Five years ago bombings and riots fuelled anxiety that Europe's Muslims were on the verge of mass radicalisation. Those predictions have not been borne out.
A district of derelict warehouses, red-brick terraces, and vibrant street life on the canals near the centre of Brussels, Molenbeek was once known as Belgium's "Little Manchester". These days it is better known as "Little Morocco" since the population is overwhelmingly Muslim and of North African origin.
By day, the scene is one of children kicking balls on busy streets, of very fast, very small cars with very large sound systems. By night, the cafes and tea houses are no strangers to drug-dealers and mafia from the Maghreb.
For the politically active extreme right, and the anti-Islamic bloggers, Molenbeek is the nightmare shape of things to come: an incubator of tension and terrorism in Europe's capital, part of a wave of "Islamisation" supposedly sweeping Europe, from the great North Sea cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Marseille and the Mediterranean.
The dire predictions of religious and identity-based mayhem reached their peak between 2004 and 2006, when bombs exploded in Madrid and London, a controversial film director was shot and stabbed to death in Amsterdam, and angry demonstrators marched against publication of satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.
For Bruce Bawer, author of While Europe Slept, the continent's future was to "tamely resign itself to a gradual transition to absolute sharia law". By the end of the century, warned Bernard Lewis, the famous American historian of Islam, "Europe will be Islamic". The Daily Telegraph asked: "Is France on the way to becoming an Islamic state?" The Daily Mail described the riots that shook the nation in the autumn of 2005 as a "Muslim intifada".
Yet a few years on, though a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic forecasts continues, such fears are beginning to look misplaced. The warnings focus on three elements: the terrorist threat posed by radical Muslim European populations; a cultural "invasion" due to a failure of integration; and demographic "swamping" by Muslim communities with high fertility rates.
A new poll by Gallup, one of the most comprehensive to date, shows that the feared mass radicalisation of the EU's 20-odd million Muslims has not taken place. Asked if violent attacks on civilians could be justified, 82% of French Muslims and 91% of German Muslims said no. The number who said violence could be used in a "noble cause" was broadly in line with the general population. Crucially, responses were not determined by religious practice - with no difference between devout worshippers and those for whom "religion [was] not important".
"The numbers have been pretty steady over a number of years," said Gallup's Magali Rheault. "It is important to separate the mainstream views from the actions of the fringe groups, who often receive disproportionate attention. Mainstream Muslims do not appear to exhibit extremist behaviour."
Polls always vary, and other surveys can be cited to point to higher degrees of extremism. There is also the point, made repeatedly by experts, that "it only takes half a dozen for a bomb attack". There has also been a major surge in antisemitic attacks by young men from Muslim communities, especially in France. But there is nonetheless a sense, even among Europe's counterterror strategists, that the tide of radicalisation of young Muslim men may be ebbing.
"We estimate about 10% of our Islamic population are in a dynamic of rejection of the west and Europe, 10% are more European than the Europeans, and about 80% are in the middle, just trying to get by," said Alain Bauer, a criminologist and security adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy. "The concern is less home-grown or imported terrorists, but states such as Iran," he said.
Last week the UK security threat was downgraded from "severe" (an attack is highly likely) to "substantial" (an attack is a strong possibility) - its lowest level since 9/11. Officials say the shift, although relative, recognises the combined effects of the efforts of security services, and a backlash against violent extremism among Muslims in the UK.
In the Netherlands, tension between the majority and the Muslim minority has redefined national politics in the past five years. The threat level last year was raised to the second highest level - in part because of the impact on Muslim communities of the success of the anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders. Yet even here security services say they see "the activities of homegrown [militant] cells being stable or diminishing because of a lack of leadership, and internal quarrelling". This is the view of Judith Sluiter, of the National Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism agency, who adds: "The appeal of the radicals is declining. In the Moroccan community there is growing resistance to Islamic rejection [of Dutch society]."
The Dutch AIVD intelligence service recently reported that among the country's other main Muslim immigrant community, from Turkey, "resistance to radical Islamic ideologies remains strong ... In the short and medium term, there is no danger these [extreme] religious ideas will find many receptive ears in the Dutch Turkish community".
In the Molenbeek district of Brussels, Sebastiano Guzzone has also seen a change. In eight years of advising locals of their rights, the Italian lawyer has come across mass murderers from Rwanda; Belgian Moroccans believed to have arrived from terrorist training camps in the Afghan-Pakistan border zone; and a North African who disappeared to Iraq to die as a suicide bomber. That was then.
"I haven't seen anyone like that for a few years now," said Guzzone. "The last Muslim fundamentalists I dealt with was in 2006. There's fewer and fewer of them. The problem is exaggerated."
For Kamel Bechik, who runs a Muslim Scout organisation in France's south-west where youngsters proudly salute the national flag every morning and evening - while fasting if they want to during the holy month of Ramadan - recent history speaks for itself. "There are six million Muslims," said Bechik, 35. "If the community had really become radicalised, it would have been pretty obvious." However, there are other issues that go well beyond counterterrorism.
Christopher Caldwell, columnist at a conservative American review, the Weekly Standard, and author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, argues Europe is failing to face up to genuine and deep demographic and cultural change: "It is too simple to talk about the Islamisation of Europe. This is about the transformation of European society," he told the Observer last week. Comparing immigration in Europe with the major waves of immigration in America of the late 19th and early 20th century, Caldwell said: "There is no real reflection on where this is taking us."
In Europe, many reject the criticism. "We pose questions and we find answers," said Bauer. "And the answer is saucisson, croissants and the French way of life."
Others say the terms of the debate are still undefined. "Who is a European Muslim? Does a French second-generation immigrant shopkeeper of Moroccan Berber stock have much in common with an Iranian Shia female doctor living in Denmark, or a British Pakistani student or a German Turkish nightclub singer?" asked a Dutch city councillor. "We haven't decided yet."
Levels of religious observance also vary wildly. A government survey of German Muslims found only 10% of immigrants from south-east Europe pray every day, compared with more than half of those from North Africa.
In France, a similar disparity of views led to a row within the Muslim community when the government announced it would ban the burka.
Finally, there is a question of what integration means. The recent Gallup poll found European Muslim immigrants tend to stress social and economic questions - housing, jobs, access to education - as markers of integration, whereas the so-called "host communities" tend to stress morals and customs, such as attitudes to homosexuality, sex before marriage or pornography.
Despite frequent and heavily publicised rows, surveys have found that only a minority of European Muslim women are veiled, and the numbers are probably dropping. The German data suggests that, whereas a quarter of first-generation immigrant women wear a headscarf, only 18% of their daughters do.
Such processes are uneven. Caldwell cites figures that show "only 8% of Turkish men who grow up in Germany marry German women and only 3% of Turkish women who grow up in Germany marry German men".
But there are also more subtle ways that integration can work. Polls, for example, have found that Muslim communities are profoundly influenced by their countries of residence. So in France, where 45% of people said in a survey that adultery is morally acceptable, so did a high proportion of local Muslims. In Germany, where 73% of the population is opposed to capital punishment, the view was shared by exactly the same percentage of local Muslims. In Britain, where there is greater popular hostility to pornography, this is mirrored in the British Muslim community.
"National differences are very evident. French Muslims have absorbed the values of France, and are more secular than their German counterparts, for example," said Rheault. Over time, this trend deepens. The Dutch Statistics Bureau's last report on integration reported that in terms of norms, opinions and behaviour ... second-generation [Dutch migrants] are much more orientated towards Dutch society than their parents.
One of the toughest questions is demographic. Many countries do not have clear statistics on ethnicity and race: the French Muslim population is thought to be between four and seven million, the Dutch around one million, the German between four and six million. No one doubts that Muslim populations have grown rapidly in recent decades. Some recent statistics in the UK point to a 20% increase in the past five years.
But although demographers say Europe's youthful Muslim communities will continue to grow, they predict fertility rates will decline - as they have done among almost all other populations that experience higher levels of wealth, healthcare access and literacy. Carl Haub, senior demographer at the respected Population Reference Bureau, Washington, points to fertility rates in Muslim-majority countries such as Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco that are only slightly higher than those in the UK and France.
"There is no reason why immigrants in Europe are going to have more kids than in their countries of origin," Haub told the Observer. One Dutch study has shown that birthrates among Turkish and Moroccan-born women in the Netherlands dropped from 3.2 children per mother to 1.9, and from 4.9 to 2.9 respectively between 1990 and 2005. More radical predictions, such as the claim there will be a Muslim majority in the EU in the next half century, are just "plain silly", said Haub, as they depend on "physically impossible" rates of natural growth or "politically impossible" levels of mass immigration.
For more than 40 years, locals in the 12th arrondissement of Paris have bought fruit and vegetables from immigrant vendors at the Marché d'Aligre.
Amos was 16 when he first started working at the market, running errands for his Tunisian-born parents. "Integration? Politics? Religion? None of that here," he said yesterday. "We're just trying to earn a living. The only people who get involved in religion are the ones with something on their conscience." Amos points out his two employees - one from Algeria, the other from Morocco. One is married to a French Catholic, the other to "a black girl". At a nearby meat shop is a poster telling clients to order a ready-slaughtered sheep for Ramadan.
Anis Bouabsa, a baker who supplies the presidential palace with breakfast patisserie, said he will be fasting for Ramadan while he makes bread for his clients. "It's my roots, my culture, that's how I grew up," he said. "But I'll still be in the bakery 12 hours a day."
However, if integration is more successful than the stereotype in matters of values and culture, it may be failing in social and economic terms. Unemployment and poverty are high for immigrant groups across the EU. Across Paris, in the poorer quarter around Ménilmontant market, there is no saucisson, no croissants and a lot of cheap cutlery, clothes and couscous. "We are always told things will get better, but they never do," said Awadif, 33. "Life's tough. You get by with some luck and some faith."
What is certain is that, even if the dark predictions are proved wrong, a different Europe is emerging, "It is not about foreigners taking over. It may be good, it may be bad, but there is going to be change," said Caldwell.
(Source: The Observer, 26 July 2009)