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.


Why the encounter of Islam and Democracy appears impossible from outside, and why it is instead possible from within


If we took a picture of the Middle East today, what would it look like?

In the background, inevitable and ever-present since 1948, is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In an ever-changing region, where the flow of events always brings with it reversals of scenario that all of a sudden upset the cards, the game and the rules, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the unchanged element of the picture. All the rest changes, in a more or less radical way, but in Palestine nothing has been solved yet.

There are pictures in which it looks more violent, others in which it is faint, blurred or put in a corner by other events; but, at least for now, it doesn’t seem disposed to leave its place.

It is there. There to remind us of all the mistakes made. There to remind us that some things have the power (in this case tragic) of being eternal.

If we leave behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and focus on the rest, we can observe a dynamicity, destructive and at the same time auto-reproductive, that in no other region is as strong as in the Middle East. We could take a picture every year and we would always find something that over that year has changed, and that will inevitably bring about, sooner or later, other changes.

The tragedy inherent in the Middle East, though, is that change is almost always violent: it doesn’t emerge from the evolution of a project but from the destruction of something – and this something is always someone.

It’s thus a picture in many aspects gloomy and dispiriting, made of wars, violations of human rights and abuses (if not in all the region’s countries, undoubtedly in most of them), terrorism, humanitarian emergencies, quests for freedom and democracy often suffocated in blood or in wretched prisons.

In front of this scenario the perception in the West has often been that “In such a chaos of course our efforts to bring democracy were deemed to fail!” This is partially true: those efforts were indeed deemed to fail; but for our misreading of the Middle East’s reality, not for the Middle East’s hopelessness.

In order to have in future a more positive and stable picture we should in fact start by fully understanding the current one.

We should abandon the idea that Middle East and democracy are irreconcilable, that the Middle East is fated to be excluded from the third wave of democracy and “deemed” to more or less strong forms of authoritarianism.

It is true that in the Islamic world we haven’t traditionally seen the development of the rule of law as we saw it in Europe after 1648, but this doesn’t mean in any way that democracy can’t find a space for itself in that world too. It rather means that we cannot impose on the region the Western State model of complete separation between State and Religion, as this model was the result of a specific event (the Thirty-year war), of a specific time (the XVII century), of a specific region (Europe).

In order to realize a new but coherent model of State-Religion, the Islamic world needs an approach to the relationship between religious authority and secular authority based on its own cultural and social peculiarities.

For this unique and authentic model to emerge it is necessary to reconcile State and Sharia in a way that reflects the characteristics inherent in the normative model of Islamic countries, that takes into account how Islam is not only Religion, but also State and Civil Society.

The starting point should be the use of Islam as a cultural unifying means that can contribute to create a society based on the respect of human rights. And these cannot but be meant as rights recognized to any human being as such, and not only on the basis of one’s belonging to the Islamic religious community (as the Cairo Declaration of 1990 and the Arab Chart of 1994 portray).

Once realized the cohesion Islam-human rights (whose respect lies at the core of any democratic society) it would be possible to devote efforts to the main challenge: the cohesion of Sharia and Democracy. The modification of a relationship between State and Religion that is currently extreme, should be aimed at proposing a solution in which Sharia is neither the primary and only source of the judicial system (as it now is), nor the only source of the Constitutional values (as it now is). It is necessary a new model based on the fusion between the religious legal source, that is traditionally at the core of the Islamic society, and the secular legal source, that the Islamic world needs to embrace modernity and full development (and with it economic and social growth).

Thus, Democracy and Islam are not irreconcilable realities, but they look like if the attempt is that of imposing, in a more or less direct way, the West’s State model.

If any, the contribution the West can make, once understood the peculiarities of the Islamic culture as expressed in Middle Eastern States, should be limited to a judicial support. And this can be successful only if support is given to those political elites who, supported by their respective peoples, emerge as capable and willing of putting forward the reconciliation between State and Sharia.

It is up to Islamic countries, and only to them, to find their internal balance between tradition and modernity. It is up to them to address a millennial relationship that requires to be adapted to new internal and regional dynamics. It is up to them to respond to the challenges and changes that time, inevitably, has brought and continues to bring.

In no other way but by accepting this reality, can we avoid future misunderstandings of the kind of the Arab Spring.

It is, therefore, all about an internal evolution based on the distinction between traditional religious authority and laic authority, without one excluding or overpassing the other but supporting each other. An evolution of this kind would bring about the coexistence of Sharia and rule of law that the Middle East desperately needs to get out of its darkness and embrace the future.

A future that can be bright only abandoning the archaic models of the past through an aware and authentically Islamic process of self-renovation.