Opinion and Editorial

Muslims in Europe: Identity versus integration

Asma Hanif
Filed on July 15, 2008

WITH Muhammad being classified as the most popular first name chosen for newborns in Brussels, the EU capital was recently named "one of the most Muslim cities in the Western world", according to political scientist Corinne Torrekens.

The city's great mosque the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium is where this community's growth has been felt most remarkably. While in the 1970s, soon after the mosque's foundation, only two lines of the huge prayer hall were filled in the best cases, the mosque today has to be widened with tents that are pitched around the building in peak seasons like Ramadan and the two Muslim festivities. The number of people who attended last Ramadan's night prayers is estimated at 7,000.

But with its high crime-rates, this large community is still at an immature stage, if not heading towards a social failure. While Muslims represent between 4 and 5 per cent of Belgium's entire population, 35 per cent of the incarcerated population is of Muslim descent.

People tend to relate this problem to the community's economic status. Muslims belong to socially unfavoured classes, it is often claimed.

True. Most Muslims living in Belgium stem from immigrants who, in the golden sixties, soon after World War II, entered Belgium as labour workers, especially in the coal industry. Today, as the second and even third generations belong to the active population, Muslims overwhelmingly still live in the same municipal districts where their forefathers initially settled, i.e. in the centre of Brussels. And economically, they often still lag behind.

The historical record shows that, as immigrants settled in affordable areas, upper classes as well as institutions like banks and post-offices gradually abandoned these districts, leaving behind what is often called "ghettos".

But the question that arises is: what prevents Muslims from moving into a social ascension?

As a Muslim-born and raised in Brussels, I do not believe that any economic factor prevents Muslims from moving upwards. Belgium provides a sound social security to its entire population. Free (and compulsory) education, children money, health insurance, and unemployment money are the basic security items to which all Belgians have right, regardless of their origins.

What about inverting the logic: Could it be that, as a consequence to their social security, youth don't feel obliged to pursue their higher education?

I'd suggest seeking the root of challenges faced by the youth in the wide gap that exists between their world at home and their daily life at school.

In front of what seems to be a conflict between a call for preserving their cultural and/or religious identities on the one hand, and a call for integration on the other, the majority of Muslims have tended towards one pole. Only a tiny few have succeeded in finding the right balance where they preserve their identities while living in conformity with the Belgian environment.

There is no doubt that harmonising the conflict needs a complementary effort from both sides.

An integration policy that denies people their identities is surely not a viable solution. Banning the Muslim headscarf, for instance, as the majority of schools do as part of banning the wear of religious signs, is seen by Muslim girls as a breach into their very identity. It even moves those Muslims who are not practicing their religion. "I have no intention to wear the headscarf," a female restaurant keeper of Moroccan origin once told me, "But as soon as I see someone prevented from wearing it, I want to revolt."

On the other hand, Muslims all too often wrongly believe that their religion interferes with modernity and blocks them from adjusting to the Belgian society. There was recently a time when it became fashion among secondary school students to boycott the biology course under the pretext that it teaches Darwinism, the theory of evolution.

Many Muslims also mistakenly assume that the jobs available in Belgium are illicit sources of income, and, as a consequence, opt for unemployment money, forgetting that Islam honours productive work.

Such a self-imposed 'ghettoisation' is not a solution, and Islam stands far from endorsing it. Rather, the answer is 'participation', as Dr Ataullah Siddiqui of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, United Kingdom, believes. And that means thinking this way: "I am a Muslim; and I am a Belgian. I have a religious duty to see this whole country as my own including its pain and suffering; and I want to be proud of it." By believing so, Dr Siddiqui says, one "fulfills a religious duty, as well as a social duty."

And because a people is judged, not by how much they took, but by how much they gave, a "participatory identity" would be the honourable way for Muslims.

Only when reaching this stage of self-respect will this community be able to get its voice heard, with which they can, through peaceful means, defend Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), not least against the offensive cartoons that some European newspapers recently published. That would be the least they could do to demonstrate a serious commitment towards the Prophet whom they love most.

Asma Hanif is a Brussels-based Arab writer

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