Muslims in Europe: when differences become barriers

The growing challenge posed in Europe by radical Islam can’t but lead us to wonder what went (and still goes) wrong in our relations with Muslim migrants

A few weeks after the Islamic State’s first anniversary, we can say that not only is the Caliphate proving more resilient than we hoped it would, but also its attraction of Muslims from all over the world is far from decreasing. The more the Caliphate survives, the more it strengthens that aura of success that al-Baghdadi has been shaping since 2012 – and this success unfortunately attracts young radical(ized) Muslims.

If this attraction is nothing new for terrorist organizations (just think of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah…) the new phenomenon is represented by the unprecedented number of youngsters going to Syria and Iraq from Western countries. For how difficult it is to get access to accurate data when dealing with terrorist groups, it is though estimated that ISIS has in its ranks 20,000 fighters, of whom 3,000 are said to be European.

The fact that so many youngsters are deciding to abandon wealthy, democratic states to join jihad is a failure of moderate Islam and a failure of our societies as well. And if the roots of the phenomenon are to be found in a mix of religious and personal reasons that psychology can better explain than politics, it is nonetheless true that such a phenomenon involves the broader issue of Muslim migration in Europe and is igniting the European political discourse on the topic.

With everyone pointing the finger to others we risk missing the point that when it comes to the locals-immigrants relationship, both sides are to be blamed and both sides are responsible if coexistence fails.

Where are we all going wrong?

In Middle Eastern countries – with the obvious exception of Israel – the majority of the population is made up of Muslims, and Islam – more than just a religion – is a way of living and seeing the world. In this context everyone perceives himself as a Muslim and feels recognized by others as such. In these societies people are born as Muslims, live as Muslims, interact with others as Muslims; and thus there is no individual-society gap.

But when Muslims come to Europe all this changes. They live as Muslims in their families but not in the external society, which (being a non-Islamic one) feels threatened by their group identity and does its best to curb it. They behave as Muslims in their narrow circles but not in the broader social ones, where relationships and bonds are not (and cannot be) built on the basis of religion, being this perceived as something that exclusively pertains to the private sphere.

Therefore, a gap between individual and society emerges. In fact, when the outer society puts rigid limits to a self-definition which is not individual but based on the belonging to a certain community, then what was a matter of immigration becomes a matter of identity – which is far more difficult to deal with.

If we want to find a way to address the problem of coexistence , we have to face our responsibilities: we have hosted and accepted Muslims in our countries but we haven’t integrated them; we have accepted their difference (building mosques for them, for instance) but we have put limits to its expression. We have accepted Muslim migrants as individuals but not as a community, and we have thus made our societies be ones that Muslims feel they can live in, but don’t feel they do belong to.

And though, not all the blame is to be put upon us.

What often happens, in fact, in the immigrants-locals relationship, is that the formers adopt a behavior that is –not without good reasons in many cases – perceived as threatening by the latters.

When moving to a different country, where they are faced with the individual-society gap, Muslims often tend to try to impose on the outer society their behavior, traditions, and values. They fail to recognize that the countries in which they now live and the people they live alongside with have their own history, traditions and beliefs, and that –just like them- we are not disposed to let them go.

When Muslim families ask for school meals to be not only adapted to their needs, as it is licit, but completely changed because they feel offended by other kids having pork; when they resist learning the local language; when they prohibit to their kids to make local friends…they contribute to make co-existence difficult and integration impossible. In fact, in trying to impose their ways and habits on the others, in refusing to understand the surrounding culture and in closing to contacts with those who don’t belong to their community, they just let the individual-society gap grow wider and wider. More than that, they often adopt a negative approach to the outer society that turns what could be a fillable gap into an insurmountable wall, and exasperates that question of identity that obstructs a balanced coexistence.

The blame, thus, is both ours and theirs.

We have hosted them and proved our multiculturalism but then we have missed the subsequent and most important step and do nothing to make them feel real part of our societies; they, for their part, have come to our countries looking for better life and job conditions, but rather than trying to understand our culture, they try to make us adapt to their views and ways of life.

We all have to find a delicate balance between their Muslim religious identity and our traditions, between their traditions and our European national identities.

Integration (not multiculturalism) must be our first objective. To make everyone feel part of a same society, whatever the religion and the nationality, points of contact need to be found. These can touch every field and go from TV channels and TV programs aimed at promoting the appreciation of the others’ culture (of which often nothing is known about), to language courses promoted by municipalities; from events aimed at the merging of groups and ideas (for instance local and immigrant artists exhibiting their works), to inclusive schools and neighborhoods (having boroughs where only certain ethnic/religious groups live, in fact, can make migrants feel home but doesn’t help integration); to inter-religion meetings that can become occasion of discussion and mutual listening for people belonging to different faiths but all living together in our countries (and at this respect one of the most positive examples is set by the European Council of Religious Leaders, where Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists are all represented).

Far from being presented as definitive solutions, these are proposed as steps that could contribute to build up an inclusive society in which there is no gap, but everyone’s identity is part of a broader social one to which we all belong. Steps of this kind could help new generations to grow up together, without one feeling threatened by the other and without axis of religious and ethnic divisions building up barriers.


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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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