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A New Beginning for Muslims in Europe?

Despite controversies, Laurence sees progress in state-mosque relations

Associate Professor of Political Science Jonathan Laurence takes on relations between Muslim minorities and the non-Muslim societies in his new book, The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Jan. 19, 2012

Western Europe hardly seems a model for harmonious relations between Muslim minorities and the non-Muslim societies in which they reside. Controversies have flared recently over the wearing of burkas in public, construction of mosques, and an ironic suggestion from a French ex-political official that his fellow Muslims wear green stars.

But Associate Professor of Political Science Jonathan Laurence tells a different story in his new book, The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims: The State’s Role in Minority Integration. During the past two decades, he says, European countries have stepped up efforts to integrate Muslims into the institutional, political, and cultural fabrics of European democracy. Foremost among such initiatives has been the government-led creation of Islamic Councils to help resolve public disputes over Islamic practices.

The book caught the attention of The Economist, which called it an “original and thought provoking study...[focusing] on a crucial new mechanism of state-mosque relations.”

“There’s a perception that multiculturalism and integration where Islam is concerned has been a failure in Western Europe,” says Laurence. “I think you have to take a wider, and longer, view. The fact is, although these are pluralistic societies, governments and official policies had been lagging behind the reality — they had not accepted the permanence of the situation.

“But since the 1990s, and to an even greater degree this century, there is a definitive shift toward acceptance of Muslims as citizens — and affirming their emancipation —rather than viewing them as ‘foreigners.’”

In the book, Laurence uses historical parallels in his analysis of the Muslim experience in Western Europe of the past several decades, pointing to government interactions with groups once considered “outsiders” — such as Jews and trade unions — at key points in the development of modern states.

“To be sure, it’s a transition that takes generations, and there is no magic solution, but the course is unmistakable.”

Laurence also sees the Islam-in-Europe debate as strongly linked to the struggle within the Muslim-majority world over religious and political authority — a conflict often overlooked in the West, he says.

“Europe and the US are often anxious over what they view as political expression of the Islamic faith, when in fact there are differences among Muslims about the nature and appropriateness of that expression.

“One important aspect of the Islamic Councils is that they provide a forum to address, and defuse, contentious issues concerning Islam that spill out into the public sphere. If there are outlets like this, religious observance becomes less politicized.”

Laurence, who has spent considerable time in European cities with a strong Muslim presence, began studying the integration of Muslims into Europe in the late 1990s, and saw the process take on a greater urgency in the wake of terrorism and violence attributed to radical Islam. Despite significant social, cultural and political differences between the US and Europe, Laurence sees comparable flashpoints, such as the controversy over the construction of a mosque near New York City’s ground zero, and Oklahoma’s legislation barring use of Shariah law.

“I had thought the US would always err on the side of religious tolerance, but some Americans have fallen into similar modes of thinking as what has been seen in Europe. Certainly the impact of the War on Terror and the fear — not unfounded — of religious fundamentalism have influenced attitudes, but this should not blind policymakers to the traditions the US has established.

“The statement that ‘We’ll allow a mosque here when Saudi Arabia allows churches’ is a troubling example. What’s the use of liberal democracy if our decisions are premised on the actions of an undemocratic regime halfway around the world? Doing so plays into the hands of anti-Western activists.”

Although Laurence foresees a continued gradual acceptance of Muslims into more areas of European societies, the last stage of emancipation may prove the most difficult.

“This phase involves getting beyond the description of religious faith as the defining characteristic in the minority-majority relationship within a country. It is not a matter of being a Muslim, but of allowing Muslims to be citizens with full rights and responsibilities.”