It is no news that Western European governments have found Muslim immigration difficult to manage. The five main Western European countries now have Islamic populations totaling, when ranked according to demographic share, up to six million in France (10 percent), 800,000 in The Netherlands (seven percent), three million in Germany (four percent), 1.5-2 million in Britain (2.5 percent), and one million in Spain (two percent).
Absent an American-style “melting-pot” environment for integration or assimilation, in Europe the two sides, non-Muslim and governmental vs. Muslim and communal, remain distant from one another. European authorities have sought interlocutors among Islamic believers, and have designated Muslim groups in each country as partners in formulating policy. These Western European inter-religious experiments are relevant to the U.S., in that they may well anticipate another pitfall in the course of President Barack Obama’s inchoate “outreach” to Muslims - but on domestic ground - following his administration’s demonstrated incapacity in the Iranian crisis.
On the European side of the Atlantic, the latest development in this series of contentions came with French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s call for investigation of the role of niqab - face covering, typically misdescribed in Western media as “the burqa” - among French Muslim women. (The burqa is a full body covering that includes niqab but the two are not the same, and represent separate issues.) France asks whether face covering is voluntary or involuntary, a matter of personal choice by Muslim women or a repressive custom forced upon them by their families and societies, resulting in brutalization of those who reject it.
Face covering by women is unmentioned in Qur’an and is uncommon in numerous Muslim societies. Indeed, it was never previously required during the Muslim pilgrimage or hajj, and was not traditional in Hejaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina. Women in the Hejazi city of Jeddah, the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia, have recently and increasingly defied official imposition of it. Late in June, Sarkozy denounced face covering as “a sign of subservience of debasement,” and the French authorities began hearings on the issue on July 8.
In an outcome many Westerners might find counter-intuitive, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris and one of Western Europe’s leading moderate Muslims, supported the official inquiry and warned that face-covering is promoted by Muslim radicals as a signifier of extremism. The Center for Islamic Pluralism has been aware of the anti-niqab legal option in France since late 2008, and we agree with Dr. Boubakeur in opposing the propagation of face covering. Niqab is too often used by newly-indoctrinated radical adherents to suggest that they are better Muslims than other Islamic believers - a conceit forbidden in traditional Islam. In our recent Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe, 2007-09 [available as a free downloadable .pdf at www.islamicpluralism.org/CIPReports/090515shariahreport.htm] we criticized “exploitation of hijab [head covering] in the interest of separatism and of a simplification of religion leading to fundamentalism.” At the same time, however, criminalization of niqab could obstruct judicial practice and aggravate existing interfaith resentments. Resolution of the problem will not be simple, and the findings of the Sarkozy inquiry will be crucial.
Simon Kuper, a commentator in the London Financial Times of June 25, 2009, suggested that Sarkozy’s remarks should not be viewed as anti-Islamic, but rather as a move away from legitimization of radical Muslims - the advocates of niqab - as representatives to the Western European authorities. Kuper went so far as to contrast Sarkozy’s tougher idiom with the soft line on Muslim extremism seemingly taken by Obama.
We have observed and analyzed how European authorities have groped to find local representatives for the faith of Muhammad, and, with excessive speed, have inducted ideological Islamists - Pakistani jihadists in Britain, Turkish radicals in Germany and Holland, agents of the Muslim Brotherhood in Holland, France, and Spain - into the institutions of each country. While some might describe this trend as a simple effort at cooptation, official justification for this policy was well-described by the German weekly Der Spiegel in 2007: “Henry Kissinger once famously quipped: ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ The German government has long had the same problem when it came to pursuing dialogue with its own Muslim community: Who to call?”
Yet at present the quest for “a single Muslim contact” available to Western governments has, with seeming inevitability, driven Western European states into the arms of the best-funded, loudest, and most extreme elements, raising the status of the latter as dominant Muslim adherents in the non-Muslim societies. While such entities do not always enjoy unique authority - in Britain and Holland they function alongside less powerful or satellite groups - they have obtained a position tantamount to monopolistic control over the Muslim voice in public affairs. They have become, in effect, European “official Islam.”
State approval of extremist Muslim advocates by Western governments has consequences that are equally unjust and dangerous. Such a policy has prevented moderate and heterodox Muslims from substantial communication with non-Muslim governments. In addition to embodying exclusion and discrimination, this impedes the ability of Western antiterror agencies to meaningfully assess threats by Islamist terrorists, since moderate Muslims are logically the most reliable informants and allies in combating the radicals.
Anti-radical Muslims lack the Saudi-style resources necessary to create stable communal structures, and official neglect unfortunately intensifies their isolation. But Western governments should give, at least, equal place to anti-radical and heterodox Muslims in their consultations. Adherents of radical Islam will condemn such a policy as a Western effort to divide Muslims; but the radicals propose to artificially, and even violently, impose unity among Muslims.
In the U.S., since the atrocities of September 11, 2001, claims that government and national leaders must deal with the radicals because they control the largest groups (such as the Islamic Society of North America or ISNA) have been a major factor in discouraging moderate Muslims from coming forward as loyal supporters of America against terrorism. Transforming well-funded, powerful radical Islam into Western “official Islam” reveals a dismaying incompetence and penchant for foolhardy improvisation on the part of Western governments. We have already seen the negative effect of treating radical leaders as a homogenous exemplar of “the Muslims” in Iran.
The Obama administration had previously taken a step along the road toward approval of an “official Islam” as described above, by inviting the hijab-wearing Ingrid Mattson, president of the fundamentalist Islamic Society of North America, to speak at its inauguration. To adopt the established Western European policy, by favoring the most prominent and well-financed, but reactionary and narrow-minded, Islamic entity as American Muslim counsel in U.S. governmental affairs, might violate the “establishment clause” of the Constitution. But it would also represent a further, regrettable step away from American tradition, repudiating the “melting pot” by encouraging Islamic separatism, and thereby reinforcing the grip of radical ideology on American Muslims.