The Major Roadblock to Muslim Assimilation in Europe

For religious Muslims, the thought of keeping faith out of public view is an odd, even inconceivable, concept

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Two Muslim women were fined earlier this year in France for wearing the niqab (full-body covering) in public / Reuters

I was having dinner the other day with some European friends who are reasonable center-left types. London riots were in full swing. Anders Breivik had killed more than 80 of his countrymen in an apparent bid to halt the "Islamization" of Europe. Greece's economy had collapsed. The consensus among my friends was that the next five to 10 years could turn out "very scary" for Europe.  

Muslims are only one part -- and a small part -- of these problems. But, unfortunately, economic collapse tends to fuel racism and intolerance, which is exactly what is happening now. The slow progress made on Muslim integration is likely to unravel as more Europeans find refuge in populism in general and far-right, radical parties in particular.

While dutifully disavowing such groups, my leftish friends, like so many Europeans, asked why European Muslims weren't doing more to assimilate and respect the culture of their new countries. And this brings us to the issue at hand: there is a clash of values, one which will make it considerably harder to find a path of compromise between Muslims and the rest of Europe.   

Secularism, as its understood and practiced in Europe, is not value-neutral. It asks conservative Muslims to be something that they're likely not. "Secularism," the thinking goes, allows all groups, including Muslims, to practice their religion as they see fit. This assumes that the practice of religion is fundamentally a personal, private act detached from public, political life. It is here that Islam (how it is understood, if not necessarily practiced by most Muslims) and Europe's traditional identity and culture find themselves at odds.

It is this expectation or, rather, hope -- that Islam will somehow cease to be what it is -- that colors so many debates not just in Europe but also in a rapidly changing Middle East.

There is, in fact, something uniquely "uncompromising" about Islam, at least compared to other faiths. This is not a value judgment but rather a descriptive statement about what Islam is today (rather than what it could or should be). Many Muslims take pride in this very fact. It is this unwillingness to compromise in the face of secularizing pressures, they would say, that makes Islam both vibrant and distinctive. Indeed, Islam has proven remarkably resistant to the persistent attempts to relegate it to the private sphere.

The fact that someone like Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan and tens of thousands his fellow "Euro-Islam" followers are seen in Europe as too conservative is illustrative of the problem. Ramadan's proposed moratorium on the hadd punishments (for example cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers) was seen as beyond the pale in secular France. In a memorable debate on French television, Nicholas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, attacked Ramadan for refusing to unequivocally condemn the stoning of women.

In a place like Egypt, however, such a moratorium would likely provoke controversy for the opposite reason -- for being too "liberal." Whether we like it or not, Ramadan's version of Islam, by the standards of mainstream Islamic thought, is actually quite "progressive," which is one reason it has, so far, failed to catch on in the Arab world. Consider the findings of a December 2010 Pew poll. In Egypt, 82 percent of respondents supported the stoning of adulterers while 77 percent said they favored cutting off the hands of thieves.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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