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Bert de Ruiter

Engaging with Muslims (I): A need to understand whom we engage with

Statistics often do not give any indication of the religious commitment, beliefs and practices of a person. Some believe that only a third of all Muslims in Europe actively practice their Islamic faith.

ENGAGING MUSLIMS AUTOR 56/Bert_de_Ruiter 13 DE MARZO DE 2017 18:35 h
Photo: Artform C. (Flickr, CC)

The number of Muslims in Europe has grown from 29.6 million in 1990 to about 50 million now. Europe’s Muslim population is projected to exceed 58 million by 2030 (8% of Europe’s population). Europe’s Muslim population is projected to increase to 71 million in 2050 (10.2% of the population).

One reason the Muslim population of Europe is to rise, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population, is because Muslims’ fertility rates are generally higher than those of non-Muslims in Europe. Based on an analysis of current trends in the twenty five European countries for which data are available, Muslim women today will have an average of 2.2 children each, compared with an estimated average of 1.5 children each for non-Muslim women in Europe. However, the fertility gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe is expected to narrow in the coming years.

Generally speaking, Muslim populations in Europe today are more youthful than their non-Muslim counterparts. People under age 30 comprise about 49% of the Muslim population in Europe in 2010, compared with about 34% of the non-Muslim population. Europe’s Muslim population is projected to remain relatively youthful in the coming two decades. In 2030, about 42% of Europe’s Muslim population is expected to be under age 30, compared with about 31% of the non-Muslim population.[1]

In light of the above, it is important to be careful in using demographical statistics. Statistics often do not give any indication of the religious commitment, beliefs and practices of a person. Some believe that only a third of all Muslims in Europe actively practice their Islamic faith.

Persons of Muslim origin living in Europe do not all practice their faith with anything like the same level of intensity. Some people of Muslim origin have opted to follow the path of agnosticism or religious indifference. Others continue to be Muslim in a cultural sense, while paying little if any attention to associated religious beliefs. These are considered as a sort of lay Muslim population. There are no studies of any depth on the matter, but on the basis of a partial examination of the subject it appears that approximately two-thirds of the Muslim population falls into one of these two categories (non-practicing or agnostic, etc.) of Muslim self-identification. Only about a third has so to speak made their self-reference to the Islamic faith active.[2]

“…On what basis is one to categorize persons as Muslim…? One acceptable method would be by asking people themselves. Recent research has shown that this approach leads to a significant lowering of  the number of Muslims: in the Netherlands, many Iranians and Alevite Turks do not consider themselves ‘Muslim’; similarly, in Germany, 40 per cent of the Iranians consider themselves without religion and more than 10 per cent declare themselves as Christians,  while only 7.5 per cent of the Turks defined themselves as “quite religious;” in France, 59 per cent of the North Africans and Turks identified themselves as “Muslim” and 20 per cent as “without religion;” and in Sweden, only one third of the Muslims indicated they are “practicing.” But these surveys do not tell us everything about the religiousness of a person. An atheist Jew can still call himself a Jew, a self-declared Catholic may only go to church at Christmas. With regard to Muslims, Albania is a case in point: it is arguably the only European country with a Muslim majority population (70 per cent Muslim), but scholars have indicated that many Albanians are actually not Muslim believers. If this is the case, then Islam serves as an identity-marker more than an indication of faith, presenting an entirely different array of ‘Islamic’ values than if the Albanians were all pious and devout Muslims.”[3]


Phases of Relations between Islam and Europe[4]

When we look at the relationship between Islam and Europe in history, we can identify several phases:

A long first phase, lasting for at least the first ten centuries of the history of Islam, was one of major conflicts, symbolized by the Crusades, which saw Islam and (Christian) Europe facing one another, conceived and perceived as mutually impenetrable.

The second phase can be seen in the several waves of Islam in Europe that we can identify in history, and that have left an imprint on Europe till the present day, such as:  a) the Islamic civilization in Iberia from the 8th to the 15th century; b) the Muslim Tatars in the northern Slav regions; c) the dominance of the Ottoman Empire, in the Balkans and Central Europe for several centuries until the beginning of the 20th century.

In the third phase, we see European dominance of Islamic lands. First, in the age of empires and the colonial period, Europe dominated Muslim countries directly. Later, during the ongoing stage of neo- or post-colonial influence ‘at a distance’ – through economic globalization, the pervasiveness of the mass media and western consumption patterns – Europe has gradually brought the Muslim world within transnational economic trends and political institutions.

In the fourth phase, Islam began to spread in Europe through migration. This began in France, for example, between the two world wars, and in most European countries during the period of postwar reconstruction and economic boom – in the 1950s and 1960s in the centre and north, and later still, from the late 1970s onwards, in southern Europe. It is still a phase characterized mainly by first-generation immigrants coming from former colonies (e.g. from Algeria to France and from the Indian subcontinent to Great Britain), but there are also new forms of immigration (such as Turks coming to Germany), which gradually expand as more and more countries export labour in response to European demand.

In the fifth phase we see the emergence and consolidation of an Islam of Europe, through a gradual process of insertion, integration– initially in the workplace, then in a social and sometimes political context – and of generational transition. This is an indigenization of Islam in Europe. This process contributes to the formation of a middle class and an intelligentsia of Islamic origin. A class that still has relations with the countries of origin, but that is born and socialized in Europe, and one that builds its own identity and creates its own space.

The result of the process mentioned above is the formation of a European Islam, with its own pronounced identity different from that of Arabic Islam or that of countries of origin. This can be considered the sixth phase. In this phase, Islam will increasingly become a native European movement, largely the result of a gradual and substantial process of Muslims in Europe becoming full citizens on an equal footing with other Europeans, with whom they share a common destiny.

Jocelyne Cesari believes that ‘the transition phase inaugurating a uniquely European Islam is in evidence everywhere, but the social and cultural dimension of religious belonging tends to be overrated, and European Muslims are still far from a confessional Islam, focusing chiefly on ritual and cult. The future of European Islam hinges on the way young Muslims in Europe today will live their beliefs, and they will eventually reinterpret Islamic doctrines to accommodate their needs.”[5]

The outcome of this phase depends on the internal evolution of Muslim communities; on the dynamics of global Islam; and on the reactions and policies adopted towards them by the governments of individual European countries. This means that the outcome will depend largely on non-Muslims, on the manner in which they approach the problem, on discussions of the issue, and on the fears and visions of the wider world.

The Muslim presence in Europe is an ongoing process in the manner of all social facts. The internal articulation of European Islam is unfinished, leaders are rare, the leadership class is in the process of being constituted, the populations are still in the process of taking full possession of (their rights in) European public space, with many still rendered fragile because of the difficulty and precariousness of their entry into the space of the labour market.  Also, it should be borne in mind that the cycle constantly starts over again with the arrival of new immigrants. Of course the phases are generalizations and do not involve entire Muslim populations. There are and there will be Muslims who will show resistance, counter-tendencies and differing positions on these processes.

Bert de Ruiter, Consultant of Christian-Muslim Relations OM Europe and European Evangelical Alliance.

This is part I of a four-part in-depth article. Evangelical Focus will publish parts II, III and IV in the next weeks. 

[1] Mostly taken from: Pew Research Center, “The Future of the Global Muslim Population”, Projections for 2010-2030. January 2011 and  Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections 2010-2015,  April 2015

[2] Dassetto, F, Ferrari, S and Marechal, B (2007), Islam in the European Union:  What’s at stake in the future?, Strasbourg: European Parliament, 6.7.

[3] Maurits S. Berger “The Third Wave: Islamization of Europe, or Europanization of Islam?” Journal of Muslims in Europe 2 (2013) 115-136

[4] Taken from S. Allievi, Conflicts over mosques in Europe. Policy issues and trend. NEF Initiative on Reform and Democracy in Europe., Alliance Trust, 2009

[5] Jocelyne Cesari, “Muslim minorities in Europe, the silent revolution” in Modernizing Islam (John L. Esposito/Francois Burgat ed) pages 267, 268




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