Two weeks ago, dozens of cars were set alight in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand after a 30-year-old truck driver, Wissam El-Yamni, was roughed up and then died while in police custody. The uproar underscored the hostility of young minority men toward authority across communities in Europe, an antipathy that has at times led to deadly violence.
The failure of Islamic integration in Europe is often attributed — especially by right-wing parties — to an excess of tolerance toward the large-scale Muslim immigration that began in the mid-1970s. By recognizing Muslim religious requirements, the argument goes, countries like France, Britain and the Netherlands have unwittingly hindered assimilation and even, in some cases, fostered radicalism. But the unrest in gritty European suburbs stems not from religious difference, but from anomie.
Europeans should not be afraid to allow Muslim students to take classes on Islam in state-financed schools and universities. The recognition and accommodation of Islamic religious practices, from clothing to language to education, does not mean capitulation to fundamentalism. On the contrary, only by strengthening the democratic rights of Muslim citizens to form associations, join political parties and engage in other aspects of civic life can Europe integrate immigrants and give full meaning to the abstract promise of religious liberty.
The rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties has led several European countries to impose restrictions on Islamic dress, mosque-building and reunification of families through immigration law. These policies are counterproductive. Paradoxically, people for whom religion is otherwise not all that important become more attached to their faith’s clothing, symbols and traditions when they feel they are being singled out and denied basic rights.
Take, for example, the French debate over whether to recognize the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha as official holidays. Yes, the French state clings to the principle of “laïcité,” or secularism — but the state’s recognition of Easter and Christmas as official holidays feels, to some Jews and Muslims, like hypocrisy. It is Islam’s absence in the institutions young European Muslims encounter, starting with the school’s calendar, classroom and canteen, that contributes to anger and alienation.
In the last few months, there have been some signs that the right-wing momentum has slowed. A French bill to ban headscarves from day care centers was killed in committee. The Dutch Parliament voted down a bill to outlaw Islamic animal slaughter. And Germany’s most populous state helped offset a judicial ban on school prayer by announcing equal access to religion courses for Muslim students.
European countries could use a period of benign neglect of the Islam issue — but only after they finish incorporating religion into the national fabric. For too long, they have instead masked an absence of coherent integration policy under the cloak of “multiculturalism.” The state outsourced the hard work of integration to foreign diplomats and Islamist institutions — for example, some students in Germany read Saudi-supplied textbooks in Saudi-run institutions.
This neglect of integration helped an unregulated “underground Islam” to take hold in storefronts, basements and courtyards. It reflected wishful thinking about how long guest workers would stay and perpetuated a myth of eventual departure and repatriation.
In Britain, for example, race-based equality laws protected Sikhs and Jews as minorities, but not Hindus and Muslims, since they were still considered “foreign.”
Institutional exclusion fueled a demand for religious recognition, and did much to unite and segregate Muslims. Islamist organizations became the most visible defenders of the faith. It is crucial now to provide the right mix of institutional incentives for religious and political moderation, and the most promising strategy for doing that is for governments to consult with the full range of law-abiding religious institutions that Muslims have themselves established.
The French Council for the Muslim Faith, the German Islam Conference, the Committee for Italian Islam and the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board in Britain — all state-sanctioned Islamic organizations set up in the past decade — represent a broad cross-section of mosque administrators in every country. They have quietly begun reconciling many practical issues, from issuing mosque permits to establishing Islamic theology departments at public universities to appointing chaplains in the military and in prisons.
Ultimately, however, elected democratic institutions are the place where the desires of individual Muslims should be expressed. Ever since 1789, when a French legislator argued that “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals,” Europeans have struggled to resolve the tension between rights derived from universal citizenship versus group membership.
Over the next 20 years, Europe’s Muslim population is projected to grow to nearly 30 million — 7 to 8 percent of all Europeans — from around 17 million. Granting Muslims full religious freedom wouldn’t remove obstacles to political participation or create jobs. But it would at least allow tensions over Muslims’ religious practices to fade. This would avoid needless sectarian strife and clear the way for politicians to address the more vexing and urgent challenges of socioeconomic integration.