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Volume 30, Number 1January/February 1979

In This Issue

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Muslims in Europe

The Presence

"With customs, culture and religion that differ sharply from those of host countries, the Muslim immigrants - like all immigrants - have faced misunderstandings..."

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Islam, today, is the second largest religion in Europe; and Muslims - more than five million in 1978 - now make up 40 percent of the Common Market's foreign work force. Arabs, Asians, Africans and Turks, their labor has helped build a prosperous Europe and, through wages sent home, has contributed to prosperity in the countries from which they have come.

Inevitably, the mass movement of Muslim manpower has created problems. With customs, culture and religion that differ sharply from those of host countries, the Muslim immigrants - like all immigrants - have faced misunderstandings, hostility and, within their own communities, cultural and religious strains. Yet Islam, barely visible since the fall of Muslim Spain (See Aramco World, September-October, 1976) is now firmly implanted in Western Europe. United by their faith, Muslim immigrants from nations as far apart as Malaysia and Morocco are working together to build mosques, establish Muslim cultural centers, and press common demands for political, economic, social and religious equality with their European hosts.

Because the problems vary from country to country, these efforts, initially, were launched on an individual basis. The Islamic society of Ireland, for example, set up the Muslim Youth Center in Dublin; the government of Iraq set up the Iraqi Cultural Center in London, and the Islamic community of Lisbon spent 12 years winning the approval of Portugal for construction of a mosque. But now, in an important step toward consolidation of effort, the London-based Islamic Council of Europe is attempting to coordinate the efforts of more than 24 Muslim organizations in Britain, West Germany, France, Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and the Benelux countries.

Established in May, 1973 - in accordance with decisions of the Second and Third Islamic Conferences of Foreign Ministers held in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia and Benghazi, Libya - the council has been working in close cooperation with international Islamic organizations, the governments of all Muslim states and other institutions serving the cause of Islam.

According to its Secretary-General, Salam Azzam, the Islamic Council of Europe has two main objectives: "First, protection, preservation and promotion of the religious and cultural life of Muslims in Europe. And second, the development of a better understanding of Islam in the West."

Islam, in fact, is no newcomer to Europe. Present-day Portugal and Sicily were once predominantly Muslim. In Eastern Europe, large Muslim communities have existed for the past nine centuries - some the descendants of Mongol forces that reached Poland and Lithuania. In Western Europe old Muslim communities still survive in France, Italy, Britain, The Netherlands and, of course, Spain - where Muslim rule provided both Islamic and European history with some of its most glorious chapters. (See Aramco World, September-October, 1976).

The Muslims first came to Europe in 711 and subsequently established an illustrious civilization in most of the Iberian Peninsula that lasted for eight centuries. In 831 Muslim forces also won a foothold on Sicily and ruled there for over 260 years (See Aramco World, November-December, 1978). Finally there came the Ottomans, who ruled the Balkans from the 14th to the 19th century and, at the height of their power in the 17th century, reached as far west as the gates of Vienna.

As a result, says Azzam, "the West has generally known Islam as an enemy and a threat."And as a result," said Khurshid Ahmad, formerly the Director-General of the Islamic Foundation, an educational trust at Leicester, England, "Islam is the most misunderstood religion in Europe today."

In an effort to build new bridges of knowledge and cooperation between the Muslim world and the predominantly Christian West, the Islamic Council of Europe has been organizing important programs and conferences - such as the International Islamic Conference held in London in April, 1976. Organized in cooperation with King Abdulaziz University in Jiddah, on the occasion of the World of Islam Festival (See Aramco World, May-June 1976), the conference - attended by scholars and statesmen from 33 countries - attracted large Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, and several of its main speakers addressed themselves to the question of misunderstanding.

At the opening of the conference, for example, His Royal Highness Prince Muhammad ibn Faisal of Saudi Arabia stressed Islam's tremendous impact on world history and its unique contributions in the fields of education, art, science and technology. He also urged non-Muslims "to examine without prejudice the religion of over 800 million fellow human beings."

Other speakers at the 10 public sessions developed the same theme. Some speakers reminded audiences that the European awakening, represented by the Reformation and the Renaissance, owed much of its inspiration to contact with Islam. Others pointed out that such universities as Paris, Oxford and Cambridge came into existence under the influence of the universities of Muslim Spain - facts, the London Times commented, of which most Europeans were "abysmally ignorant."

The London conference also addressed itself to what, for the Muslims in Europe, are even more pressing and practical problems. One was economic assimilation. When the mass migration of foreign workers into Western Europe first began in the 1960's, most Europeans assumed that "guest workers" would stay for a few years and then take their savings home. It was a temporary arrangement, they believed, so little was done to integrate the new arrivals or to provide for their special religious, educational and social needs.

But as the total of foreign workers reached 12 million - nearly five percent of the EEC's total population - the problems could no longer be dismissed as temporary or minor. Because the EEC countries had initially paid so little attention to them, many migrants wound up in crowded ghettoes, politically impotent - and with close to 20 percent of their children receiving little or no education.

The problem worsened in the 1970's, when economic recession lessened Europe's need for foreign workers. Earlier the migrants' contribution had been vital; but with the slump, Europe's welcome cooled and unemployed Europeans began to clamor to get back the jobs they had previously - and eagerly - turned over to the migrants. The result, particularly in urban areas, was tension. As The Economist in Britain put it: "Xenophobia in Europe is rising."

By 1978 all West European countries had closed their doors to non-Common Market immigrants and some had begun to encourage emigration. France, for example, is now offering $2,000 to each foreign worker who agrees to return home. But as millions have opted to stay in Europe - and as close to half of them are Muslims - worried religious leaders have begun to cooperate in an effort to head off potential conflict. In West Berlin, for example, the Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe has warned that if Christians and Muslims do not learn to live together there could be trouble.

Azzam, of the Islamic Council, agrees. "The need for a better and more sympathetic understanding of Islam was never as great as it is today. The presence of significant Muslim populations in every country in Europe, in almost every city and region, has made it necessary for the local communities to understand the beliefs and life patterns of their Muslim neighbors."

Some countries, certainly, have already taken steps to alleviate problems. Belgium and Austria, for example, now officially recognize Islam as a religion. But the bulk of Europe's Muslims do not live in Belgium and Austria. Of a total of 5.4 million, 1.9 million live in France, 1.5 million in West Germany, 1 million in Britain, 500,000 in Italy, 350,000 in the Benelux countries, 40,000 in Scandinavia, 25,000 in Spain and some 5,000 each in Austria, Portugal and Switzerland.

Some problems - the result of social and political neglect - internal. "One of the biggest problems facing Muslim immigrants," says Azzam, "is providing religious education for their children." To resolve it, the Seventh Islamic Foreign Ministers Conference - which met in Istanbul last year - pledged assistance to the Federation of International Arab Islamic Schools set up by Saudi Arabia to provide education for Muslim children whose parents work abroad.

The parents, to be sure, had already made some arrangements for religious instruction. They had organized evening and weekend classes in homes, rented halls and makeshift mosques all over Europe. And in countries where religious instruction is provided in state schools, Muslim parents, in cooperation with school authorities, had frequently arranged for religious education of their children in their own faith. But those steps, says Ahmad, are insufficient to properly educate the new generation of Muslims now growing up in Europe.

Another important problem is that there are too few mosques in Europe for the growing Muslim population. Until recently, in fact, there were almost none, and Europe's Muslims had to establish hundreds of temporary mosques in converted houses, shops and even disused Christian churches. But now minarets can be seen sprouting above the rooftops in cities and towns in Britain, West Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and The Netherlands, and additional mosques are being built or planned. And in Germany one innovative group of Turks regularly takes over a local tourist attraction for prayers: a replica of a mosque completed in the 1780's by a German Prince at Schwetzingen, near Mannheim.

As in all Muslim countries, Europe's mosques serve not only as places of worship, but also as centers for Islamic studies, meeting places for the local Muslim community and centers of social activity. The new mosque at Munich, for example, is often used by Turks traveling home by road as an overnight resting place and the proposed Islamic Center at Amsterdam will include a library, language laboratory, sports and hobby areas and an adjoining apartment building, in addition to a mosque.

"Islam is not simply a religion in a limited sense of the word," said Khur-shid Ahmad, now Deputy Minister of Planning in Pakistan. "It is a complete way of life. It fashions the social attitude and behavior patterns of its adherents: their food, dress, marriage and family life and social relations..."

Because of this, Muslims in Europe frequently face problems that other Europeans do not. Muslims, for example, prefer to separate girls and boys in school and consider marriage a matter of personal rather than legal status, and in a recent British court case, a Muslim teacher argued that he should be granted time off for prayers during school hours. As a consequence of these different views, Muslim efforts to achieve legal, religious and political equality with Europeans are complicated and often bring them into conflict with established customs and laws.

Progress, nevertheless, is being made. By a special Act of Parliament on July 19, 1974, Belgium recognized Islamic law; the Common Market Commission has recommended that immigrants' political rights should be extended; and a special parliamentary committee has been set up in Britain to study such Muslim demands as allotment of government land for construction of mosques and recognition of Islamic holidays for Muslim workers.

Some Muslims in Europe, however, feel that in view of the large amounts of money they are sending home - in the form of savings and support for relatives - they have earned stronger backing from their own countries. Pakistani workers, for example, point out that foreign-currency remittances from workers abroad were, in 1977, Pakistan's second largest source of foreign exchange - the equivalent of about $450 million. Turkey also depends heavily upon the money its workers abroad send home; the total in 1976 was $982 million, about half the value of Turkey's exports.

These contributions obviously warrant support. "But not enough is being done by governments of Muslim states for Muslims living in Europe," Azzam says. "On the other hand, a beginning has been made, and Islam, in little more than a decade, has emerged as Europe's second largest religion."

This article appeared on pages 3-8 of the January/February 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1979 images.