Muslims are well established in Europe; those in Eastern Europe in particular have been living in the continent for many centuries. A visible Muslim community has existed in Britain since the late nineteenth century.
Modern European states have enabled Muslims to carve out a place for themselves within society and, with notable exceptions, have not prevented them from practising and preserving their faith and cultures as part of a liberal-democratic vision of cultural and ethnic pluralism under a national umbrella. The advocates of such a system say that it strengthens the societies in which it has been adopted.
Although Muslims in the West face many challenges on different levels, they have worked to develop community infrastructure to bring themselves together and present a united message to the West as they seek to ensure their human, political and civil rights.
The Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE) was established in Britain at the end of 1989 by displaced Egyptian students who flocked to Western universities after the Muslim Brotherhood's dispute with the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It had a general assembly, Shura council and an executive office. It also developed a twenty-year programme and a group of affiliated institutions in non-European countries. Strong official relations were developed with official European bodies, including the European Union.
However, such official links of the FIOE did not prevent it from facing major challenges over the years, not least due to its stance on the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the ongoing political conflict between Islamists and governments in the Arab world. The FIOE is now called the Council of European Muslims (CEM).
Arabi 21 interviewed CEM President Abdallah Bin Mansour about the nature of the organisation, its issues, challenges and the discourse that guides its work.
Adel Al-Hamdi: Let's start with the Council of European Muslims. What is it? Who does it represent? Is it a development of the FIOE?
Abdallah Bin Mansour: Praise be to God, prayers and peace be upon our Prophet, Muhammad, his family and all his companions. Thank you for inviting me.
The Council of European Muslims was previously known as the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe. The only thing that has changed is the name, as we wanted to remove the word "organisations" because it is understood differently in Europe and has different connotations in the Arab world. To avoid confusion, we changed the name. The proposed name was "Muslims of Europe", which we may go back to. The Council is a development of the FIOE, and its members come from 27 European countries from Russia in the east to Ireland in the west, and from Sweden in the north to Spain in the south.
AAH: Has CEM preserved the diversity of its membership? Are you European Muslims who have different ideological backgrounds, or do you represent a single school of thought?
ABM: Most of those who founded the FIOE were members the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries of origin. They were graduates of the Brotherhood school in the Arab world and they continued this intellectual path until the establishment of the FIOE.
However, with the development of the latter, the European element became more prominent than the Arab element, despite the fact that some of the FIOE founders remained emotionally connected with their countries of origin. However, it would be wrong to say that the FIOE is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. During my earlier presidency of the FIOE, I pointed out that we are a European institution registered in Paris and all of our member organisations are registered somewhere in Europe. That is a condition of membership.
The prevailing school of thought remains what academics call the "Brotherhood school", not as an organisation, but on the basis of the moderation advocated by the movement. The majority of Muslims around the world agree that Islam is a moderate way of life with a universal message. We have members of many nationalities; some are Salafi in their outlook and ideology, while others belong to the Tablighi and the Tahrir movements, along with the Muslim Brotherhood of course. What unites us is our presence in Europe.
AAH: Do you have a map of the distribution of Muslims across Europe?
ABM: We do have a clear picture of the Muslim minorities in Europe. There are 65 million European Muslims — that's a huge number — and they are basically split between four main categories:
- Muslims of European origin and they are mainly in the Balkans, meaning Eastern Europe, with minorities in Bulgaria and Russia. According to official Russian statistics, there are 26 million Muslims there, but we believe that there are in fact about 40 million. These are Muslims whose ancestors are Europeans.
- We also have Muslims who came to Europe post-World War Two and are naturalised with citizenship in the countries in which they live. Their children also hold such citizenship.
- There are Europeans who have converted to Islam, and their numbers are growing day by day at an average of 365 a day. France alone has 80 French converts to Islam daily, so this group is now counted among the Muslims of Europe.
- Then there are the newer immigrants, including students, diplomats, envoys and temporary workers.
This list is not exhaustive, of course, and there are various sub-categories.
In terms of their Islamic affiliations, there are four ideological schools: the most popular within the membership is the Muslim Brotherhood; then the Salafis, whose growth depends on financial support from the Gulf. This is followed by the Tablighis, especially in Britain among Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. They have had a big impact on Islam and Muslims in Europe. Finally there is the Tahrir school, which we call the "political option" group.
These are the Islamic ideological schools that exist in Europe, and despite the differences between them, they have major similarities.
AAH: Do you have information about the class and intellectual affiliations of Muslims in the European societies?
ABM: The economic situation of Muslims about two decades ago was lower than national averages, but the situation has improved. Many Muslims in Europe would now be called middle class, working in healthcare, especially in Germany and France, education and business. There are also many involved in tourism, media and publishing. All have enabled the economic level of Muslim minorities to become much stronger.
AAH: So European Muslims have not remained on the margins of society across Europe?
ABM: On the contrary, European Muslims are generally no longer dependent on society, they contribute to their respective national economies in a significant way.
AAH: Can we say that there is a European Islam?
ABM: Of course there is a European Islam. Yes, there are constants in the faith that do not change, such as the obligatory duties and acts of worship, but there are differences in how the faith is practised. For example, my clothes are completely French in style; I respect the constants of Islam in my European clothes. The way I organise my home, the way I address people, even my prayers, I do not disturb others. I respect my neighbours when up late at night or early in the morning during Ramadan, for example. I thus fulfil my responsibilities to the Almighty and to my neighbours, without compromising either.
Islam is our religion and Europe is where we live, and we act accordingly. There is no conflict between the two. Some problems may arise and they are natural and present in every time and place, but we have solutions to them and apply Islam and invite our neighbours to the faith in a way that does not provoke them.
AAH: Is there a European Islamic discourse?
ABM: Yes, there is. For example, we do not demand the application of Sharia law across the continent, but we apply it to ourselves on a personal level. We do not demand European governments to do so. We are a religious minority who wish to be allowed to practise our faith. We do not give sermons that insult Christians, Jews, Buddhists or whatever, or even secularists. I do not call them to my religion in a missionary or preaching manner, I call them through my behaviour. I do not call for violence or support jihadist movements that endanger the security of innocent people. I have no hostility towards any Arab or Islamic country even though some countries are hostile towards me. I want to have good relations with all of the Arab and Islamic countries and with my European country.
Even if I receive an official invitation from any Arab or Islamic country, I do not respond to it before consulting the country in which I live. Moreover, I participated in a conference in one of the Gulf countries at the time of the wave of offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and they called for boycotting French goods and asked my opinion. I immediately left the hall and refused to entertain their request, as I cannot call for a boycott of France; it's my country. We have a responsibility towards our citizenship that we must respect, and this is, of course, the discourse and behaviour that we practise.
AAH: Is this understanding of Islam in Europe related in any way to the "Abrahamic religion" that was called for recently?
ABM: No, absolutely not. We have nothing to do with that. We have been practising our faith in Europe for 40 years and more. A unified so-called "Abrahamic religion" is a project to challenge the Islamic movement; to present a "convincing" alternative to the Islamic discourse. There was a focus on the Sufi alternative which was worked on for many years, but that wasn't far-reaching enough, so it was agreed in occupied Palestine to find a "religion" upon which Muslims, Jews and Christians could agree in order to dilute Islam. This is a failed project that has no future. We are proud of our religion and our Islam, but with behaviour that respects the European countries in which we live. This is civilised Islamic behaviour.
Talking about a unified religion is unrealistic. Neither Muslims, nor Jews nor Christians asked for it. To you be your religion, and to me, mine. That's the Islamic way. If God had wanted, He would have made us all the same.
AAH: Some observers say that this discourse tries to be more royal than the king; it defends Europe more than Europe defends itself. Despite this, Europe still treats its Muslims differently and fears them. Why the alienation?
ABM: We Muslims face four challenges in the West: an active Zionist movement which believes that the Muslims in Europe are the main supporters of Palestine, just as it believes that Jews in the West are the main supporters of Israel. That's the equation: there would have been no state of Israel without Jewish support from the West, so if the Muslim presence in Europe is removed or neutralised, then so will the Palestinian cause. The Zionists have a lot of media and political influence and are well organised and funded.
The second challenge is that the Catholics are fewer in number than the Protestants, the Orthodox Christians and the Anglicans combined. The Catholics are strong in France, and so France backs the Vatican. Islam is seen as a competitor to Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, with churches closing in great numbers due to dwindling congregations, while mosques are opening all over to cater for the demand for places to pray. Limits are sought on the Muslim presence.
Moreover, secularists want to keep religion separate from public life. A law was issued in France in 1905 to separate religion from the state, and French secularism is the most intense in the world. They rail against every religion, so you can only imagine what it is like for Islam, especially when the issue of hijab came up about 20 years or so ago. They worked for centuries to minimise and remove women's clothing and now see girls born in France who not only don't wear European dress, but also cover their hair. This is provocative to them. Secularists have influence in educational circles, including schools and universities, and use them to challenge Islam and Muslims.
We also face the challenge of Arab governments which are complicit with some in Europe and the West in defaming us. The head of the French Central Intelligence Agency told me that if they were to believe the reports against us, they should throw us in the sea. But he insisted that he and his colleagues are reasonable people and what they heard about us was inaccurate and "fake news". This suggests strongly that there is a fierce war waged by Arab intelligence agencies against Muslims, and they incite people and governments against the Muslims in Europe.
Another aspect of this is the ignorance of many Muslims, their lack of civility and knowledge of their religion; their lack of etiquette; and even their reckless behaviour.
This sums up why the West is cautious when dealing with Muslims. We are looked at from such angles and viewpoints despite our integration and our citizenship.
We have two red lines that we cannot cross: the law of the land, and the Sharia. We can act within both, but some people tell us that the West will not be pleased with us, regardless of what we do.
I cannot be judged according to their attitude towards me; I will be judged on what I do and say. If their behaviour is uncivilised, this does not stop me from sticking to my civilised behaviour, which is authentic Islamic behaviour.
AAH: Who represents Muslims in the West?
ABM: We in the CEM feel that we carry the concerns of all Muslims, and try to represent all Muslims, in the sense that what we seek to achieve should benefit all Muslims, whether they support us or not. To do this we prefer to establish officially-recognised and registered organisations that work to help Muslims perform their religious duties, preserve their identity and integrate into their societies. These organisations generally represent all Muslims; their members choose their own leaders and may opt to form umbrella organisations, as we did at the CEM. Competition over leadership roles may sometimes spill over into unacceptable behaviour, but that's not the norm.
With regard to political representation, it is our position that Muslims should not have a political entity of their own. We have seen Muslims engage in public life and the political parties that already exist and serve the interests of Muslim communities across Europe. In Europe I find that I can have common interests with both a communist and a member of the right wing, and that we can work together for the common good. If we all gather together in an Islamic party it would isolate us from society and make it easier for us to be targeted.
AAH: Is this a tactical distinction between Islam and politics?
ABM: We believe that state-run and funded social and economic facilities provide citizens' needs in Europe, whether they are Muslims or not. The only thing missing is the religious aspect of our lives. We can arrange for this to be covered so there is no need for us to be separated politically.
We do not concede Islam, neither tactically nor in terms of our convictions. We believe that Islam is a comprehensive religion covering all aspects of life, including politics, but we do not have political demands specific to us. Politics in Islam are values, Shura (consultation), justice and service. It doesn't matter who comes to power, as long as it is through Shura and voting, including my vote, and they govern me fairly and provide me with the facilities and services necessary for my life. It doesn't matter if their name is Robert or Mohammad. If there is injustice or prejudice in public life or the legal system, then we have a right to stand up and challenge it. Ultimately, Muslims in Europe are citizens who are protected by the law, so why do we need our own political party?