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The Silent Revolution of the Second Generation

Trends. Young Muslims in Europe: experiences, trends and changes. In the foreground a need to develop their own way of relating to faith.  

Islam in Europe is a plural reality because of a series of factors: the diversity of the countries of origin of the immigrants, the various interpretations of Islam to which Muslims refer, the plurality of currents and networks of associations and, a very important element, the various typologies of personal membership of Islam. The original contexts from which Muslim immigrants come confer specific characteristics on their religious experience which derive from the histories of varying degrees of length that marked the enculturation of Islam in different regional contexts. Although the contents of faith are the same, the experiences that derive from them have gamuts with their own characteristics: one need only think of the general spiritual and devotional character of sub-Saharan African and Indian Islam, the more legal tone that religious practice has in Arab countries, and the forms of political Islam which widespread today in a transversal way in many contexts, with the most important cores located in the Middle East and Pakistan.




If there is, however, a danger in contemporary Islam, as Olivier Roy observes with acuteness, it is the process of deculturation to which it has been subjected by recent radical interpretations, on the one hand, and by conservative interpretations – of a Wahabite or neo-traditionalist kind – on the other (1). Both these currents, in stressing the legal and political dimension which is seen as the quintessence of ‘true Islam’, in fact reject and fight against a whole tradition of religious experience in which Islam has found expression, not only at a popular level but also at the level of elites. In this sense the currents mentioned above declare that they are enemies both of the spiritual Islam of the Sufi brotherhoods – which lay stress on the contribution of the ‘heart’ to the experience of faith – and of the most creative Islamic theology, both ancient and modern, which is accused to giving way to the interpretative temptations of intelligence rather than subordinating this to pure revealed facts which are received in what is considered their concrete literalness.




A differentiating element of fundamental importance is personal membership of Islam, which in Europe finds a greater space for expression than in the Muslim countries of origin. In these countries legal and social pressure creates a high uniformity in religious observance, however today it is subject to greater manifold appeals and redefinitions at an individual level, above all in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. Lastly, it is important to bear in mind that the pluralism that characterises Islam in Europe also expresses different ways of understanding European culture and interacting with that culture.




Over the last twenty years, however, a new factor of pluralism within the Muslim population in Europe has arisen, that is to say the emergence of the young component, which is often identified with the category of ‘young Muslims’. These are the children of the first generations of Muslim immigrants who have the common feature of having been born in Europe and having spent a large part of their pathway of schooling in European countries. They constitute a special component of the European Muslim world because they develop their relations both with European society and with Islam in their own way. Differently from the first generations of Muslim immigrants, they know about the reality of Europe in a deeper way although in the majority of cases they know little about the countries from which their families come, often not knowing the language and culture of their peoples which, instead, constitute the immediate reference point for the first generation immigrants.




Although it is true that the integration in Europe of the Muslim population is an important challenge both for European societies and for their Muslim component, it is clear that the young Muslim generations will play a fundamental role in this process. To understand the future prospects at the level of evolution of Islam in Europe, it thus becomes important to analyse to what extent and with what results Islamic religious membership plays a role of varying degrees of significance in the lives of young Muslims. However, it becomes equally important to analyse the modalities by which religious membership enters into a relationship with other forms of belonging.




In this perspective, the forms of membership at the level of identity of young Muslims should be analysed beginning with the dynamic intersection of at least three factors: the dialectic relationship with the ethnic Islam of the first generations, the relations with European society, and the influence exercised by the currents of transnational Islam in Europe.




Whereas first generation immigrants tend to live so-called ‘ethnic Islam’, that is to say to reproduce at various levels the religious and social experience of their countries of origin (customs, forms of behaviour, social practice), young people of Muslim origins who have been born or received schooling in Italy and other European countries tend to separate themselves in a net fashion from ethnic Islam and try to develop different modalities of relating to Islam (2). Because it tends to reproduce the forms of life and codes of the countries of origin, ethnic Islam is often lived in an opposed way by the young generations. Often, in fact, they cannot read or write the languages of their parents and nearly always they tend not to reproduce traditional practices. The different and complex modalities by which young Muslims relate to Islam thus have a common denominator: a progressive detachment from ethnic Islam and the affirmation of an individual logic in relating to the religious dimension. This is a process that has been underway in some Muslim societies but in Europe it finds a much more evident space for expression and constitutes a truly new development (3). It is important to emphasise that this process involving the individualisation of religious choice and practice is a factor of decided cultural convergence with what has taken place in European culture at the level of religious belonging. The individualisation of religious choice is in addition further fostered in Europe by the absence of a legitimate Islamic religious authority. Indeed, in emigration a Muslim experiences an absence of mediation between texts of revelation and his own individuality: the ulema (doctors of the law) are absent and the imams are not always up to the task.




The process of the disintegration of ethnic Islam in Europe, which affects above all the world of the young generations, is neither linear nor predictable at the level of its outcomes: it can bring with it the seeds of a reform of Islam – in a liberal sense or in a neo-orthodox sense – but also of a fundamentalist regression. In all cases, however, one is dealing with forms of ‘global Islam’, spread at a transnational level, and which propose an overall interpretative vision of Islam and its relations with the ‘world’ system (4).




Liberal Islam is widespread in Europe where the great silent majority of Muslims locates its Islamic religious reference in the private dimension, that is to say in the personal religious experience. This is a development that may escape the mass media but it is an authentic innovation. Liberal Muslims are believers, they see Islam as a source of values and meaning, and in private they engage in certain cultural practices but they do not try to appear as Muslims in social relations and they detach themselves from an excessive tie between the religious dimension and the sphere of the community. Another form of secularised Islam, which is more tenuous at the religious level, is made up of those who practice ‘seasonally’ and who observe religious rules or rites only in concomitance with the rites of passage of life (circumcision, marriage, funerals) and with the principal religious feats.




The other possible outcome of the pathway of the subjectivisation of religious choice is a process of re-Islamisation, which is expressed in the various currents that converge in orthodox Islam. Religion allows a process of rediscovery or affirmation of identity, inserting the individual into a dimension of community membership. Orthodox Islam as a whole should not be confused with fundamentalist Islam, even though it has within it some fundamentalist currents and manifestations. One is dealing, instead, with a complex and detailed phenomenon involving the personal re-appropriation of a ‘purer’ Islam, as denuded as possible of ethnic-cultural connotations through direct reference to the sacred texts and formal legal traditions. Above all in the case of the cosmopolitan neo-orthodox version, orthodox Islam strives for an open dialogue, albeit one that is not always without contradictions, with European culture.



The Re-reading of Tradition


The new development of the 1990s, above all in France, and at the present time one that is at the stage of initial diffusion in Italy, was the emergence, above all amongst the young, of the neo-orthodox current. This current is characterised by the fact that its members express a convinced adherence to Muslim religious belonging, which is received in its doctrinal and communal dimension at a religious level but placed in an active dialogue with European culture and with the membership of citizenship of the European countries they live in. Neo-orthodox Islam tries to create new spaces for association in which people can express themselves: young neo-orthodox Muslims do not so much attend mosques as involve themselves at the level of associations, with activities involving human and social support and promotion at a neighbourhood level. These associations tend to be inter-ethnic; they would like to be mixed but in France they are prevalently male. In Italy, on the other hand, the female presence is high. They say that they are interested in inter-religious dialogue but this often remains a statement of principle because of the lack of a suitable educational background. In addition, they promote strong civic and social involvement, above all at a neighbourhood or town level. The neo-orthodox current is making itself felt above all in France but also, at an initial stage, in Italy. A similar expression to French neo-orthodox Islam in Italy is the Association of Young Muslims in Italy (5). The intention of the neo-orthodox current is to conjoin faithfulness to the Islamic religious dimension with loyal membership of French or Italian society and their cultures, and this implies a re-reading of many traditional expressions of Islam, an aspect that does not fail to provoke inter-generational conflicts which are often heated. On the other hand the development of a fecund dialogue between Islam and European culture require the hermeneutics of Islamic sources: this is a fundamental undertaking, which, however, young Muslims find difficult to engage in themselves personally, at least for the moment, given that they do not have the necessary expertise at the level of doctrine.




Although in the case of young Muslims their relationship with religious membership is variegated, one should not forget that its evolution also depends on the set of social relations that individuals experience within the European context. Recent research has demonstrated how the expressions of an orthodox Islamic identity of a neo-traditionalist or radical kind are in percentage terms more widespread in Germany where the absence of a professional, economic and social integration of large sections of young people of immigrant origins leads to extended forms of re-Islamisation as a phenomenon of the affirmation of identity against the exclusion that is experienced at a practical level (6). In contrary fashion, it is interesting to observe how the urban revolts that broke out in recent years in the outskirts of British and French cities, although they involved young people of immigrant origins in many cases belonging to a Muslim cultural matrix as their protagonists, were never marked by assertions involving identity of an Islamic kind. Instead, they were claims to a real enjoyment of what European citizenship promises in terms of rights and professional and social achievement. These phenomena lead us to conclude that however much the religious factor may be important at the level of personal and collective identity, especially for those who belong to the Muslim context, during the pathway of integration it enters into a dynamic relationship with a series of other factors of an economic and social order which maintain all their importance in determining the outcomes of the process of the integration of Muslims in Europe, but also in influencing the typology, the expressive forms and the registers of activation at the public level of religious membership.






(1) O. Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, New York, 2004).




(2) L. Babès, L’altro Islam. Un’indagine sui giovani musulmani e la religione (Edizioni Lavoro, Rome, 2000); J. Cesari and A. Pacini (eds.), Giovani musulmani in Europa (Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Turin, 2005).



(3) M. Tozy, L’Islam e la sfida delle appropriazioni, in La libertà religiosa tra tradizione e moderni diritti dell’uomo (Edizioni della Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, Turin, 2002), pp. 119-137.



(4) J. Césari,‘La leadership islamica in Europa tra fondamentalismo e cosmopolitismo’, in J. Cèsari and A. Pacini (eds.), Giovani musulmani in Europa, pp. 1-14; Id., Musulmans et republicains, (Éditions Complexe, Paris, 1998).



(5) For an analysis of the dynamics of young Muslims in Italy see: A. Frisina, ‘Giovani musulmani d’Italia. Trasformazioni socio-culturali e domande di cittadinanza’, in J. Cesari and A. Pacini (eds.), Giovani musulmani in Europa, pp. 139-159, and in the same volume the essay by the same author: Musulmani e Italiani tra le altre cose, pp. 161-187; see also: A. Frisina, Giovani musulmani d’Italia (Carocci, Roma 2007).



(6) C. Wilpert, I giovani musulmani in Germania, in J. Cesari and A. Pacini (eds.), Giovani musulmani in Europa, pp. 69-114.


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