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Europe's rising class of believers: Muslims

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 2005


As the three young North African women talked about their Muslim faith at a cafe here one recent evening, they could not help noticing how patrons at the next table were reacting.

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One French man leaned so far back in his chair to hear the animated discussion that he almost joined the group. Suspicion and disapproval darkened his look.

Nadia Mirad, a psychology student who works at a children's activity center, knows that look. Last year, she recalled, when she asked for a day off to celebrate the end of the annual Ramadan fast, her boss exploded.

"She said I was being unprofessional," Ms. Mirad explained, sipping a Coke. "She said the world didn't stop turning just for a Muslim holiday. I'm French, but I felt I was not a full French citizen at that moment. I really did not feel at home."

Her two student friends, both of them also born and raised in France, nodded in sympathy. "We feel as French as France will let us feel," said Bouthaïna Gargouri. "But it's true, I can't live my religion fully here."

None of them, for example, wears a head scarf, though they all say they would like to do so one day. Making such a visible show of their religion, however, would make it almost impossible for them to get a job, they agreed.

"I can't afford to put up barriers to what I want to be," said Leïla Bousteïla, who hopes to become an interpreter for deaf mutes.

Religion's place in public life has shot to the top of the agenda in France, and in the rest of Europe, for one reason: Islam, and the growing millions of people on the Continent who practice it.

Shocked by the discovery of Islamic terrorist networks on their soil, Europeans have suddenly woken up to the existence of an often marginalized Muslim minority that takes religion more seriously than they do.

Today, the relationship between native Europeans and their Muslim neighbors is fraught with tension. Mistrust on both sides threatens to explode into violence. Late last year, arsonists destroyed two mosques and a Muslim school in the Netherlands after an Islamic radical there was arrested for murdering filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had criticized Muslim treatment of women.

Particularly unnerving are the violent messages spread by a number of radical Muslim preachers. "I believe the whole of Britain has become Dar ul Harb [land of war]," Syrian-born cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed told followers in a webcast on "PalTalk" last month. "The jihad is halal [acceptable] for the Muslims wherever they are." [Editor's note: The original version of this article mistranslated Dar ul Harb.]

"Active Christians in mainstream churches across the Continent are worried by the rise in fundamentalist nationalism," says Jorgen Nielsen, a professor of Islamic studies at Birmingham University in England.

"Secularists tend to be more worried not just about Islam but the return of religion to the public space," he adds.

Europe's Muslim population has tripled in the past 30 years, fueled by immigration from North Africa, Turkey, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This rapid growth "questions our ... ability to integrate" them, warns Patrick Weil, a French sociologist.

"This is the first time for a long time ... that we have had to show that we can adapt and accept religious diversity," he adds. "That is a challenge."