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Integrating Europe's Muslim Minorities: Public Anxieties, Policy Responses

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Integrating Europe's Muslim Minorities: Public Anxieties, Policy Responses

Muslim women converse at Trafalgar Square in London. The United Kingdom is one of several European countries that have seen an increasing Muslim minority population over the past few decades. (Photo courtesy of Garry Knight)

Muslim integration is one of the most contentious issues in the immigration debate in Europe, and one that gets right to the heart of public anxieties about immigration. European countries are grappling with ways to accommodate Muslim minorities while upholding national values. Getting the balance right has not been easy. Some policies have drawn public support in some quarters but been criticized elsewhere as an attack on Islam, such as France's ban on the burqa and other face-covering headwear, and Switzerland's referendum banning the construction of new mosque minarets. Other policies have sought to smooth tensions between native-born and Muslim communities, such as the introduction of Muslim councils to help resolve conflicts over cultural practices.

While Islamic-Western tensions have shaped world news since the September 11, 2001 attacks, in Europe a series of flash points raised broader questions about European immigration and integration policies. In the Netherlands, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical catalyzed debate about the limits of toleration. In Denmark, the unrest that followed the publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad was seen as threatening free speech. And several countries, including the United Kingdom, were forced to re-evaluate relations with their Muslim populations after a series of terrorist attacks were perpetrated by “homegrown” fundamentalists.

The Muslim population in Europe is relatively new, with Muslims present in substantial numbers in Western Europe only since the labor migration of the 1950s and 1960s, when Turks settled in Germany and elsewhere, and migrants from former colonies moved to France and the United Kingdom. Initially arriving as guestworkers, the Muslim population swelled as a result of family reunification over time. It continues to grow, primarily due to immigration and family reunification, but also due to a high birth rate.

Because Muslims are a highly visible community in Europe, the rapid pace of this demographic change has exacerbated public anxieties about how immigration has altered local communities. Fears about Muslim minorities as a security threat, their perceived unwillingness to integrate, and their socioeconomic exclusion have become interwoven in public discourse—and have propelled European governments to develop a diverse and sometimes highly controversial set of policies toward Muslims as a religious minority group.

This article explores the sources of public anxiety toward Muslims in Western Europe and the array of integration policies that countries in the region have adopted in recent years. Although battles have been fought over religious (halal) food-preparation practices, religious headwear, and mosque-building, Islam is now part of the architecture of the state. Governments invest in mosque-state relations, and many are seeking to cultivate a “national” Islam by supporting religious education in schools or training for imams. Nonetheless, taking public anxieties—and their root causes—seriously while protecting religious freedoms remains a perennial challenge.

Describing Muslims either as an ethnic or religious minority is inherently problematic. Ethnically, Muslims are highly diverse — Muslims of many ethnic origins exist, but the main groups in Western Europe are North African, Turkish, and South Asian. Muslims belong to a variety of denominations, and their religious commitment varies. Nonetheless, as Muslims are a singular category in the eyes of the public and governments, this article adopts this terminology for simplicity.

Public Anxieties about Muslim Integration

Large-scale and diverse immigration patterns over the last four decades in Europe have contributed to rapid social change. While estimates of the Muslim population are notoriously unreliable (because countries often omit religion from their census questions), research suggests they are one of the fastest-growing groups in Western Europe. Fewer than 4 million Muslims lived in Western Europe in 1990; by 2010, this figure had nearly tripled to 11.3 million, according to The Future of the Global Muslim Population by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew estimates that by 2030, Muslims will number 16.4 million or around 9 percent of the projected population.

Cultural Clashes

The complaint that Muslims are unwilling or unable to embrace the national identity and values of their country of residence is a common refrain. Critics describe areas with a high concentration of Muslims and segregated schools and shops as parallel societies, and express concerns about the overreach of foreign governments, for example in providing imams or funding for mosques. For some members of the public, the proliferation of visible symbols of identity such as religious clothing or mosque minarets reinforces a sense of difference.

In a 2011 study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a majority of respondents in Germany (72 percent), Spain (69 percent), France (54 percent), and the United Kingdom (52 percent) thought that Muslims in their country wanted to be distinct from mainstream society.

But this perception may not align with Muslims sentiments: a study by Open Society Foundations in 2010 found that over 60 percent of Muslims felt either very or fairly strongly that they belong to their country of residence.

Much of the anxiety has been intentionally stoked by the inflammatory rhetoric of a few high-profile figures, for example, the Dutch far-right politicians Pim Fortuyn (who headed up his own anti-Islam party before being assassinated) and Geert Wilders (leader of the Netherlands' far-right Party for Freedom [PVV]). Media reports about violent practices such as forced marriage, female circumcision, and honor killings have also coated anti-Muslim sentiment with a film of legitimacy, disregarding how few and far between these cases are.

Marginalization, Unemployment, and Discrimination

These negative perceptions and anxieties are sometimes exacerbated by the perceived marginalization and social exclusion of some groups of Muslims. Commentators point to their higher-than-average unemployment rates—especially among women—and low education levels as cause for concern. Muslims are also significantly under-represented in high-profile and political positions in Europe. As with other immigrant communities, some Muslim groups are more likely to live in areas with high poverty and inadequate public services, raising concerns about ghettoization.

But a number of factors lie behind these trends. Since a substantial proportion of the Muslim population across Europe was recruited through the guestworker schemes of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these migrants were low-skilled and came from rural areas. This meant that they lacked the skills, education, and financial capital to thrive in their destination country. Another factor is that Muslims face considerable discrimination in the labor market, with numerous studies showing that people with Muslim-sounding names are less likely to get both shortlisted and hired.

Islamic Extremism

Security fears have infused public discourse about Muslims in the years following the September 11 attacks. In Europe, the flurry of successful and foiled terrorist attacks including the Madrid train bombings, the London Underground bombings, and the attack on Glasgow Airport made counter-terrorism a central policy priority. The role of “homegrown” terrorists in these attacks encouraged governments to turn their attention inwards and scrutinize relations with their Muslim populations. These attacks were widely denounced by Muslim groups, but levels of anxiety about terrorism remain high: a 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 73 percent of respondents in Germany, 70 percent in Britain, and 68 percent in France are worried about Islamic extremism.

For many Europeans, these concerns unite to form an impression that Muslims have failed to integrate. This conclusion is simplistic, not least because Muslims are extremely diverse and the problems described above apply only to a small percentage. Almost all Muslims condemn terrorism, and strongly disassociate from radical or extremist groups and ideology. But these anxieties put pressure on policymakers to take action.

Policies toward Muslims as a Religious Minority

While restrictive policies—in particular bans on religious headwear—have attracted the most media attention, behind the headlines governments have taken many steps to incorporate Islam into the architecture of the modern state, such as introducing Muslim councils to help resolve conflicts over cultural practices.

Restrictions on Religious Practices

Governments have sought to restrict or prohibit practices perceived as contradicting national or liberal democratic norms and values, especially those that condone violence or are seen as undermining gender equality. Citizenship and integration tests, as well as arrival contracts, have all been employed to signal the undesirability of certain practices. For example, Denmark requires immigrants to sign a statement on arrival committing to respect individual freedoms and gender equality.

Policies that relate to religious headwear for women have proved particularly divisive. Bans have taken various forms: local or national bans on the burqa and niqab (both of which cover the entire body and face) in public spaces; restrictions on the hijab (the more commonly worn headscarf that leaves the face exposed) in specific professions or public institutions; and restrictions on religious dress in schools.

The most far-reaching bans on religious clothing have been introduced in France and Belgium, where wearing a burqa and other forms of face-covering headwear in public have been prohibited since 2011. The bans were enacted ostensibly for security reasons (although in the case of France, penalties were introduced against those who coerce others to dress a certain way based on their gender). The number of women who cover their faces for religious reasons is very small in both countries (perhaps as few as 30 women in Belgium), and furthermore, enforcement has been limited. Reports of street violence and discrimination towards women wearing the burqa or niqab also raise questions about the effectiveness of these policies in promoting integration.

Some countries restrict religious dress in certain public professions, either to ensure neutrality in the public sphere, or for pragmatic reasons like facilitating human interaction. These include civil servants, teachers (in approximately half of the German federal states, Oslo municipality, all of French public schools, and ad hoc bans in the United Kingdom), the police force (Denmark, Norway, Germany, and ad hoc cases in the Netherlands), and judges and clerks (Denmark, Norway, ad hoc in the United Kingdom and Spain).

In France, the longstanding law of separation of church and state (laïcité) was used to justify a 2004 law—the culmination of 15 years of debate—prohibiting the outward display of religious symbols in public school. In l'affaire du foulard in 1989, female high school students were suspended for refusing to remove their hijabs. At the time, many onlookers decried the move as racism and discrimination, while others claimed that the headscarf—deemed a symbol of female oppression—was incompatible with the responsibility of public schools to instill the values of the republic. The 2004 law avoided stigmatizing Muslims by prohibiting all religious symbols in public school. Other countries (such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the Netherlands) concluded that schools could set their own dress policies depending on what they thought necessary for safe and productive learning.

These policies are politically sensitive, but they may involve unintended consequences and tricky trade-offs. For example, banning religious headwear risks driving women out of the workplace or stigmatizing an already vulnerable minority. These choices are even harder when policies are overwhelmingly popular but affect small minorities in life-altering ways. For example, in France, the Pew Global Attitudes Project found 82 percent support for the burqa ban, but the policy is estimated to affect only between 300 and 2,000 women.

Mosque-State Relations

The official recognition of Islam has been problematic in several countries because of the religion's non-hierarchical structure, meaning Muslim organizations are not always granted the rights and benefits of other religious groups including tax benefits, the right to perform marriage and funerals with civil validity, and financial support for Muslim schools.

Governments have sought to encourage the development of representative councils or umbrella bodies in order to fulfill this role. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all now have national councils, formed with varying levels of government support. These councils help resolve debates on religious practices like imams, prayer spaces, chaplains, mosques, education, and halal food; provide a representative hierarchy following the structure of the Christian church; and “deny oxygen” to would-be extremists, as scholar of Islamic relations Jonathan Laurence has put it, by including some minority voices in public debate.

Assessments of the progress of these councils have been predominantly positive; successes include the construction of mosques and religious private schools. In Spain, the orchestrated development of a hierarchical structure resulted in Islam being officially recognized, providing Muslim communities with the right to religious education and special cemetery space, for instance.

But policymakers face questions over both the responsibility and membership of these councils. Because Muslims are so diverse, constructing a body that purports to represent all Muslims is unfeasible; decisions about which groups to engage therefore risk being seen as political. At times, the lack of representativeness of these councils (and the state's role in their composition) has met with criticism. In the case of the German Islamic Conference for example, an umbrella group was excluded for supporting a fundamentalist brand of Islam; another walked away because it perceived the dialogue as having been “securitized.” The German intelligence service maintains a black list, which has been criticized for creating a “chilling effect” among umbrella groups. Since there is a fine line between inclusiveness and providing a platform for radical views, the legitimacy of these institutions may be fragile.

A 'National' Islam

A third set of policy interventions promotes integration by providing financial or other support for religious education and institutions. The rationale is that developing a homegrown form of Islam could guard against the influence of extremist groups or foreign governments. Commentators raised concerns that imams or Islamic educators brought in from abroad might encourage mosques to act as mini nations, impeding integration; or worse, create a vacuum in which extremism could flourish.

Religious Education

Resistance to the provision of Islamic education in mainstream classrooms is slowly being replaced by the view that it can strengthen, rather than threaten, integration. Recent reports indicate that, contrary to popular belief, there is little desire for self-segregation among Muslim parents (mixed schools are associated with higher performance). The choice for Muslims in many European countries has historically been between private segregated school or no Islamic education at all. Policymakers have the option of encouraging faith schools and segregated education or providing support for Islamic education within the regular school system.

Strategies adopted by different countries reflect their relationship between church and state: in the United Kingdom for example, funding for Anglican, Catholic, and Jewish schools was extended to Muslim faith schools in 1997. In Germany, where denominational religious instruction is offered in public schools and is provided by religious communities under government supervision, Muslims have pushed for the right to offer religious education in schools on par with other religions, with limited success in states. After the Islamic Federation won the right to provide religious education but chose to deliver it in Turkish, the German government took steps to promote German Islamic education.


Imams imported from abroad are thought to find it more difficult to provide context-specific advice and participate in official discussions as they may lack knowledge of the language or culture of the new country. While traditionally imams did little more than lead the prayer, they are increasingly called on to perform a number of roles, from marriage counselor to financial advisor. Imams might therefore be critical to second- and third-generation integration, but since a high proportion are foreign born—up to 90 percent in Germany, according to a study by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies—they may be ill-equipped to perform this more challenging role. This, in turn, may encourage young Muslims to turn to radical groups or the Internet for guidance. Some countries (such as France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany) have therefore begun to provide state subsidies for imam training and to support the development of university courses in Islamic studies. Other countries have made it more difficult for foreign imams to enter the country and/or require them to participate in language or integration courses before practicing.


Providing financial support for mosques, it is hoped, will weaken the influence of foreign governments further. Most mosques in European cities are makeshift conversions of basements or warehouses, so-called backyard mosques. These prayer spaces are often overcrowded and inadequate and contribute to a sense of marginalization among Muslims, especially when compared with the iconic Christian churches that decorate the skyline of European cities. But mosques that are as architecturally impressive as Christian churches are costly. Governments have realized that avoiding the reliance of Muslim communities on overseas funding might mean providing funding directly. For example, France has established a fund to support the building of mosques (it avoids violating its laïcité laws by supporting parking lots, cultural centers, or infrastructure around mosques rather than providing direct funding for their construction).

As with policies to engage Muslim groups in dialogue, a difficult balance exists between the desire to encourage the development of a moderate, westernized Islam, and the risk that governments will be seen as intruding on religious freedoms. Muslims are highly sensitive to being perceived as potential terrorists, therefore any large-scale project to win hearts and minds risks being perceived as patronizing or victimizing and provoking a backlash.

The development of a national Islam—the idea that someone can be "German Muslim" or "French Muslim"—is an important step, but which also raises questions about identity and the role of the state in shaping it. Genuine inclusion requires respecting people's transnational, as well as religious, ties.

Ad-Hoc Accommodation of Religious Practices

Away from thorny debates played out on a national stage, many religious practices have been accommodated in a more patchwork, sporadic way—and in the absence of national government action. For example, halal meat is available in many public institutions; Muslim religious holidays are celebrated at the local level (for example schools give Muslim students the day off to celebrate Eid); and prayer rooms are increasingly provided in higher education facilities, hospitals, and prisons. Many of these changes occurred without fanfare on a local, municipal, or institutional level, and often in areas where Muslims form a critical mass. But these decisions risk being seen as sporadic or favoring particular groups since pragmatic accommodation in public institutions—such as public schools—is generally voluntary and outside the remit of legislation. Conflicts have also emerged over more overt practices like mosque-building and the call to prayer since they are seen as part of the “Islamification” of public space.

National debate often trails behind practice on the ground, but issues that appeared settled at the local level can erupt into the national consciousness when a minor conflict becomes distorted by the press. For example, in the run-up to the 2012 French election President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged to restrict halal food in schools and close separate swimming areas for Muslim women. That said, in some cases national governments have been able to broker a compromise—e.g., Norway now allows the call to prayer but only on Fridays; France has banned prayers on the street but provides support for the development of prayer space.

Most countries have left it up to individual employers to determine how to accommodate religious practices, provided they do not violate anti-discrimination laws. This has the advantage of not imposing additional regulatory burdens on employers at a time when encouraging hiring (especially of Muslims) is especially important. But while multinationals tend to have well-developed policies for Muslims, including prayer facilities, elsewhere provision is patchy.

Outstanding Questions

Since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims in Europe have been the target population of myriad counter-terrorism, security, and integration policies. Policymakers face the challenge of securing religious freedoms and making space for increased cultural diversity while not contributing to public anxiety about immigration—and the changing cultural and religious landscapes it brings. These are particularly difficult lines to tread if governments are perceived as over-tolerant or as sidelining national values.

An important question to consider is whether the potential benefits of policies explicitly or implicitly directed toward a minority group outweigh the risks of stigmatizing Muslims. Legislating for cultural norms risks being seen as heavy-handed and intolerant, and plays into the hands of extremists looking for material to sustain a narrative about the victimization of Muslims by the West. One alternative is to focus on socioeconomic integration: improving access to high-profile positions, reducing barriers to labor market access, and tackling social exclusion.


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