Islam and European values

The reality of Islam constantly painted by many journalists, academics and politicians corresponds more often to a Renaissance Chiaroscuro, seen in the compositions of Tintoretto, Veronese or Caravaggio, than an art multiplying the endless possibilities of grey tones and color gradations. With an alarmist and dramatic vision of Europe’s evolution, some extremists seem to wallow in a Tenebrist artistic perspective in which the silvery lights of Truth are a crucial antagonist of their enemies' shadows. In this baroque universe of thought it would be interesting to draw some lines, to exhume some facts and to temper some dark perspectives.

The perception of Islam in contemporary Europe

A negative image of Islam, widely identified as Islamism, has been formed by an increasing part of Europe’s populations throughout the last 30 years. This period has been marked by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-September 11th era and the terrorist incidents that occurred in many parts of the globe, including in Europe (Moscow, Istanbul, Madrid, Cologne, London, Liège, Toulouse, etc.). This negative vision of Islam is of an intolerant religion, fossilized in a literalistic interpretation of the Qur'an and a violent rejection of Western culture and values. This monolithic perspective is derived from contemporary Islamic radicalism and an often voluntary veiling of vital facets of the issue.

As in my previous article specifically centered on the French situation that appeared in the PIJ issue on “The Younger Generation”, it would be interesting to begin by framing our reflection with a few of the facts that underline the issue at hand. Due to the lack of official religious statistics in various countries, a precise number of Muslim Europeans cannot be given. Nevertheless, an approximation has been established by the Pew Research Center: 44 million people in Europe are Muslim which represent 6% of the region’s inhabitants in 20101 . Before confronting the question of Islam's standing in Europe several issues such as unemployment and criminality, must be considered as they are often related to Islam and immigration in a way which leads to accusations of stigmatization, while in reality they largely correspond to socio-economic problems.

Islam and Europe: inherently contradictory?

Given the complexity of the issue a fundamental question should be raised: is there an inherent contradiction between Islamic and European values such as those of democracy, human rights, gender equality etc.? This question allows us to think of the possibility of a positive and peaceful Muslim presence in Europe without the need to erase those religious particularities with a policy of total assimilation.

Islam and its scriptures, as with Judaism and Christianity, can be the source of contradictory interpretations. While intolerant, violent and sexist quotes can be found in the holy texts, their also exists many messages of tolerance, non-violence and equality. Consequently, one must draw particular emphasis on the perspective, angle and motives of the reader and interpreter of these religious writings. Islam, as were the two monotheist religions that historically precede it, is a heterogeneous philosophical world, with fundamentalist perspectives and extremely liberal and modern ones. Remaining silent about radical Islam could be rightfully interpreted as a kind of intolerable complicity. If the prejudiced extreme right has been criticized in my last article, it is certainly not in order to exonerate this minority who profess anti-democratic values and support violent actions, such as those of Theo Van Gogh's murder and Charlie Hebdo's fire-bombing. Nevertheless, what I fundamentally criticize is an essentialist vision which associates all Muslim people in Europe with those extremists and sees Islam as a one-dimensional, fixed religion which cannot integrate humanist values. Should an interpretation of Judaism be solely based on Meir Kahane's extremist discourses, Baruch Goldstein murderous acts, and Méa Shearim's most ultra-orthodox discourses?

Fighting reactionary fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, which is symptomatic of modernity's development, expresses a menacing face in a world which seems to menace it: it is more a reaction than a return to an original authentic religion that never really existed. In Islam's case, fundamentalism frequently stems from loss of basic grounding references by individuals and a sense of social instability caused by the double Islamic and French culture and consciousness they live in – leading to a sense of “no direction home”. In that context, fundamentalist Islam appears and offers a warm home or sanctuary, which sometimes serves as a bunker, and more rarely, a tank. This tank has to be fought by two ideological armies: firstly, at the heart of the religion by Imams and religious intellectuals who argue for an Islamic modernism, secularism, and humanism as did Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian intellectual and one of the most influential secular scholar of the 20th century who contributed significantly to contemporary intellectual Islamic reform, and as does Abdennour Bidar, a contemporary French philosopher and writer who is currently working for the branch of the French government that deals with the implementation of their program on “laïcité” (secularism). Secondly, outside the religious world by teachers, associations and politicians, in an attempt to strongly defend democratic values, I must recall here a quote by Tahar Ben Jellou, a Moroccan writer otherwise known as “l’Enfant de Sable” (The Sand Child): “religion has to stay in the heart, not in politics.”

The dual opposition to racism on one hand and fundamentalism on the other should never be abandoned. Even if situations differ widely in European countries, this dual opposition can be common ground in an effort to bring about a more unified sense of togetherness.

1The future of The global Muslim population, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life,