By Vexen Crabtree 2013
In 2004, Cesari summarized the demographic situation:
“Muslims are the largest religious minority in Western Europe. Today there are more than 11/12 million Muslims living in the major countries of the European Union, and Muslims constitute almost 3 percent of the total population in Europe.
Five countries stand out in particular for the high number of Muslims who call them home: France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Greece. In each of these countries, anywhere from 4 to 7 percent of the current population is Muslim. [...] In Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, Muslims constitute about 1 percent of the total population. [...]
The ethnic diversity of European Muslims is striking. Arabs constitute the most numerous ethnic group, with some 3.5 million, 45 percent of whom are of Moroccan origin, living in Western Europe. The second largest ethnic group is Turkish, with more than 2.5 million individuals scattered throughout Europe. The third largest group, with more than 800,000 people, is immigrants from the Indian subcontinent: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. [...]
Many Muslims observe their religion and live their lives with no intent to either support or oppose fundamentalist extremism. Some critics proclaim that because mainstream Muslims fail to act against extremists, it allows extremists to prosper. But many active Christians are the same: they may well disagree with the actions of their fellows during the crusades, they neither support USA Christian fundamentalism but nor do they do anything about it and, they are also (I'm sure) disgusted by the sexual abuse of children by priests, and its cover-up by their own Churches. It is Human nature just to want to get on in life, in peace. But we rarely hear the popular press berate them for failing to stand up to horrible people in their own ranks. The opposition of the ordinary lay person is rarely recorded on the news, and rarely published. Muslims are in the same boat: extremists are always louder than the mainstream. The last census showed 1.5 million Muslims in Britain, and they make up 6% of the EU: it is clear that most of these are part of a peaceful and quite undramatic ethnic culture within the West.
After the Sep 2011 terrorist attacks on the USA:
“Some people continue to ask why Muslims did not denounce the terrorist attacks when in fact they did. In statement after statement, the attacks were condemned by such groups as the American Muslim Alliance, the American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Shari'a Scholars Association of North America, and many more. [And the author states in the introductory chapter that these denouncements were "instant" after the event.]
Certainly, there are Muslims who do [support terrorism and violence against civilians], but they are not in the mainstream of the tradition and do not represent Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity.”
Many Muslims do not heed the Qur'anic verses urging them to prepare for war against unbelievers (Qur'an 8:60), nor the verses telling them to increase their strength so that they can convert or subjugate those around them. Authors such as Robert Spencer argue, with excessive use of quotations from the Qur'an, that such peaceful Muslims are (fortunately) not truly following their religion. Yet, the Christian Bible endorses slavery, female subjugation to males, deadly violence against pagans, and invects against homosexuals: thankfully most Christians also ignore it all. It is good that many in the world do not adhere to the ancient and barbaric exhortations of their holy books. Most Muslims merely want, like everyone else, to live their lives in peace, with their friends, to raise families and win stable employment.
Some moderates do indeed vocally and openly oppose extremists. Mr Manzoor witnessed two political candidates handing out leaflets outside a mosque, when two men started shouting loudly at them, telling other Muslims to ignore them as the election campaign was "against Islam". "So far, so predictable. But what happened next was not. The two men were shouted down by the others: 200 Muslims who to an outsider would have looked exactly like the two extremists".3. News outlets frequently publish opinion pieces and shocked reports based on the views of a few extremists, which worries everyone. But rarely do those two hundred moderate folk find themselves exposed on the news.
Sometimes, the efforts of Muslim liberals actually seem unrealistic even by outsiders' standards. Mattson (2003) states that "a few American-Muslim leaders have tried to make the point that American political concepts are 'authentic' to Islam because the USA allows Muslims to practise and propagate their religion freely"4,5. Although their motives are good, their arguments are theologically weak and unconvincing.
Such normal people are however under pressure. A sense of all-round disharmony between civil Muslims and suspicious Westerners puts them in a difficult position, which can only be made worse by incidents of anti-Muslim xenophobia and racism.
In some Muslim majority states like Turkey there is a clear battle between moderates and fundamentalist Islamists. The former sometimes dream of democracy and tolerance towards non-Muslims, whereas the latter continually push for complete intolerance, Islamic dominance, and the increasingly strict Islam that opposes democracy and human rights. But given that many oppose the growth of extremism, how does it happen that as a country becomes more Muslim, it inevitably becomes more fundamentalist? The answer is in the calculated form of protest and outrage that Muslims stage. In the West, it tries to wedge open any cracks that appear in liberalism as a result of a desire for tolerance and peace, especially where secularism lacks full strength. In the East, the pressure is political: organized and well-funded extremists infiltrate (and create) grassroots movements, and intimidate and scare the present government into adopting increasing hardline stances, in order to appease 'the people'. And all over, globalisation allows hardliners to operate "fetching" marriages, whereupon Western communities are gradually infused with 'fresh' extremists from Islamic states, therefore preventing integration with local community and culture. Families and individuals that would otherwise live a naturally moderate life face angry, aggressive and increasingly threatening pseudo-officials in their own communities. So that's the theory on how Islamic extremists push the boundaries and gradually suppress dissent and any fledgling liberalism, but what does it look like in reality? London is one of the most multicultural and tolerant cities on the planet, so we start there to look at how Muslim communities face pressure from within.
London, UK: The Guardian (2011)6 reported on Dr Usama Hasan, who for 25 years served a Leyton Mosque in Middlesex. He delivered the Friday prayers and was vice-chairman. His lectures at his mosque questioned hardline Muslim values, saying that women had a right to refuse to wear the veil if they did not want to, that they could have their hair uncovered in public, and, that the theory of evolution wasn't a completely ridiculous idea, as it is supported by mountains of evidence. It is awkward that such things still need to be said in the 21st century, but, in his position of authority, he could doubtlessly influence people for the better and he commented on those topics. Although most of the community didn't disagree, the hardliners arose in angry protest against him. He was subject to intimidation, death threats (not the first time, either), and he and his wife and children were put under security protection by the police. An organized group of 50 hardliners appeared at his Mosque and handed out leaflets against him, and, disrupted proceedings by shouting in the Mosque for his execution. The leaflets specifically quoted Muslim religious authorities saying that any Muslim who believes in evolution is an "apostate" who "must be executed". It doesn't matter that these aggressive and organized protestors were not a majority. What matters is that their tactics are successful: everyone knows that such pressure simply does not let up. Dr Usama Hasan stopped delivering lectures, and issued a statement apologizing for his own "inflammatory" statements and officially withdrew them. Now, his good work was gone, but worse, all in the community saw that not even him, one of the most influential and long-standing members of their community, could stand up to the extremists. He worries that the Mosque could fall into the hands of the hardliners and he knows he will need to take caution for the rest of his life. Even worse, some may even have convinced themselves that evolution was bad and contentious, and that women aren't free to wear whatever they want. Intolerance and fundamentalism, even in the midst of the most culturally diverse cities, tightens its grip on those minorities a little more.
That's how it works with local communities, but the same tactic works on much larger scales.
Europe: The Victims of Intimidation report by Douglas Murray and Johan Verwey profiled nearly 30 Muslim-heritage Europeans. They state that those supporting reform in Muslim communities, and those critical of Islam, are being silenced and suppressed by extremists. European governments must help such individuals, says the report, otherwise, the entire project of fostering a tolerant version of Islam in Europe will never succeed.
“The report details the substantial threats and violence they have faced as a result of critical inquiry into aspects of their faith or lifestyle. Included in those under threat for expressing ideas that Islamic extremists don't approve of are two of the NSS's Secularist of the Year award winners, Maryam Namazie and Mina Ahadi.
Other people named as victims of this intimidation include politicians, journalists, writers, artists and human rights activists. Their personal stories are diverse and wide-ranging. [...] All, however, have been targeted on the pretext that they have broken Islamic rules and traditions.
Many ... have suffered physical assault and are forced to live under constant police protection as a result of their words and actions. Several tell of community and religious leaders' failure to support proponents of moderate Islam. Others warn of ineffectual government responses to coercion by extremists.”
“Several thousand hardline Muslims protested outside [Indonesian] President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's palace in Jakarta on April 20th  demanding that he ban Ahmadiyah, an unorthodox but moderate Muslim sect founded in 19th-century India that claims around 200,000 members across Indonesia. At an earlier meeting of one of the groups involved, a leader was filmed chanting 'Kill Ahmadiyah! Kill! Kill! Kill!' Far from having these extremists arrested for inciting violence, Mr Yudhoyono was this week considering pandering to them by issuing a decree to restrict Ahmadiyah [...]. The president nodded his approval as the MUI, [an collection of hardline Muslim clerics given sanction by the government], issued fatwas against 'deviant' sects. On April 23rd Abdul Salam, a self-proclaimed prophet who leads another unorthodox group, al-Qiyadah al-Islamiah, was jailed for four years for blasphemy. [...] Suppressing al-Qiyadah al-Islamiah would be more likely to damage Indonesia's stability and unity than letting their members worship freely. The country's many Hindus, Christians and members of other faiths would surely be asking themselves: 'Are we next?''”
In "When Islam and Democracy Meet" by Jocelyne Cesari (2004)9, Cesari devotes a few chapters to tracing the ties between Western Muslims and the Islamic institutions of the Near East. National outreach-churches from the Muslim world have much influence both directly and indirectly, so that they affect the lives of even the (partially-)secular Muslims of Europe10. Many such organisations are unpleasant and teach fundamentalist and ultra-conservative doctrine. It is difficult to learn Qur'anic Arabic in Western countries due to the lack of established institutions so all teachers who command authority and respect are foreign-trained. Western moderates are almost completely "unable to command much support in the Muslim Middle East"11 and only the most enthusiastic Islamists tend to emerge as knowledgeable Islamic preachers and community leaders in the West12. These people must go abroad for the best training in Islamic scripture, or, attend some of the Mosques and projects that are funded by outreach churches from Saudi Arabia and other places. The result is that the best-trained are also those who suffer from the longest and most intense exposure to extremist ideas. The situation is unstable with integrating and secularizing forces on the one hand, and the influence of powerful and Islamic institutions in the East, on the other. Manuel Valls MP warns that the lack of state funding for Muslim institutions in France leads to increased susceptibility to influence from rich and zealous churches from countries such as Saudi Arabia13. Tariq Ramadan, a more comprehensive scholar of Islamic thought, writes a similar account14. Both authors conclude that it is the lack of a Western center of Islam that makes it necessary for Muslims to study abroad, and Ramadan asserts strongly that an independent Western Islam must emerge in order to solve problems associated with radicalization.
Reform and revolution in Muslim lands is possible, however, most such events turn out to be disappointing from a human rights point of view. Many mass movements have resulted in increased fundamentalism and intolerance towards non-Muslims; those revolts of the "Arab Spring" from 2010 onwards have yet to result in any liberalisation of any Muslim country, and, behind the scenes many fear that hardline Islamists are using their organisational ability to infiltrate and control some of the rebel movements15, which the outside world assume to be led by moderates and liberals. Twice in history, a Muslim country has seen a secular revolt that moved it away from fundamentalism. The first was in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal ("Atatürk") from 1924, and the second in Iran in 1925 under Reza Shah along with much brutality16. Neither reformer had an easy ride and in both cases it was only possible using a secularizing military force which could resist the violent reactions against the reforms. In Iran the secular regime of Shah was overthrown in 1979, whereupon the country returned to strict Islamism. Turkish reforms have stalled. The Islamic golden era from 8th-12th century saw the spread of literacy, science and mathematics, but since then, increasing Qur'an-based fundamentalism has plunged the Muslim world into a Dark Age comparable to that of historical Christianity in Europe. So far, there is no known good way to bring back a country from Islamic extremism, but, let's not forget that at the height of the medieval Christian Church's power, it also looked unlikely to ever lose its dominant position. It is too early and too difficult to tell what changes are occurring in the Muslim world.
Current edition: 2013 Dec 22
Last Modified: 2016 Mar 16
Parent page: Islam: A Critical Look at Contemporary Issues
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.
Kurtz, Lester R.
(2007) Gods in the Global Village. 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.
Plüss, Caroline. Assistant Professor in the Division of Sociology School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Nanyang Technical University, Singapore.
(2011) Migration and the Globalization of Religion. This is chapter 27 (pages 491-506) of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011)1 (pages 491-506). Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.
Ramadan, Tariq. A Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University.
(2004) Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Published by Oxford University Press. A paperback book.