Muslims Coming to Europe, Long Before Migrant Crisis

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On Bill Maher’s “Real Time” TV show on Sept. 11 this year, the conversation turned at one point to the flood of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, mostly from Syria and Iraq. Maher said that he understands why moderate Muslims are leaving their embattled homes in the Middle East, but questioned if it was right that they should “come to moderate, tolerant Europe to some day make it less moderate and tolerant?”

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Photo: 'DITIB-Zentralmoschee Köln - April 2015-7489'
by © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Construction of the Cologne Central Mosque in Germany, designed in an Ottoman architectural style, initially met with some resistance before plans were approved.

Maher’s guests chimed in to back up his assertion. Linda Chavez, the head of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a former advisor to President Ronald Reagan, said the problem with the huge influx of migrants to Europe is that Europeans (the implication being “white, Christian” Europeans) are not having enough babies while Muslims do have lots of babies. One day, “they” will take over by sheer weight of numbers, was the insinuation. But the offspring of these migrants won’t consider themselves Europeans. They’ll be Muslims to the end, probably living in Muslim ghettos because the Europeans are terrible at assimilating l’étranger.

But Muslims in Europe aren’t exactly strangers in a foreign land.

In fact, it’s not as if Europe is a new frontier in immigration, Islamic or otherwise. Muslims in Germany, mainly of Turkish origin, have been coming to the country for more than 50 years. Other Muslims in Germany hail from Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Morocco. The roughly 3 million foreign-born Muslims in France are largely from the country’s former colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have been settling in the United Kingdom for years.

Tatars first arrived in Poland six centuries ago. After centuries in the predominantly Catholic nation, the Tatar community has been largely absorbed into Polish life and culture.

Poland has also seen an influx in recent years of asylum seekers from Chechnya. Thousands of Chechens have been given asylum in Poland in the past 10 years. But in a period of 18 months between 2012 and 2013, Poland turned back around 52,000 people along its eastern borders, most of whom were Chechens. They were not turned back because they were Muslim but because of the way the European Union’s asylum laws work — asylum seekers are processed in the first country in which they arrive, and Poland was struggling to handle the massive influx.

What’s different now is not necessarily the wave of migrants or even Muslims, but the accelerated flow of that wave — unprecedented in scale since the end of World War II. In 2015 to date, Europe saw a 51 percent increase in the share of refugees it was taking in compared to the previous year — the biggest jump of any region in the world.

As of early October, more than 550,000 migrants had arrived in Europe from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Most of the migrants are arriving via southeastern Europe, with their first EU port of call being Greece (399,200 migrants) and Italy (131,400 migrants), from where they want to head north, usually to affluent countries such as Germany or Sweden.

According to the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants database, more than half the migrants arriving in Greece are from Syria (175,000), a number that is rapidly climbing. Lesser numbers of Afghans, Pakistanis, Albanians, and Iraqis are also arriving. In Italy, Eritreans (around 31,000) make up the single-largest group of arrivals, followed by half as many Nigerians and then groups of Somalis and Sudanese.

IOM says the Mediterranean chokepoint has now become the world’s most dangerous border crossing, recording nearly 3,000 migrants deaths so far this year. While migrants have been steadily using the route to escape persecution and poverty for years, the sharp uptick in migration, along with images of washed-up corpses and cramped refugee camps, thrust the issue into the global spotlight this summer.

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'Wünsdorf Mosque' by Unknown painter

The European Union has struggled to overcome its internal divisions to form a coherent, collective response to the crisis spilling on its shores. The unwieldy bureaucracy has always taken a backseat to the divergent national interests of its 28 individual member states, whether it’s on immigration or fiscal matters.

The migrant crisis in particular has strained services in front-line, cash-strapped countries such as Greece and Italy. It has also strained relations between governments that, on the one hand, say they are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden and, on the other, say they have the right to set their own immigration policies and cannot accommodate large numbers of migrants, complaining that they have their own economic problems to deal with.

The resentment stems in part from the so-called Dublin system, whereby the frontier countries bear all the responsibility for processing and sheltering asylum applicants. The official welcome that migrants receive also varies widely among member states. Germany famously offered to provide sanctuary for 800,000 asylum seekers this year. But the country’s generous refugee policy has come under fire by fellow EU members who blame it for triggering the current spike, offering an incentive for migrants to undertake the perilous trek. And even Germany’s longstanding tradition of tolerance for outsiders is being put to the test by the recent tide of immigrants, expected to reach 1 percent of the total population.

Meanwhile, Sweden has accepted the most refugees per capita of any EU nation, priding itself on its open-door approach. Next door, however, neighboring Denmark has experienced a surge in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment among voters — a right-wing political backlash seen in other countries, most notably Hungary.

Despite these entrenched divisions, the swell in migrants fleeing war-torn nations has propelled the issue to the forefront of the bloc’s otherwise slow-moving agenda. EU officials pushed through a mandatory quota system whereby 120,000 refugees would be more evenly spread among member states. But critics say the plan is flawed because this figure still only accounts for a fraction of the migrants arriving each day. Countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also balked at the notion that they should be forced to integrate foreigners who are often culturally, economically and religiously different from their native populations.

On that note, the integration of Muslims into the European fabric is not a new issue. According to the Pew Research Center, there were around 13 million Muslim immigrants living in the EU as of 2010. The Muslim share of the bloc’s population has been steadily growing by about 1 percentage point a decade, rising from 4 percent in 1990 to 6 percent in 2010 and expected to reach 8 percent by 2030.

Germany and France had the biggest number of Muslims — 4.8 million and 4.7 million, respectively, or around 6 percent of the German population and 7.5 percent for France. People’s perception of how many Muslims are in their country was slightly different, though. An Ipsos MORI poll conducted in 2014 found that the French perceive the Muslim population in their country as being around 30 percent of the population.

A common justification cited among immigration critics is that foreigners — and particularly Muslims — have failed to assimilate into the European (i.e. predominantly Christian) way of life. On the outskirts of Paris, isolated enclaves have sprouted up to house immigrants and were the site of a series of riots 10 years ago by residents protesting marginalization from mainstream French society. Economically, while the surge of young refugees into Europe has provided the aging continent with a much-needed demographic boost, it has exacerbated the perception that migrants are stealing scarce jobs. On the security front, the influx has sparked fears that young Muslim men could bring radical religious views (though many are themselves trying to escape Islamic extremists back home). Europe’s Islamophobia has also been exacerbated by terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Denmark and elsewhere.

“The backdrop to this [migrant crisis] is the difficulty that many European countries have in integrating minorities into the social mainstream. Many of these immigrants are coming from Muslim countries, and the relationship between immigrant Muslim communities and the majority populations is not good,” former Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Charles Kupchan said in a CFR backgrounder.

“Europe has historically embraced more ethnic than civic approaches to nationhood, unlike the United States, and that is part of the reason immigration is proving so difficult,” he added.

But Sezen Coşkun — the Berlin-born daughter of Turkish parents of Arab descent — says the problem is not that immigrants or their children refuse to become European, but that a large chunk of the European population refuses to accept them as one of their own.

“In my own country, people don’t consider me German, even though I was born and raised there. I’m not a German-Turkish person. I’m just German,” Coşkun said.

Coşkun said she is proud of the way Germany is taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, but worries that authorities have not thought out ways to help the new Germans adapt to their new country. 

“We need to have programs. We need to help them to learn German fast. We need to help them get jobs, get into schools. This is crucial because when people feel they are not wanted or not needed in society, they will feel left out, and that’s when things get messy,” said Coşkun, who is the co-founder of a group called Typisch Deutsch (Typical German), which aims to “show people it’s not about Turkish or Arabic or Muslim. It’s about everyone. Typisch Deutsch — what is considered typical German — is changing.”

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Photo: Larry Luxner
A Muslim crescent sits atop La Grande Mosquée in Paris. France is home to around 4.7 million Muslims, about 7.5 percent of the population.

Coşkun said there is reluctance to embrace the changing face of Germany among some Europeans. She pointed out that while many younger Germans “are aware that the world is becoming a smaller place,” many older people “think that Islam is a problem in Germany, and they ascribe all of society’s problems to that one fact.” 

Coşkun said the belief that everything and everyone is easily classifiable into good and bad — as they are in German fairytales — also stokes xenophobic sentiment against migrants, many of whom physically look different than the stereotypical German ideal of blond hair, blue eyes. 

“We like to have a bad guy. We like to have someone to blame for things. It’s not a conscious process,” Coşkun says in flawless English that she picked up living in Cleveland, Ohio, for several years.  

“It’s the fear of the unknown. It’s the fear that, ‘Oh my God, someone is going to take something away from me.’ Multiple outside forces are feeding that fear,” she said.

Fear has indeed dominated some of the rhetoric, on both sides of the Atlantic. In a piece in the U.S. conservative magazine National Review, Ian Tuttle wrote that it was “only a matter of time” before the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris happened. Tuttle blamed French immigration policies for the January massacre that killed 17 people, including cartoonists with the French satirical magazine that lampooned the Prophet Mohammad.

“For several decades, the country has invited immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa en masse — first to bolster the labor force in the rebuilding years that followed World War II, then out of multicultural impulses that prevailed over prudential considerations. That radical Islam was transplanted to France, grew in strength and extent, and bore this … hideous fruit was not difficult to predict,” Tuttle wrote.

Then he warned: “The same is not unlikely in Sweden, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere.”

Tuttle argues that the greater the number of Muslims in a country, the greater the number of potential extremists. “Whatever the percentage of Muslims who support or would ever consider supporting jihadism, the raw number obviously increases along with the total number of Muslims. One percent of 10 million is much larger than 1 percent of 1 million,” he argued. 

In the United States, which recently pledged to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, the frontrunner in the race to be the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, said allowing Syrians into the United States “could be one of the great military coups of all time.”

“Young, strong people and they turn out to be ISIS [Islamic State]. Now, probably that won’t happen, but some of them definitely in my opinion will be ISIS,” Trump told Fox News in an interview, referring to the self-proclaimed Islamic State extremist movement.

Back in Europe, Slovakia filed suit against the European Union, calling the EU decision that member states have to legally take in some of a wave of the migrants from the Middle East and Africa “irrational” and “nonsense.” On another U.S. late-night talk show, John Oliver said Slovakia has insisted that it cannot take in any of the migrants because there isn’t a single mosque in the country. As Oliver pointed out, they could always build one. But, then again, if they build one, “they” might come.


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 4, 2015

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