October 19, 2005

An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe

Introduction

Throughout Europe today, it is not uncommon to see women wearing headscarves and men with skull caps and beards. On many European streets, shops now sport signs in Arabic and other Near Eastern languages and sell an array of exotic looking products from the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. Indeed, in the space of a few decades, whole neighborhoods in cities like Birmingham, Rotterdam and Paris have been transformed. Streets that have witnessed hundreds of years of European history are now playing host to a decidedly non-Western people and culture.

This is the new Europe, one in which a rapidly growing Muslim population is making its presence felt in societies that until recently were largely homogeneous. Muslims are still very much minorities in Western and Central European countries, making up roughly 5 percent of the European Union’s total population. But a number of demographic trends point to dramatic change in the years ahead.

Islam is already the fastest-growing religion in Europe. Driven by immigration and high birthrates, the number of Muslims on the continent has tripled in the last 30 years. Most demographers forecast a similar or even higher rate of growth in the coming decades.

The social impact of this growing population is magnified by a low birthrate among native Europeans. After a post-World War II baby boom, birthrates in Europe have dropped to an average of 1.45 children per couple, far below the 2.1 needed to keep population growth at replacement levels. The continent that gave the rest of the world tens of millions of immigrants and Thomas Malthaus’ dire predictions of overpopulation is now faced with a shrinking populace.

Amid these demographic shifts lies a host of social challenges. While many European Muslims have become successful in their new homes, many others do not speak their host country’s language well, if at all, and are often jobless and poor. Moreover, segregation, whether by choice or necessity, is common, with large numbers of Muslims living in ghettos where the crime and poverty rates are high.

For Europeans, too, Muslim immigration poses special challenges. Unlike the United States – a land of immigrants with no dominant ethnic group – most nations in Europe are built around a population base with a common ethnicity. Moreover, these countries possess deep historical, cultural, religious and linguistic traditions. Injecting hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of people who look, speak and act differently into these settings often makes for a difficult social fit.

Tensions also have arisen over religion. The centrality of Islam in the lives of so many European Muslims is hard for increasingly secular Scandinavians, Germans and Frenchmen to comprehend. Europeans worry that Islam will make it difficult for their Muslim neighbors to accept many of the continent’s core values, such as tolerance, democracy and equal rights for women.

These social pressures have been compounded by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent events – particularly the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and, most recently, the bombings and attempted bombings in July 2005 on the transport system in London. Terrorism and its link to radical Islam have made Europeans even more wary of Muslims, especially those living within their midst. In the case of the London attacks, the perpetrators were born and raised in Britain, a circumstance that many in the U.K. found as disturbing as the acts of violence themselves.

The growing presence of Muslims on the continent coupled with increased social tensions have provided fuel for xenophobic, nativist political parties throughout Europe, helping to propel a number of them into the political mainstream. Meanwhile, terrorism-related fears have led most European countries to pass stiffer antiterror measures. The recent attacks in London in particular have led Britain and other states to propose even tougher laws.

Into this volatile mix comes the continent-wide, decades- old debate over whether Turkey should be admitted into the European Union (EU). Some of Europe’s most important leaders, including France’s Jacques Chirac, Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Luis Zapatero, have publicly stated that they favor eventual EU membership for Turkey. In addition, supporters of Turkish accession have scored a number of key victories in the last year, most notably the start of formal membership talks on October 4, 2005.

But at the same time, long-term prospects for Turkish accession have dimmed considerably. In May and June 2005, voters in France and then the Netherlands rejected the proposed EU constitution. While the constitution never mentions Turkey, exit polls in both countries indicate that many people voted “no” in part to protest further EU enlargement. In particular, voters said, they were wary of the addition of Turkey.

Indeed, opinion polls in most EU countries show that despite the support of much of Europe’s political elite, the continent’s populace remains skeptical of the benefits of including a largely Near Eastern and Muslim country of 70 million in Europe’s grand experiment. Moreover, not all political leaders support Turkish accession. For instance, Germany’s new chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s interior minister and leading presidential aspirant, Nicholas Sarkozy, both openly oppose Turkish membership.

The argument over Turkey goes beyond the geopolitical pluses and minuses of EU membership and raises the larger issue of Europe’s troubled relationship with Islam. It is an old acquaintance, one stretching back more than 1,300 years. And it is marked by countless wars and occupations as well as a vibrant, steady cultural exchange. Over the last 40 or more years, though, the relationship has entered a new phase, one dominated by the largely peaceful migration of Muslims to Europe, usually in search of work or freedom.

European governments have grappled with this migration in various ways and with varying degrees of success. Some countries, such as France and Britain, have had relatively well-established policies toward immigrants for decades. And Britain, in particular, has had some success in integrating Muslim newcomers into the broader society. Other states, such as Germany, Spain and Italy, have, until recently, treated their Muslim communities as temporary phenomena – groups of “guest workers” or foreigners who would eventually return to their homelands.

But the growing size and importance of the Muslim population in most European countries is forcing the continent’s governments – even those with established immigration policies – to focus more intently on trying to bring this community into the mainstream. Recent efforts have ranged from new laws aimed at hastening the pace of assimilation, such as the recent French headscarf ban, to proposals to assist in creating a more homegrown, European brand of Islam, as is happening in the Netherlands.

The successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe. Prognosticators may disagree on the community’s ultimate demographic and social impact, but all believe that Muslims at the very least will be a significant and sizable minority that will play an important role in shaping the continent’s future.

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