Dissent Magazine

Islam and Social Democrats: Integrating Europe's Muslim Minority

The first serious divergences between Muslims and the left in Europe began with the fatwa issued by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie in 1989 and religious demands to censor his novel, The Satanic Verses. The split widened later that year, when France began to restrict the wearing of girls’ headscarves in schools.

Until then, parties on the left had embraced the mostly working-class minority as a natural ally. Migrants from Muslim majority countries first began settling permanently in Western Europe in the 1970s and ’80s. The unexpected transformation of receiving countries into “immigration societies” provoked nationalist and racist reactions on the right, while parties on the left appeared the likely beneficiary of the influx of future voters. German trade unions were already enrolling Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in the 1960s, decades before the German state considered granting Turks easy access to citizenship. When the Socialist leader François Mitterrand was elected French president in 1981, he authorized foreigners to create cultural and political associations—mostly benefiting Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians—that party leaders hoped would federate under the Socialist banner.

Parties of the left began supporting civic integration efforts at the same moment that center-right parties began battling an ascendant extreme right. While Christian Democrats repeated the mantra that “Germany is not a country of immigration,” for example, German Greens and Social Democrats lobbied for dual nationality for Turks. Conservative coalitions at the time portrayed the immigrant population as a drain on resources and a threat to security and the national way of life. The Social Democratic defense of the second generation’s “right to be different” and to participate in politics allowed center-left parties to defend their ideals while making inroads into a budding electorate of millions.

Mitterrand followed a similar path in creating SOS Racisme, a pioneering anti-discrimination organization that offered proof of pervasive everyday racism in French society, from the front doors of nightclubs to human resources offices and housing agencies. Through media work and effective use of the slogan “Touche pas à mon pote” (“Get your hands off my buddy”), the group contributed to a revolutionary shift in the public imagination of North Africans from immigrants to fellow citizens. Naturally, it was hoped that the association would act as a feeder for activists from the banlieues into the party.

A Cultural Cold War

The emergence of cultural and religious confrontation in the European public sphere since the end of the Cold War has drastically changed the dynamic between Muslims and left parties. It is the domestic political counterpart to nearly twenty five years of punctuated military clashes between the Muslim majority world and many of the same Western countries that are now home to large Muslim minorities. The politicization of Islam and the varying degrees of repression of religious extremists in North Africa and Turkey during the 1990s also contributed to more intense religious identity within the Muslim diaspora.

At the same time, the European federations that were linked to Muslim Brotherhood movements abroad became increasingly assertive of their rights as citizens and believers across Western Europe. In many countries where it had been a point of pride to be inclusive and supportive of Muslim identity politics, the left got burned. Many of the most controversial demands made by Islamic organizations—for example, demands for religious censorship and for women’s right to cover their hair or faces for religious reasons—came into direct conflict with the left’s progressive values of gender equality and the freedom to criticize religion.

The reactions to al Qaeda terrorist attacks committed by several dozen European Muslims, first in the United States and then Spain and the United Kingdom, helped lay a particular religious template over these diverse immigrant-origin populations. Later, the global row over the Danish “prophet cartoons” sealed an adversarial relationship between religious Muslims and the left. This was not exactly what the Socialist Party had in mind for this group of new voters. It was unprepared for the religious turn in minority politics, from “Touche pas à mon pote” to “Touche pas à mon prophète.”

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