State-mosque relations in Europe, the other half of the storyby Jonathan Laurence*

February 19, 2012, Sunday/ 12:18:00

Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts -- Just over 1 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims reside in Western Europe, yet this minority has had a disproportionate impact on religion and politics in its new home.

 In just 50 years, the Muslim population has ballooned from some tens of thousands to 16 or 17 million in 2010 -- approximately one out of every 25 Western Europeans.

On the one hand, there is a growing belief among native European populations that Islam, once allowed to flourish unchecked in post-war Europe, must be halted. This worldview exhorts Europeans to awaken from their slumber and defeat “Eurabia.” Against this narrative is the view, held by some Muslim community leaders, that European governments are uniformly repressive and intolerant of diversity. Both narratives are inadequate and, more importantly, each misses the broader trend of what is actually happening on the ground.

Europeans and Muslims have been successfully negotiating with and adapting to one another over the past 10 years. This is affirmed by several crucial nation-building moments. In what are mundane but arguably critical domains for religious integration -- such as mosque construction, the training of imams and chaplains, the availability of halal food and visas for the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca -- Muslim communities and European governments have begun to talk and act in concert.

Contrast this with 10 or 15 years ago, when Islam remained basically unknown as a domestic policy issue to European politicians and administrators. To the extent religious questions were addressed, it was the domain of immigration authorities and diplomats --not parliaments and interior ministries. Islamic community organizations in European cities also reflected this state of affairs; far from being organically rooted in local European culture and politics, they were still dominated by foreign governments and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

A new landscape is taking shape in which Muslim leaders are increasingly finding a place in the society and institutions of their adoptive countries. A new political consensus -- and administrative praxis -- is taking hold, reflecting the spreading pragmatic recognition of Muslims’ irreversible presence in Europe.

The decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s was a period of major growth in state-Islam relations in Europe. The most striking illustration of a Europe-wide move toward the integration of Islam came with the development of national consultations with prayer spaces and civil society organizations. Gone were governments’ ad-hoc responses to questions facing Muslim communities and the inter-ministerial working groups of previous decades, and in came corporatist-style institution building and the establishment of institutions to negotiate “state-mosque” relations.

Across Europe, the summit of institutional recognition and domestication took the form of Islamic boards. Boards such as the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the Spanish Islamic Council, the German Islam Conference and the Italian Islam Committee helped resolve practical issues of religious infrastructure –- from creating places for imams and chaplains in public institutions to the regulation of mosques, religious education, halal food and visas for the hajj.

As this new reality continues, a new order of community leadership and imams is emerging, one that mixes more with local society -- including Muslims of all backgrounds as well as non-Muslims -- and is better acquainted with pluralist systems of state-religion relations, European cultural norms as well as languages. As Muslim organizations navigate the institutions that govern religious exercise, authorities can enjoy consultative opportunities as well as provide an incentive structure to encourage interreligious dialogue and security cooperation with local officials.

Organizations and leadership which previously looked only beyond European borders for Islamic authority and authenticity are slowly gaining domestic institutional references as well.

There is still plenty of room for improvement within the new spaces of mediation. But that will only take place if the gains of the past decade are not conceded to the exaggerated pessimism of negative narratives about the future of Muslims in Europe. If progress is to continue, both “sides” need to look up and mentally register that the sky is not falling.


*Jonathan Laurence (www.jonathanlaurence.net) is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews).