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Muslims in the West

No reliable statistics on the number of Muslims living in Europe and in North America are available. A 1986 estimate placed the number of Muslims in Europe at 23 million. There are more than eight million Muslims living in the US, Canada and Latin America. The experience of Muslims in Western countries and the record of Western societies in addressing their concerns and in integrating them into mainstream society present a rather mixed picture. There is no denying that, by and large, Western societies offer Muslims as well as other immigrants a fairly good package, comprising better economic prospects, opportunities for higher education and upward mobility, civil rights, personal autonomy, and religious and cultural freedom (which is scarce in many Muslim countries). For example, Muslims in Europe and North America can have their own mosques, burial grounds, religious schools (which are funded by the state in some countries), freedom to celebrate their feasts, freedom for Muslim women to wear the Islamic headscarf (hijab), and facilities for halal meat. As early as 1974, Belgium passed a law granting Islamic worship the same status as that accorded to the established religions in the country, namely Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. Nearly all European countries provide facilities for imparting instruction to the children of immigrants in their native languages.

On the other hand, Muslims in Western societies are faced with a host of problems and challenges, including xenophobia and institutionalized racism, unclear citizenship status, lack of legal security, discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization. Laws, policies and procedures in many European societies betray bias and discrimination against the immigrants and minorities. In Britain, for example, there is an avowedly colour-blind allocation of housing, which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. Similarly, tens of thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools in Britain are funded by the state. About a quarter of all pupils in Britain attend state-funded religious schools. It was only a couple of years ago that this privilege was extended to a few (five) Muslim schools and one Sikh school. In Britain, until recently (December 2003), acts of discrimination against Muslims were not considered illegal because the courts did not recognize Muslims as an ethnic group, although Jews and Sikhs are recognized as ethnic groups. In Belgium, the Vlaas Belang Party (which won nearly a quarter of the national vote in the 2004 election) wants to disallow the immigrants to get brides from their native countries. In Britain, the Labour government is also inclined to this view.

France swears by the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, however, Muslim immigrants from North America (including their second and third generation descendants born and brought up in France) experience widespread discrimination, exclusion and racism. French society is differentiated according to class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and positions remain largely with the white, upper class, Christian majority. The banlieues (suburbs) where the majority of Muslims live, are characterized by poverty, high unemployment rate (over 30% as compared with the national average of 10%), crime and drug addiction. Faced with this gloomy situation, many French youths are forced to change their names and to conceal their local addresses for fear that the disclosure of their real identity will jeopardize their chances of getting a job. In November 2005 North African youths indulged in large-scale rioting and vandalism on the streets of Paris. The incident was triggered by the accidental death by electrocution of two of their colleagues who were being chased by the French police.

Following 9/11, the Madrid train bombing in 2004 and the terrorist attack on London in July 2005, the stigmatization and arbitrary harassment of Muslims has greatly increased in large parts of Europe and the US. Soon after the London attack, the London police erroneously executed an innocent Brazilian electrician thought to be a suicide bomber. On June 2, 2006, the London police carried out a massive pre-dawn raid, with 300 officers, on the house of two Muslim brothers in East London, on suspicion of terrorist links. One of the brothers was wounded in a shot fired by the police. The police recovered nothing which could suggest that the brothers were involved in any terrorist activities. They were later released without charge. This incident fuelled anger and resentment in the Muslim community.

There has been a good deal of discussion on the cultural rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Western societies. The discourse on the cultural rights of minorities in European societies or elsewhere may be clouded by myopia unless it is accompanied by a discussion of cultural responsibilities and obligations. The immigrants and minorities, including Muslims, are obliged not only to obey the laws of the countries where they live but also to respect local norms, cultural traditions and the sensitivities of the host society. For example, a boisterous midnight celebration or music party by African immigrants in a predominantly white locality in Austria or Switzerland is likely to disturb the sleep and peace of mind of local residents, which cannot be defended in the name of the immigrants' cultural rights. The integration of immigrants cannot be regarded as a one-sided affair nor can it be entirely left to the state or the host society. The immigrants also need to make sincere and sustained efforts to earn the goodwill of the host society by learning the local language, by showing deference to the sensitivities of the host society, by participating in local-level voluntary action, by inviting their neighbours and other members of the host society to their homes on festive occasions, by encouraging their young children to join voluntary organizations and to participate in sports and other activities. This kind of engagement can go a long way in tearing down the walls of mistrust and separation and in building bridges of understanding and harmony with the wider society. In Germany, the Muslim Women's Training Centre (Begegnungs-und Fortbildungszentrum Muslimischer Frauen), founded at Cologne in 1996, carries out a wide range of activities and programmes for Muslim women, including facilities for education, training and counseling. One of the important activities of the Centre is to foster an atmosphere of understanding, dialogue and accommodation between the host society and the immigrants and to facilitate their integration.

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