Saturday, March 27, 2004

East and West: the Experience of Islam in an expanding Europe

I've got a job, and can only take a little time off, so when the Center for European Studies hosted this (25-27 March) I only had time for one session. Wish I'd heard about the keynote address in time to go ("Religious Revivalism among European Muslims: Middle East Import or Indigenous").

I went to the "Islam and the Politics of State" panel on Friday.

It was the second panel of the day. Luckily I'd brought some work to do in case things started late--which they did, of course. I suppose it is gratifying to see that physicists are not the only ones who have trouble with speakers running overtime, or with talks with grand titles and lightweight content.

The first fellow, Sam Cherribi, was a Dutch Member of Parliament, member of the Council of Europe, and in fact is currently running for office. His talk would have perhaps been the most interesting of the bunch: "Europe's 'Muslim Problem': What Political Elites Think." A pity somebody had put the fear of the clock into him--he ran through his slides so fast I couldn't read half of them. After the Seville summit he collared a number of officials from all over Europe. He found that left and right agreed that the MidEast problems were transnational, that illegal immigration was a key problem, and that Muslim immigrants must respect European democracy. In June 2001, the "Muslim problem" was not seen as dangerous, but people worried that they were importing the problems of the Middle East.

The leftist politicians tended to see poverty and inequality as driving the illegal immigration problems, while the right tended to see inadequate laws or enforcement as the issue--and each looked for solutions accordingly. Not exactly earth-shattering news, but I suppose you have to do a systematic check.

The second speaker was a French expert in immigration in general, though not necessarily Islam in particular. Catherine Wihtol de Wenden spoke to "The Institutionalization of Islam in Europe." I had a little trouble following her at first, and so I missed some of the details of a very interesting assertion: that her group found poor correlation between immigration and Islamism and hooliganism, but strong correlation between Islamism and prison. I presume that means that the more vicious forms of Islamism recruit better in prisons than in the general population.

She said there were 15 million non-Europeans in Europe, with about 12 million "Muslim." 60% of the Muslims had been there more than 20 years, and the rest were mostly refugees. Reactions to refugees differ--radical Islamists are accepted in UK and Germany, but not France, while Algerian refugees are more welcome in France. Of the 3 or 4 nationalities that dominate the Muslim groups, 2 are "diaspora-like:" the Turks (mostly Germany) and Moroccans (?accent? and Spain), with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (UK) as the next largest groups.

France thinks it has about 4 million Muslims, but can't be sure because the census is now legally forbidden to ask about religion. Most of these Muslims are poor. Both France and Belgium have Muslim political parties, and both countries created central councils to address questions of conflict (marriage law, sacrificial customs, etc). Elsewhere in Europe these are usually local level discussions. People are still arguing about what it means to be a citizen of the Europe. It isn't clear if any of these great debates are getting anywhere.

Practicing Muslims she alleges to be rather rare--presumably as rare as practicing Christians. It isn't always clear what "Islam as used" (her phrase) means--many Muslims are becoming very national-minded.

Sean McLoughlin from Leeds addressed "Muslim Leaders, the State and Civil Society: Politics, Representation and the Muslim Council of Britain." The moderator called time on him twice. He discussed the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) which was established in 1997 for "constructive engagement" on a national level. The UK has about 1.6 million muslims, almost all from the Indian subcontinent, and overwhelmingly urban (1/3 are in London alone). The Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are mostly poor (60% of Pakistanis are on the dole, compared to 16% of anglos), but the Muslims from India tend to be middle class or better. Unity wasn't particularly noticeable until the 90's, when the state suggested the Muslims get together into some larger group. {Yes, I know this conflicts with de Wenden's earlier talk.} The MCP replaced an earlier organization, and is currently facing challenges of its own from new groups {types not specified}.

Multicultural policies tend to reinforce ethnicity in the lower class Muslims, but middle and upper class Muslims look to a more cosmopolitan identity.

He circulated a slick magazine put out by those aforementioned upper/middle class Muslims. It resembled Christian general interest magazines put out by conservative Christian denominations, but with Muslim observances rather than Bible study. It even had a "Is the Passion anti-semitic" article. I didn't see any objection to it on Muslim grounds, curiously enough.

The state has begun to publicly criticize things previously protected by "multiculturalism," such as importing imams, contracting transcontinental marriages, and so on.

The MCP is spread thin, with leadership mostly middle class and of Indian background rather than Pakistani, and he said it didn't accommodate the Pakistani "peasants" well. It has a hair-trigger attitude: the slightest hint of a shadow of a thought of prejudice against Muslims evokes letters of complaint. The activists are associated mostly with Reformist Islam {sorry, I don't know what he means by this}. Some seem to have Deobandi background (Sufi tradition, but ultra-conservative) and some Jameli Islam {?didn't hear this?}. The government doesn't think them entirely moderate. {Deobandis are supposed to be moderate?}

Jorgen Nielsen, from the University of Birmingham, telegraphed his notes as quickly as possible in order to meet an engagement to talk on the radio. He was the "comment" man. And so, briefly: Israel/Palestine questions matter more to Arab first generation immigrants (not so much second generation or non-Arab), or at least this was true until the last few years. Italy is questioning whether mosques are political centers as well as religious ones. "In many ways politicians reflect the public as well as lead the public." {Yes, he was dead serious.} There are class distinctions among Muslims. For example, the headscarf is middle/upper class, while the burka is lower class. Religions which are neither Christian nor Muslim are getting annoyed with the focus on Muslims, and the UK government is trying to defocus and talk more generically and inclusively.

I do not vouch for the accuracy of any of their claims; I merely report what I heard.

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