Home The Washington Diplomat June 2008 Immigration and Islam: The European Dilemma

Immigration and Islam: The European Dilemma


In “Children of Men” — Alfonso Cuarón’s movie about a dystopian world in which women can no longer get pregnant — hordes of gun-toting, bearded Islamic fighters rampage through the trash-strewn streets of London in the year 2027, screaming “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

It’s a figment of Cuarón’s imagination, of course, but not an entirely unbelievable scenario in light of recent comments by political leaders and pundits on both sides of Europe’s “Islamic population bomb” controversy.

Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams came under fierce attack after he suggested that the incorporation of Sharia Islamic law in England was “unavoidable” given Islam’s rapidly growing presence. The country has nearly 1.6 million Muslims, representing 2.7 percent of Great Britain’s total population. Most of those professing Islam though come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh rather than the Arab world,

“The problem we have with Europe is that it is infested with the Muslim population,” claims Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese Christian author and well-known Islam-basher who runs the Washington-based organization American Congress for Truth.

“We’re looking at France right now, where the Muslims are multiplying and growing much faster than the French. The same thing is happening in Germany,” she insisted. Gabriel cites Denmark as another example, noting that Muslim leaders in Copenhagen have already declared that by 2050, Denmark will be an Islamic state because they will constitute more than 50 percent of the population.

The fact is that low birth rates have led to population stagnation in much of Western Europe, which has had to import workers from North Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere. As a result, many people fear Europe is gradually becoming more Muslim — a trend that would undoubtedly be accelerated if Turkey, with its 68 million Muslims, is someday admitted into the European Union.

Still fresh in many people’s minds are the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people and were attributed to al-Qaeda, as well as the coordinated attacks on London’s transport system on July 7, 2005, which killed 56 people — including four suicide bombers — and injured some 700. The explosions ranked as the deadliest terrorist attack in London’s history.

Couple that with the fact that in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, there are already “no-go” areas — Muslim ghettoes where police fear to enter and where Sharia law is informally implemented. In the French city of Lyon, for example, a large public square sarcastically called the “Gaza Strip” by locals fills up every day with young, unemployed Moroccans, Algerians and other Maghreb Arabs, smoking cigarettes and looking for something to do.

Recently, Danes and Norwegians found themselves under verbal attack and threats of physical harm after cartoons of the prophet Muhammad were published in Danish and Norwegian newspapers. And in a speech to Turkish expatriates in Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan famously said that “assimilation is a crime against humanity.”

Yet how assimilated are Europe’s Muslims really? How much of the escalating rhetoric about a so-called “Eurabia” is accurate or just plain xenophobia? To learn how European governments are dealing with the challenges of integrating their Islamic minorities into society, The Washington Diplomat interviewed half a dozen European ambassadors on this particularly sensitive subject. “I am not of the view that Europe will be taken over by immigration from Muslim countries,” declared Urs Ziswiler, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States. “The Islamization of Europe is largely exaggerated.”

However, in Switzerland, immigration— Islamic and otherwise — is undeniably the biggest issue facing the government today. “We have the largest percentage of foreigners of any European country,” said Ziswiler.

Muslims currently comprise 4.3 percent of the country’s 7.3 million inhabitants. Some 60 percent of these come from the former Yugoslavia, and the majority are immigrants and refugees from Kosovo. Another 20 percent are Turks, and most of the remainder are from North Africa.

Ziswiler said that for the most part, Switzerland’s Muslims are Muslim in name only, because Islam was suppressed by the communists. Yet the country’s 250,000 or so Kosovars do create a problem of social integration, especially because many come from violent backgrounds.

“The numbers are huge, and they are more difficult to integrate than other immigrant groups we had, but we did it with the Italians in the ’50s and ’60s, and I am convinced we will also do it with the Kosovars,” Ziswiler said. “Periodically, the Swiss like to hold national referendums on immigration and in each vote, some up to 40 percent of the population says they want to send back all immigrants. This happened for instance in the ’50s, when the Italians were blamed for everything that seemed to go wrong. Now the Italians in Switzerland are more Swiss than the Swiss.”

Worldwide, the numbers do show a dramatic increase in Muslims, but the effect on specific European countries varies greatly. In 1960, Muslims accounted for 13 percent of the world’s population. By 2001, that proportion had climbed to 20 percent, and by 2050 — if current trends continue — around 35 percent of the world’s people will profess Islam, a higher percentage than at any time since the religion’s founding.

Yet only in two European countries do Muslims actually constitute the majority: Albania (70 percent) and the newly independent republic of Kosovo (90 percent), a former autonomous province of Serbia. Bosnia, Bulgaria and Macedonia also have sizeable Muslim communities.

At the other extreme are Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg and Moldova — all countries where Muslims form less than 0.01 percent of the population.

Yet even countries with tiny Muslim populations aren’t immune to controversy. Recently, Norway was shaken by an incident in which three men shot up a synagogue and planned embassy attacks. Arfan Bhatti, 30, was arrested and charged with firing 13 shots into the wall of the capital city’s main Jewish house of worship in September 2006, and for planning attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies. Bhatti, who is of Pakistani descent, and his alleged two accomplices are all citizens of Norway, which is trying the men under anti-terrorism laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Nevertheless, Wegger Christian Strommen, Norway’s ambassador to the United States, said problems with his country’s Muslim minority are very rare. “We are peculiar in the sense that we have so few Muslims,” Strommen told The Diplomat. “Out of 4.5 million people, only 120,000 to 130,000 are Muslim, and the first ones who came, Pakistanis and Moroccans, have settled in well. They’ve learned the language, thanks to free courses in Norwegian, and after awhile, they are no longer considered immigrants.”

About two-thirds of Norway’s Muslims live in the Oslo region. “We encourage them to organize themselves into benevolent societies, associations and Muslim student organizations — everything from mosques to sports clubs,” the ambassador said. “We are a society that relies a lot on volunteer organizations.”

In addition to Pakistanis, Norway’s Muslim immigrant population also includes smaller numbers of Afghanis, Turks, Moroccans, Iraqis and Somalis.

Yet Norway’s Muslim population pales in comparison to that of neighboring Sweden, which has taken in 40,000 Iraqis since the war there began in 2003. Last year alone, more than 18,000 Iraqis came to Sweden, which has one of the world’s most lenient refugee policies.

According to the Washington Post, in Södertälje — a city of 83,000 about 18 miles southwest of Stockholm — about 40 percent of the residents are foreign-born or the children of immigrants, many of them refugees from conflicts around the world. The Swedish government budgets ,000 to help settle each person who is granted asylum, reports the newspaper. It also pays for Swedish language classes, helps with housing and job training, and pays a monthly allowance for living expenses.

But it’s France that has more Muslims than any other country in Europe, with an estimated 4.9 million adherents, or 8 percent of the country’s total population. Some experts say the true number is closer to 6 million, a figure that certainly seems believable when walking around cities such as Marseilles that have sizeable Moroccan and Algerian ethnic communities.

In late 2005, France was rocked by two months of rioting and violent clashes that began in the run-down Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, when two teenagers were accidentally electrocuted in a power substation while fleeing police. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was France’s interior minister at the time, declared a “zero tolerance” policy toward urban violence and referred to the rioting youths — mostly Muslims — as scum.

The violence eventually spread to 274 cities and towns across France, leaving 126 police officers and firefighters injured. Nearly 2,900 people were arrested and more than 8,900 vehicles burned, with monetary damage estimated at 200 million euros.

Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador in Washington, conceded that the unrest caught his country by surprise. “In the suburbs, we had some violence, and we had to calm these people down. But you have to make a distinction between problems of social integration and Islamic terrorism,” he said. “This is a problem of integration, of families that live in suburbs in poor conditions. That’s the whole issue, and whether it’s Paris, Lyon or Marseilles, we need to improve transportation, housing and education. We’re talking about a community of French citizens, usually the sons and grandsons of those who came from North Africa.”

Terrorists, on the other hand, usually come from the Middle East, he pointed out. “We are all facing more or less the same issue, but to say those people are extremists or potential terrorists is too easy.”

In both absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total population, Germany has fewer Muslims than France. The most populous and economically powerful country in Europe, Germany is home to 82 million people. Of that total, 3.4 million are Muslims, including 1.8 million Turks, another 800,000 Germans of Turkish origin, and around 1 million people from the Balkans.

Klaus Scharioth, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, admits that mistakes were made in the very beginning, among them a failure to teach newcomers the German language.

“When we had the first wave of foreigners coming, mostly from Italy in the 1950s and then Turkey in the 1960s, Germany was not an immigrant society. We never really had large numbers of people from other countries, so Germany had to go through a learning experience. It wasn’t something that came naturally to us, as it does to you in the United States,” Scharioth said.

Nobody in European history was more violently xenophobic than Adolf Hitler, whose persecution and mass murders of Jews and non-Aryans is well documented. That makes today’s Germany, at least in theory, especially lenient toward people who are different.

“We learned it the hard way, and Germany paid for it like no one else, and rightfully so,” Scharioth told The Diplomat. “We think that because of our historical experience, we have to be relatively harsh. Therefore, if you do something like display the swastika, it is illegal. Yes, it’s a certain limitation on freedom of speech, but in our case this is warranted.”

Regarding the threat of Muslim-inspired terrorist attacks against his country, the ambassador said: “These jihadists and radical extremists don’t like open societies. That’s what they fight against. I would say Germany is an extremely open society, and therefore we are on their target list.”

Unlike the case in France, where nearly all Muslim immigrants are Arabs, those who come to Germany are primarily Turks and Bosnians. “It’s a totally different situation,” Scharioth said. “We have a relatively cohesive group of Muslims. They come from societies that have been trying to modernize dramatically over the last 80 years.”

He noted that most Turks who immigrated to Germany in the 1960s originated from eastern Turkey, which was more agricultural and less industrialized. “German industry was looking for people who could work in mining or the auto industry,” he explained. “What is so amazing about those Turks is that in less than 40 years, they have formed 57,000 independent businesses — usually small companies with five to 10 people, very often restaurants. Since they have something to win and something to lose, they form quite a successful part of our society.”

Scharioth said that in his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the number of Turkish-owned businesses has tripled in the last five years, from 7,000 to 21,000. Moreover, the number of people employed by those businesses has quadrupled over the same time period.

“Some professions like tailor shops are now dominated by Germans of Turkish origin, and their sons and daughters now own independent businesses,” Scharioth said, noting that almost none of the first generation of Turks spoke German when they arrived. “The Bosnians are not quite as far along, since they came in the mid-1990s. Usually, we have been more successful with those who were born in Germany.”

In more recent years, Scharioth added, far more emphasis has been placed on education for immigrants. Now people who arrive get a so-called integration course that includes 600 hours of German language instruction.

Still, simmering controversies about Islamic integration continue to make headlines in Germany, often when there’s a proposal to build a new mosque. The most recent debate flared up last year over whether a huge mosque in the German city of Cologne should be constructed despite objections from some local residents (the project is moving forward).

More recently in Switzerland, a coalition of right-wing nationalist groups is pushing for a referendum that, if passed, would prohibit the building of minarets in Switzerland. “We’ve got nothing against prayer rooms or mosques for the Muslims,” Ulrich Schlüer of the Swiss People’s Party told local reporters recently. “But a minaret is different. It’s got nothing to do with religion. It’s a symbol of political power.”

Schlüer claims he already has 40,000 signatures out of a required 100,000 that must be submitted by November. Yet Ziswiler, the Swiss ambassador, says the referendum wouldn’t likely take place until 2010, adding, “I give it a slim chance of succeeding.”

A similar move is afoot in Austria, where a far-right party in the state of Carinthia is trying to ban the construction of both mosques and minarets. Right-wing populist Jörg Haider has presented a draft law aimed at prohibiting “unusual” buildings that don’t fit in with traditional Austrian architecture. Another Austrian state, Vorarlberg, is considering a similar law.

Muslims already comprise 4 percent of the population of Austria, which since 1912 has recognized Islam as one of the nation’s official religions. Like Germany and Switzerland, most Muslims in Austria come from Turkey and the Balkans. “They are different [than Arabs], much closer to Western civilization,” said Austria’s ambassador to the United States, Eva Nowotny. “Living with them [Muslims] is not so difficult as those who come from a very different culture.”

She added that “though there’s very little violence, our biggest challenge is with language training. Most children of Muslim families don’t speak German. The government has implemented language training programs for mothers to help solve the problem.”

It’s certainly been a learning process for the government on how to minimize social tensions and integrate the country’s immigrants into Austria’s Western society. “We made the mistake of importing Arabic teachers from Saudi Arabia,” said the ambassador. “The parents objected because these teachers were indoctrinating their children in fundamentalism. We’re now getting our teachers from Morocco and Tunisia, and we are also training Austrian teachers in Arabic.”

So far, Austria has managed to escape the violence and tension plaguing countries like France. One reason: Austria has a low unemployment rate, especially among the youth. “Because they are working, young people don’t have time to sit around nursing their grievances,” Nowotny said, praising her country’s strong record in vocational and professional education, as well as in apprenticeship training that gives young people marketable skills.

Despite the general goodwill between Muslims and non-Muslims, Nowotny said her government recognizes the importance of national security at a time when the threat of militant Islamist attacks on European targets remains high.

“We take these threats very seriously,” she said. “We maintain watch lists and we are obliged to introduce surveillance and data collection on our citizens but our privacy laws are very strict. We have to have a balance.”

Yet when asked if she thought Islam would eventually take over Europe, Nowotny replied with a trace of wryness in her voice. “Do you think Austrians would want to give up listening to Mozart?” she mused. “I don’t think so. It’s just not going to happen.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat. Freelance writer Alan B. Nichols contributed to this report.