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Islam in Europe: an off-and-on relationship across the centuries
© RS - KU Leuven

Islam in Europe: an off-and-on relationship across the centuries

Researchers at the Leuven Centre for Islamic Culture and Society are examining the turbulent relationship between Islam and the West.

8 minutes
17 June 2021

Do mosques, headscarves and Ramadan threaten the secular West or are they merely building blocks of a culturally diverse society? Researchers at the Leuven Centre for Islamic Culture and Society are examining the turbulent relationship between Islam and the West.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. By 2050, about ten percent of the European population will be Muslim. Yet visible expressions of faith are still often met with suspicion, and misconceptions about Islam in particular abound. How have the West and Islam become entangled in prejudice after centuries of interaction? That is the subject of research underway at the Leuven Centre for the Study of Islamic Culture and Society, established last year.

Institutionalisation vs. secularisation

The presence of Islam in Europe dates back to the Middle Ages, but it took a different tack after the Second World War. Due to increasing industrialisation, post-war Western Europe was faced with a major shortage of low-skilled workers. Western European countries therefore began recruiting guest workers from Turkey and Morocco starting in the 1960s. “The Islamic identity of foreign workers was largely under the radar at the time,” said Arabic and Islamic sciences professor Amr Ryad, head of the Centre for Islamic Studies. “Turkish and Moroccan Muslims assumed they were there for a temporary stay in the host country where they worked and therefore had less need for the institutionalisation of their faith.”

But Western Europe remained dependent on guest labour well into the 1970s. “That’s why more and more Turkish and Moroccan men began to bring their wives and children over. With this family reunification, the Islamic community had a growing need for religious institutions such as places of worship, schools and butcher shops.”

At the same time, a process of secularisation has been taking place in Western countries in which religion is increasingly pushed into the private domain. “Christianity in particular – the predominant religion in Western Europe – has shifted to the fringes of social life over the past decades,” explains Professor Jan De Volder, holder of the Cusanus Chair in Religion, Conflict and Peace. “This development is continuing and is at odds with that of Islam: younger generations of Muslims are often less secularised than the first generation of guest workers.”

The concurrence in Western Europe of institutionalisation of Islam on the one hand and secularisation on the other gives rise to an area of tension. “An example of this can be found in the debate on the recognition and financing of mosques,” says anthropology professor Nadia Fadil. “Now that the churches are emptying, the question arises – especially within liberal circles – whether the government should be supporting religions at all.”

Religious services have been under the authority of the state since the foundation of Belgium. “The new Belgian state was afraid of the power of the Church and saw in the financing of religious services a way to maintain control. At the same time, the state ruled that Christianity, as a valuable part of society, deserved support.”

The same logic of control has been reintroduced in discussions about the financing of Islam. Less so than with Christianity, the argument that Islam must be supported on the basis of an intrinsic moral values. “The main argument for funding Islamic services is control,” says Professor Fadil. “The rationale is that it gives the state more control over what happens in Muslim communities.”

The main argument for funding Islamic services is that it gives the state more control over what happens in Muslim communities.

Homegrown terrorism

Simultaneous with the waning of the Church's influence, the fascination with the Islamic faith also disappeared. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, Eastern cultures were identified with Islam,” says Professor Fadil. “Today in the West we make a distinction between culture and religion.” Interest in Middle Eastern and Maghrebi cultures remains intact, while Islam is approached more negatively. “That stems from a general rejection of religion. In the secularised West, belief has been generally seen as controlling and limiting. That’s reflected in that aversion to Islam.”

During the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s, a fear of fundamentalism emerged in Europe for the first time and, on top of the Western aversion to religion, Islam in particular was cast in a bad light. “For example, at the end of the 1980s, Western countries turned against the Islamic headscarf because it was seen as a symbol of fundamentalism and oppression.”

After the year 2000 the threat became more immediate: Muslim extremists then committed the first terrorist attacks against the West. Especially since 9/11, there has been a growing fear of homegrown terrorism, where the perpetrator targets their own country. This feeling only increased with the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. “In Western countries, the analysis was made that a lack of integration can lead to radicalisation,” says Professor Fadil. “Suddenly all Muslims became potential radicals.”

It is clear that religion will not just die out. Throughout history, and today, atheism remains the exception.

Radicalisation or stigmatisation?

That sense of threat became even more dominant when the story of several Syrian fighters received public attention in 2013 and reached a peak in Belgium in 2016 with the attacks in Brussels and Zaventem. In response, a multitude of local deradicalisation actions arose. “There was a concern in the Muslim community about losing young people to extremist ideas. That’s why there are so many bottom-up initiatives in our country that focus on prevention, and by doing so they also want to provide an answer to repressive governmental measures.”

In her research, Professor Fadil reflects on the concept of radicalisation. All too often that term lumps various groups together: “People who vocally express their distaste for the system are put under the same heading as individuals who are attracted to extremism. It’s also important to distinguish between a real threat and what is ‘religiously different’: a headscarf or a beard is not a sign of radicalisation.”

If orthodox religious practices are interpreted as symptoms of extremism, a deradicalisation policy quickly turns into stigmatisation. “Moreover, it’s not only trained professionals who are asked to detect radicalisation. Teachers, nurses and youth associations also keep an eye out. But by turning over surveillance to laymen, no matter how critical they try to be, you increase the chance that young Muslims will feel targeted," says Professor Fadil.

This can have an opposite effect from that intended: a deradicalisation policy can itself drive groups apart. A focus on signs of radicalisation also leaves no room for analysis of the context. “Why is it that certain young people are attracted to an extremist mindset? Those insights can turn into connection, whilst a focus on symptoms pushes us further apart.”

Research shows that young people who went to Syria were not primarily guided by faith. Religion appears to be subordinate to other motives, such as the attractiveness of a war context, but also personal reasons and experiences with discrimination and exclusion in their own country. “Religion plays a role in this as a language that can legitimise the choice to leave,” says Professor Fadil.

Desecularisation doesn’t just occur in the Islamic world, but also within other religions such as Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and neo-Protestantism.

God as touchstone

Visible expressions of faith are linked not only to radicalisation but also to oppression, says Professor Fadil. “In the highly secularised West, values ​​such as freedom and emancipation equate to breaking free from political or religious authority. Submission to faith is interpreted within an individualistic culture as a limitation of autonomy. Muslims who are guided by Islamic precepts are therefore often portrayed as ‘unemancipated’ or ‘underdeveloped’.”

In her research, Professor Fadil shows that submitting to faith can also lead to freedom and emancipation. “Devout Muslims indicate that they only started to feel free when they started to organise their lives in an Islamic manner. By using God as a touchstone, they are no longer concerned with what others think of them, but above all with what God expects of them.”

Because Muslims, just like liberals, live according to social rules and regulations, distancing themselves from religion presupposes resocialisation. Muslims who have abandoned their faith describe how they had to conform to new values ​​and norms in order to become secular. “Secularisation is not a natural process,” says Professor Fadil. “Religion is part of our society and will not just disappear once we have all ‘developed’.”

Revival of religions

According to Professor De Volder, denouncing religion is not a healthy path for the future. “The apostasy in Western Europe is truly an unprecedented phenomenon. Never before has a religious tradition been turned away so collectively,” he says. “But it is clear that religion will not just die out. Throughout history, and today, atheism remains the exception. In this globalised world, both migrants and native-born experience a sense of uprooting. Spirituality continues to play an essential role in the search for one's own identity.”

Religion will not die out, according to the researchers, but will always be rediscovered. For example, Western European cities are experiencing a religious revival that is not solely the result of Muslim migration, says Professor De Volder. “Desecularisation doesn’t only occur within the Islamic world. It also occurs within Christian movements, such as Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and neo-Protestantism.”

After centuries of interaction and conflict, Islam and Europe still have much to discover from each other, according to Professor Ryad: “The Muslim community is diverse and doesn’t correspond to the stereotypes with which we’re constantly confronted. With nuanced scientific research, we can – within the Leuven Centre for Islamic studies – try to counter and debunk dominant imagery.”

“In addition to the black-and-white story, we also want to shed light on the grey zones,” said Professor Ahaddour. “And do that from various research disciplines. The aim is to bundle fragmented research projects and consequently build on the existing expertise at KU Leuven.” In this way, the research centre ultimately wants to play a role in a broader search for connection.