Ten years on, there is little doubt: September 11, 2001 was a watershed moment for Muslims, not just in the Islamic world and the United States but also in Europe. Largely unnoticed until then, 9/11 thrust the spotlight on Europe’s 20 million-strong Muslim community which suddenly found itself in the eye of the storm.
Muslims were adamant that Al Qaeda and terrorism had nothing to do with their religion. Nobody believed them, however. It was a question of guilt by association.
Europe’s struggle to build an inclusive society which recognises and accommodates Muslims and other minorities was made more difficult during the last decade. The tragic massacre in Norway this summer is a sad reflection of the strength of anti-Muslim feeling among Europe’s far-right.
The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, followed by London and Madrid, the tragedy in Mumbai and terrorist acts elsewhere, have prompted strengthened international counter-terrorism efforts. They have also meant increased suspicion, surveillance and stigmatisation of Muslim communities, including in Europe.
Today, the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa in recent months is exacerbating fears of a rising Muslim presence in Europe, amid concerns that Muslims cannot be truly integrated as full-fledged European citizens.
The current economic crisis coupled with weak leadership – as well as increased contacts between far-right groups in Europe and America – is making it easier for populist politicians to spread a simple albeit toxic xenophobic message: Europe is turning into Eurabia and the Shariah is being introduced by stealth. This negative narrative has filtered into Europe’s political mainstream.
The reality is more upbeat, however. Despite the hand-wringing over the visible presence of Islam and Muslims in the public space, the last ten years have also been marked by transition and change in the lives of European Muslims.
While causing discomfort and unease, the spotlight on Muslims has also had a positive effect by helping Muslims and host communities to confront difficult issues of integration which had been neglected over decades.
Over the last ten years, European Muslims have become more active in demanding equal rights as full-fledged citizens, organising themselves into pressure groups, and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural and sports icons.
Similarly, European governments are slowly combining an approach focused on security and counter-radicalisation with an integration agenda and Muslim outreach programmes. Government and business recruitment policies are being changed gradually to increase the employment of Muslims and minorities.
Business leaders are demanding an increase in immigration, including from Muslim countries, to meet Europe’s skills shortage. The EU has adopted a new anti-discrimination directive in the new Lisbon Treaty which strengthens existing rules on combating racism.
The challenge for European governments and European Muslims is to hammer out a fresh narrative which looks at European Muslims as active and full-fledged citizens rather than as exotic foreigners.
Despite recent comments by the French, German and British leaders on the failure of multiculturalism in Europe, the continent today is a vibrant mix of people, cultures and religions. Integration and mainstreaming is taking place although this is often not spotlighted by politicians or the media.
However, the voices of reason on immigration and Muslims remain strangely silent. European politicians are reluctant to tell the real truth about Muslims and immigrants’ contribution to their country’s economy, culture or history. Business leaders may sometimes point out – timidly – that ageing and skills-deficient Europe needs foreign labour, but their arguments are lost in transmission. In all honesty also, intelligent and reasonable Muslim voices are heard much too seldom.
Europe needs a rational, thoughtful debate on the challenges of reconciling justifiable European concerns on employment with efforts to build an inclusive society. If it is to compete on the global stage, Europe should seek to capitalise on the talents of all its citizens. Perhaps, after the storm, there will then be calm acceptance of diversity.