The 15 million Muslims residing in Europe today do not pose a threat to European values or politics given the extent of their myriad divisions and internal fragmentation. This conclusion contradicts analysts and policymakers who after 9/11 fear the impact of Muslims on European politics and policy based on the assumption that a Muslim bloc will soon emerge to dominate the foreign and domestic policies of European states if nothing is done to prevent it.
The findings appear in a study, coauthored by political scientists Carolyn M. Warner and Manfred W. Wenner (both of Arizona State University) and entitled “Religion and the Political Organization of Muslims in Europe,” which appears in the September 2006 issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The article is online at www.apsanet.org/imgtest/POPSep06WarnerWenner.pdf.
The authors explore the diversity that characterizes Muslims in Europe as well as the documented instances of their inability–despite plentiful incentives, opportunities, and pressure to do so–to form coherent political fronts in countries like France and Germany that host large Muslim populations. They state that “Western fears and criticisms are partly based on serious ignorance of the characteristics of Islam and of the people in Europe who adhere to it,” pointing out that “Islam is a highly decentralized religion…structurally biased against facilitating large scale collective action.” In addition, they note Muslims immigrants remain divided by ethnic differences. The upshot is that “religion has failed to be the unifying focal point of Muslims in Western Europe.”
The authors discuss several key divisions among Muslims that are clearly reflected in the politics of European Muslims. First, Islam remains split regarding the division of authority between religion and politics, with some favoring it and others opposing. Second, there exists virtually no organized structure in the majority Sunni religious hierarchy–which is dominant among Muslims in Europe. This makes mobilization a complex issue as there is no established or recognized hierarchy which can encourage unified action. Moreover, there are four different schools of law in Sunni Islam that co-exist and overlap. Third, the different national and ethnic backgrounds of Muslims in Europe also shape their view of Islam and capacity to mobilize politically. “Islam manifests itself differently across and within cultures and societies,” state the authors, underscoring the importance of considering “the inter-relationship of the various ‘brands’ of Islam with the country of origin and ethnicity of its members.” Thus, Kurds in Germany respond differently to calls for mobilization than do Turks or Iranians in the same country. Finally, the unique characteristics of migration patterns by Muslims to particular European countries over time, and the type of political and state structures they encountered, also account for variations in the capacity of Muslims to organize.
Warner and Wenner then assess concentrated efforts by European states such as France and Germany to form a single, broad-based or “peak” Muslim organization “with which to negotiate and plan”–as they have with other major religions. They observe these efforts “have met with little success: Muslims are fragmented into a myriad of organizations.” Roughly 100 Muslim organizations exist in Germany, most of which are not registered as “public law corporations”–the formal status required to allow them to receive tax revenues and a range of other benefits but which also requires a hierarchic organization and an established church. Similarly, repeated attempts by the French government to establish a national umbrella Muslim group have collapsed; most Muslim organizations formally remain “non-declared associations”–a status that also demands less hierarchy. Unlike the Catholic Church and its ancillary organizations, in France “Islamic organizations are decentralized, many lack formal links between each other, and they seldom act in unison.”
“There is no ‘Muslim vote’ in any European state; rather, there is a plethora of Muslim votes,” conclude the authors. “Even as Europe seems to provide some Muslims with the opportunity to create an Islam detached from cultures, ethnicities, and states, that…is confounded by the multiple meanings, practices, and claims to spiritual leadership which the decentralized structure of Islam allows….this means that Muslims as a bloc will not have significant influence over European foreign and domestic policies….”
In an age where understanding the internal dynamics of the Islamic world has risen to the top of the agenda of policymakers and interested observers alike, this research provides great insight into the characteristics of the Islamic communities residing in Europe.