of the 19th century – as the Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War), as opposed to the Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam)? In other words, can Muslims live in the west? If yes, how should Muslims relate to European laws? Can a young Muslim acquire American or European nationality and play a full role as a citizen?

A consensus

During the 1990s numerous meetings were held to discuss theological and judicial issues. Ulema from the Islamic world joined in debate with imams and intellectuals living in the west. Five conclusions were arrived at, which now provide the basis of a consensus among Islamic experts and the Muslim communities in the west.

»A Muslim, whether resident or citizen, should see himself as involved in a contract, both moral and social, with the country in which he lives and should respect that country’s laws.
»The old concept of the Dar al-Harb – which does not derive from the Koran and is not part of the prophetic tradition – is seen as outdated. Other concepts have been suggested as ways of reading the Muslim presence in Europe in more positive terms.
»Muslims should see themselves as citizens in the full sense of the term and participate (while at the same time seeking respect for their own values) in the social, organizational, economic and political life of the countries in which they live.
»European legislation (which is secular in nature) allows Muslims to practise their religion.
»European law allows Muslims – and other citizens – to make choices that agree with their religion.
Alongside the development of this theoretical framework, Muslim identity has been renewed on the ground. Despite the pressures to which they are subject, young people are working to ensure that national legal systems guarantee respect for their identities. Local sensitivity sessions are being organized, often in partnership with specialist organizations. In a move to break out of isolation, European languages – rather than Arabic – are being increasingly used at conferences and at Friday prayers. Muslims are also placing greater value on civic education and participation, both of which are necessary stages in the acquisition of legitimate rights.

While some big mosques and institutions are still tied to Muslim governments, more Islamic associations are becoming independent. Many mosques are now built with funds collected within their communities.

The final indicator of the profound changes under way is the number of artistic and cultural projects involving Muslims in Europe. In Britain, Spain and France, a variety of groups are working to create a European Islamic culture. Although some of them limit themselves to imitating familiar forms and genres (rap, variety shows, popular theatre and so on), others are creating striking syntheses. These artistic expressions are slowly disengaging from their specifically Arab, Turkish or Indo-Pakistani antecedents and are attempting to recreate Islamic values within national mores and cultural tastes. We can soon expect to see the emergence of a European Muslim identity capable of becoming accepted at the mass level.

Muslims’ responsibility

In addition to this emerging European Islamic identity, several tough issues have to be resolved, both within Islam and by Europe and the west. Muslims acknowledge that there are different currents in Islam – literalist, traditionalist, reformist and Sufi (mystic), among others – yet accept that dialogue among these communities is absent. Because of this lack of debate, few Muslims dare to condemn terrorist attacks, the murder of innocents and hostage-taking unconditionally. Nor do they criticise discrimination against women and the absence of political freedom.

It is not just the west that needs to hear such voices. Muslims urgently need to understand that their religion has been betrayed. They must also recognize that the world has fundamentally changed since 9/11. Violence and terrorism continue to proliferate, with Muslims claiming responsibility for unspeakable acts in the name of their faith. Muslims across the world must face up to their responsibility. Some have done so, but have then tended to isolate themselves or take on the role of victim.

“The west doesn’t like Islam and rejects Muslims” is the sort of lament one often hears from those seeking to justify conspiracy theories, rationalize passivity or avoid self-criticism. This is the worst attitude of all because it deflects blame for the Muslim world’s deficiencies onto others, even as it becomes more urgent for Muslims to admit that they themselves are responsible for the present situation.

Similarly, Muslims must confront some pernicious stereotypes. The notion that democracy is a western concept, and that Islamic nations are necessarily autocratic, is wrong. It is up to Muslims to assert that the rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage and the possibility of political change do not contradict Islam. Each nation should build its democratic model on its own history and culture, but each must do so without compromising basic principles.

People in Muslim countries must wake up, take destiny into their hands and propose political alternatives. That will be difficult under dictatorship. But in South America, Africa and Asia, people have freed themselves from autocratic regimes through resistance. Rejecting violence, promoting education, awakening civic consciousness and nurturing local democratic initiative are all ways to encourage political change.

Western wars

America has put into motion a machine to wage a “war on terror”. But people in the Muslim world, along with many in Europe and large numbers of Americans, cannot understand this policy. The war in Afghanistan, which is still not over, the invasion of Iraq and security measures that increasingly encroach on the rights and civil liberties of citizens have set off alarms. The notion that Europe should distance itself from, or even oppose, America is unrealistic and irrelevant.

What we need today is a new kind of European involvement. Instead of settling for facile criticism of the “American hyper-power”, Europe must propose alternatives to unilateralism. It must revise its relations with dictatorial regimes, demand tangible guarantees of democratization and weigh in heavily for an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Self-criticism within the west is also important.

Bridges must now be built, and confidence restored, between the west and the Muslim world. And it is in the west that such discussion is feasible. Western Muslims can play an important role in this wider exchange. But non-Muslims must also overcome their fear and suspicions of their Muslim fellow citizens in order to enter this critical partnership. We all need to break out of our intellectual ghettoes.

CV Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is senior research fellow at Lokahi Foundation in London and visiting professor at St Antony’s College, Oxford.