European Muslims are not new. Nor are they all the same

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SHAFAQNA – With so many passions aroused in Europe by the impact of the refugee crisis, rising populism, fear of terrorism, not to mention confused debates over secularism and burkinis, exploring what European Muslims think has arguably never been more important. One interesting figure is the grand mufti of Slovenia who I met at a recent conference in Austria, held by the International Peace Institute. Slovenia is a predominantly Catholic country of two million people – among them, an estimated 50,000 Muslims. The country’s first mosque is currently under construction in the capital, Ljubljana. Building it required the overcoming of many political and administrative hurdles – these were eventually cleared when Slovenia’s constitutional court ruled that denying a minority the right to a place of worship ran counter to religious freedoms. Unsurprisingly, Grand Mufti Nezad Grabus thinks these are difficult times for Muslims in Europe. They constantly have to fend off suspicions of links with radical Islamism or terrorism.

Grabus is a quiet, smiling man in his late 40s. If there is one thing he wants to stress, it is that “Islam is part of European civilisation”. Islam is by no means a new religion in Europe, “but it has new manifestations”, he says. He was shocked by this summer’s burkini ban in some French seaside resorts, and he’s bluntly opposed to any legislation outlawing the niqab. But he also says the niqab is something European Muslims must work to counter, because it prevents Muslim women from finding a rightful place in society. Grabus was born in the Bosnian town of Travnik (his father later moved the family to Slovenia where he’d found work, when it was part of communist Yugoslavia). He is a Balkan Muslim. Islam certainly isn’t new in the Balkans, a region that was dominated for centuries by the Ottoman empire.

Just as Europe is a patchwork of cultures and nations, Europe’s Muslim populations are extremely diverse, as is their history. This may sound obvious, but it’s something that gets easily pushed aside in all the heated debates about Islam, migration and identity politics. Muslims tend to get lumped together as a single entity. “In Europe, we Muslims have to acknowledge that we have no common narrative,” says the mufti, “there are many differences.” For example, he points to how ethnic characteristics play a more important role than many observers realise. Muslims can relate as much to their ethnic or national roots (Bosnian, Albanian, Turkish, Kurdish, Algerian, Pakistani etc) as they do to their religious beliefs. Religious revival, as in any faith, doesn’t mean you sweep away other parts of your identity.

But that’s not to say there can’t be a “common narrative”, and Grabus is adamant that: “As Muslims in Europe, our duty is to create one, in which we would expose our understanding of Islam belonging here.” Much of this, he points out, has to do with education and overcoming ignorance, both among Muslims and non-Muslims. How many people, he asks, know that Austro-Hungary, under the Habsburgs, recognised Islam as an official religion as long ago as 1912? How many know that the first mosque in France was built by the secular French republic (in Paris, in the 1920s) as a tribute to the tens of thousands of Muslims who died in the first world war? And how many people are ready to consider that the medieval scholar Averroes, born in Córdoba when Andalucía was ruled by the Arabs, was a European Muslim?

With all the current obsessing over terrorism and radicalisation, it’s easy to forget about Europe’s variety, and the diversity of its Muslim populations. Days after talking with Grabus, I was in Cologne, meeting representatives of the Turkish-Islamic Union for religious affairs (as part of a study group on Germany and the refugee crisis, organised by the Robert Bosch Foundation). The central mosque in Cologne is a beautiful, modern building with concrete and glass walls, and an Ottoman-styled dome. It is still under construction, and it stands as proof of some of the societal changes now under way.

A million Muslims live in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia – a third of Germany’s three-million-strong Turkish community. The Turkish-Islamic Union has strong institutional ties with the Turkish state – something that has led some German politicians to express doubts about where its loyalties lie. It took decades for Germany to face up to the fact that its Turkish Gastarbeiter immigrants, who arrived mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, should be entitled to citizenship and treated as an integral part of society – a population that had settled definitively, not temporarily. But Murat Kayman, a member of the Turkish-Islamic union, says “the attitude towards Muslims has never been as bad” as it is today. Anti-Muslim and racist incidents are on the rise. The fact Germany is now grappling with the integration of more than one million refugees who arrived in 2015 – many of them from the Arab world – has created additional stress. Last year’s outbreak of “welcome culture” has faded and the far right has made electoral gains – to which Angela Merkel reacted ambiguously by saying in a speech: “Germany will remain Germany.”

What struck me while talking to the Slovenian grand mufti and to leaders of Cologne’s Turkish Muslims is what little contact and exchanges they seem to have with each other, or with Muslim communities in France, Britain or Scandinavia. Just as European countries each grapple separately with issues to do with multiculturalism, integration, and contrasted models of relations between religion and the state, European Muslim populations are fragmented. These complexities get drowned out in Europe’s often hysterical debates over Islam.

The historian Tony Judt once wrote about the need to “map the overlapping contours and faultlines of European identity and experience”, because “in an age of demographic transition and resettlement, today’s Europeans are more numerous and heterogeneous than ever before”. How European societies embrace growing diversity will in many ways determine the fate of our democracies. Paying more attention to the differences among Europe’s Muslims, rather than seeing them as a homogeneous bloc, could be a way forward.

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