Report

An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe

  • December 14, 2004

Throughout Europe today, it is not uncommon to see women wearing headscarves and men with skull caps and beards. On many European streets, shops now sport signs in Arabic and other Near Eastern languages and sell an array of exotic looking products from the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. Indeed, in the space of a few decades, whole neighborhoods in cities like Birmingham, Rotterdam and Paris have been transformed. Streets that have witnessed hundreds of years of European history are now playing host to a decidedly non-Western people and culture.

This is the new Europe, one in which a rapidly growing Muslim population is making its presence felt in societies that until recently were largely homogeneous. Muslims are still very much minorities in Western and Central European countries, making up roughly 5 percent of the European Union's total population. But a number of demographic trends point to dramatic change in the years ahead, as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports on the growing Muslim population in Europe in "An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe."

Islam is already the fastest-growing religion in Europe. Driven by immigration and high birthrates, the number of Muslims on the continent has tripled in the last 30 years. Most demographers forecast a similar or even higher rate of growth in the coming decades. The social impact of this growing population is magnified by a low birthrate among native Europeans. After a post-World-War-II baby boom, birthrates in Europe have dropped to an average of 1.45 children per couple, far below the 2.1 needed to keep population growth at replacement levels. The continent that gave the rest of the world tens of millions of immigrants and Thomas Malthaus' dire predictions of overpopulation is now faced with a shrinking populace.

Amid these demographic shifts lie a host of social challenges. While many European Muslims have become successful in their new homes, many others do not speak their host country's language well, if at all, and are often jobless and poor. Moreover, segregation, whether by choice or necessity, is common, with large numbers of Muslims living in ghettos where the crime and poverty rates are high.

For Europeans, too, Muslim immigration poses special challenges. Unlike the United States – a land of immigrants with no dominant ethnic group – most nations in Europe are constructed around a population with a common ethnicity. In addition, these countries possess deep historical, cultural, religious and language traditions. Injecting hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of people who look, speak and act differently into these settings often makes for a difficult social fit.

Tensions also have arisen over religion. The centrality of Islam in the lives of so many European Muslims is hard for increasingly secular Scandinavians, Germans and Frenchmen to comprehend. Europeans worry that Islam will make it difficult for their Muslim neighbors to accept many of the continent's core values, like tolerance, democracy and equal rights for women.

These social pressures have been compounded by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent events – particularly the March 11, 2004, train bombings in Madrid and more recent killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Terrorism and its link to radical Islam have made Europeans even more wary of Muslims, especially those living within their midst. These concerns have provided fuel for xenophobic, nativist parties, helping to propel a number of them into the political mainstream.

Into this volatile mix comes the continent-wide debate over whether Turkey should be admitted into the European Union (EU). Efforts by Europe's political elite to convince a skeptical populace of the benefits of including a largely Near Eastern and Muslim country of 70 million into Europe's grand experiment have, so far, mostly fallen flat. Polls show majorities in many European countries remain opposed to Turkish accession. The argument over Turkey goes beyond the geopolitical pluses and minuses of EU membership and raises the larger issue of Europe's troubled relationship with Islam. It is an old acquaintance, one stretching back more than 1,300 years. And it is marked by countless wars and occupations, as well as a vibrant, steady cultural exchange. Over the last 40 or more years, though, the relationship has entered a new phase, one dominated by the largely peaceful migration of Muslims to Europe, usually in search of work or freedom.

European governments have grappled with this migration in various ways and with varying degrees of success. Some countries, like France and Britain, have had relatively well established policies toward immigrants for decades. And Britain, in particular, has had some success in integrating Muslim newcomers into the broader society. Other states, like Germany, Spain and Italy, have, until recently, treated their Muslim communities as temporary phenomena, groups of “guest workers” or foreigners who would eventually return to their homelands. But the growing presence of Muslims coupled with increased social tensions and terrorism-related fears have forced governments around the continent to focus more intently on trying to bring this community into the mainstream. Efforts have ranged from new laws aimed at hastening the pace of assimilation, such as the recent French head scarf ban, to proposals to assist in creating a more homegrown, European brand of Islam.

The successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe. Prognosticators may disagree on the community's ultimate demographic and social impact, but all believe that Muslims will, at the very least, be a significant and sizable minority that will play an important role in shaping the continent's future.