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Europe's big challenge

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If you think Britain has lots of Muslims, just think about France. Britain has 1.6 million Muslims, whilst France has 5 million, and both countries both have the same population of about 61 million.

Europe's big challenge

July 21, 2005

WILL Europe have a Muslim majority by the end of this century? But first a story. Last year I interviewed a senior Singaporean Muslim. He was surprised on a recent visit to Australia to hear a sermon at a mosque entirely about the Middle East. The imam, he said, should have been talking about local unemployment and educational opportunities.

The lesson from his reaction is not just that preaching in some Australian mosques concentrates on the politics of the Middle East but that even the Singaporean believed that the preacher should not focus on spiritual issues but moderate, local politics. While Islam is diverse, what this story illustrates is the lack of a distinction between church and state in much of Islam.

It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, in this country and others, are law abiding and peaceful citizens who do not bear any responsibility for the actions of fanatics. Nonetheless, the whole Islamic community needs to address the dangers of extremism growing out of ideologies promoted in some Islamic circles. Successfully integrating Muslim minorities is going to be a top priority for all Western societies.

And now to Europe, which will face this task more pressingly than anywhere else. The most fascinating analysis of European Islam I have seen appeared last year in the Washington Quarterly. (I am indebted to Malcolm Turnbull for directing me to it.)

Entitled "Europe and Islam, Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing", it was written by Timothy Savage, a serving US diplomat writing in his private capacity. It synthesises a great deal of existing research and comes to the conclusion that the position of Europe's Muslims is worsening and the European political order cannot deal with it. Crisis looms.

For a start, the demographic statistics are much more startling than anything we've realised. Savage writes: "Some even predict that one-fourth of France's population could be Muslim by 2025 and that, if trends continue, Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in France and perhaps all western Europe by mid-century."

That's at the high end of possible outcomes and may not come about for many reasons, but whatever happens Muslims will be a dramatically larger share of Europe than they are now. According to Savage there are 23million Muslims in Europe, about 5 per cent of the total population. This figure has more than doubled in three decades and the growth rate is accelerating. Non-Muslim Europeans, on the other hand, are declining absolutely in numbers.

Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa have the second highest fertility rate in the world and Europe the lowest. Notwithstanding tougher rules on immigration, something like one million to 1.5 million new immigrants come to Europe legally and illegally each year. Probably most are from the Middle East and North Africa, mostly Muslim.

Similarly, within Europe the Muslim populations are young and just about to enter their child-bearing years. One-third of France's five million Muslims are under 20, one-third of Germany's four million Muslims are under 18 and one-third of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims are under 15. So while France's Muslims, for example, are only 8 per cent of the population, they are a much higher percentage of the cohort about to enter child-bearing years. Most importantly, the Muslim birthrate in Europe is more than three times the non-Muslim birthrate. By 2015, Europe's Muslim population will at least double while its non-Muslim population will decline by at least 3.5per cent. If Turkey joins the EU, these trends get another big kick along.

None of this is meant to be alarmist. It doesn't matter how many Muslims live in Europe if there is general peace and reasonable civic harmony. And nobody should ever be judged negatively because of their membership of a social group, race or religion. But this demographic change does pose policy challenges. Savage reports that European authorities believe 1per cent to 2 per cent of Muslims are involved in extremist activities; that is, 230,000 to 480,000. That's an awful lot of people.

For a diplomat, Savage doesn't mince his words. He comments: "In the estimates of some, Europe is entering a period of demographic, economic, psychological and political decline, which will make it all the more difficult to address the additional challenges of integration, tolerance and identity posed by Europe's Muslim population."

Savage reports much fascinating survey material, the most concerning of which is that second and third-generation European Muslims feel less integrated into European societies than did their parents and grandparents.

"If anything," he writes, "the trend towards Muslim differentiation and alienation appears to be growing stronger, with the younger generation in the vanguard." He quotes extensive survey data on this.

Much of this is a specifically European problem, Savage argues. He doesn't use these words but it's fair to infer that Europe has crummy settlement policies and lacks the tradition of seeing outsiders as full citizens. In this, Europe has been much less successful than traditional immigrant nations such as the US and Australia, which have been far better at integrating vastly diverse waves of newcomers into their societies. The US and Australia have the benefit of never having citizenship and nationality associated with ethnicity, so a newcomer can more easily buy into the national identity.

But part of the problem is also Islamist ideology. Savage comments that several of the 9/11 hijackers were radicalised in Europe. There seems to be, according to research Savage quotes, something about the specifically European experience of Islam that predisposes a certain minority to extremism.

No doubt Savage's interpretation can be challenged on many grounds. But making Muslim communities feel and be successful is a big policy task for Western societies and one that needs the kind of honest and detailed consideration the Washington Quarterly has provided.

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