Dr.Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the celebrated Egyptian scholar and activist Hasan al-Banna, the founder of Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, and son of Dr. Said Ramadan, has emerged as one of the most influential Muslim intellectuals in Europe. His books To be a European Muslim (1999) and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003) are widely read and discussed. He urges Muslims living in Europe to consider themselves as full citizens and to participate in the organizational, economic and political affairs of the countries in which they are living without compromising their religious values and traditions. The following article is reprinted with grateful acknowledgement to Dr. Ramadan and the European Monitoring Centre on Xenophobia and Racism (http://www.eumc.eu.int).
In the European Middle Ages, Islam contributed tremendously in moulding the western, secular and modern rational thought. The new Muslim presence, however in the old continent dates back sixty to seventy years thus revealing a very short time period historically.
It was only through centuries of discussion and conflicts of the other religious and ethnic minorities (Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Poles, Italians or Portuguese, according to the country), that it was possible to feel at home and acquire some rights in the host country. How then would the issues be resolved for Muslims in a span of only two or three generations?
In the eighties, the new visibility of Muslims and its suddenness stimulated misconceptions, suspicion, and at times, mutual rejection. One could say that these reciprocal tensions were a relatively normal and logical response. It was difficult to bypass this atmosphere without a pronounced dialogue and close working relationship materialising. Something which until now had been impossible judging from the characteristics of this first generation immigrant population: unstable economic standing and unpredictable status often perceived as temporary.
The first waves of Muslim immigrants were predominantly labourers from North Africa, Turkey or Indo-Pakistan. They were a people of modest means and pressured by the economic climate. Their educational standing and fragile status had not permitted for more than a generation to ponder the realities of living in Europe. It would be the second and third generations who were to transform the mind set that these labourers had. The former demonstrated that their presence in Europe was a reality whereas in Great Britain, the community groups often reproduced the social structure of their home country or region.
Furthermore, the economic context had brought about deep social hardships which we now know today: unemployment, rejection, alienation, violence etc. These factors contributed in making the process of integration increasingly difficult and complex.
It is important to note that the following international events of the time had a deep impact in shaping perceptions. From the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the scandal of Salman Rushdie, the madness of the Taliban, the attacks and violence in the near-east to the daily horror in Algeria- it is hard to say to which degree these events shaped the mentality and negative perception of Islam, a widespread phenomena in European society. We do know that these scandals fed the tensions stemming from the social crisis which Europe was in midst of undergoing with its high level of unemployment, exclusion and violence.
Often defined as a problem of immigration because of its urgency, these factors were enough to make it very difficult or almost next to impossible to debate the issue of the Muslim presence in Europe. One can assume that a sort of "Islamaphobia" had been entrenched in the minds of many according to the title of a fine study commissioned in Great Britain by Runnymede Trust in 1997. This diabolised image of Muslims hindered a thoughtful evaluation of the dynamics that were sweeping across the European communities.
Mentioning these points right from the start allows us to avoid dangerous curtailments which bypass a strict analysis, not taking into account the past and judging without the appropriate context. If this is how we were to measure things then most definitely we would come to the conclusion that Islam is incompatible vis a vis the European legislation. Or by the same token, that it is impossible for Muslims to integrate. Finally, we would be given a somewhat irreversible, conflicting and marginalised character of the Muslim identity. A true analysis would take into account the realities of history and everyday life, with its energy, fluctuation and development.