Chestnut Hill, Mass.
TWO weeks ago, dozens of cars were set alight in the French city of
Clermont-Ferrand after a 30-year-old truck driver, Wissam El-Yamni, was
roughed up and then died while in police custody. The uproar underscored
the hostility of young minority men toward authority across communities
in Europe, an antipathy that has at times led to deadly violence.
The failure of Islamic integration in Europe is often attributed —
especially by right-wing parties — to an excess of tolerance toward the
large-scale Muslim immigration that began in the mid-1970s. By
recognizing Muslim religious requirements, the argument goes, countries
like France, Britain and the Netherlands have unwittingly hindered
assimilation and even, in some cases, fostered radicalism. But the
unrest in gritty European suburbs stems not from religious difference,
but from anomie.
Europeans should not be afraid to allow Muslim students to take classes
on Islam in state-financed schools and universities. The recognition and
accommodation of Islamic religious practices, from clothing to language
to education, does not mean capitulation to fundamentalism. On the
contrary, only by strengthening the democratic rights of Muslim citizens
to form associations, join political parties and engage in other
aspects of civic life can Europe integrate immigrants and give full
meaning to the abstract promise of religious liberty.
The rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties has led several European
countries to impose restrictions on Islamic dress, mosque-building and
reunification of families through immigration law. These policies are
counterproductive. Paradoxically, people for whom religion is otherwise
not all that important become more attached to their faith’s clothing,
symbols and traditions when they feel they are being singled out and
denied basic rights.
Take, for example, the French debate over whether to recognize the
Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and the Muslim festival of Eid
al-Adha as official holidays. Yes, the French state clings to the
principle of “laïcité,” or secularism — but the state’s recognition of
Easter and Christmas as official holidays feels, to some Jews and
Muslims, like hypocrisy. It is Islam’s absence in the institutions young
European Muslims encounter, starting with the school’s calendar,
classroom and canteen, that contributes to anger and alienation.
In the last few months, there have been some signs that the right-wing
momentum has slowed. A French bill to ban headscarves from day care
centers was killed in committee. The Dutch Parliament voted down a bill
to outlaw Islamic animal slaughter. And Germany’s most populous state
helped offset a judicial ban on school prayer by announcing equal access
to religion courses for Muslim students.
European countries could use a period of benign neglect of the Islam
issue — but only after they finish incorporating religion into the
national fabric. For too long, they have instead masked an absence of
coherent integration policy under the cloak of “multiculturalism.” The
state outsourced the hard work of integration to foreign diplomats and
Islamist institutions — for example, some students in Germany read
Saudi-supplied textbooks in Saudi-run institutions.
This neglect of integration helped an unregulated “underground Islam” to
take hold in storefronts, basements and courtyards. It reflected
wishful thinking about how long guest workers would stay and perpetuated
a myth of eventual departure and repatriation.
In Britain, for example, race-based equality laws protected Sikhs and
Jews as minorities, but not Hindus and Muslims, since they were still
Institutional exclusion fueled a demand for religious recognition, and
did much to unite and segregate Muslims. Islamist organizations became
the most visible defenders of the faith. It is crucial now to provide
the right mix of institutional incentives for religious and political
moderation, and the most promising strategy for doing that is for
governments to consult with the full range of law-abiding religious
institutions that Muslims have themselves established.
The French Council for the Muslim Faith, the German Islam Conference,
the Committee for Italian Islam and the Mosques and Imams National
Advisory Board in Britain — all state-sanctioned Islamic organizations
set up in the past decade — represent a broad cross-section of mosque
administrators in every country. They have quietly begun reconciling
many practical issues, from issuing mosque permits to establishing
Islamic theology departments at public universities to appointing
chaplains in the military and in prisons.
Ultimately, however, elected democratic institutions are the place where
the desires of individual Muslims should be expressed. Ever since 1789,
when a French legislator argued that “the Jews should be denied
everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals,”
Europeans have struggled to resolve the tension between rights derived
from universal citizenship versus group membership.
Over the next 20 years, Europe’s Muslim population is projected to grow
to nearly 30 million — 7 to 8 percent of all Europeans — from around 17
million. Granting Muslims full religious freedom wouldn’t remove
obstacles to political participation or create jobs. But it would at
least allow tensions over Muslims’ religious practices to fade. This
would avoid needless sectarian strife and clear the way for politicians
to address the more vexing and urgent challenges of socioeconomic