Text size

Given the headlines in the past weeks surrounding the film “Innocence of Muslims” and the publication of caricatures of the Prophet of Islam in France, you might think that when, a few weeks ago in Paris, I presented my research on the various ways Muslims living in Europe are integrating European and Islamic principles within their identity, I would be issuing a warning about Europe’s demise by the hand of radical Islam. But I did not. In contrast to the stereotypes paraded by the mainstream media, I have found that Muslims throughout Europe are engaged in significant and sincere efforts to integrate into European society, while at the same time remaining faithful to Islam - and many are succeeding.

Throughout Europe there is an intense, dynamic and genuine intra-Islamic debate by Muslims on how to fully integrate into Europe. The debate covers different degrees of commitment to Islamic practice, from the most secular across the spectrum to the most religious. The core discussion focuses on how to retain a strong Muslim identity while remaining a loyal citizen of the state.

There are a variety of ways that Muslim intellectuals are balancing Islam-state relations in Europe. For example, the Swiss political scientist Tariq Ramadan suggests that Muslims embrace equally both the Islamic and secular national aspects of their identity. The German professor of international relations Bassam Tibi suggests a pluralistic interpretation of Islam, where all aspects of religious practice are relegated to the private not public sphere. The intra-Islamic debate between those two intellectuals, and other Muslim scholars, is intensifying both in their public exposure and impact on social issues as Muslims continue to mobilize socially and politically.

During the past few years, many governments in Europe have initiated processes to streamline the relationship between Muslim organizations and the state. Both religious and secular organizations participate in the dialogue of what it means to be Muslim in Europe. However, the organizations that tend be represented vis-à-vis government are usually religious institutions with organized constituencies; it is more challenging for secular Muslim organizations to mobilize significant constituencies, thus they suffer from under-representation and wield less influence in the dialogue with the state.

One of many examples of this trend is France. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) was founded by the French government in 2003 as the representative body of mosques and religious organizations. CFCM is based on the model developed to organize Jewish, Catholic and Protestant constituencies in France and provides an institutional framework for the state to interact with Muslim organizations.

While this is a good start, there is still plenty of room for improvement. The head of the CFCM is the elected representative of the various organizations, but is not the direct representative of France’s Muslim population, consolidating more 'representative' power in his hands than the more horizontal leadership of other faith blocs. In addition, because of CFCM’s religious focus, a variety of non-religious Muslim organizations are forced to mobilize separately, outside of this framework. In order for their formulation of a non-religious Islamic identity in Europe to be heard, governments must work out how to incorporate these organizations into the official dialogue.

But we cannot ignore the extreme voices of Europe's Muslim communities. Radical Islam very definitely exists in Europe. It is a serious issue, and one that is worthy of the bulk of the public debate it consumes. Government institutions and relevant security apparatuses need to accelerate their efforts to eradicate this extremism not least through determined policing (see the latest French police operations in Strasbourg in the wake of the Sarcelles grenade attack), but also by limiting extremist opportunities to proselytize. The moderate Muslim community has a role as well to play in eradicating that interpretation of Islam. However, while organizations supporting a radical, political and violent interpretation of Islam dominate the headlines, a 2010 PEW report on Muslim networks in Europe concludes that relatively few Muslims officially subscribe to this fundamentalist message.

For the first time in Islamic history, Muslims are in the midst of developing a locally-based Islamic-European identity. This process will take years, if not generations. It is important to identify the participants in this debate in order to strengthen the moderate voices and sideline the extremists. Of course, the difficulty lies in correctly identifying to which tendency participants belong between those interpretations and in preventing the extremists from overshadowing the influence of moderates

The main focus of inter-Muslim debates and discussions in Europe focuses on how - not if - to integrate further in social and political terms into their country of citizenship. To promote the influence of moderate Islam, more time, funds and effort are needed by individuals, organizations and governments to advance the social and political integration of the Muslims within society. Moderate Islam’s social and political leaders agree they must play a larger role in the process of mediating extremism and integrating Islamic and European principles into their identity, and to a growing extent they are, at least at a local level – the head of the CFCM was broadcast widely on national television denouncing the violence of the anti-film protests.

Jews in particular should recognize the parallels between the religious-national identity integration of Muslims in contemporary Europe and the process of creating a Jewish identity in Europe that accommodated loyal citizenship that started in the 18th century – the Jewish 'enlightenment' movement, or Haskalah. It could be argued that Muslims in Europe are involved in an expedited process similar to the Jewish 'reformation' in European history.

European governments, and also the Jewish communities of Europe, can support the 'identity integration' of Muslims in Europe on several fronts: First, by recognizing that it is happening; second, differentiating between extreme and moderate interpretations of Islam; third, promoting the cooperation between Jewish and moderate and secular Muslim organizations; and fourth, explicit popular support – including the Jewish communities within each country - for government efforts to indentify and promote programs funding pro-integration sections of the Muslim community.

Muslims in Europe are only at the beginning of the process of forming a self-defined identity in Europe, but the process has started and it is up to us, amongst others, to show them our support.

Ari Varon researches the formation of a contemporary European Islamic identity. He is in a joint Ph.D. program between Tel Aviv University and Sciences Po, Paris.