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Today, Muslims are the second largest religious group in much of Europe and North America. For many Muslims it is a soul-searching journey when adapting to life in the West and having to face the prospect of where their identities truly lie. This question of identity affects converts and second generation immigrant Muslims alike who have questions to ask themselves and the culture surrounding them.
A younger generation of Muslim immigrants has come of age in the West; about half are now born in the West as distinct from their parents, who migrated here in the 1950s and 1960s. The young people rejected the integration and assimilation that their parents often desired. They were no longer the meek, invisible immigrants grateful to be allowed in at all; they wished to assert themselves. In this situation issues of race and religion often fused, as growing racism forced them into a greater sense of religious identity.
There is also an economic factor. The younger generation are better educated than their parents, who in the UK, for example, had arrived largely to take up menial jobs as bus conductors or factory workers. Young Muslims now compete for places at university with ambitions of becoming doctors and engineers. They wish to share the good life of the West, to own smart homes and cars.
Not all analysts are convinced that the signs of Muslim activity are evidence
of Islamic health. Some of the trends among the younger generation of Muslims
cause pessimism in certain Muslim quarters. Older Muslims living in the West
are worried that their culture will be weakened over time. For example, Dr Muzammil
H. Siddiqi refers to a recent study of immigrant Muslim communities in the West
which showed that with each succeeding generation there was a decline in strict
adherence to specific Islamic values. Thus it is observed that few Muslims care
for five daily prayers. Some do not feel bad about drinking, dating and dancing.
Some Muslim girls feel there is nothing wrong in marrying non-Muslims as long
as they love and care for each other. Seventy to eighty percent of all Muslims
do not belong to any Islamic centre or mosque, and do not care about them. Many
think that Muslim countries (especially the oil-rich countries) should build
mosques for them, and they do not even contribute one percent of their income
to the Islamic centres and organisations.
It is undeniable that a statistically significant segment of Muslim Youth is becoming assimilated into Western or American society to an extent that seriously impacts their practice of Islam and their identity as Muslims
On the one hand, the fact that the rate of religious observance is relatively low among young Muslims, means that for many of them integration into their host countries has actually meant assimilation. This fall-off in observance has forced first-generation mosque leaders and leaders of Islamic associations to rethink their ways of working. Religious leaders, who have tended to be either appointees of governments or Islamic militants in exile, have found themselves obliged to adapt to the situation of their young people, speak their language, reshape the format of religious education and redefine their structures of social and cultural activity.
On the other hand, the renewed fashion for religious observance among a minority of young people has led to the creation of a large number of Islamic associations. In the space of fifteen years, their numbers have doubled, perhaps even trebled. The forces behind this have been Muslim youths, who are becoming increasingly active, and those in their thirties, born in Europe and often students or graduates from European universities. Their commitment has led to major changes in many people's ways of thinking because they see themselves as having a right to be in Europe and they expect recognition of their civil rights.
This has led to a rift between generations, because, unlike the first-generation immigrants, these young people are out to create roles for themselves at the intellectual and social level. Their dynamism and their European culture have pushed their elders (often former members of Islamic movements in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia) to a thoroughgoing reappraisal of their ways of working and their intellectual stance in relation to Europe. At the top, this has led to important debates within Islamic communities, particularly among Islamic elders (the ulema). When consulted on questions of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), the ulema have also been obliged to re-evaluate their positions, pronouncing new judicial opinions (fatwa) more in line with the realities of life in the West.
Finally the last twenty years, have seen a growing awareness of the need for
a renewal of Islamic thinking in Europe and Islamic identity. Young Muslims
are now Europeans and, directly or indirectly, they are asking questions which
demand explicit answers about their identity.
Alongside the development of this theoretical framework, a renewal of Muslim identity has also been much in evidence. Despite the pressures to which they are subject, young people are doing a lot to ensure that national legal systems guarantee respect for their identities. There is a growing energy and commitment among Muslim associations. They are also placing greater value on civic education and citizen participation, which are seen as necessary stages in the acquisition of legitimate rights.
At the local level, sensitivity sessions are being organised, often in partnership with specialist organisations. Another sign of a determination to break out of isolation is that the language of the host country is increasingly being used at conferences and at Friday prayers. In Britain, faced with influential traditionalist movements (e.g. the Barelwi and Deobandi), youth associations such as FOSIS, the ISB and the YM are combating the ghetto tendency. While they recognise that the multicultural Anglo-Saxon system has made it largely possible to protect the cultural identity of Britain's Indo-Pakistani populations, they are intent on fighting against discrimination deriving from the ghetto factor. European Islam also seems to be finding ways of remaining politically and financially independent. Some major mosques and institutions are still tied to governments, but more and more Islamic associations are becoming totally independent, so that many places of worship are now built with funds collected within their communities.
The activities of Muslim youth are either self-financing or enjoy subsidies offered by governments, and this means a degree of independence. In Europe, Islamic communities are moving away from a situation in which leading notables battle it out over who is to have the right to speak as official representatives of the various national communities. This is a positive development, opening the possibility of real representation emerging from the groups' broader membership, chosen by that membership, and politically and financially independent. Particularly since there is now a stronger commitment to pluralism within those communities. While the resistance to this should not be underestimated, there have been important signs of progress in the make-up of the Islamic Council of Spain, the Higher Council in Belgium and the recently formed Council of Muslims of Great Britain, set up in November 1997.
The final indicator of the profound changes under way is the number of artistic and cultural projects involving Muslims in Europe. In Britain, Spain and France, a variety of groups are working at creating a real European Islamic culture. While some of them limit themselves to imitating familiar forms and genres (rap, variety shows, popular theatre and so on), others are creating striking syntheses. These artistic expressions are slowly disengaging from their specifically Arab, Turkish or Indo-Pakistani antecedents, and are attempting to recreate Islamic values within national mores and cultural tastes. We can soon expect to see the emergence of even more original syntheses, the creation of a European Muslim identity capable of becoming accepted at the mass level.
However, the realities of daily discrimination, suspicion and rejection have
not gone away, and many Muslims are having a hard time of it in Europe. The
road to coexistence is something of a minefield, not so much because of discriminatory
legal systems, but because of an increasingly widespread prejudice that Islam
and Muslims are by definition "incapable of integration".
The secularist discourse on Human Rights undermines Muslim identity by negating, in the name of universalism, the right of Muslims to any cultural specificity. To prove their respect for human rights, Muslims are told they must board the boat of modernity. The price they are expected to pay for this ride is to re-think their religious convictions or re-interpret their sacred texts so as to conform to international standards and universal values.What is greatly appreciated, and should in all fairness be recognised, is that the Western human rights tradition, has enhanced both the dignity of the human being and the value of human civilisation. Four major contributions are accredited to this tradition. Firstly, it has endowed the individual with certain basic rights such as the right of free speech, the right of association. Secondly, it has strengthened the position of ordinary citizens against the arbitrariness of power. Thirdly, it has expanded the space and scope of individual participation in public decision-making. And fourthly, it has forced the State and authority in general to be accountable to the public.
However, in spite of the positive contributions, there are serious misgivings. Some of these misgivings relate to the attitude of the West, both past and present, toward the issue of human rights. Historically, the "human" the Europeans referred to when they spoke of human rights was none but their own citizen; the French human, the English human or the Western human in general. While human rights expanded among "whites", European empires inflicted horrendous human wrongs upon the coloured inhabitants of the planet. Native populations in the Americas and Australia were eliminated and Millions of Africans were enslaved. Millions of humans throughout the world were suppressed. Much of this violation involved undermining other people's cultural and religious identities.