The recent comments of Professor Raphael Israeli have again raised the issue of the exact role played by migrants from Muslim-majority states living in Western countries. Israeli made some passing remarks to Muslims in the UK and France. It is important that, in addressing these remarks, we rely on facts and research.
I recently came across a study by Aristide R Zolberg and Long Litt Woon published in the March 1999 edition of the academic journal Politics & Society. Entitled Why Islam Is Like Spanish: Cultural Incorporation in Europe and the United States, the study addresses key issues relating to migration, ethnicity and citizenship. It compares the fixation of anti-migrant sectors in Europe against Muslims to that of anti-migrant sectors in the United States against Spanish-speaking migrants.
Although the paper was published before the events of September 11 2001, its observations remain valid.
In June 1998, the state of California held a referendum on the issue of bilingual education. That referendum caused considerable controversy, with the formation of an “English-only” movement at the centre of what was perceived by many as a clash between “Anglo-America” and the “invading” Spanish language.
In Europe at that time, the memory of minority Muslim responses to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the French ban on headscarves was seen as proof of “resurgent Islam” threatening European cultures.
The authors claim that
... Islam and Spanish are metonyms for the dangers that those most opposed to immigration perceive as looming ahead: loss of cultural identity, accompanied by disintegrative separatism or communal conflict.
Muslims in Europe come from a variety of backgrounds – South Asia, North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and Indonesia. Then there are historically European Muslims – Bosnians and Albanians. Within each group migrating from a single nation are numerous ethnic and tribal groups. Many Turks in Germany are ethnically Kurdish, while many French Algerians are Berbers and not Arabs. There are thus enormous varieties of ethnicity, language, class and sect.
The authors say that this leads to Muslim communities having no shared or agreed upon political orientation. Different Muslims have different orders of priorities in their identity and their lifestyle. Not every European who happens to be Muslim regards religion as always central to their life.
The authors argue that Europe’s Muslims practise many versions of Islam, and that these range as widely as their Christian counterparts. This leads to “perennial calls by religious leaders for unity of the umma (community)". And usually these calls are in vain, as anyone who has tried to celebrate Eid on the same day as everyone else soon finds out.
The authors claim that essentially the objections to a Muslim presence in Europe boil down to one question: “can one be Muslim and European?”
How do we answer this question? I have my own views which I have shared at different times on this blog. Readers are welcome to share their own views. Anyone have any ideas?
© Irfan Yusuf 2007