After the attacks of 2015 and 2016, jihadist radicalization once more catalysed the attention of the media, the political world and the security services. The Muslim presence in Europe is characterized by a multiplicity of currents and movements, however

This article was published in Oasis 28. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:58:44

After the attacks of 2015–2016, jihadist radicalization has catalysed the attention of the media, the political circles and the security services. In reality, the Muslim presence in Europe is characterized by a multiplicity of currents and movements that are tied, to a greater or lesser extent, to the Muslim immigrants’ countries of origin. If we are to understand what forms it could take in the future, it could be helpful to look in the direction of the Balkans.


In the last few years Islam and Muslims have become a major feature in public discourse. This has been mixed in with discussions about immigration and the free movement of labour into and within the European Union, and further complicated by the refugee crisis. It has become a key feature in the growth of nationalist and populist movements that the distinctions between immigration, refugees and Muslims have been merged into a single issue. The various terrorist attacks, carried out in the name of the Islamic State, have obviously fed into these developments. However, public and media memory are short and have forgotten that in the 1970s and 1980s we experienced a period when terrorist attacks, with no identification with Islam, were significantly more numerous in Europe and North America than this latest flurry.[1] The purpose of this article is, however, not to offer yet another analysis of “Islamic terrorism” but to try and place it in the broader context of the current situation of Muslims in Europe. In the process we will see how this crisis which seems to be driving much of the politics of Europe and the United States is in fact multidimensional, displaying tensions between European society and Muslims, among Muslims themselves, and among Europeans.



European Muslims: Who and How Many They are


First of all, we need to get a clearer idea of what is meant by European Islam.[2] The Muslim presence in Europe is not a new phenomenon. In the western part of the European subcontinent we have tended to consider it as the result of the immigration that has primarily taken place since 1945, although we are aware of earlier arrivals, especially in Britain and France. This prospect ignores a Muslim presence in Eastern Europe, going back to the Mongol-Tatar invasions, which left substantial communities in Russia and the territories of the former Lithuanian-Polish Grand Duchy, today’s Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus. In South-Eastern Europe it was the expansion and centuries of Ottoman dominance which accounts for the Albanian, Bosniak, Pomak, ethnic Turkish and other Muslim communities of today. The expansion of the European Union since the 1990s has brought this history within the Union boundaries.


Secondly, it is necessary to learn to deal with population statistics on Muslim presence in Europe with a degree of scepticism. Most are estimates, even “guesstimates.” In some countries estimates issued by government bodies or academics vary significantly from those claimed by Islamic organisations. Thus, in Hungary estimates range from 25,000 to 50,000, in France between 2 and 4 million, in the Czech Republic between 4,000 and 10,000, and in Belarus from 20,000 to 50,000.[3] In other countries estimates are based on the numbers of members of ethnic groups which are traditionally Muslim. In a few countries, mostly in Eastern Europe, a population census held usually every ten years includes a question on religion. In principle the results should be the most reliable of the various forms of counting, but their reliability is affected by the extent to which individuals disguise their religious affiliation for a variety of reasons.

The third point to understand is what kind of role Islam plays in motivating and identifying these communities. Religiosity is a difficult concept to measure. However, taking regularity of religious practices as an indicator could be, at least, a start. Data from Sweden and Norway can give a first indication. In these two countries the state provides grants to registered religious communities other than the National Lutheran Church, primarily to equalise the material conditions of the various religions. However, religious communities seeking such public support must have regularly updated lists of members who pay membership fees. In Norway, in 2015, Muslim religious communities receiving public funding in this way had 141,027 members, compared to the figure of 245,415 reached on the basis of ethnic attribution. For Sweden the estimate on the basis of ethnicity of about 400,000 can be compared to a figure of less than 50% of that identified as members of a Muslim association in receipt of public funding. In a study of mosques in Denmark published in 2006, Lene Kühle concludes from a number of surveys that about 30% of Muslims regularly attend mosques, that between 20% and 25% are members of a mosque association, 30% describe themselves as only a little religious, 30% as very religious and the rest “moderately” religious. Interestingly, 35% think that Islam is of no significance for the way they dress, in their daily life or their outlook on society or politics, and 85% think that their religion has no impact on their view of Danish society.[4] It is pretty safe to assume, however, that these results would be markedly different were the survey to be conducted today. In France a number of surveys have been conducted over the years by IFOP. One published in 2011 showed that less than half of the Muslim population of the country regarded themselves as practising.[5]


What we have exposed so far still leave the question: who is a Muslim? This is deeper than a matter of statistics. An answer that has increasingly been used in sociological researches[6] is to say that a person who self-defines as a Muslim is one. The method has the advantage that the researcher no longer has to make a decision but can rely on potential interviewees doing it for them. This is reasonably successful in telling us something about the category of people who consider themselves Muslim, but it tells us very little about how they have concluded that they are Muslim, i.e. little about what Islam means. On the other hand, if we were to turn to the traditions of Islamic scholarship we are likely to get answers that are less easily fitted into numerical tables. Textbooks tell us that Islamic belief and worship is focused around the so-called five pillars. The Qur’an affirms that a Muslim is whoever believes in God and His Prophet, performs the ritual prayer (salāt) and the payment of alms (zakāt).[7] But if we return to the early generations of the development of Islamic thought we will see that it was rather more complex than this.


Immediately after the Arab conquests of the seventh-ninth centuries, the Muslim communities were a minority (although a ruling one). During this long period of expansion, it was a matter of some importance to determine whether a person, a family or a community were Muslim or not. Only after centuries did things settle down, or at least relatively so. The majority of the population in most areas had become Muslim, and the status of Muslim was no longer something which was constantly being tested but which was taken for granted—one was Muslim because one’s parents were. The system whereby an individual’s legal status was, in many aspects, determined by their religious belonging had become settled by the eleventh/twelfth centuries. The Muslim governments delegated much of the function of government—especially local public order, taxation, and family law—to the leaderships of the communities defined by religion (in the case of Christians mostly to the Churches). This became known as the millet system in the Ottoman Empire, today’s concept of tā’ifa in the Levant. This comparatively stable system was disrupted by the processes of modernity sparked by the incursions of European trade and politics going as far back as the seventeenth century in the Ottoman areas, further back in South Asia. With increasing migration of people and ideas, different ways of being Muslim, identified with the culture and region of one’s upbringing, came into contact with each other. Modern communications, culminating in satellite television and internet media, have meant that people were confronted not only with other ways of being Muslim but also other ways simply of being human.



Responding to a Multi-Religious Context


The extreme form of this development has been the experience of Muslim immigrants to Europe (as well as the Americas and Australasia). Decades ago, when I first start exploring the experience of Muslim immigrants to Europe, I accompanied one of my research students to the local mosque. Her intention was the simple one of finding out what kind of access the community had to getting their deceased relatives buried in a correct Islamic fashion. Two groups of young men with whom she engaged in conversation very quickly fell into a mutual argument over the correct position the deceased should be placed in the grave. Both groups held to their point of view insisting that it was based in the text of the Qur’an (in fact, the Qur’an says nothing about this). On further enquiry it turned out that the young men were representing the burial customs originating in two different places in Pakistan, from which their families had immigrated. In the context of immigration, Muslims were and are being challenged to try and figure out how to distinguish between those dimensions of belief and practice which were essential to maintaining their Islam and that which could be discarded and replaced as being culturally contingent. In this process it was the younger people (and especially the women) who had the strongest motivation to push ahead. They also increasingly had the personal experience and the intellectual skills learned as they grew through European school systems.       


In this phase—corresponding to the 1990s—the initiative in Muslim organizations was beginning to move into the hands of the younger generation. Their links with the countries of origin remained significant but they increasingly had to share attention with other priorities, both domestic and international. In some quarters, especially where there were large concentrations of particular ethnic communities, it had been possible to recreate elements of traditional community in one form or another. Twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop a typology of routes of integration, one of the six options I suggested was a process of “collective isolation, in which communities find protection in collective retrenchment.”[8] Elsewhere there has been a process of weakening of inherited ethnic belonging linked to a strengthening of identification with other developments and priorities shared with other Muslims. This is a process which can place young people into a relationship of conflict both with their more traditional parents as well as with elements of the surrounding European society. At the same time, the extended family relations often continue, maintaining links with the country of origin, including regular return visits: emigration no longer means a permanent break with the original home. Through the ease of travel, large numbers of young Muslims get access to experiences of other ways of thinking about Islam and of being Muslim.[9] However, this exchange can also prove dangerous, especially if it occurs in regions subjected to war or violent instability. In extreme cases, visits to family in Pakistan, Somalia or Algeria, have been the route through which individuals have been radicalized.



Jihadists, Salafis, Sufis


It is precisely the phenomenon of radicalization that the media and politicians—and, naturally, the security services—are most interested in. In consequence, this is also the expression of Islam which often tends to frame common public attitudes towards Muslims. However, this is a phenomenon that involves a small minority, even if it is not less problematic.


A more common phenomenon with respect to jihadist radicalization is the so-called Salafi tendencies that have attracted many Muslims in Europe, especially younger people. They could also be located in the group denoted “collective isolation” (referring to the aforementioned typology), except that the community which is isolating itself here has a much more voluntary character. It is a community of shared theological commitment rather than one of shared cultural heritage. Salafi mosques and study groups are attractive because they offer a supportive environment for young people who, theologically self-taught, have become disenchanted with their parents’ customs while finding insecurity and rejection in wider European society. Moreover, they are often particularly attractive to young families who fear for their children’s upbringing in an environment lacking visibly coherent values and authority.


Because of the way they dress they often become the focus of attention when there is a terrorism scare, but all the evidence suggests that the European Salafi groups abjure violence. In this they have something in common with the well-known and in many quarters notorious “Party of Liberation” (Hizb al-Tahrīr) which otherwise bears only passing resemblance to Salafism.[10] The problem with both of these similar tendencies is that they have a strong focus on what they see as the injustices of the politics of the Muslim world: it is therefore not surprising that they can function as feeder routes into the more radical activist groupings and occasionally slip over the line into violent activism.[11] However, it is a mistake to think of Salafism as one undifferentiated category. Broadly, two trends have developed within it: the quietist one, which is predominant in Europe, holds that believers should focus on their correct belief and religious practice, taking the view that involvement in politics can only lead to disruption, even conflict. This view, which includes a belief that one should not challenge the political authority of one’s country of residence, reflects classical Islamic views, including those of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) who is often cited as the inspiration for modern Salafi and related movements. It is therefore a bit ironic that the same Islamic scholar is also cited as a great model by the other trend, who seeks to achieve a political system which matches their strict views and must be free from the pervasive influence and domination of the imperial and colonialist powers. This trend can be broadly described as jihadist in the sense that its members engage in a sacred struggle (jihād), in which the extremist minority uses violence.


Sufism too requires a special mention since, in its many varied expressions, it has also arrived in Europe through immigration.[12] Given the nature of the latter, however, it was not the sophisticated urban forms of Sufi orders which came (they had in any case been weakened by the changes in education, economy and employment which had taken place in the cities of the Muslims world since the nineteenth century).[13] It was rather the provincial and rural forms which migrated. This includes, for example, the Brelwi networks identified with the Islamic school system centred at Bareilly in Northern India. At the other end of the Muslim world one could cite the Mourides of Senegal, also a movement which arose out of the Sufi tradition in the nineteenth century as one of the attempts at spiritual revival in response to growing European influence. The economic interests that hold the Mourides together across the migration routes into Europe are, if anything, even stronger than those which help to form internal solidarity among the various Brelwi groups. But the nature of authority among the Brelwis is much more decentralized and diffuse than it is among the Mourides with their khalīfa in Touba reflecting the charismatic role of the founder Amadou Bamba (d. 1927).



A Transnational Presence


Despite these multiple facets, the Muslim presence in Europe can be qualified as “transnational,” at least in the sense that the trends in question cross national borders, even when they most often can be traced to particular “national” origins. But in their origins, many of them are, in fact, what one might call “counter-national,” in that the spur to their foundation was often a response against the imposition of some form of modern state structure, a “nation state,” by external powers or in response to pressures from external powers. In the following discussion I shall restrict myself to looking at the current situation, approaching the various movements and trends from the point of view of their regions of origin. This leads to an analysis focused around movements of Turkish, South Asian and Arab origins.


Official Turkish Islam, represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), received a significant boost after the military coup of September 1980 as part of a policy to reduce the dangers of the diaspora acting as a resource base for opposition movements at a time when the country had been close to civil war. In Germany especially, the local form of the Diyanet (known by its initials as DITIB) expanded particularly at the expense of the Süleymanci networks founded on the base of the teachings of Süleyman Hilmi Tunahan, a Naqshabandi scholar who in 1951 founded the first of a network of schools designed to train imams and religious counselors.[14] For a time during the 1990s the more nationalist Milli Görüş experienced a marked advance and is still currently the largest of the networks outside the Diyanet. In the meanwhile, however, domestic Turkish politics have seen a marked change with the growth of a series of political parties based on an Islamic foundation come into power. The first of these, the “Welfare Party” (Refah Partisi) was led by Necmettin Erbakan, a leading figure in the Milli Görüş. However, in January 1998, the military had Refah banned through a judicial process which was finally confirmed in the European Court of Human Rights in 2003.[15] Erbakan was jailed and disqualified from politics. A short-lived successor party suffered the same fate, and only with the current government led by Erdogan has some form of stability been ensured. In the process mainstream Islamic politics have moved towards a more “moderate” center which is also reflected among Turkish Islamic movements in Europe. The most marked element has been the almost phenomenal growth in the movement led by Fethullah Gülen, which has emerged out of the Sufi-oriented Nursi movement traced back to Said Nursi (d. 1960) and his writings. Backed by substantial financial support from the same kinds of business networks which have also provided the financial and electoral support for the success of the AKP, the Gülen movement has become a major actor, primarily through educational activities, in Turkey proper, parts of formerly Soviet Central Asia, North America and Europe.[16] However, following the failed coup attempt in 2016, the relations between Gülen and the AKP have collapsed, impacting also on the Turks in Europe.


Islamic movements originating in South Asia are markedly the product of responses to European, in this case British, impact. The two movements which still dominate, the Brelwis and the Deobandis, arose as part of a revivalist response to the British abolition of the Moghul throne in 1858, the former of a distinctly popular Sufi character, while the latter was rooted more in an approach based in textual learning focused on the core sources. Both founded a network of schools and “seminaries,” which now spreads virtually worldwide, in the process having developed various tendencies ranging from a quiet spirituality to those underpinning the Taliban of today. From the beginning, the Brelwi-Deobandi relationship has been conflictual with regular outbreaks of what has been called “fatwa-wars.” The Deobandis have been called “Wahhabis” by their enemies and the tensions continue to impact especially on Islam in the UK. The struggles leading to independence and the split of British India into India and Pakistan produced a new crop of movements, most prominently that of the Jamaat-e-islami founded by Abū’l-A‘lā Mawdūdī (d. 1979) as a political party in 1941. All of these and a number of smaller movements can be found where there are communities of South Asian origin.


For its part, the Arab scene is dominated by the rivalry between Islamic movements which in various ways have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and structures which are effectively arms of government of the countries of origin. This is particularly the case among North Africans, where the Paris Mosque functions on behalf of the Algerian government while the UOIF (Union des Organizations Islamiques en France, now Musulmans de France) contests this official influence. But, as with the Jamaat-e-islami in the UK, the UOIF cannot simply be equated with the Brotherhood, since it has regularly adapted and relocated itself in relations to the necessities of functioning in France.[17] For their part, Moroccans for a time congregated around mosques associated with the FNMF (Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France) until that organization split in 2007 and was mainly replaced by the RMF (Rassemblement des Musulmans de France).


While such an ethno-national perspective continues to be a useful approach to map Muslims organizational tendencies across Western Europe, it is not sufficient. Some groups have settled or inserted themselves unevenly in Europe and not necessarily accompanying the ethnic groups from which they originate. Hizb al-Tahrīr, forbidden in Germany, is particularly noticeable in the UK and Denmark, while the Pakistan-based Minhaj al-Quran has a history of public activism in Denmark, but not much in other regions where one might expect to find them among Pakistanis. Other movements have expanded beyond the ethno-cultural borders of their origins. This is most notably the case with the Tablighi Jamaat which, originating in Northern India as a ramification of the Deobandi movement, has found followers among all ethnic groups and among converts.[18] The case is similar with the various Salafi movements which are finding support especially among the children of immigrants in Western Europe. They are also beginning to appear in Eastern Europe, mostly among converts and among recent immigrants from the Arab world.



Participation in the Public Space


Throughout these various developments, Muslims have been getting increasingly organized with the purpose of making an impact on the political processes in the societies in which they live. Participation in the public space has become an essential tool of integration, since it requires the development of mechanisms and forms of expression which can persuade the target audience, be it local or central government or various civil society institutions. Moreover, the process of participation itself favours those trends within the Muslim communities which wish to move away from attitudes to, for example, social and human relations which are commonly identified with traditional Islam, and to which the anti-Islam polemicists like to devote their undivided attention. Ten years ago we experienced a particularly absurd example of this process, when a German judge notoriously refused to grant a woman of Moroccan origin a divorce on the grounds that the Qur’an permitted a husband to beat his wife—therefore she had to accept the mistreatments. In the uproar that followed, the decision was presented as proof of the “medieval” character of Islam. Apparently, it was of no importance in the polemic that not only was the judge (who was not a Muslim) suspended and the case retried to the advantage of the wife, but German and Austrian Muslim organizations also vehemently condemned the judgment. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany not only insisted that intra-marital violence was grounds for divorce also in the Muslim world but even stated that: “The judge should have made a decision based on the German constitution not on the Qur’an” which, it went on to stress, could not in any case be interpreted in the way it had been by the judge.[19] The Islamic Community of Austria issued an official statement condemning the judgment based on reference to both the Qur’an and the Sunna.[20]


Such attitudes in individual cases are reflected in a number of attempts to draw up more general statements of principle. When the Interfaith Network in the United Kingdom, an organization which for a time was a significant link between the faith communities and government, in 1991 published a “Statement on Inter-religious relations in Britain,” it was intended as a set of principles to guide the attitudes and behaviour of the various religions towards each other and towards society as a whole.[21] Three years later the Paris Grand Mosque in a “Charter of the Muslim Religion in France” affirmed a commitment to a France based on a common citizenship founded on the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen and on the republican values.[22] This was a more political document reflecting the tensions in the wake of the head scarves affair, and at the time was widely criticized by other French Muslim organizations.[23] However, later developments have, if anything, served to confirm its relevance.


While this first phase of such statements was motivated above all by the suspicion on the ability of Muslims to successfully integrate into Europe, the more recent declarations have clearly been driven by the need to respond to the events of 11 September 2001 and the increasing impact of security considerations on attitudes to Islam and Muslims. Already in February 2002 the Central Council of German Muslims issued an “Islamic Charter” which affirmed that Muslims living in the West should abide by the legal order guaranteed by the Constitution, that there is no contradiction between Islamic principles and human rights principles, and that Muslims must develop a European identity.[24]


In Britain the 1990s had witnessed contested developments of national federations of Muslim organizations, among which the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) for a time was privileged by the government[25] but opposed by a network of organizations and individuals with strong commitments particular against the Middle East policies of the UK. But the aggravated security environment after the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005 added pressure on the various groups to develop some kind of shared moves towards common standards. The pressure was heightened by a growing complaint from young people (especially women) that mosques tended to be run by small cliques of elderly men. In late June 2006 the outcome was a joint initiative by four national Muslim organizations, including for the first time a Shiite organization, the Al-Khoei Foundation, to establish the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB). The Board was launched with a draft constitution and a draft set of standards[26] which included a requirement that the member bodies should have transparent structures and finances, and should have agreed policies on equality of opportunity, health and safety and child protection. Member mosques are expected to promote civic responsibility of Muslims in wider society, encourage local interfaith activity and oppose forced marriage and combat domestic violence. About a year later, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), representing around 400 Muslim groupings, launched the “Muslims in Europe Charter Project.” This project calls for, among other things, equality of the sexes, respect for family, human rights, social justice, and dialogue in the context of an affirmation of harmony between Islam and the principles of democracy.[27]


Since such statements arise in a given political context and are often part of a response to particular political challenges, they are easy to dismiss as being opportunist or manipulative. Nonetheless, they reflect some deeper discussions (especially on the nature and role of sharia) which are taking place among European Muslims, discussions which are extremely interesting indications of a possible convergence of thinking between the “immigrated” Islam of Western Europe and the long-since integrated Islam of South-Eastern Europe. In Sarajevo, for instance, Prof. Fikret Karčić talks of an exploration of the “norms” of the sharia, stating that historically there is a detailed experience of the strictly legal aspects of sharia functioning in partnership with legal rules and norms developed by government—in the Ottoman Empire a system known as Qanūn. The basic criterion for the legitimacy of such a practice is the welfare of the community in general. Reviewing the spread of secular government in the twentieth century and then the revival of interest in sharia among Muslims in the last generation, Karčić reflects on the situation of Muslims in secular states (such as his own Bosnia) and in minority situations. He considers sharia to consist of religious, ethical and legal norms, the latter depending on the existence of an Islamic state. On the contrary, in a secular state or in a minority situation, the sharia can function as religious and ethical norms only.[28] Such an approach is echoed in some quarters among Muslim thinkers in France, such as the imam of the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux Tareq Oubrou and the imam of the Grand Mosque of Lyon Najjar Mondher.



The Balkans, a “Bridge” Region


As the example of Karčić’s studies demonstrates, the dynamics present in the Balkans can turn to be very instructive to understand the evolution of European Islam in general. In South-Eastern Europe the development of the Muslim community took on a particular character, which can be analysed from three aspects: the long history of Ottoman-Turkish reform tradition in Islamic thought, the close historical relationship between Islam and ethno-national identity, and the opening up of a more pluralistic religious environment since the end of the communist period.


As far as the first aspect is concerned, it is important to recall the extent to which Islamic thinking in this region developed on a track distinct from what we have seen in the Arab or South Asian regions. It is a tradition—which has continued till the present—focused on innovating the classical Islamic sciences in Turkish faculties of religious studies (Ilahiyet). In the former Ottoman space, philosophy has remained alive as an Islamic subject to an extent which it is difficult to find in many other parts of the Sunni Muslim world. This approach of renewal and innovation is reflected in the Islamic teaching institutions which have been revived or created after the end of the communist era in South-Eastern Europe. Religious thinking in the region has also been forced to respond to a secular environment of a much more ideological nature than in most other regions (whether this be the secularism of Turkish republican Kemalism or of people’s socialism of the communist area, not to mention the fascism of some countries prior to 1945).


The second aspect, namely the close historical relationship between Islam and ethno-national identity, is especially challenging. This is one of the aspects most obviously associated with modernity in the region. Traditionally within the Ottoman region, it was the religious community (millet) which was the prime formal reference for collective belonging. I say “formal” because many other references of belonging often had more practical and everyday significance: family, clan or tribe; locality or region; trade or profession. And being Muslim was no predictor of material wealth or social status in comparison with, for example, urban Christian or Jewish craftsmen, doctors, or bureaucrats. However, the changes that took place in the nineteenth century—particularly the spread of schooling, literacy and government bureaucracy—all fed the import of European (and especially German) ideas of the nation based on a shared language. In the Balkans, the coincidence of a certain religion—especially the Byzantine Orthodox tradition with its various liturgical languages—with the spread of new secular schooling and consequently a readership for newspapers and literature (both new phenomena) encouraged the growth of what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.” The trend became political with the interference of the great powers in the steadily weakening Ottoman Empire. Having set the trend for national independence in the 1830s Greece found that its Greek Byzantine patriarchate had to deal with autonomy movements from its various sister patriarchates as they became associated with other national independence movements. The trend spread to the communities which were associated with Islam, first of all the Albanians.


As the empire finally collapsed during World War I, the new national maps of the region were fixed. But in the process a congruence between religion and ethno-nationality had been established: nation was identified with both language and religion. In most cases (the main exception being Albania) the new nations were Christian of one sort or another but many of them had Muslim minorities which by virtue of their “Muslimness,” therefore, were not really considered part of the national identity. In some cases—Albanians outside the borders of Albania or Turks outside Turkey—they could identify with a national state in the neighbourhood. They could find some hope of protection or sponsorship there, although that merely increased the national majority’s suspicion of them as a fifth column. Thus, the Turkish minority in Bulgaria and the Albanian minority in Yugoslavia continued to live on the margins, occasionally as the target of populist nationalist actions. More ambiguous was the position of those Muslim communities which shared the national language but not the national religion. Here we are dealing most obviously with the Pomaks of Bulgaria (and Western Thrace) and the Bosniaks of Yugoslavia. The latter are a particularly convoluted example: the major part of the population of what was to become Yugoslavia after World War I had a common language, Serbo-Croat, around which had been constructed the imagined nation of the “South Slavs.” But already in the name of the language the internal contradictions are manifest in the way in which the two parts, Serbian and Croat, were effectively defined by religion, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity respectively. This left the Muslim part of the Serbo-Croat-speaking population in a quandary. In the late 1960s the Tito regime recognised them as “Muslim by nationality,” a term which promptly confused most people outside the country—Yugoslav “Muslims” did not include those of Albanian or Turkish ethnicity. The decision in 1993 on the part of the newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina (although that status remained contested for a further two years) to use the term Bosniak can only be regarded as helpful to everyone, even though it continues implicitly to mean Muslim, if only by inherited tradition and not necessarily by active faith.


As regards the third aspect, it is ironic that the post-Ottoman arrangements, which were adopted by the communist regimes, were, in a sense, continuations of the millet system. All the religious communities recognised by the state would interact with the latter through an official structure of representation (a Patriarch, an Archbishop, a chief Mufti, in some places entitled Rais al-ulama), which were likely to receive public financial help. Very importantly, these structures were usually monopolies: they were the only ones in which expressions of religious faith and practice were legitimate. In this way new intellectual thinking was not encouraged and newcomers (being most commonly students from the Arab world who had got married locally) were obliged to work in the existing structures. The end of the communist period broke these monopolies, at a time when immigration from other parts of the world also increased. Native Muslims who dissented from the official views and activities of the traditional leadership (not always for purely religious reasons) were now free to engage in their own initiatives without risking imprisonment. In some cases, this effectively split the traditional structure; in others, there was a proliferation of Islamic associations. Immigrant Muslims tended to establish their own associations separate from the existing official ones. Especially noted in public were those, mostly Arab, which were labelled Salafi. This is the reason why official Islamic leadership in Sarajevo describes itself not only as Hanafi by fiqh but Maturidi by creed, precisely to signal its refusal to be identified with Wahhabi tendencies.


These are all questions which Muslims across the European continent are having to deal with, even though in the West it is less a question of the identification of religion with some form of ethno-nationalism than one of ethno-cultural identity. Of course, this is not a uniformly distributed situation. I suspect that the identification of Muslims of Turkish descent in Germany with Turkey is stronger than that of Muslims of Bangladeshi descent in Britain with Bangladesh. This may of course have to do with the German and Turkish conceptions of nation being rather stronger than the British. There are also indications of a generational shift whereby the younger generations of today feel less identity with their families’ countries of origin than do their grandparents who immigrated. On the other side of South-Eastern Europe, Turkey seems to be struggling with a Kemalist heritage where the relationship between nation (Turkey) and religion (Islam) has been highly ambivalent. A Turk is supposed to be Muslim, but only according to the established criteria of the Diyanet and he or she cannot certainly be Alevi or Christian. However, the Turk is also supposed to be Turk, not Kurdish, Armenian or Jewish. In between lie the communities and countries of the Balkans where dimensions of both the Western European experience and the older unreconstructed Turkish experience can be found.


The Balkan region is sometimes presented as a “bridge” in laying claim to represent a truly European Islam from which others can learn. However, I argue that it is also a “bridge” in the sense that it is a region in which is focused the struggle with all the challenges, which the different regions and countries around it variously share some part of. For that reason, the region can be a focus point for the development of various forms of Islam across the whole European continent.



Spectra of Contestation


By way of a kind of appendix or a “concluding unscientific postscript,” one could attempt a typology of trends and possible future scenarios. However, typology—though being a useful, even necessary analytical tool in our attempts to understand reality—is a fraught business, replete with traps for the unwary, especially in a field as fast-moving and contested (in terms of religion, politics and national identities) as that of Islam in Europe. For this reason, I prefer to try to identify fields of contestation as a number of distinct spectra with no prior expectations as to how those fields interrelate and interact. Different individuals, organisations or movements are likely to place themselves at different points between each of these contested pairs, and it cannot be taken for granted that the location in one pair is predictive of the location on another. Such fields of contestation should probably include the following, but others may be added: 1) Understanding of text, especially Qur’an and hadīth, but also other texts which may be imbued with special authority by particular groups. Are such texts to be understood literarily and is their authority unquestioned, or can they be interpreted with reference to current needs, and do current needs require the reinterpretation of the nature of their authority? It may be more useful to consider this as two interrelated fields of contestation, namely one referring to interpretation of the text and the other to do with the nature of its authority. 2) Priority of general principles or specific rules: In the process of interpretation and the ordering of ethics and daily life, are choices made with reference to some basic principles, or is the focus on a large number of specific rules? 3) The role of tradition/heritage: What is the function of the accumulated tradition in relation to contemporary needs? How far does it offer an authoritative base line for choices and how far can it be ignored? 4) Tension between the individual and the collective: In any given issue or movement what is the balance between the authority of a particular individual or group of individuals and that of the larger community, however defined? How large is the space within which individuals are free to make their own choices? 5) Global versus local priorities of reference: to which degree can global principles and priorities be adapted or even give way to local perceptions of authority and needs? How far will local experience and local priorities have a global impact? 6) Essence versus cultural specificity: this last division entails some complex considerations of definitions of culture and its relationship with religion in terms of both ideas and practice, and this field may, on further, thought have to be deconstructed into more than one.


It is clear that these are tentative, that others may be added and that some may have to be split into two or more. If, as an initial crude experiment, one were to apply this to the crude but common distinction between the “modernists” and the “hard-line Islamists” in the field of Islamic political thought, the following analysis could be suggested: the “modernists” tend towards interpretative flexibility, give priority to the application of principles, are ready to challenge tradition, give more space for individual intellectual activity, appear to be balanced between global and local perspectives, as also between essential teachings and the cultural milieu. The “hard-line Islamists,” on the other hand, tend towards a literalist interpretation of the foundational texts, are selective as between certain deduced principles and a focus on particular specifics, they often strongly challenge the tradition, tend to prefer the primacy of the interests of the collective and they prioritize global perspectives and reject adaptation to local cultural milieus. An immediate proviso must, of course, be that once the same exercise is conducted with reference to individuals within these general trends, some distinct variations will be noted—which is where it then begins to get interesting. Assuming that Lebanon’s Hezbollah or Palestine’s Hamas were to be included among the “hard-line Islamists,” they would have to be located much closer to the preferences for the local in the last two fields. And what does one do about their common rejection of polygamy?


The approach clearly needs much refining. However, the key advantage is its flexibility: it makes space for the sometimes sharp variations of approach within apparently common trends, variations which tends otherwise to be marginalized or suppressed by most conventional systems of categorization.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] The Wikipedia article “Terrorism in Europe” has a list of incidents which shows that the deadliest attack was the one carried out by Sikh separatists bringing down Air India flight 182 in June 1985 with 329 victims. A graph in The Economist of 6 September 2016 indicates that the number of deaths from terrorism in Europe in 2015 and 2016 was no more than in several years during the 1970s and 1980s. (

[2] This issue is discussed in Nadia Jeldtoft, On defining Muslims, in Jørgen S. Nielsen, Samim Akgönül, Ahmet Alibašic, Brigitte Maréchal and Christian Moe (eds), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, vol. 1. Leiden: Brill, 2009, pp. 9–14.

[3] All country statistics in this article are, unless otherwise stated, from the respective country articles in Oliver Scharbrodt, Samim Akgönül, Ahmet Alibašic, Jørgen S. Nielsen and Egdūnas Račius (eds), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, vol. 8. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

[4] Lene Kühle, Moskeer i Danmark: islam og muslimske bedesteder. Højbjerg: Univers, 2006, pp. 43–47.

[5] Reported in Franck Frégosi, “France,” in Jørgen S. Nielsen et al (eds), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2012, pp. 212–3.

[6] A good example of this approach is the series of studies conducted by the Open Society Institute, Muslims in Europe: A Report on 11 cities. Budapest: Open Society Institute, 2010.

[7] See for example Cor 2:43, 2:277, 5:12, 9:5, 19:55, 24:56, 31:4, 57:13, and 73:20.

[8] Jørgen S. Nielsen, “Muslims in Europe: history revisited or a way forward?,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, no. 8 (1997), pp. 135–143.

[9] Not much research has been done on the consequences of this process, but one worth mentioning is Gill Cressey, Diaspora youth and ancestral homeland: British Pakistani/Kashmiri youth visiting kin in Pakistan and Kashmir. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

[10] Suha Taji-Farouki, A fundamental quest: Hizb al-Tahrir and the search for the Islamic Caliphate. London: Grey Seal, 1996; Malene Grøndahl, T.R. Rasmussen and Kirstine Sinclair, Hizb ut-Tahrir I Danmark: farlig fundamentalisme eller uskyldigt ungdomsoprør? Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2003.

[11] For aspects of this see Ed Hussein, The Islamist. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2007 and Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: the death of Theo van Gogh and the limits of tolerance. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.

[12] Jamal Malik and John Hinnells (eds), Sufism in the West. London: Routledge, 2006. This work allows to see the breadth of the topic, while Jamal Malik’s introductory chapter gives historical depth to the study.

[13] John Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi orders of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[14], accessed 25 April 2009.

[15] See European Court of Human Rights, case of Refah Partisi (the “Welfare Party”) and others v. Turkey, Applications nos. 41340/98; 41342/98; 41343/98 and 41344/98.

[16] Detailed accounts can be found in the proceedings of the Gülen-organized conference that took place in Rotterdam in November 2007: Ihsan Yilmaz (ed.), Peaceful coexistence: Fethullah Gülen’s initiatives in the contemporary World. London: Leeds Metropolitan University Press, 2007.

[17] See Brigitte Maréchal, The Muslim Brothers in Europe: Roots and Discourse. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

[18] Muhammad Khalid Masud (ed.), Travellers in faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jamāʽāt as a transnational Islamic movement for faith renewal. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

[19] Report by Agence France Presse circulated by email 28 March 2007.

[20] Statement “Kein Freibrief für prügelnde Ehemänner,” issued 23 March 2007.

[21] Interfaith Network for the UK, Statement on inter-religious relations in Britain. London: Interfaith Network for the UK, 1991.

[22] Conseil Représentatif des Musulmans de France, Charte du Culte Musulman en France, 10 December 1994,, accessed 5 February 2008; the document has since disappeared from the site.

[23] Jørgen S. Nielsen, “Religion, Muslims and the state in Britain and France: from Westphalia to 9/11,” in Abdulkader Sinno (ed.), Muslims in western politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

[24] Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland, Islamische Charta, published 22 January 2002, accessed 22 January 2008; the document has since disappeared from the site.

[25] Jørgen S. Nielsen, “Muslims, the state and the public domain in Britain,” in Richard Bonney, Franz Bosbach and Thomas Brockmann (eds), Religion und Politik in Deutschland und Grossbritannien. München: K.G.Saur, 2001, pp. 145–154.

[26] MINAB, Draft Constitution, Draft Standards, published 27 June 2006.

[27] See reports and text on and, both accessed 5 February 2008.

[28] Fikret Karčić, “Administration of Islamic affairs in Bosnia and Hercegovina,” Islamic Studies, vol. 38 (1999), pp. 535–561, and Idem, “Applying the Shari’ah in modern societies: main developments and issues,” Islamic Studies, vol. 40 (2001), pp. 207–226.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Jørgen S. Nielsen, “European Islam: Trends and Prospects”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 18-35.

Online version:
Jørgen S. Nielsen, “European Islam: Trends and Prospects”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: