Europe’s Muslim Street

Ömer Taşpınar
Omer Taspinar headshot
Ömer Taşpınar Former Brookings Expert

March 1, 2003

Islam may still be a faraway religion for millions of Americans. But for Europeans it is local politics. The 15 million Muslims of the European Union (EU)—up to three times as many as live in the United States—are becoming a more powerful political force than the fabled Arab street. Europe?s Muslims hail from different countries and display diverse religious tendencies, but the common denominator that links them to the Muslim world is their sympathy for Palestine and Palestinians. And unlike most of their Arab brethren, growing numbers of Europe?s Muslims can vote in elections that count.

This political ascendance threatens to exacerbate existing strains within the trans-Atlantic relationship. The presence of nearly 10 million Muslims versus only 700,000 Jews in France and Germany alone helps explain why continental Europe might look at the Middle East from a different angle than does the United States. Indeed, French and German concerns about a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq or Washington?s blind support for Israel are at least partly related to nervousness about the Muslim street at home.

Whether Brussels, Berlin, Paris, or Washington like it or not, Europe?s Muslim constituencies are likely to become an even more vocal foreign policy lobby. Two trends are empowering Europe?s Muslim street: demographics and opportunities for full citizenship.

It?s worth remembering that Europe?s Muslim population is an unintended consequence of actions taken nearly a half century ago. During the postwar labor shortage in the 1950s and 1960s, Turks, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Pakistanis were called to help spur Europe?s economic recovery. No host country expected these ?guestworkers,? as the Germans called them with characteristic frankness, to overstay their welcome. Like all good guests, they were supposed to leave, preferably when the recession hit and the party was over in the 1970s. They didn?t. Instead, their families joined them, and new generations of European Turks, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Pakistanis were born.

More are on the way. Today, the Muslim birth rate in Europe is three times higher than the non-Muslim one. If current trends continue, the Muslim population of Europe will nearly double by 2015, while the non-Muslim population will shrink by 3.5 percent.

A parallel process of Muslim enfranchisement is accompanying this population surge. Nearly half of the 5 million to 7 million Muslims in France are already French citizens. The situation is similar for most of the 2 million Muslims in Great Britain. Most recently, in 2000, Germany joined the countries where citizenship is granted according to birthplace instead of ancestry. The new German citizenship laws added already a half million voters to the rolls and have opened the road to citizenship to all other Muslims in Germany. With currently 160,000 new Muslim citizens a year, the number of voters might total 3 million in the next decade.

In Germany and elsewhere in Europe, a Muslim swing vote is already having a critical impact. Consider the electoral push that newly enfranchised ?German Turks? gave to Germany?s incumbent Social Democrat (SPD)-Green coalition in last September?s down-to-the-wire election. These Muslim Germans punished the anti-immigrant Christian Democrats, who oppose Turkey?s membership to the EU. And they expressed their gratitude for efforts by the SPD-Green coalition to change the archaic laws of German citizenship. The bad news for the German Christian Democrats is that in the next general elections in 2006, roughly 1 million German Turks will be eager to cast their votes.

A big boost to the organizational capacity of Muslims in Europe came most recently from France, home to Europe?s largest Muslim community. The country?s diverse Muslim community is now represented by a unified French Council of the Islamic Faithu—a potential boon to its lobbying clout. French Muslims have also gained higher political visibility with the inclusion in Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin?s government of two cabinet members of North African origin.

Armed with the power of the vote and quickly learning the mechanics of lobbying, the Muslim street in Europe is on its way to having more political weight than the Arab street of Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But the attacks of September 11 have cast the growing influence of European Muslims in a more ominous light. Although the overwhelming majority of Muslims living in Europe (or, for that matter, the United States) are peaceful and law abiding, many European governments worry under their breath about the role of some European Muslims in past and future terrorist attacks—a concern stoked by the discovery of al Qaeda cells in Germany, France, Italy, and Britain. Given these not-so-latent suspicions and prejudices, one casualty of a major Islamic terrorist attack on European soil would likely be Europe?s budding multiculturalism.

Another major concern is the relationship between Europe?s Muslims and what is perceived in some quarters as Europe?s growing anti-Semitism. True, continental Europeans are much more critical of Israel and generally more supportive of the Palestinian cause. Overall, Europeans have a difficult time understanding how a small country like Israel can have so much influence over the sole superpower. But few in the United States notice that the communities most resentful of Israel in Europe are Muslim. The perpetrators of anti-Semitic incidents in France are not right-wing extremists protecting the ?French race? from Jewish contamination: The 400 or so anti-Semitic incidents documented in the country during 2001 have mostly been attributed to Muslim youth of North African origin. Such incidents tend to spike upwards during times of Israeli-Palestinian trouble—further proof of the Muslim role. Economic problems such as unemployment and a lack of upward mobility also contribute to the frustration of Muslims in Europe, who often feel discriminated against.

On the positive side, demographic growth and enfranchisement are already integrating European Muslims into the political mainstream and have the potential to produce a moderate type of Euro-Islam. Yet the implications of a more vocal Muslim lobby in Europe?s Middle East policy offer no good news for the United States. Home to a minuscule Jewish minority and growing Muslim masses, Europe will only get better at confronting the United States at the game of ethnic-lobby influence—a small price to pay, perhaps, for the emergence of a truly multicultural Europe.