Civic participation: Who speaks for European Muslims?

Speaking for themselves

Who speaks for European Muslims? It is a pressing question as far as policy makers in Europe are concerned. Even prior to 9/11, they were interested. After the 7/7 London bombings, finding an answer to the question has become imperative.

Before the attacks of 9/11, I had decided to map out the Muslim communities in Europe; as an academic, I was interested in their organisation. What I found was that whereas the Christian churches in Europe all pretty much have single bodies representing them, Muslims do not.

But does it really matter who represents Muslims? Many Christians, after all, would prefer that their churches did not represent them. The simple answer is that it does. When al Qa’eda decided to attack the United States, supposedly in the name of Islam (but more accurately in the name of their own frustrations and heretical ideology), European nations realised the necessity of engaging with their Muslim communities. It was deeply appreciated, as it meant that governments could send a positive message to mainstream society that Muslims were not all threats to Western civilisation.

Unfortunately, the process was not quite as simple as some had imagined. Muslim communities are not particularly well organised in terms of representation in most parts of Europe. There are some noted exceptions: the “Official Islamic Community” in Austria is a recognised institution that represents all Muslims in Austria by an act of law. However, that body predates the political tensions that have arisen in recent years. It was formed in the 1970s, before the Iranian revolution, the massive growth of migrant populations, the worsening of West–Muslim world relations and the “War on Terror”.

Most Muslim community lobby groups were formed later on; and representative bodies, in particular, only began to form in the last two decades. So when European governments wanted to reach out to their Muslim communities, there were some rather peculiar attempts at “designing” those communities before they could deal with them.

Take Italy, for example. The largest affiliate body in Italy (at least until recently) is UCOII; an organisation ideologically linked to the Islamist group founded in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Italian Interior minister decided to convene an advisory council made up of Muslim representatives, they were included.

However, owing to its vocal opposition to Western foreign policy, and its determination to antagonise, Rome has made it clear it does not necessarily need to deal with UCOII any longer. Instead, the government has supported other Muslim communities in Italy in organising themselves into a representative body, which it hopes can become the face of Italian Islam. Considering that one of the original members of the council was an atheist Albanian, one might assume that the Italian state has some work to do before they selectively engage with Muslim communities.

In Germany, another option altogether is being considered: rather than a single council, the government has promulgated the “Islam Conference”, where different Muslims and non-Muslims engage in discussions and workshops on issues pertaining to Muslims in Germany. It, too, has a deep problem, in that, again, it is not clear who is represented at the conference – at the last one, it seemed that there were quite a few delegates who were actively critical of Islam, rather than speaking for it. And most peculiar of all, there were no Muslim women wearing headscarves. So who speaks for them?

Belgium had, theoretically, the most successful model: direct elections, with quota systems to ensure that no one ethnic group dominated the “Muslim Assembly”. Unfortunately, the assembly became virtually inoperative after accusations of corruption brought much of its work to a halt.

This brings me to the interesting case of the UK. Britain had no intention of creating a representative assembly, like the Belgians, and was well past the point of introducing some sort of German-style “Islamic Conference”. Existing Muslim community groups would have probably balked at the idea, anyway.

The Italian model, however, probably appeals greatly to many in British policy circles at the moment. Dealing with people who agree with us? Yes please, and better still, people who will attack those people that do not agree us: a perfect package.

Except, it is not. There are some two million Muslims in Britain now, many having lived there for three generations. They are not about to accept such a brazen attempt at social engineering. British policy makers have to accept (and many do) that engagement requires admitting two things: firstly, that sometimes the people with whom they should talk are not particularly nice people to talk to. And secondly, that they should never assume that they are talking to representatives of the wide masses they want to reach.

There are no short cuts in this sort of work. On the contrary, it seems to be very clear that there is no single “face” to Islam in any European country, but a mosaic of “faces”. That makes government policy work in terms of engagement very difficult – but then, isn’t it government’s job to sort out difficult problems?

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is the Director of the Visionary Consultants Group and Fellow of the University of Warwick. A member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies of the University of Oxford, he has just completed a six-month research project on Muslim European communities. This article previously appeared in The National (UAE).


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