Europe, Islam in

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The main concentrations of Muslim population in Europe today are to be found in Russia (25–30 million), France (4–5 million), Germany (2.5–3 million), Britain (c. 2 million), former Yugoslavia (2–3 million), Albania (3 million), and Bulgaria (c. 1 million). Many of the smaller countries of western Europe are home to several hundred thousand Muslims each.


Almost from the beginning of the history of Islam, there has been a Muslim presence in Europe, first in the form of envoys and traders to the Byzantine empire and soon, as Arab Islam spread across North Africa, into the main trading centers of Mediterranean Europe. The first major arrival of Islam in Europe was a result of the conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which started in 711 c.e. Through settlement and conversion, large Muslim communities became part of the indigenous population of the peninsula. Spanish Muslim intellectuals became significant participants in Arabic and Islamic culture, including most famously Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Khaldun. As the Christian kingdoms, led by Castille and Aragon, gradually pushed the borders of Islam southward, so the Muslim population also was pushed south. When the Muslim kingdom of Granada finally fell in 1492, substantial Muslim populations left for North Africa. But many, under the general term Moriscos, remained throughout the region for several generations. For a shorter period Sicily had also fallen under Muslim rule. The conquest was slow, lasting from 827–878, and Muslim control lasted until the Normans conquered the island later in the eleventh century.

While Muslim populations thus disappeared from the European side of the western Mediterranean, the establishment of a continuous Muslim presence in the east had started. In the early thirteenth century the Mongols had spread their power far into Russia. While Genghis Khan's empire did not last long, it left behind a number of Mongol-Tatar successor states that had adopted Islam. The Tatar state of Kazan survived until the 1550s when it was conquered by Russia, while the Crimean Tatars had fallen under Ottoman rule already in 1475. The Muslim populations of these regions stayed and later spread around the Russian empire as soldiers, craftsmen, and traders settling at various times in regions ranging from the Ukraine and Poland to Finland. Here they remained more or less undisturbed until the great forced migration of the Stalinist period of the 1930s and 1940s, when a large proportion, in particular the Crimean Tatars, were transported to Soviet Central Asia.

Founded at the beginning of the fourteenth century in western Anatolia, the Ottoman empire gained its first foot-hold in the Balkans in 1354 and within ten years had restricted the Byzantine empire to the region around Constantinople (which finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453). The Ottoman armies then proceeded to spread Ottoman rule westward and northward, reaching the gates of Vienna in a failed siege in 1529. Substantial permanent Muslim communities established themselves in the Balkans as a result. In some cases such communities were Turkish immigrants from the east, some arriving voluntarily, others as part of a deliberate Ottoman policy of settlement. Significant numbers of indigenous people of Slavic culture also converted to Islam. The majority of Albanians became Muslim at this time. As the Ottoman empire was gradually pushed out of the Balkans during the nineteenth century, many Muslims also left. The Ottoman defeat in the First World War led to major population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. But the major communities in Bosnia, the Albanians and the Bulgarian Muslims, often called Pomaks, remained as did large numbers of Turks in Bulgaria, smaller numbers in Greek Thrace, and parts of the former Yugoslavia.


On this background the most recent arrival of Muslim communities in Europe is a new departure, since it arises not from Muslim expansion but from European expansion. Today's Muslim communities in western Europe are a consequence primarily of empire. This is most evident in Britain and France. The first major growth came about as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when British shipping from India began taking on Yemeni and Somali labor in Aden. Over the following decades many of these people settled in and around Cardiff, Liverpool, Newcastle, and London. The first mosques in the country were established in Liverpool and the London suburb of Woking already around 1890. Between the two world wars, the London-based elite sought to lay the foundations for a London central mosque. It was only when a plot of land was granted by the king during the Second World War that the project began to move forward, leading to the opening in 1977 of the Islamic mosque and center in Regent's Park.

In France, there was an elite immigration during the nineteenth century, including exiles such as Muhammad ˓Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. But labor migration also started then, recruiting mainly into the olive oil industry of the south and mining and heavy industry in the northeast. During the First World War large numbers of North Africans were requisitioned into industry and infrastructure works. Recognizing their contribution during the First World War the government sponsored the establishment of a mosque in Paris, opened in 1926. Numbers of migrant workers fell during the recession of the 1930s and reached a low at the end of the Second World War. But migration soon rose again and, despite their active involvement in the Algerian war of independence, the number of Algerians working in France continued to rise.

The other main country of Muslim immigration in Europe during the twentieth century was the Federal Republic of Germany. Its historical proximity to the Ottoman empire meant that there had been for a long time a cosmopolitan Muslim population in the main trading cities and, after the rise of Prussian power, in Berlin. The numbers grew especially after the two empires started drawing closer to each other toward the end of the nineteenth century. The economic ties between them were such that by the outbreak of the First World War they might be termed at least pseudo-colonial. The defeat of both empires in 1918 left only a small Muslim community in Berlin but it did manage to establish a mosque. During the Third Reich, the German armed forces established several units of Muslim troops that had defected from the Soviet army. While some were handed back at the end of the war, many remained in Germany permanently. It also must not be forgotten that in German-speaking Europe, Vienna had for long been the capital of an empire that included significant Muslim populations. In 1878 the Austro-Hungarian empire had occupied the Ottoman regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vienna soon had a resident mufti. In 1909 the state extended official recognition to Islam. During much of this period the Austrian courts were administering Islamic family law for those Muslim populations.

These historical precedents have tended to be forgotten under the overwhelming impact of immigration post-1945. Initially, once the reviving West European economies had absorbed their returning armies, the search for additional labor had extended first into the domestic countryside and then into the countries of southern Europe, which resumed their traditional patterns of sending labor abroad. It was Britain and France that first looked outside Europe. In the latter case, the recruitment from Algeria grew and was supplemented from the 1960s by immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco, then from sub-Saharan West Africa, especially Senegal, and finally, from the 1970s, by Turks as a result of a treaty signed between the two countries. Britain first found its additional labor needs satisfied from the Caribbean, with immigration starting already in the late 1940s. During the 1950s, migration from India came on stream, and in the early 1960s immigration from Pakistan (East and West) took off. By this time other industrial countries of northern Europe also began to need additional labor. Having for some time recruited from Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece, the Federal Republic of Germany signed a labor agreement with Turkey in 1962. The smaller countries followed the lead of their larger neighbors. During the 1960s the Netherlands signed agreements with Turkey, then Morocco, Yugoslavia, and Tunisia, while Belgium started finding labor in Turkey and Morocco. Labor immigration into the Scandinavian countries during this period was smaller but was also more varied in its sources, including Turkey, North Africa, and Pakistan.

Just as immigration from Muslim sources into mainland Europe was taking off, so Britain reached a turning point. After almost two years of debate, the doors of labor immigration were closed by the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. However, family reunion remained possible. The length of the debate was a major reason for the sudden influx of men from Pakistan, arriving to beat the expected ban. More significantly in the long run, the establishment of family life brought with it a much greater awareness of Muslim self-identity. The closing of the gates of labor immigration and the consequent immigration of women and children led directly to a marked increase in organized Muslim activity and the establishment of mosques and other places of worship.


A decade after Britain closed its doors, the rest of continental Europe followed in response to the economic downturn sparked by the rise in oil prices during 1972 through 1974. The effects were similar: a marked rise in the opening of Muslim places of worship and in Muslim organizational activity. The process of organization followed a similar pattern across the various countries. Often the initiative came from a small group of local leaders who were concerned simply with finding a place where the required prayers could be conducted, and where children could be taught the rudiments of Islamic knowledge, how to conduct the core rituals and how to recite the Qur˒an. Soon, however, the initiative passed to specific movements. These had usually existed in the country of origin and were now following the émigrés to the country of settlement. They had the resources and the organizational experience to meet community needs and, often, to provide support to local initiatives. In West Germany a leading organization of this kind during the 1970s was the Verband islamischer Kulturzentren acting as the German branch of the Suleimançi movement. Since the 1980s the Milli Gorus, closely associated with the National Salvation Party of Necmeddin Erbakan, has gained prominence. Similar roles have been played in Britain by extensions of the Deobandi and Brelwi networks, and by a network of organizations related to the Jam˓iyat-e Islami, and in France during the 1980s by Foi et pratique, a movement arising out of the Tablighi Jam˓iyat, which subsequently forged links with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. Many of these movements had found themselves at odds with the regimes in the countries of origin; some of them, indeed, had experienced repression. To counter their influence, governments sought to establish their own organizations to meet the needs of their émigrés. The Amicales of Moroccan workers was thus a means for the monarchy to maintain close ties to the émigrés, and after the Turkish coup of September 1980, the new government aggressively promoted the role of the official Diyanet among Turks in Germany.

Legal Status

A complicating element has been the very different legal statuses available to immigrants across the continent. For a long time some of the West German states adopted a policy of rotation, whereby no residence extension was given after a certain period, so "guest workers" were regularly replaced. In other German states, longer-term residence was the norm. Germany generally made it very difficult for foreigners to acquire citizenship, as did several other countries, most notably Switzerland. Both Britain and France had comparatively easy access to permanent residence and citizenship, and children born in those two countries had virtually automatic right to citizenship. The Scandinavian and Benelux countries allowed comparatively easy access to citizenship and soon also gave local voting rights to foreigners. These very different stances were reflected in work permit policies. Since the late 1980s immigration for work has been a minor dimension of Muslim immigration, replaced by a growing number of entrants as refugees and asylum seekers, an issue that came to dominate public debate at the end of the twentieth century.

As a result, the situation in each locality in Europe often differed significantly depending on the various patterns of organized presence. A further dimension of such differences

Muslims in western Europe
CountryNumber of Muslims (x 1,000)Muslim % of total population
Austria 200 2.6
Belgium 370 3.8
Denmark 150 2.8
Finland 20 0.4
France 4,000–4,500 7
Germany 3.040 3
Greece 370 3.7
Ireland 7 0.2
Italy 600 1
Luxembourg 5 0.8
Netherlands 696 4.6
Norway 23 0.5
Portugal 30–38 0.3
Spain 300 0.7
Sweden 300 1.2
United Kingdom 1,400 2.5
SOURCE: Felice, Dassetto; Maréchal, Brigitte; and Nielsen, Jorgen, eds. Convergences musulmanes: Aspects contemporains de l'islam dans l'Europe élargie. Paris: Academia Bruylant, 2001.

was that each European country had its own practices regarding establishment and registration of voluntary organizations, as well as often very different traditions of relations between religion and state. At one extreme, France had inherited an almost complete separation of church and state, which for a long time excluded Muslim groups from any participation in public life. At the same time it was not until a change in the law took place in 1982 that it was possible for foreign citizens to set up their own organizations. At the other extreme were states in which there was a status of officially recognized religions. Under this heading Islam gained official recognition in Belgium in 1974, in Austria in 1979, and in Spain in 1992. One of the main issues of public contention in Germany has been the continued refusal by the state to admit the Muslim community to the recognized status enjoyed by the main churches and the Jewish community.

Public Participation

Over the 1990s Muslim participation in public life has become marked. In many countries Muslim immigrants have become citizens and have started taking part in political life through political parties. In most countries there are now Muslims elected onto local councils, national parliaments, and the elected bodies of European institutions. This is an indication also of the change of generation. The 1989 protests against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in Britain, and against the banning of girls' head scarves in certain French schools served to mobilize a new generation into political life, as their immigrant parents began to retire from organizational leadership. Responses to the events of 11 September 2001 have further highlighted some of the tensions which have been arising since a younger, more active generation of Muslims has reached adulthood. In various European countries, demands for faith-based schools have grown and have met mixed reactions. In Denmark, where there has been a strong tradition of community-led "free schools," the political swing to the right has been accompanied by challenges to Muslim schools, while in Britain the government has been actively encouraging the expansion of this sector. Everywhere, the media have been attacked by Muslims for "Islamophobia," often with a degree of justification. In some countries, such as Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain, both the media and government have sought to balance their reporting and presentation, although it remains difficult to separate domestic and international priorities in news evaluation.

See alsoEuropean Culture and Islam .


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Jorgen S. Nielsen

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