What are European Muslims’ Concerns and Aspirations?


Before discussing the question of the concerns and aspirations of Europe’s Muslims, it important to define whom do we mean by the term “Muslim.” That is, we must define who is a Muslim.

What Criteria Define a Muslim?

This question is a delicate one, and a definitive criterion upon which all concerned agree is not forthcoming. Are conviction and religious observance the main criteria? Is it culture – a sense of belonging to Islamic culture – that is more appropriate? Or is it that anyone who is born Muslim is a Muslim? I believe it is necessary to differentiate from the outset various categories of Muslims in Europe and to be specific about who are the Muslims we are talking about. If the definition that every man or woman, who feels Muslim is a Muslim, is accepted, then there would be a basis for discussion. I want to stress here that Imam Ash-Shāfi’ī was of this opinion. In his discussions with Imam Ahmad Hanbal, he stressed that being Muslim is not dependent on observance – even praying. Rather, whoever takes the Shahāda (states the testimony of faith), acknowledging the oneness of God and the prophetic mission of Muhammad, is a Muslim. However, even if this definition is accepted, is it possible to speak about all Muslims without differentiating between the so-called Muslims-by-culture and the practicing Muslims? Therefore, when speaking about Muslims’ concerns in Europe, I have to be clear about what I have in mind. Sometimes people ask me: whom do you represent? Do you speak for all the Muslims? To that I have to answer “No.” Today, I will speak about the aspirations of a small minority of Muslims living in Europe, namely those whom I call the “concerned Muslims.” This has to be made clear not only to answer the question of representation but also because such issues are discussed and debated within the Muslim communities as well.


Different Categories of Muslims

 The great majority of Muslims in Europe are not strict practicing Muslims. This fact has to be acknowledged. It has also to be admitted that, for this great majority of Muslims, their principal concerns are exactly the same as the indigenous Europeans: namely, employment, good salaries, and a better standard of living. These issues are discussed among Muslims, themselves, in Europe and in America. Yet is must also be noted that the visible revival of Islam and the appearance of new awareness among Muslims in Europe has already had a great spiritual impact on the silent and non-visible majority of Muslims. This new awareness is reflected in the large number of Muslims who want to gain a better understanding of their faith. For example, last Ramadan, throughout Europe – in France, Britain, and other countries – there were large crowds in the mosques. This new awareness will have a great influence, as well, on the silent majority in the future. Indeed, this is why we are discussing the question of Muslims in Europe and America. If we were to discuss only the small minority of practicing Muslims, there would be no point to it. The role of young Muslims was emphasized here [in this conference] and how they are influencing the Muslim communities. I do not quite agree with this interpretation, partly because theses “youth” are not so young and are already a part of European societies, and they should be considered as “Muslims living in Europe.” They are mature now, and they will build the future, especially within the Muslim organizations. They are trying to find a way in Europe, but they are a minority. Nevertheless, they have and will have a great influence in the community at large. The other important point to be stressed is that, among practicing Muslims and their organizations in Europe, there is a great deal of diversity. Many of them are trying to find a way to be good citizens in Europe. But there are others who don’t want to be part of Europe. Therefore, one must speak of the Tablīqhīs, the Salafis and about the Hizb-ul-Tahrir, and the significant role they play should not be underestimated. They are, and they will be important because there are problems within the Muslim communities in Europe and in America. Moreover, these divisions could be manipulated in order to advance certain political goals. Some groups might be more susceptible to subtle manipulation, while others are overtly supported by some states. These divisions are not just inward, rather there is more to these differences. The realization of this fact must be part of our understanding of the Muslim future.


Muslim Concerns


I) Identity: The first and most important concern, common to all groups, is how to remain Muslim while living in Europe or in America. But what does it mean to “remain Muslim?” To remain a Muslim is, I believe, to protect one’s faith. Therefore, in speaking about Islam, one has to deal with faith and not culture or some other interpretation. Once that distinction is made, the second goal is to keep one’s spirituality alive. I differentiate between faith and spirituality because this is a matter discussed among some Sufi groups and the so-called orthodox Muslims as point of divergence. The third deals with how to adapt the practice of the faith to the environment, while remaining faithful to Islamic principles. That is, to mark out the path of balanced practice. The fourth point deals with how to preserve Islamic values, morality, and ethics. This last point in a way sums up preoccupations of Muslims: How to preserve Islamic morality, principles, and ethics when living in a non-Muslim country. All other aspirations and concerns arise from this main preoccupation. All groups agree on the points delineated. Differences arise when it comes to the question: how are these goals to be achieved? Therefore, often addressing the same issues and even using the same words, Muslims come up with different responses to the same issues, such as how to remain Muslim or the definition of Muslim identity. In fact, in Europe, within Muslim communities there is no single definition of the Islamic culture or Muslim identity to which all Muslim can subscribe. This is a reality, and Muslims should be free to acknowledge it; this is part of the diversity of the community. Moreover, this is the reality for a whole range of issues, notably education. Depending on one’s definition of Muslim identity, the type of preferred Islamic education differs. For example, if a group believes that, to remain Muslim is to remain Pakistani-Muslim in Europe, then the education provided for the community would be different from that for those groups who have a different concept of Muslim identity. Similarly, European converts have their views on Islamic education that should be taken into account. In short, there are great differences in the way that Europe’s Muslims define identity, education, and other important concerns.


II) Education: The second most important concern of Europe’s Muslims, after that of how to remain Muslim, is the issue of Islamic education – its content, methodology, and goals. But in this respect, too, differences and disagreements are clear and deep. In this regard, three main attitudes among Muslims are identifiable:

  • – The traditionalist approach. This attitude toward Islamic education is observable in the case of Tablīqhī Jamā’at, or the Salafis. These groups believe that the model of education to be followed should be that of the country of origin. Such attitudes are observable throughout Europe. This type of education is along the lines of methodology used in traditional Islamic schools – madrasahs – and which emphasize the method of learning by heart the Qur’an and the Hadith. This type of education is also aimed at protecting young Muslims from the broader society. This is true especially in the case of females, and that is one reason why there are so many Islamic schools for young girls. This is not done to promote education; it is done to protect young Muslim women from the general school system. This was the case in one of the most important Islamic schools, in Leicester in Britain, and others through the UK and even in Holland.
  • – Parallel Schools. The second and more prevalent type of education is provided through a parallel system. This type of school is also largely disconnected from the broader environment. It aims at creating an alternative environment. One aspect of this parallel system is home schooling, which again is aimed at avoiding the mainstream school system and to be totally disconnected from the overall environment.
  • – Complementary System. A third category popular in France and even Germany is the so-called complementary education, which is based on an extracurricular approach and is directly connected with the broader environment. Because of this approach, there are no Islamic schools in France at present. Perhaps one will be set up in the future. What exists in France is what can be characterized as complementary activities. Nevertheless, despite all these differences, education, or in other words, how to transmit Islamic faith, values, and good behavior within a European context, is a prime concern.


III) Legal integration or how to give religious legitimacy to a Muslim presence is the third preoccupation of Muslim. An important part of the Muslim experience in Europe and America now is to find a way to legitimate Islam’s presence through a re-reading of Muslim scriptural sources. Muslims in Europe are feeling that they are part of the European landscape; they want to be integrated not only at a social level, but also legally, while remaining faithful to Islamic principles derived from Islamic sources – Qur’an and the Sunna. However, in this regard, too, namely how to read and interpret Islamic sources, differences exist. Some groups, while small but very vocal and active, demand new legislation to accommodate Islamic law, specifically those related to personal status. For the first time last year, I heard this demand in France. A small group is saying: “We want them [the French] to change the law because now we are here; we are citizens of this country and we want them to change the law and to accept our differences and our specificities.” Similar voices are heard in Germany and even in America; groups such as Hizb-ul-Tahrir inspire some of these ideas. These voices, although small, have a great influence in some areas, notably deprived suburbs. They emphasize the “otherness,” say that they don’t want to be part of the national system, and maintain that Islam is against the French or British or any other European constitution. A second group consists of those who want to withdraw into their own communities and to apply a literalist interpretation of the Sunna. This category insists that their constitution is the Sunna. Among these groups are the literalist Salafi who say that they have nothing to do with European constitutions and do not have to be involved in these societies and that the Sunna is their frame of reference. The Saudi Arabian government promotes this attitude. In most European countries and the United States, many young Muslims are invited to Saudi Arabia free of charge, and when they come back after three or four years, they begin preaching that the Muslims don’t have to follow the system of the country where they are living. They say the Muslims’ constitution is the Sunna. A third group can be described as reformist. Those who favor this approach believe that Islamic principles and law – Figh – should be reinterpreted to adapt to the European situation. This group is trying to find a way to at once remain faithful to Islam and respectful of the constitution. They maintain that Muslims have a social, moral, and even political contract with the constitution of the country in which they live. Reformists are attacked by groups such as the Hizb-ul-Tahrir as not being true Muslims because they advocate a constitution that is implemented by the unbelievers. Unfortunately, such views have a great deal of influence on uneducated or poorly educated Muslims in Europe.


IV) Social, Political, and Academic Integration.

For some Muslims, it is very important to become fully integrated in European societies and to develop a sense of rootedness. This is the view that the mainstream Muslim organizations are promoting and is part of an effort to be part of the social fabric in Europe and to promote citizenship, to create a place for Muslim or Islamic organizations, and, in short, to normalize the Muslim presence without trivializing it. The Muslim presence must be seen as normal but not as trivial, to make clear that Muslims have something to give and to contribute to Europe. Part of this effort is trying to build a Western Islamic discourse in Europe. However, there are opposing trends that are working toward isolating the Muslim community from the rest of society, to generate a sense of otherness, to discourage political engagement, and to develop an alternative community. In their internal debates, Muslims and others must recognize this fact. One cannot just say, “Everything is good,” while facing great difficulties within the Muslim communities. These issues are important because they impact the fundamental issue of “Are you or are you not faithful to your Islamic heritage?” It is important to keep these debates in mind, even in the way books and speeches are presented; it is crucial to make people understand that one is “faithful.” In a book I wrote about To be a European Muslim, I started the first part by talking about the fundamentals of Figh, in order to make people understand that “I am still within, I am still a Muslim, and I am not going out [of the limits].”


V) The Cultural Divide

 An important issue in the intra-Muslim debate in Europe is whether one remains faithful to the Islam of the country of origin, to some concept of pure Islam, or to develop a European Islam. The Salafis or the Tablīqhīs say: “Our culture is our culture of origin,” that is, Pakistani, Indian, or Egyptian, or that there is no culture out of the Sunna. There can be no new rulings on music or movies; all these are haraam. The other attitude is to promote a European Islamic culture, through a process of selection and the development of an alternative culture.


VI) Debate on Political Involvement

There are some groups in Europe that are promoting the view that Muslims should not become involved in politics. The Tablīqhī and the Sallafis are among these groups. These are supported by certain countries that are in essence telling them: “Don’t speak. Don’t be vocal about various events. Your concern is how to remain Muslim in this community. Don’t become involved in your society – or, if you want to be involved with your society, don’t speak about what is going on outside.” This attitude in effect disenfranchises the Muslims. Another important group consists of those Muslim leaders of certain Islamic organizations that accept the fact that they are under the supervision of their country of origin and do not want to promote the kind of independence which could cut them off from their home countries. However, increasing numbers of Muslims and Muslim organizations want to promote independence, including political independence, especially from other Muslim communities. One aspect of this trend is that they will accept financial assistance from a Muslim government, but without any kind of conditions attached. Moreover, many Muslims and Islamic organizations are trying to find a way to get financial support from the community itself, for conferences, lectures, and other events. They are doing this because they want to promote true citizenship and become, in Europe, a voice for the voiceless Muslims throughout the world. This is what I personally want. I am a product of political immigration, and it is pointless for me to live in a democratic state and remain quiet, silent, and not participate in the intellectual and critical process. I and other Muslims like me want to say to European governments; “ Why are you promoting democracy within, while supporting dictatorships abroad?” Is it right? Is it wrong? As a citizen of Europe, I feel I have to promote democracy and to be the voice of the voiceless Muslims throughout the world. This, I believe, is the trend of the future. But we first have to educate Muslims and promote dialogue within the community and to make them understand that they should be real European Muslims.

This is a speech delivered by Dr. Ramadan on April 24, 2001 at “Islam in Europe and America: A Comparative Perspective” conference organized through the collaboration of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD).


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