Muslims have contributed a great deal to the culture and prosperity of Europe. One need only visit Alhambra, open a textbook on algebra, or even simply glance at the clock (the figures of which are likely written in Arabic numerals) to appreciate how deeply this truth is rooted in their common history.
In the wake of the attacks in France and Denmark, however, some members of the public have lost sight of this fact. Tensions are still running high, and many Europeans are questioning the role and value of Islam in their societies. Some voices have even proclaimed Muslims and their faith collectively responsible for the atrocities. But while the claim that violent Islamic extremism has nothing to do with Muslims and their faith is absurd, the idea that some monolithic “Islam” is to blame for this new specter haunting Europe is equally foolish.
Islam is divided into a number of competing denominations which are enormously diverse in their theological and ethnic manifestations. In this context, the violent Salafist doctrine to which most jihadists pledge allegiance considers Shia, Sufi and even non-conformist Sunni Muslims to be enemies deserving of death. That the police officer executed outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the captured Jordanian fighter pilot recently immolated by Islamic State in Syria were themselves both proud and loving Muslims is therefore unsurprising. To suggest that all Muslims are somehow intrinsically invested in such cruelty is plainly false and does a great injustice to them.
Unfortunately, a number of well-meaning commentators have responded to such injustice with wrongs of their own. Many of those wishing to protect the Muslim community from Islamophobic stigma have attempted to lay the blame for the radicalization of young Muslims at the feet of European society. “Alienation”, “discrimination”, and “joblessness” are frequently (and often fairly) cited as the primary factors leading many young Muslims into crime, prison, and eventually jihad. But it is usually assumed to be self-evident that the root cause of all these problems is the xenophobia of traditionally white and Christian Europeans.
Fertile soil for radicalism
This assumption is misplaced and unfair. The Europe of today is more tolerant of difference than ever before. Indeed, cosmopolitanism is at the very heart of contemporary Europe. Beyond the obvious example of the European Parliament in Brussels, this fact is reflected in some of Europe’s most powerful institutions. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, for example, proudly and openly proclaim their Jewish ancestry with a freedom that Disraeli would have envied. The former Vice-Chancellor of Germany was born in Vietnam. The French Justice Minister is black and grew up in French Guiana. The mayor of Rotterdam is Muslim and hails from Morocco. Even the Pope comes from another continent – this is the first time a non-European has claimed the papacy in over a thousand years.
Of course, many individuals from minority backgrounds face significant barriers to success in Europe. Prejudice towards them still exists. But in spite of these facts, the members of some minority groups (such as non-Muslim Indians, East Asians and Jews) often have higher levels of educational achievement and fewer troubles with the law than do members of the historical majorities alongside whom they live. It stands to reason that if these minorities have not been prevented from thriving in contemporary Europe, the socioeconomic position of European Muslims cannot be fully explained by reference to the xenophobia of mainstream society either.
The structure of the typical Muslim family in Europe seems a good place to start looking for some new answers to this puzzle. Muslim couples tend to have significantly larger families than most non-Muslim Europeans. Muslim mothers, furthermore, commit themselves to child-rearing and housekeeping (as opposed to paid employment) at much higher rates than non-Muslim mothers do. Combined, these facts lead to a situation in which many Muslim families rely on only one breadwinner who must divide his resources among a greater number of dependents than is the average in Europe.
This situation inevitably tends to place Muslim families at an economic disadvantage vis-a-vis most non-Muslims. Moreover, more money spent on feeding hungry mouths and clothing growing bodies means less money to spend on rent, schoolbooks, and extracurricular activities. Difficult social environments and limited educations, however, hinder the development of the networks and skills conducive to upward social mobility. In this context, futures can appear bleak and crime can seem profitable to many young people.
Unfortunately, it is a fact that rates of poverty and involvement in crime are substantially higher in European Muslim communities than they are in their broader societies. Such soil is a fertile one for those who seek to sow the seeds of jihad in Europe.
A climate that fosters conspiracy theories
Take Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher supermarket shooter, for example. The son of Muslim immigrants from Mali, Coulibaly’s cradle was La Grande Borne – an extremely rough and unforgiving housing estate that is a French byword for unemployment, drugs, and violent crime. Coulibaly grew up there sharing an apartment with his parents and nine sisters. The cramped discomfort of these living arrangements must have made the street seem a good place for the boy to spend his free time.
Out there, however, young Coulibaly chose to run with a bad crowd. By the age of 15 he had a criminal record. When he was 18, his best friend was shot dead by police whilst fleeing the scene of a robbery. Coulibaly himself was arrested for armed robbery a short time later and was sentenced to six years in prison. It was here, seething with resentment against the power of the society holding him captive, that Coulibaly came under the sway of radical Islam’s siren song.
By the age of 27, Coulibaly was out of jail and working as a short-term contractor at a Coca-Cola factory. But with no promising career prospects, he spent the next few years in and out of prison, dabbling in crime and jihad. As the world now knows, Coulibaly ended his life at age 32 amid a hail of French special forces bullets. Before he left this earth, Coulibaly had sent five innocent people to an early grave, wounded 11 others, and traumatized a nation.
In the present climate, it is very important that vulnerable Muslim communities are defended from the baseless accusations often leveled at them. But as jarring as the following statement might be to some ears, it is unarguably the case that Amedy Coulibaly’s life would have been very different and likely a great deal less difficult had he grown up with only one or two siblings instead of nine. Indeed, it is probable that his self-destructive path to delinquency, prison, and murderous jihad – rooted in poverty as it obviously was – would have never even started. It is clear, in other words, that Islamophobic prejudice is not the only obstacle facing Muslims in their struggle for economic and social integration in Europe.
This is not a veiled call for the revival of eugenics. As the very term implies, eugenics is concerned with the genetic qualities of individuals. What is at issue here, on the other hand, is basic economic logic and the choices made (or not made) on the basis of it. In some societies, having many children can be a long-term economic investment. In contemporary Europe, however, having many children is a long-term economic burden. Muslims must honestly confront the fact that some of their traditional attitudes regarding women, children, and the structure of the family hinder their prospects for social mobility on account of the economic disadvantages these attitudes often produce for them. Muslim communities must begin the difficult task of reforming these attitudes if they wish to thrive in Europe.
Furthermore, if Muslims are led to believe that only the antipathy of European society is responsible for their socioeconomic disadvantage and the problems that this leads to, they will inevitably come to feel resentment and suspicion towards their supposed oppressors. Resentment and suspicion, in turn, form the wellspring of ridiculous but no less dangerous conspiracy theories such as the one expressed by a number of Muslim Parisians who posited that Jews were responsible for the attacks in their city as part of a plot to make Muslims look bad. It goes without saying that Muslims, like all other Europeans, have a duty to root out such toxic prejudices.
Radicals of all stripes
Mainstream Europeans, on the other hand, also have their work cut out for them. They must work much harder to remove the obstacles to Muslim integration that their society has created and to dismantle the structures that enable these obstacles to regenerate.
Apart from genuine Islamophobia, one of the more important sets of problems in this regard is Europe’s deeply-rooted obsession with class and the prejudices this has given rise to. Unlike the marginalization of ethnically white working-class people, who are still routinely derided as “chav scum” or “white trash” by the middle-class mainstream, discrimination against Europe’s (mostly non-white) Muslim communities is officially prohibited in all European countries. Nevertheless, Muslims are still subject to a widely perceived stigma not dissimilar to the one attached to vulnerable whites and to other socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.
This stigma has less to do with phenotype or religious belief than it does with wealth, educational achievement, and social graces (or the presumed lack of them). Europe’s Muslims – who are, like many other minority groups, disproportionately concentrated in the continent’s dilapidated council estates, _Sozialwohnungen_, and _banlieues_ – face significant discrimination in the search for better housing and jobs. But as journalist Tom Heneghan reports, “this goes for poor whites too – they can clear the name hurdle (the point where job applications from Mohammads and Mamadous get binned) but stumble when [people] see they live in a ‘hot’ suburb.”
There is, however, a crucial difference between Muslims and white non-Muslims in this regard, which is that unavoidable markers of identity (such as a person’s legal name) can condemn Muslims, regardless of socioeconomic background and through no fault of their own, to the fringes of the labor market. It follows that negative stereotyping on the basis of real or presumed class has serious consequences for _all_ Muslims, poor and well-to-do alike. This is not the case for most non-Muslim Europeans.
Nevertheless, class prejudice continues to impact disadvantaged Europeans of all colors and creeds, including white Christians. For the sake of everyone, therefore, it is imperative that this problem be vigorously combated. This issue is especially pressing in light of Europe’s growing income inequality. Radical Islam is not the only form of extremism that thrives in desperate conditions – in the wake of the Great Recession, extremists of all stripes have been mobilizing across the continent.
“Political correctness makes for denial and hypocrisy”
Muslims are troubled by another aspect of inequality in European societies, which differs from but is not entirely independent of material circumstances. This concerns the uneven levels of respect accorded by the mainstream to some groups’ sensitivities in comparison to others. This inequality is felt to be particularly acute in regard to Jews and Muslims and the Middle East conflicts in which many of them have an interest.
Cartoons provide an appropriate (but by no means the only) point of entry to this issue. On Holocaust Memorial Day in 2013, _The Sunday Times_ published a disturbing cartoon depicting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu using the blood of Palestinians as mortar in the construction of an intimidating brick wall. The cartoon was captioned: “Israeli elections. Will cementing peace continue?” Unlike many Jewish Israelis – who focused on the cartoon’s political commentary – the Board of Deputies of British Jews interpreted the image as anti-Semitic and as such protested to the UK Press Complaints Commission. Although the publication of the cartoon did not break any laws or breach PCC protocol, the cartoonist, the newspaper’s editors and their boss, Rupert Murdoch, all subsequently apologized. “We are reminded of the sensitivities in this area by the reaction to this cartoon,” the paper’s acting editor said, “and [we] will of course bear them very carefully in mind in future.”
_Charlie Hebdo_ felt no such compunction when dealing with Muslim sensitivities. Both before and after the bloodbath in Paris, the magazine’s editors were well aware that their cartoons would be deeply hurtful to Muslims and proceeded to publish them anyway. They were, of course, within their rights to do so (and these rights are there for good reason). But it is quite clear that the feelings of Muslims did not matter much to the editors of _Charlie Hebdo_. Indeed, their lack of respect in this regard was implicitly sanctioned by many Europeans and their leaders when they expressed their solidarity with the magazine’s stance on blasphemy. Adding his powerful voice to the fray, Rupert Murdoch – who only a couple of years earlier had demonstrated his understanding of sensitivities to offensive cartoons and ethnic stereotypes – now rubbed salt in the wounds by tweeting that Muslims in general “must be held responsible” for the Paris atrocities. When criticized for having unjustly tarred all Muslims with the same brush, Murdoch refused to apologize. “Political correctness,” he said, “makes for denial and hypocrisy.”
Muslims see denial and hypocrisy elsewhere – namely, in the dismissive response that their complaint about such different standards is usually given by the mainstream. One can certainly argue about the details of this objection. It is unreasonable to make (as some have) a comparison between _Charlie Hebdo_’s cartoons of Mohammed and the openly genocidal anti-Semitic statements made by the French-Cameroonian “comedian” Dieudonné Mbala-Mbala, for example.
Quibbles aside, however, the complaint that Muslims are often treated as second-class citizens has a substantial basis in reality, and this fact should be deeply troubling for any society that claims to value inclusivity and equality. Refusing to take the issue seriously denies Muslims the respect and equality for which they are asking and to which they are entitled. Indeed, it is only once inequalities such as this have been substantially addressed that Europeans – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike – will be able to work together to banish the jihadist specter now haunting them.