European Muslims Grapple with Identity

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Europe is becoming a new battlefield in the struggle to define Muslim identity in the 21st century. Some argue the idea of European multiculturalism may have been extinguished in the wake of the London and Madrid transit bombings by suspected homegrown Islamist extremists.


The bombings in London 10 days ago, the Madrid train bombings last year, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November--all suspected to have been by Islamic extremists--have challenged European illusions about the vitality of multiculturalism in their societies. NPR senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli has reported extensively on Muslims in Europe. She sent this letter from Europe exploring the continent as a growing battleground in the struggle to define Muslim identity.


The perpetrators of the Madrid bombings were North African immigrants, some of whom had studied at Spanish universities. Van Gogh's accused murderer, who's trial is now under way, was Dutch-born and a model community worker. The British-born suspects behind the London bombs lived deep within England, some products of families seeking to assimilate into their adopted society. Poverty and social exclusion seem no longer to be the main causes of radicalization of Europe's Muslim youth. Europe has applied three different models to absorb its estimated 15 to 20 million Muslims: German separatism, British and Dutch multiculturalism and French assimilation. All three failed. Europe's culturally homogeneous societies are doted with Islamic islands where the law of the state often does not apply and where many can't speak the local language.

Algerian-born sociologist Halid Poiet Halem(ph) says dialogue is made much more difficult by the absence of a shared history, and when a common experience did exist, such as colonialism and the Crusades, it was mostly violence, war or indifference. Just four days after the London bombs, the Bosnian town of Srebrenica marked the 10th anniversary of the mass murder of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys. Europe's failure to prevent a massacre foretold was denounced by a large banner as `Europe's shame.'

The debate on whether Muslims can adapt to living as a minority in non-Muslim secular societies is taking place in a climate of tension. Many second- and third-generation Muslims feel Europe's mainstream societies never fully embraced them, depriving them of a sense of national and cultural identity. Religion increasingly fills that gap. The Islamic revival among Muslim youth is spread mostly through the Internet and Middle Eastern satellite TV. It's easy; it doesn't require sophisticated religious education. Hatchi Kadachair(ph), a Turkish Muslim leader in Amsterdam, calls it `garbage Islam.'

French scholar Oliver Roy calls its adherents `born-again Muslims who have shed their ethnic labels and embraced globalized Islam.' Human-rights activists say the mounting assertiveness of radicals has cowed the large moderate Muslim population in Europe. In Berlin, Turkish-born lawyer Chevon Attesh(ph), who survived an attempt on her life for defending women against wife-beating husbands, says moderates are afraid they'll be killed if they speak out against extremists.

The Islamic revival in Europe has widened the gap between Muslims and their host societies. A recent German poll revealed that the majority of Muslims don't want to adapt to Western values, and one-third wants Islam to become the state religion in every European country. Another recent poll showed the majority of Europeans look with disfavor on the growing sense of Islamic identity among Muslims. European counterterrorism magistrates believe the isolation of Muslim communities has facilitated fund raising and Jihadi recruitment, and that the war in Iraq has made Europe more vulnerable. The debate over Islam's place in Europe is tormented. How to defend an open society against those who don't share its values?

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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