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Bert de Ruiter

Engaging with Muslims (II): Islam in present-day Europe

Islam is in Europe to stay, albeit progressively and in different forms. Different versions and traditions of Islam compete with each other. It has become Europe’s second religion after Christianity.

ENGAGING MUSLIMS AUTHOR Bert de Ruiter 20 MARCH 2017 11:50 h GMT+1
muslim europe A Muslim prays in an public space in Berlin, Germany. / Photo: S. Geyer (Flickr, CC)

Read part I of this in-depth analysis article by Bert de Ruiter.



Although the physical presence of Muslim in Europe is not new, we can identify several fairly recent trends.


Immigrants have become citizens

Islam is in Europe to stay, albeit progressively and in different forms. Islam has increasingly become part of Europe’s social, cultural and political and religious landscape. It has become Europe’s second religion after Christianity. Since the 1950s Western Europe has seen the arrival of Muslim migrant workers and Muslim asylum-seekers. The first migrants came with the expectations to earn money to send back home and then to return home. This expectation never materialized largely due to changes in immigration laws. They decided to stay in Europe and their families came to join them. This radically altered the structure of the Muslim community in Western Europe leading to new social and religious priorities and demands on the host community.  In several countries in Western Europe we see the beginning of a third and fourth generation Muslims. This shows that the immigrants of the past have become European citizens that will remain here.


Revitalization of Islam in Eastern part of Europe

In the Eastern part of Europe we see a re-awakening of the indigenous Muslim population (e.g. in the Balkans and Russia). The Islamic religious institutions in the eastern part of Europe experience a renewal of activity, creating their own political parties, newspapers, cultural associations and charitable societies or intellectual forums.


Institutionalization of Islam in Europe

The institutionalization of Islam in Europe refers to the process of: a) the formation of organizations, such as associations, schools, mosques, that are designed to meet the needs of the Muslim population that lives in Europe; b) the public and legal recognition of these organizations and its social value.  The institutionalization of Islam in Europe is a complex issue, not only is it related to the creation and recognition of Muslim representative institutions, but also deals with matters such as religious slaughter,  building of mosques, religious education etc.


We can’t speak of Islam in Europe, but only of Islams in Europe

Islam is not a monolithic entity. It is impossible to speak of Islam in Europe (singular) as if all 50 million Muslims believe the same, behave the same, think the same, interpret the Qur’an the same, pray the same, relate to others the same. 

“I think that in order to understand what Islam is, one has to stop talking about a single Islam as a stereotype. Think of a palette on which painters put all the colours they are going to use…. Islam, like Christianity… has many different colours on its palette.” [1]

“For some Muslims… being Muslims is a matter of community membership and heritage; for others it is a few simple precepts about self, compassion, justice and afterlife; for some others it is a worldwide movement armed with a counter-ideology of modernity; and so on. Some Muslims are devout but apolitical; some are political but do not see their politics as being “Islamic” (indeed, may even be anti-Islamic”) Some identify more with a nationality of origin, such as Turkish; others with the nationality of settlement and perhaps citizenship, such as French…So it is no more plausible to ascribe a particular politics (religious or otherwise) to all Muslims as it to all women or members of the working class.”[2]

“As a Muslim myself, I know that Islam is important to Muslims in general, but people who are Muslims are influenced by all sorts of motivations, aspirations and needs, like all other human beings. However important to a person his or her Islamic identity might be, it cannot exhaust who that person is, or in any way diminish or change her or his humanity. In short, I am calling on European scholars, policy makers, media and public opinion to reflect on what appears to be an irrational fixation and obsession with Islam and Muslims, and think of just people who happen to be religious believers, just like being Christian or Jewish.”[3]


Attitude of Christians towards Muslims

People who love interpret the facts about the one they love much more accurately that those who do not love. Because our eyes have seen badly we have only noticed the darker aspects.

John Chrysostom

This statement of John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople between 398-403,  is applicable to the relationship between many Christians in Europe and Muslims. Due to the predominantly negative attitude we fail to look more closely at Muslims in Europe.

Muslims in Europe are  a very heterogeneous group of people. Not all that are seen as Muslims by outsiders are Muslims in the same way. Being Muslim is not equally important or relevant at all times or in all situations for Muslims in Europe. Among those that are considered Muslims there is a huge diversity in the level of practice and in denominational affiliation. Europe is a place where different versions and traditions of Islam compete with each other and we can identify different ways of being Muslim, from reformist to radical and different variants in between.

Jocelyne Cesari points out that scholarship on Muslims in Europe falls prey to an essentialist approach.“This approach involves a totalization effect: it mistakenly supposes that all immigrants of Muslim origins are devoutly religious and observe all the principles of Islamic law. It thereby overlooks that variations in Muslim belief and practice resulting from the impact of migration, as well as the influence of the pluralistic environment of Western Europe. Considering Muslims as an undifferentiated whole legitimates the view of Islam as a threat, …” [4]

She believes that this kind of vision implies three major misperceptions:

1. It neglects the important transformations in Islamic identity under way among the generations born or educated in the West. These Muslim youth are involved in a quite new secularization process, which is repositioning Islam into the private sphere.

2. This essentialist vision does not take into account the fact that different cultures and ethnic boundaries affect both the meaning and content of Muslim identities.

3. It ignores that fact that Islamic culture is capable to reconciles its religious traditions with issues of social and political modernization. [5]

Assuming that generalities about Islam in a majority situation will also hold where Muslims are in a minority position, without even taking into account these fundamentally different contexts. Islam in the abstract is static, Muslims are dynamic; Islam is rigid, Muslims are flexible; Islam is (can be interpreted as) univocal, Muslims constitute a cacophony of dissident voices. [6]


Ways of being Muslim in Europe

I have identified several ways of being Muslim in Europe. [7]

1. Angry Muslims

2. Converted Muslims

3. Cool Muslims

4. Critical Muslims

5. Ex-Muslims

6. Folk Muslims

7. Fundamentalist Muslims

8. Liberal Muslims

9. Progressive Muslims

10. Reformist Muslims

11. Secular Muslims


This is part II of a four-part in-depth article. Read part I here. Evangelical Focus will publish parts III and IV in the next weeks. 

Bert de Ruiter, Consultant of Christian-Muslim Relations OM Europe and European Evangelical Alliance.

[1] Tariq Ali, “Why are we so obsessed by Islam?” in Islam and Europe –Challenges and Opportunities  Marie-Claire Foblets (ed); Leuven University Press, 2008, page 164 

[2] Modood, Multiculturalism, 2013, page 124

[3] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im “European Islam or Islamic Europe : The Secular State for Negotiating Pluralism” in the book Islam and Europe: Crises and Challenges (Foblets and Carlier eds) 

[4] Jocelyne Cesari, “Muslim minorities in Europe, the silent revolution” in Modernizing Islam (John L. Esposito/Francois Burgat ed) page 251-269, 251

[5] Ibid, 252, 253

[6] Allievi, Stefano, “Muslim voices, European ears”  in Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and dissemination in Western Europe, Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi (eds) Routledge, Oxon, 2011, page 28, 29

[7] This is in no way a complete list but suffices to exemplify the plurality of Islam in Europe.




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