The Challenges for Muslim Minority Communities in Modern-day Europe-1

1-5Murray Hill*

Part One: First generation European Muslims

Idstein,April 7, 2014 (Alochonaa):  First generation migrant groups to Europe originated from a wide range of Muslim homelands. Ramadan rightly reminds us that it is therefore difficult to generalize about the Muslim presence in every European society (1999: 135). Similarly, UK Islam is ‘pan-ethnic’. In his attempt to consider Muslim issues in a single European country, Raza notes there is no “singular cultural manifestation” in the British Muslim community (1993: 1). Furthermore, “within a Muslim community, national/ethnic cultural characteristics may tend to dominate more than Islam” (1993: 1). Lewis also rejects the ‘essentialist fallacy’, which promotes Islam as an all-encompassing term (1994/2002).

Modood observes that “Muslim identity is seen as the illegitimate child of British multiculturalism” (Modood 2002, 126). While early migrants sought a kind of invisible citizenship, later generations are attempting to find a more assertive political voice on the national political stage to complement the power of the mosques at the local political level. The socioeconomic, cultural, religious and political dynamics are complex and multi-layered. They involve issues such as 2nd language acquisition, education, employment, morality, gender/inter-generational issues, media representation/Islamaphobia/identity politics and political representation, to name only a few.

Migrants did not leave their homelands in order to relinquish their religious and cultural identity and, likewise, receiving host countries did not originally perceive themselves officially as countries of immigration. The institutionalisation of Islam, as migrant communities attempt to establish infrastructures to support their identities, requires adaptation, imagination and sensitivity from all concerned.

What, then, are the social and political challenges faced by the Muslim minority communities, both on a practical and a philosophical level, within the general context of European Muslim migration? Examples from the UK in particular, and also Germany, are noted here.


Reasons for Muslim migration

What all first generation migrant groups to Europe had in common was economic necessity as their primary motivation. Modood notes importantly that migrant South Asian Muslims to the UK were a “semi-industrialised, newly urbanised working class community only 1 generation away from rural peasantry” (1990: 77). Similarly, the majority of Turks who migrated to Germany had “quite low levels of education and training (…) but are also considered by some as lacking a fundamental understanding of their own religion and culture” (Tibi 2002, 34). Tragically, there has also been the urgent need for European Muslims from Bosnia and Kosovo to seek refuge for political reasons in the 90s, and a continuing need to receive Muslim asylum seekers from countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and, latterly, Syria.

Meanwhile, the ‘myth of return’ has been exploded. Muslim ‘sojourners’ have stayed for a number of reasons, including avoiding future restrictions in immigration. Migrants’ self-perception changed on the arrival of women and children family members in the late 60s. This was in contrast to the example of Bangladeshi men, who earlier:

 suffered an almost total lapse of religious observance; yet migration was not perceived as a threat to their heritage. It was possible to live on the margin of British society, avoiding any deeper involvement than work necessitated’ (Lewis 2002: 56)


This pattern of settling has been repeated in all the major European countries, where three substantial comparable groups exist, namely three and a half million Muslim Turks and Kurds, with approximately two million residing in Germany; five million Maghrabi Muslims, of whom four million are resident in France; and one and half million UK Muslims, the majority of whom are South Asians.

‘Settling’ permanently changed the degree of integration or assimilation that might be possible or desirable, assimilation being, as Kim notes, “a state of the highest degree of acculturation into the host milieu and (highest degree of) deculturation of the original cultural habits that is theoretically possible’ (Kim 2001: 52). Host countries throughout Europe seemed ill prepared, however. Thus, for example, “for a long time, hardly anyone realized that, with the influx of so-called guest-workers, a new religion had also entered the Netherlands” (Haddad et al 2002,144) and in Germany government agencies conceded “we have imported labor and have overlooked the fact that we were importing human beings” (Tibi 2002, 34). All European countries have experienced difficulties, differing only in terms of degree of sensitivity in their response to a range of issues, perhaps best exemplified by the debate on the right to wear hijab: “Few things seem to scare the French as much as the sight of Muslim school-girls wearing head-scarves” (AlSayyad 2002, 12-13).

Tibi concludes that “in Europe the second and even the third generation of Muslim migrants have still not been accepted as part of the polity” (Tibi 2002, 33). Likewise, Mustafa notes that Europe is a continent which “fails on a daily basis to treat its small Muslim communities with grace, let alone acceptance” (Mustafa 2002, 97).


Chain migration

The UK Muslim communities themselves are unevenly distributed. So-called ‘chain migration’ meant that close relatives and fellow villagers would cluster, i.e. kin and village networks were reproduced in the UK. Transnational arranged marriages, often with cousins from same areas, reinforced this. As a result, previously self-contained communities such as Muslims from Gujarat (where Muslims are 15% minority of population) have repeated the pattern in towns such as Blackburn. Lewis refers to circumscribed “ethnic horizons”: the way social lives in Gujarat are ‘dominated’ by visits to neighbours and kin (and minimal interaction with Hindus) is transferred to the UK, and reinforced, with minimal interaction with indigenous British.


Institutional completeness

Lewis argues that “Muslim communities in Britain have been very successful in reproducing much of their traditional social and cultural world” (Lewis 2002, 18-19).   Muslim communities have managed to generate separate institutional and economic infrastructures which embody and perpetuate their religious and cultural norms. This is partly as a result of necessity to overcome racial exclusion, but its effect has been to develop a sense of “institutional completeness” (Lewis 2002, 19).


Halal shops are an assertion of Muslim identity in Europe (Google Image)

Halal shops are an assertion of Muslim identity in Europe (Google Image)

Lewis talks, for example, of the “creation of substantial Muslim residential zones” and “residential enclaves” in Bradford, which have “spawned an astonishing array of businesses”. Others less generous might describe this as a kind of ghetto-isation, and the term “white flight” has been coined to describe those hostile indigenous British who leave in preference to sharing neighbourhoods with incoming Muslims.   The range of specialist shops, from Halal butchers to Urdu DVD shops, nonetheless means that it was also possible for early migrants, especially those excluded for whatever reason from external economic activity, to survive within a ghetto-like setting.


Ethnic islands

There are, of course, arguments about the disadvantages of what Kim describes as “ethnic islands” which can become counter-productive. As she rightly notes, “languages competence serves us as the primary instrument in promoting our social power and credibility, whereas its lack becomes a salient deprivation” (Kim 2001, 230) Thus, while such ethnic proximity was vital to first generation migrants in a host society which was ill-equipped to accommodate their needs, the result has often been that:

the lives of elderly immigrants (and their) everyday activities occur almost exclusively within the circle of their families and ethnic communities. They have little knowledge of the host language and culture. They mostly depend on interpreters if they must communicate with host nationals”.(Kim 2001, 144).


Again, the pattern is familiar throughout Europe and, as Tibi rightly notes:

 In general, those Islamic migrants who want to become citizens of the West are caught between (…) rejection and the pressure to join a cultural ghetto. Such polarization is particularly harmful to Muslim juveniles who have been born in Europe and are seeking to unfold identities and personalities here. (Tibi 2002, 41)

Socio-economic status:

UK Muslims are now established as 3rd generation citizens, but the economic picture is rather bleak and it has become apparent, as Modood points out that “it is Asian Muslims – not Afro-Caribbeans, as policymakers had originally expected – who are the most disadvantaged and poorest groups in the country” (Modood 2002, 114).

Migrants tended to begin at the bottom of the economic pyramid on arrival, and were disproportionately hit by industrial recession and the decline in the traditional industries such as textiles. These have been replaced by service industries as poorly paid employment prospects for many. British South Asians “remain at the bottom of society” according to Abbas. UK census returns indicate that the British Muslim population, predominantly made up of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian Muslims, is: “poor, badly housed and poorly educated, suffers high levels of male unemployment and has a very low female participation rate in the labour market” (Abbas 2005, p.23).

Muslims are over-represented in terms of the UK prison population (almost 10% of the total). The reason for the low female participation rate in employment is largely attributed to the low numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women economically active (or participating in higher education) compared to e.g. non-Muslim Indian women. This results not just from poorer educational opportunities, but because of the traditional Islamic concept of purdah, i.e. protecting women from contact with men outside their immediate family, and izzet (family honour).   Nonetheless, Pakistani home-ownership is almost 70%, the national average, while Bangladeshi is only 38%. That is no doubt partly attributable to the fact that the majority of Bangladeshis are located in Tower Hamlets in London, where property is extremely expensive.

The picture becomes more complicated when the issue of illegal migration is considered, which is pereceived as a threat by existing integrated legal migrant groups themselves, who become exposed increasingly to xenophobia as a result. Tibi notes controversially:

The common view among migrants is that it is more dignified to live on the benefits of welfare as an asylum-seeker in Western Europe than it is to live in a suburban gececondu, or shack, in Ankara or Istanbul, or in the slums of Casablance or Algiers, with no income at all (…) The most generous aspects of the German welfare system are therefore well known in the southern and eastern Mediterranean. (Tibi 2002, 35)



The proliferation of mosques and supplementary schools has contributed hugely to the sense of “institutional completeness” and signalled, according to Lewis, a “dramatic indication of Muslims’ commitment to stay in Britain and a determination to pass on to their children their religious and cultural values” (Lewis 2002, 62).  Architecture of religion is thus a visible sign of transition from ‘sojourner’ to ‘settler’, with over 1,000 mosques in the UK (Raza 1993, 37) ranging from small terraced houses to the UK’s most prestigious mosque, the Central Mosque in London’s Regent Park, opened in 1977. Similar developments are evident in Germany, where there were 2,400 mosques by 2002 (Fetzer & Soper 2002, 117), which equates to approximately one mosque or prayer room for every 1,458 Muslims.

There are 350 mosques in greater London ( Google Image)

There are 350 mosques in greater London ( Google Image)

The relative proliferation of mosques in these and other European countries has not been straightforward in the face of opposition from the indigenous population. Extreme hostility is reflected in the infamous example of the bulldozing of a mosque under construction in France (Fetzer & Soper 2002, 89). France’s hidden “cellar Islam”[i] of the 70s (Merroun, cited Fetzer & Soper 2002, 64) has nonetheless emerged with the building of some 1,500 mosques by 1999, admittedly representing a much lower access to prayer facilities than those of their British co-religionists.


It is important to emphasize Modood’s point here that:

 Most mosques in Britain are run by local lay committees, with the mullah or imam usually being a minor functionary. At the national level, too, very few of those who aspire to be Muslim spokespersons and representatives have religious authority. (Modood 2002, 126)


The central function and role of mosques, and their effectiveness (or lack of) in delivering to the Muslim community, has been called into question by Raza, who is scathing in his criticism of mosque power politics and the sectarianism divide which prevails (Raza 1993, 37). He cites the observation of the London-based Islamic Cultural Centre:


The mosques in Britain have become a battle ground for power politics…It is pointless to conceal that within the last few years most of the trouble and discord have stemmed from the attitudes of some of the Ulema and Imams and these have been the reason from many of the most unpleasant scenes witnessed in the brief history of the Muslims in the United Kingdom. (1993, 37)


Likewise, Raza refers to the “internecine warfare” of other Muslim organisations. While a limited number of genuinely independent agencies, e.g. the Leicester-based Islamic Rights Movement or service organisation such as Islamic Relief perform genuinely worthwhile activities, many other ‘agent organisations’ funded by “petro-dollar states” and ‘sectarian organisations’ pursue proxy conflicts on behalf of their sponsoring governments and competing religious doctrines (Raza 1993, 48-51). Tibi observes a similar trend in Germany:


Spokespersons are now coming from outside the migrant community, without being knowledgeable of its needs. Today such people are mostly imams who do not speak German, English or French, and who have no clue as to the problems and concerns of young Muslims born in Western Europe. These imams have either been imposed on the migrants by Islamist groups, or they have been appointed by the Muslim governments of countries such as Turkey or Morocco. In Germany, even Saudi Arabia has acquired considerable influence by using its petrodollars to fund such appointments – despite the fact that there are no Saudi migrants there. (Tibi 2002, 34)


Above all, according to Raza, because of the plethora of organisations purporting to represent the Muslim community, there has been a “saturation” (Raza 1993, 20) of leadership and the resultant fragmentation undermines any potential opportunity to establish a national consensus on Muslim matters which might translate into substantive political action. Similarly, in the international arena, Barelwi leader Pir Maroof founded the World Islamic Mission, with its HQ in Bradford, to rival the Mecca-based, Wahhabi-oriented Muslim World League.

*Murray Hill, PhD, is a Professor of Intercultural Communication at Hochschule Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, Germany. You can download bibliography of the entire series from here Bibliography

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


1 The author of this article had a similarly contrasting experience of two mosques on a visit to Germany in 2008. The Ahmadiyya mosque in Berlin is the city’s oldest mosque, purpose-built in the 1920s. It is a building of some grandeur, but it had been temporarily closed, however, due to apparent lack of funding. Fortunately, the mosque has reopened and the author was privileged to enjoy several conversations with the acting imam. By contrast, the author was able to attend prayers in a cellar mosque in Munich. The Munich mosque was almost invisible, with access via a security key-coded door leading to a tenement stair. The author is grateful to the owner of a nearby kebab take-away café, who happily provided the code on request!


2 The author also enjoyed a visit to a halal burger bar in Blackburn, England where local Muslims socialise in the busy upstairs ‘illicit’ – because of the recent UK smoking ban relating to public places – shisha bar. The bar serves the function of a typical ‘British’ bar, but without serving alcohol and clearly offers popular social interaction opportunities. It is worth noting that there were no white patrons present during this particular visit.



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