By Rumy Hasan
03 March, 2015
In his 19 January letter to 1,000 mosque leaders, the UK communities secretary Eric Pickles asks how belief in Islam can be part of British identity — an acknowledgement by the government that there is lack of integration among Britain’s Muslim communities. The immediate response by Muslim leaders and organisations was typical: take umbrage and put up a “do not disturb” sign. But on 1 February the Muslim Council of Britain opened the doors of some mosques to the public as a gesture of goodwill and openness. However, it was no more than tokenism, and does not address the lack of integration. This issue is now of profound importance throughout Europe and many are losing patience with that “do not disturb” attitude of so many Muslim organisations and their demands for separate rights and resources.
One who is impatient is Ahmed Abutaleb, the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam, who aroused much controversy when he bluntly told Muslims on live Dutch television on 13th January: “If you don’t like freedom, for heaven’s sake pack your bags and leave. If you do not like it here because some humorists you don’t like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can f*** off.” Such blunt comments have long been considered beyond the pale in mainstream political circles and in polite society at large. But Abutaleb’s terse view is probably shared by a majority of Europeans. The situation of Muslims in western society is now at the forefront of political thinking and will not go away. On the contrary, unease, disquiet, and tensions are likely to increase.
Whilst addressing Muslim radicalisation is now the highest priority, there are wider, societal, concerns about Muslims in the EU, which are deep-rooted. In France, an opinion poll conducted by IFOP in October 2012 found that 60% of respondents consider the influence and visibility of Islam in France are too high, and that 43% of French believe the presence of a Muslim community in France is a threat to the French identity; only 17% consider this is a source of enrichment.
In Germany (which, after France, has the second largest Muslim population in the EU), since October 2014 there have been regular and substantial anti-Islam marches and rallies (especially in the city of Dresden) organised by a newly formed grassroots movement by the name of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). What is invariably omitted in media coverage of these protests is that the potential support for such a movement is very strong. For example, a survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in January 2015 found that 57% of Germans considered Islam “very much” or “somewhat” of a threat and that 61% believe that Islam is “incompatible with the western world”. Similar protests have started in Norway, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Austria.
In the Netherlands, long renowned for its tolerance and liberalism, the anti-Islam PVV (Party for Freedom) led by the controversial Geert Wilders is currently leading in the polls: In November 2014 the party called for the closure of all mosques to “de-Islamise the Netherlands”. Concerns in the Netherlands about Islam have increased sharply over the past decade and a half. For example, an extensive survey conducted by Paul Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn as far back as 1998 — before 9/11 and the war on terror — showed that approximately half the Dutch population thought that “western European and Muslim ways of life are irreconcilable”.
In Britain too, there has been rising unease about Islam. This is evidenced by the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2010, which highlighted the fact that of all the major religions in Britain, only Islam generated an overall negative response.
Similarly, a Populus poll in 2011, considered the largest survey into identity and extremism in the UK, found that 52% of respondents agreed with the proposition that “Muslims create problems in the UK” (a far higher percentage than for other religious groups). Indeed, such negative responses are likely to have increased during the intervening years given recent troubling phenomena. These include the Trojan Horse plot in Birmingham in which hardline Islamists were attempting to take over the running of a number of state schools in areas which are almost entirely comprised of Muslim neighbourhoods; the scandal of the “grooming” and child sexual exploitation of white girls by gangs of men from a Pakistani Muslim background in several towns and cities (in Bristol the perpetrators were Somali men); the killing by Islamists of the soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London, in May 2013, and various terror threats that have been thwarted. These all increase negative views on Islam and Muslims.
What is true, despite different policies, is that the outcome has been similar in towns and cities in several European countries with large Muslim populations. Rather than a new respectful, tolerant, all-encompassing and socially cohesive society envisaged by advocates of multiculturalism and multifaithism, with accommodation of separate cultural and religious demands, instead we see segregation, ghettoisation, resentment, alienation, communal stress to the point of hostility, and the leading of what Ted Cantle, author of the seminal report on Oldham riots in 2001, termed “parallel lives”. There is widespread consensus that multiculturalism has failed. Indeed, the reality is that many Muslim communities have become “psychically detached”, with few points of contact and little affinity or identity with mainstream European society.
The task for policymakers, which is now urgent and important, is how to undo the separatism and high levels of psychic detachment, which have reached worrying proportions and are generating considerable unease in all EU countries with significant Muslim populations, and to advocate values that can forge commonalities. Some, such as Ukip leader Nigel Farage have suggested that Europe’s values are based on a “Judeo-Christian culture”. But surely this is mistaken given the long history of persecution of Jews in Europe by Christians. Moreover, Pope Francis explicitly rejects freedom of expression in regard to religion — perhaps not altogether surprising for the head of a church which, until 1966, had a “list of prohibited books”.
So Judeo-Christian values — even if there is agreement on what they actually are — will not be efficacious if Europe is serious about integrating its Muslim citizens. What millions in Paris marched for last month are enlightenment, and secular values which can form the bedrock of a European identity that encompasses all its minorities. Those who are not prepared to adhere to these are values are, of course, in the words of Mayor Abutaled free to pack up their bags and leave. Muslims certainly have a large choice: the 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference where the values so cherished throughout Europe are largely forbidden.
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at SPRU, University of Sussex.