Western Europe’s Muslims — why the problems?
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has inspired a handful of Muslims across the world to wage violent jihad in ISIS’ name. Outside the Middle East, one of the worst-affected areas has been Western Europe.
How is it that these rich and powerful countries, some of whom managed to colonize half the world together (lookin’ at you, Britain and France), now find themselves seemingly at the mercy of a small number of Islamic extremists?
For one, it is the first time in decades that the effects of war have really been felt at home. After destroying themselves for a good few centuries (with their greatest efforts culminating in WWII), European countries either said “we’re ready to throw in the towel”, or were smart enough to fight exclusively overseas. Together with the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of a select number of nuclear powers, it was enough to keep the calm in Europe (exceptions include the Yugoslav Wars and most recently, Ukraine).
But instead of another country attacking them, it is an ideology. A murky and violent movement, ISIS has its roots in the Arabic heartland of the warring-Middle East. In contrast, its European operation often goes unseen and unheard, until it strikes randomly, suddenly and violently. Even the best technology and weapons on the planet cannot keep Western European citizens entirely safe, after the illusion of peace had been over them for so long.
Secondly, a large Muslim presence in Western Europe is a relatively new phenomenon. Since around 1500, when the Spanish kicked most of the Muslims out or forced them to convert, Western Europe had been heavily Christian. Large numbers of Muslims began to arrive in the aftermath of WWII, as workers were needed to help rebuild the continent. Unlike European Muslims in the Balkans or Caucus regions however, Western Europe’s Muslims had no historical connection to their new home. They were beyond the direct frontiers of the Muslim world, hundreds of miles from their countries of origin. Nonetheless, they were there to make money and work hard at creating a more prosperous life. For the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation immigrants, it is a different story. Turkish-Germans, Moroccan-Frenchmen and Pakistani-Brits could not call the land of their parents' home, but they couldn’t call their place of birth home, either. They looked different from the locals, and had no cultural references to associate with the land.
Islam was easy to embrace, because it served to offer a slice of their former culture that could exist within Western Europe. This embrace of Islam has proven challenging for a tightly-knit, traditionally Christian society. Christianity still defines a significant part of the national identity of Western European countries, even if it is not admitted. After fighting off the Muslim Moors and Ottomans for hundreds of years, some Western European countries in turn invaded them back (so it goes in international relations). To say there is not a little animosity because of this is downplaying the relationship between the two historical centres of the Christian and Muslim worlds, even if they do like fighting among themselves just as much. When Bible-thumpin’ Bush launched the War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11, it again triggered tension between Christians and Muslims. Western Europe’s support or acquiescence towards the US enraged many of Western Europe’s growing Muslim community, as Muslim countries across the greater Middle East felt the wrath of the American military.
Spain and Britain (both of whom were in Iraq) were struck by terrorist attacks in 2004 and 2005, before a reduction in violence in Iraq appeared to somewhat stabilize the threat of Islamic terrorism in Europe. However, the Arab Spring and civil wars in Libya and Syria destabilized the Middle East further (which some western governments were/are heavily involved in), and a wave of terrorist attacks since 2014 have fueled concerns of an epidemic. It should be noted that countries such as Germany and Sweden have been attacked by ISIS or Muslim “lone wolf attacks”, yet have not been militarily involved in recent Middle Eastern conflicts. Furthermore, on top of the established-Muslim populations, millions of war refugees and economic migrants have entered Western Europe in the last few years. It has added to fears that they too will fail to integrate to wider European society, resulting in political instability and an increase in social tensions.
Both native Europeans and European Muslims have a right to be angry with one another (or at least their governments). As it turns out, bombing the shit out of their respective countries (and countries of origin) has made it harder to be friends. It has made ISIS more appealing to some of Europe’s young Muslim men, as well as boosting the popularity of right-wing nationalism among native Europeans. But war can’t explain everything. What must also be addressed is that when cultures intertwine, there is bound to be some conflict. No two cultures are the same, and a strict adherence to religious values and morals is now outside the norm for most Western European citizens.
An embrace of Islam and its role in society by disenfranchised European Muslims undermines the separation of Church and State that many Europeans fought and died for. Furthermore, the rights of women in many Muslim countries is below acceptable, compared to relatively-liberal Europe. Cultures can integrate or isolate themselves from each other, but to make the claim that they can live side by side, somehow sharing values that contradict each other, is a dream.
Some liberals have eluded themselves into thinking that if they don’t tolerate every aspect of immigrant cultures, then they are somehow just as bad as some of their colonist forefathers. Groups of conservatives have meanwhile made it their utmost duty to completely reject all of the new cultures and people coming in, yet still can’t figure out why these populations don’t want to integrate. In a time of economic, social and military unease, the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum tend to dominate. Those of us in the middle can still enjoy ignoring the nuts on the far right or left.
An evolving and (dare I say it) diverse society is a good one. Cultures need these two things if they want their society to survive. Nonetheless, without common sense (and a little more emphasis on integration on all sides), diversity won’t be our greatest strength, but our greatest weakness.
That holds true for any society, and Western European countries are no different. The tension between native Western Europeans and mostly-Muslim immigrant communities needs to be addressed head-on. Otherwise, it’s consequences will simply become white noise. Do we even bat an eyelash after a mass shooting here in the US anymore?