Beyond the minaret ban: Some European nations are more tolerant of Muslims

While a backlash persists in some nations, others are including Muslims in debates on national identity.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters
Muslims attended the recent installation of the dome of the Grand Mosque in Strasbourg, France. Across Europe, Muslims are becoming more assertive, prompting, and, in some cases, participating in, full-throated debates over national identity.

Call it a continental midlife crisis, or just a new symptom of the familiar angst about immigration and globalization.

Either way, the new decade will find Europeans in a full-throated debate over how to define their national identities in light of the heightened visibility of their fast-growing Muslim populations.

The debate over Islam in Europe has been largely owned by anti-immigration populists, as it still is in some countries, or it has focused on terrorism.

In the future, it may increasingly be a two-sided discussion, one conducted not just by the doubters and the fearful but also by newly assertive European-born Muslims who have set down roots and are eager to defend them.

Until very recently in France, for example, public discussion of issues concerning Muslims featured a familiar cast of non-Muslim academics and politicians talking about crime and alienation out in the ghettos, far from where they lived and worked.

But that pattern is changing. In November, the right-wing government ordered up a nationwide series of public hearings, set to run until next spring, on what it means to be French. In a remarkable shift, the mainstream newspapers and television channels are featuring an array of Muslim business owners, professionals, educators, and political activists who insist they have something to say about national identity.

“The media didn’t notice how society had changed and that people of different communities, not just Muslim but also black, could be invested, could be thoughtful, and could have something to say as witnesses and active participants,” says Marc Cheb Sun, the editor of Respect magazine in France.

Rather than shying away from a debate on national identity, he adds, French Muslims want to influence it. “It’s a real subject,” says Mr. Cheb Sun, the French-born son of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother. “We are always pressed to prove our French-ness, and I want it known that I have the right to be proud of all my multiple origins.”

Being part of the debate on national identity, rather than its targets, will still be difficult for Muslims in many European countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where resurgent anti-immigrant parties have put Muslim communities on the defensive.

The success of the Swiss referendum in November to ban minarets revived the discomfiting question of whether they might ever be considered an “us” rather than a “them.” How Europe defines citizenship will continue to be tested as countries wrestle with nationalist demands to ban the Muslim head scarf and the face-covering niqab, and freeze mosque construction.

Muslims will stay at the center of those debates because they will be more visible.

Now an estimated 5 percent of Europe’s population, they are expected to account for 10 percent by 2020, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in Washington. Their political weight could grow accordingly.

Germany is a case in point. Since 2000, children born in Germany to immigrant parents have German citizenship. But at the age of 18, they have to formally decide between the nationality of their parents and that of their birth country. Those who choose to be German could influence how that identity is defined.

“You can assume that on the political landscape, there could be several hundred thousand of such voters, maybe more, for this or that view,” says Siddik Bakir, a Turkish-born and German-educated scholar at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University in England. “So they become part of the political discussion, wanted or unwanted. And they would have a voice.”

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