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The Condition of Muslims in Western Europe

Owing to the various circumstances that have led to the formation of Muslim communities in western European countries, as well as the wide range of social, cultural and historical sects within these countries themselves, the conditions of the Muslim populations of western Europe, from religious, cultural, social, political and economic points of view, vary from one country to the next, in spite of the existing commonalities. One instance has to do with the laws relating to religious minorities, which differ in various countries of the continent. Given the constrains imposed by a lack of space, we will confine our discussion to the three major countries of western Europe, i.e. Britain, France and Germany.


Until recently, Britain was the seat of a global empire, with relatively open doors to the inhabitants of its various colonies throughout the world. This policy resulted in the migration of a large number of Muslims of the Indian subcontinent to Britain, England in particular, prior to the changes in British immigration laws, which came into force in the 1960s. The majority of these immigrants were prompted by economic reasons; many were from the deprived and uneducated classes of the society, with scarce knowledge of the intellectual dimensions of Islam. A great number of them were Urdu-speaking Hanafites, though, from the outset, there existed among them groups of Shi`ites. The bulk of this immigrant population succeeded in establishing means of livelihood which enabled them to bring the rest of their family members to England, which resulted in the formation of a Muslim community with no intention of returning to the homeland. The existing British laws enabled these Muslim immigrants to gain citizenship and become a permanent fixture of the British society. 

In the past few decades there has appeared a new type of Muslim immigrant to Britain. These are made up of asylum seekers fleeing political upheavals in their home countries. The bulk of this group comprises Arabs and Iranians who, unlike the immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, are mostly highly educated and aware of their cultural heritage. Other political and economic factors have also contributed to the convergence of these Muslim groups, so much so that London has been transformed into a major international center for communication among the Muslims of the world, where numerous publications appear in Arabic and even Persian, Urdu and Turkish. All in all, the Muslim population of Britain has the highest level of intellectual exchange with the rest of the Islamic world as well as the highest level of output among any western country in terms of publication of books and journals and other forms of cultural activity. 

In the past half century, in addition to a large body of Islamic books and journals, there have appeared numerous mosques and religious schools in Britain, built by both Sunnis and Shi`ites. None the less, there continues to be discrimination against Islamic schools, as opposed to Christian and Jewish schools receiving government aid, and against Islam as a religion with unequal legal protection, as compared to Christianity and Judaism. It goes without saying that the Muslim community in Britain has reached a reasonable degree of consolidation, in terms of economic as well as cultural status. However, social and racial discrimination against Muslims as well as other minorities from the east is yet to completely disappear. None the less, Muslims have succeeded in carving a place for themselves in the British society, where there exist influential Muslims in the economic, cultural and artistic spheres. Muslims, however, are yet to break any serious ground in the realm of politics, though in some heavily Muslim-populated localities, such as Bradford, they have been successful in securing a number of local political posts. One of the striking points about the Muslim population of Britain is the stark difference between those from the Indian subcontinent, Arabic countries and Iran. The Islam of many of these people is interwoven with elements from their cultures, thus they seem unable to distinguish between these cultural superimpositions and the underlying message of the Islamic revelation. In the early days, mosques were designated according to cultural orientations, e.g. the Pakistanis’ mosque, the Bengalis’ mosque, the Arabs’ mosques. This situation, however, has begun to undergo change and it is likely that in the coming decades one would witness a more pervasive unity among the Muslim community in Britain. This phenomenon is by no means confined to Britain and is a characteristic of those societies whose Muslim immigrants hail from various parts of the world, with the exception of France whose immigrant Muslim population is mostly consisted of those from North Africa, or Germany with its predominantly Turkish Muslim community. In the case of these two countries harmony is much easier to achieve, though there still exist obstacles in the way of creation of a unified and cohesive Muslim community. 

One of the major factors responsible for bringing various Muslim groups in Britain closer together is the existence of young Muslim students in universities and institutions of higher education, whose outlook on Islam and Islamic culture is global rather than parochial. Apart from Islamic academic institutes, such as the Islamic College and the Khu’i Institute, British universities have for long been active in the area of Islamic studies. Today, there are British academics who not in their capacity as orientalists but as believing Muslims are engaged in research about their civilization and are intent on contributing to the creation of unity among the Muslim ummah through the removal of provincial and cultural differences giving rise to a multiplicity of conceptions about Islam. The very presence of a two-million strong Muslim population in Britain has left its mark on the academic life of the country, in the form new research institutes devoted to Islamic studies, such as a new center at Oxford University and the Center for Islamic and Christian Studies at Selly Oaks University, in Birmingham.


Among western European countries, France has the largest Muslim population, whose exact number is impossible to pin down accurately, owing to the widespread presence of illegal immigrants from north and, to a lesser degree, the black Africa. A major outcome of the French Revolution, following the massacre of a large group of priests and the overall weakening of the power of the clergy, was the clear-cut separation of religion and government in the management of the society’s affairs. This was apparently intended to transform France into a secular state where all citizens were to acquire equality before the law. None the less, in spite of this apparent marginalization of religion, French culture continues to be associated with Christian elements, even if devoid of their religious and devotional connotations. Therefore, it is still very difficult for the majority of the French people to see in their midst a large group of non-Christians, especially those of Muslim origin; a problem that has completely disappeared in the case of the Jews. Overt and covert elements in the French society have combined to turn French Muslims into second class citizens relegated to poor neighborhoods, with no prospect for consolidation into a coherent whole. In fact, at the slightest hint of an economic downturn, the French groups to the right of the political divide immediately speak of returning the immigrants back to their original homes in North Africa. The fear of what is often characterized as Islamic fundamentalism, in North Africa and, especially, Algeria, and the potential threat of a flood of immigrants have been widely discussed in various French journals and publications of the past few years; a fact that has contributed to the creation of a relatively anti-Muslim atmosphere in the country. 

None the less, Muslims carry out a wide spectrum of activities in France. In 1927, the French government contributed to the construction of the beautiful Paris Mosque, which was constructed by traditional architects from North Africa. Several mosques and Islamic schools have been built since that time. The French government, on its own initiative, has established a religious school for the training of prayer leaders and preachers so as to meet the special needs of the French Muslims. All in all, the status of Muslims in France is yet to reach the degree of consolidation enjoyed by their fellow coreligionists in Britain, both in terms of political participation and economic prosperity. 

Form an intellectual point of view, France is one of the most significant centers for the spread of the religious, philosophical and mystical ideas of Islam. Several eminent French authors and scholars have embraced the religion in spite of the secular impulses of their environment. The intellectual legacy of Rene Guenon has prompted many distinguished French individuals with spiritual leanings to seek refuge in Islam. French translations of works of major Muslim thinkers, mystics and philosophers in particular, continue to appear, so much so that Islamic thought as a living intellectual tradition has come into prominence more in France than in any other western country; a trend that has come to embrace a number of young French philosophers.


The situation in Germany is different from both France and Britain. Prior to World War II, there were few Muslims in Germany, since it lacked any Muslim colonies to serve as a source of migration to the country; a situation that contributed to a positive image of Germany among the majority of the Muslims in dar al-Islam, especially those in the Arabic countries, Turkey and Iran, or at least to a less negative image as compared with Britain, France and the Netherlands. At the same time, beginning in the 19th century AD, Germany became a major center for Islamic studies, including nearly all its branches. Today, German language continues to remain an essential tool for those active in Islamic studies. 

As was mentioned previously, it was in the post-World War II period that the German government decided to admit into the country a vast Turkish immigrant population as well as Muslims from the Balkan region. None the less, German laws on citizenship are, to a great extend, related to racial factors, which exclude residence or birth as sufficient grounds for acquiring German citizenship. 

In Germany, Muslims enjoy wide freedom of religion and many mosques have been constructed in the past fifty years, including the one built at the orders of the late Ayatullah Burujirdi, in the center of Hamburg, which is among the foremost centers of Islamic studies in Germany. There also exists a reasonable level of intellectual activity on Islam, especially in the field of Sufism and Islamic mysticism. In addition to the spread of a number of Sufi orders, similar to what is taking place in Britain and France, there continue to appear German translations of major Sufi works of literature by native orientalists as well as by Muslim scholars

Other Countries

In other European countries, such as Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands, which are home to considerable Muslim populations, the conditions differ according to the local laws, cultures and customs, though certain characteristics of all these Muslim communities bear close affinities. The challenges of striking roots in a new society and maintaining an Islamic ambiance within the confines of an alien environment as well as warding off the cultural influences of an agnostic, and possibly Christian, society are shared by all these immigrant communities. None the less, in spite of all the obstacles, Islam has continued to spread throughout the course of the past fifty years, where Islamic foundations have sprung up in all these countries, within the framework of the mosques, cultural houses and Islamic schools; this all the while that families have been engaged in the struggle to safeguard the religious identity of their children. The noteworthy point is that at a time when some, especially those in the Christian church, consider Europe as the impregnable bastion of Christianity and when missionary activities, backed by western political and financial resources, carried out in Africa, Indonesia and other countries have given rise to an atmosphere of confrontation between Islam and Christianity, there are Christian groups in Europe that are trying to live in peaceful coexistence with the Muslim populations of their countries; a trend of mutual religious understanding that appears to be on the rise in Europe

* source: Nasr , Seied Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.583- 585

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