Jonathan Laurence, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College,
Remarks on September 11 after a Decade.
I learned of the attacks on my hometown while waiting on hold with an Italian radio station for a scheduled interview on Muslim integration in Europe. The journalist had wanted me to discuss the difficulties governments were having at setting up councils to grant Muslims equal access to religious freedoms. The interview was postponed once the second plane hit. I realized immediately that the attacks would have a dramatic impact on the communities I had been studying for the previous few years.
Many in the Muslim-majority world have concluded that 9/11 has had disastrous consequences for the status of Muslim minorities in the West. On a visit to Berlin this month, Turkish President Abdullah Gül warned against rampant Islamophobia. The chairman of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation has repeatedly expressed the worry that freedom of expression is being used in ways that are hurtful to Muslims.
The spread of such impressions calls for a serious consideration of how the terrorist attacks a decade ago affected the integration of Muslims as citizens and as religious communities. The European continent has found itself at the center of global attention – both as a source of hope and anxiety – since it’s the site of the most visible mixing and confrontation of Islamic and Western cultures.
Because of the combination of postwar economics and colonial pasts, Europe is now permanently home to the world’s largest “voluntary” Muslim minority, estimated today at 16 to 18 million. They are less than 1% of the global Muslim population, and 3-4% of all Europeans.
But they have had a disproportionate impact on their host societies – as well as on the practice of Islam itself – and on politics and religion in their countries of origin. Elements within both Muslim minority communities and majority non-Muslim societies have reason to be discouraged by much that has transpired in the past decade. But they despair about the prospect of long-term integration for different reasons.
In fact, they often assemble their narratives from the same data points – but draw quite divergent conclusions. I would argue that we must resist the two competing narratives of fear that have grown louder since the Norway massacre, and that risk undoing the progress of the previous decade. First, there is the growing belief among native populations that Islam was allowed to flourish unchecked in postwar Europe and that Muslim leaders aim to impose an Islamic order.
This narrative exhorts Europeans to awaken from their slumber and defeat “Eurabia.” As Breivik’s manifesto unoriginally put it, the year is 1683 and the gates of Vienna are under siege. Against this narrative is the dim view held by many Muslim leaders that European governments are repressive and intolerant of diversity. In that account, it is 1938 all over again: prohibitions against mainstream religious symbols (minarets and headscarves) as well as less common practices (burkas, polygamy, and forced marriages) are a harbinger of worse to come.
Last March, a former presidential advisor in France even called on fellow Muslims to start wearing a “green star.” In Germany, headscarf bans on public employees led one community leader to suggest that German society was trying to keep Muslim women in the position of cleaning ladies. Each of these narratives is historically incomplete, and more importantly, each misses the broader trend of what is actually happening on the ground: Europeans and Muslims have been successfully negotiating with and adapting to one another over the past ten years.
The relevant analogy is not 1683 Vienna or 1938 Berlin, but rather several crucial nation-building moments in between. In what are mundane but arguably critical domains for religious integration – such as mosque construction, the training of imams, chaplains, the availability of halal food and visas for the hajj -- Muslim communities and European governments have begun successful negotiations and have created a space in which more progress is still possible. But this will only be the case if the gains of the past decade are not conceded to the pessimism of either camp.
To fully grasp 9/11’s impact, the years immediately preceding it offer a glimpse of how far institutional integration has progressed. When I began fieldwork in the late 1990s in Germany, France, and Italy to examine the role of religious communities in immigrant integration, my object of study—that is, state-mosque relations— had yet to come into existence.
At the time, the religious practices of Muslims were still filed under the category of foreign affairs. As recently as ten-fifteen years ago, Islam remained basically unknown as a domestic policy issue to European politicians and administrators alike. So my first interviews brought me mostly to the offices of immigration authorities and diplomats—not parliaments and interior ministries.
Islamic community structures in European cities also reflected—and reinforced —this state of affairs. My first meetings with religious leaders took place either in consular annexes or what appeared to be foreign political parties’ constituency offices. Muslim organizations still bore the stamp of foreign governments or international NGOs, not an organic feeling of rootedness in European culture and politics.
Local and national authorities did not yet have the quality of institutional contacts with Islamic communities that they enjoyed with other religious groups. Islam’s “foreignness” became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The attacks of 9/11, and later those of 3/11 2004 in Madrid and 7/7 2005 London, transformed what had been issues of slow ethnic accommodation and faltering immigrant integration. It has been an opportunity to witness the real-time unfolding of how modern liberal states responds to familiar challenges of previous centuries: Namely, granting equal access to religious freedom and Combatting religious extremism as a threat to state authority.
The events of September 2011 added a fierce urgency to the effort to find interlocutors in Muslim religious communities. Ten years later a very different landscape has taken shape in which Muslim leaders are increasingly finding a place in the society and institutions of their new home countries. The advent of a Western branch within the Islamic Ummah has created a new set of vulnerabilities that did not exist in Muslim-majority societies – mockery, blasphemy as well as exposure to extremist movements that had found refuge abroad.
The defensive posture that seems to be setting in among Muslim communities is common for minorities under a political spotlight. But more interestingly, and in my mind more hopefully, that same free space that created new vulnerabilities has also opened up new possibilities for genuine adaptation and the Europeanization of Islamic practices, with important implications for the development of Islam elsewhere. Space has been created for the continued interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, but not merely on practical issues like mortgages and divorces.
A new caste of prayer leaders and imams is taking shape, and becoming acquainted with other systems of state-religion relations, other cultural norms, European languages, mixing with local society including Muslims of all backgrounds and non-Muslims. There is more interreligious dialogue, more space for gender equality, learning process of navigating domestic political institutions. Progressive mutual adaptation has meant progressive domestic re-orientation of organizations and leadership who previously looked only beyond European borders for Islamic authority and authenticity.
Thanks to the public nature of these consultations, “Islam is no longer a black box” to the general public. So there is good news and bad news. Since September 11th, a pragmatic consensus—and administrative praxis—has quietly taken hold in government ministries, recognizing Muslims’ irreversible presence in Europe. Despite appearances to the contrary, this has led to a net increase in religious freedom and institutional representation for Muslims in Europe. In France, the number of prayer spaces has doubled to 2000; Germany now has a handful of seminaries for theologians, as well as training courses for imams and religious teachers.
Additionally, the key players in European Muslim life have responded positively to the institutional incentives, modifying their political behavior and adapting their practice of Islam to domestic cultural contexts. The number of professionals dedicated to figuring out a way forward has multiplied. More is being done with a view to permanently resolving the issues, not simply patching them up. This new reality of 2011, with all its imperfections and all that is left to be desired, is light years ahead of the recent past.
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