We gratefully acknowledge and thank the author, Akbar S. Ahmed for permission to reproduce these excerpts from his book 'Living Islam.'

(i) The younger generation
(ii) The American versus the European Experience 
(iii) Muslim integration in Western nations

For more articles by this same distinguished author on this web site please see:

Sufism: The Muslim Universal Way
The Problems of Muslim Minorities 
Reflections on Muslim Family Issues
Islam in the Age of the Western Media

For the last thousand years the West treated Islam as the 'other,' as 'over there.' In the main this is still true: the bulk of the Muslim population lives in Africa and Asia. But today this simple world-view has been complicated by the presence in the West of over ten million Muslims. About five or six million Muslims live in Europe and about four or five million in America; the exact numbers tend to be somewhat unreliable, since immigrants and converts sometimes do not wish to declare their identity or register and are therefore difficult to enumerate. Muslims living in the West are theologically in harmony with the Quranic position. Again and again the Qur'an has emphasized that God's domain is not restricted by East or West: it is everywhere. "To Allah belongeth the East and the West. Whithersoever ye turn there is Allah's countenance" (Surah 2: verse 115). So Muslims can practise their religion whether in Cairo or California, in London or Lahore. 

We need therefore a new frame of reference. It can no longer be seen as Islam versus the West; it is Islam and the West or Islam in the West. The growth of this Muslim community has been impressive to judge by the mosques: both Germany and France have about a thousand, Britain about 500 (although many may only be a room or two). The central mosques in London and in Washington symbolize this growth: the mosques are full of worshippers, they are beautifully constructed and are the hub of Muslim social and religious activity. 

But if there are no theological obstacles for Muslims in the West there are certainly sociological and political ones. The Muslim presence in the West has added fuel to anti-Islamic sentiments. Young girls wearing the hijab in France have become the subject of hostile national news; Muslims wanting separate schools in England are at the centre of a heated national debate; the Salman Rushdie controversy continues to involve Muslims and the majority in a virulent confrontation. 

This charged atmosphere encouraged the growth of European racism dramatically in the 1980s. It was symbolized by Le Pen in France. So rapidly did his popularity escalate that few politicians could ignore his message. Soon, even the distinguished offices of the French Prime Minister were talking of 'smelly and dirty immigrants.' It had become fashionable to speak of immigrants with open contempt. Politicians called for rigid immigration controls, even for deportation. This kind of public position was quite unthinkable only a generation ago when the figleaf of European humanism would have covered such racist expressions. 

Apart from an increasingly hostile environment in some Western countries, several other factors have sharpened the Muslim sense of identity. It is for this reason that so much alarm is being caused. It explains the platform for politicians like Le Pen. The international political climate which changed dramatically in the 1970s struck a chord among Muslims in the West. This was the period when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia used oil as an Islamic weapon and Imam Khomeini in Iran and General Zia in Pakistan talked of Islamic revolution and Islamization. This kind of political leadership triggered Islamic revivalism throughout the Muslim community, wherever they lived in the world. 

The younger generation 

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. 

In the mid-1960s, when I was in Cambridge, there was no place for Friday prayers. Now, in the 1990s, there are three and they are invariably overflowing with worshippers on Friday. At various sessions of Seerat-un-Nabi conferences (in honour of the Prophet) organized by the Pakistan Cambridgeshire Association, which I chaired, around 200-250 Muslims, entire families, turned up. This type of phenomenon appeared to be happening all over the world. In 1989 on my way to Hawaii for a conference, I was invited to speak at the recently constructed mosque in Seattle after the evening prayer. There were about 200 Muslims present; many were women - again a sign of our times. The questions were sharply focused on the role of Muslims living as a minority. 

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. (Siddiqi 1991:12-13) 

The American versus the European experience 

There are some interesting differences between the USA and Europe which help us to understand better the phenomenon of Muslims living in the West, and which also highlight the broader historical differences between the USA and Europe. The main difference is the social and economic composition of the Muslim community. In the USA it is largely middle class doctors, engineers, academics. This gives the community a greater social confidence and a positive sense of belonging. In Europe, by and large, the community remains stuck in the working class or even the underclass. Its failure on the political scene is spectacular: although Britain has almost two million Muslims they have not been able to win a single seat in Parliament. Worse, their leaders tend to be divided, particularly over where to draw the line between integration and traditional Muslim identity; they seem more interested in attacking each other than representing the community. Another difference is that in the USA there is a greater geographical spread; Muslims are not concentrated in one state or city. In Europe there is a tendency to concentrate; Bradford in England is an example. The concentration allows the leaders of that particular city to emerge as spokesmen. During the Rushdie crisis the leaders of Bradford were constantly consulted by the media and, it was assumed, spoke for the entire community. It allowed the media to simplify questions of leadership, values, strategy and organization among Muslims. Only subsequently did people realize that although the Bradford spokesmen broadly reflected the general opinion of Muslims they were by no means elected or unanimously accepted leaders of the entire Muslim community of the UK. 

The concentration of Muslims in specific communities has another consequence. The community can import and perpetuate its sectarian and ethnic characteristics from home. The traditional sectarian tensions in Pakistan between the Barelvis and Deobandis were lifted en bloc to the UK. For the outsider the differences between these sects are confusing and difficult to understand. Let me explain by an example. For the Barelvis, (who are mostly from the Pakistan province of Punjab) the holy Prophet is a superhuman figure whose presence is all around us at all times; he is hazir, present; he is not bashar, material or flesh, but nur, light. The Deobandis, who also revere the Prophet, argue he was the insan-i-kamil, the perfect person, but still only a man, a mortal. This explains why Kalim Siddiqui in the UK, demanding the implementation of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet, found his most sympathetic audience among the Barelvis, especially in the network of mosques that they have organized. 

Europe itself has changed dramatically in relation to its immigrants and their culture. For example, from the early 1950s to the early 1990s a number of developments took place in Britain on all levels of society: from seven curry restaurants to seven thousand, from a few mosques to 500, from no African or Asian television presenters and journalists to dozens, from only a few African or Asian authors writing in English to a number of Booker Prize winners. All this was to the good; British culture was that much richer. But it is easy to understand the British fear that perhaps too much may have been happening too fast. After all, Britain is a deeply conservative and insular society, and no such foreign influences - and from such far lands - had made themselves felt before. The fear fed easily into feelings of racial animosity. Muslims in the USA are conscious that they are there by choice. They have opted to be American. America is, after all, the land of the melting pot, where everyone is ideally equal. This contrasts with Muslims in Europe. Many feel that they are in Europe simply because their parents migrated or were forced to migrate for economic reasons. This makes for disenchanted and alienated citizens. 

Muslims in Europe have a direct relationship to the colonial period. The UK ruled South Asia (British India), and therefore most of its Muslim immigrants tend to be from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (of about two million the biggest single national group is Pakistani). Moroccans and Algerians drifted to France (about half a million of the former and one million of the latter of France's three million Muslims). Because Germany and Turkey had a relationship going back to the First World War, Turks went to Germany (most of Germany's one and a half million Muslims are Turks). The Netherlands has about half a million Muslims who are mostly from Surinam. In Portugal most Muslims are from the former colonies in India or southern France; in Spain they are from Morocco or Algeria. In Italy, where there are estimated to be about 200,000 Muslims, they are mostly from Libya. 

In both the USA and Europe, ideas of local ethnicity also affect Muslim self-awareness. The rise of black power in the USA helped to create a mood of assertiveness, of identity, of exaggerated self-importance in the Muslim community. Black Muslims like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali in the 1960s became symbols of Muslim pride. This did not happen in Europe. There were no superstars to rally behind. The vast majority of the Muslims were marginalised in low-paid jobs and there were few intellectual or media figures speaking on their behalf. 

There is also the geo-political factor. The USA is, by and large, neutral in its dealings with Muslims. So, while it is seen as anti-Libya, anti-Iran or, more recently and more famously, anti-Iraq, it is also seen as an ally of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Its relationships, therefore, depend on its geo-political strategy. Racial or imperial prejudices which often colour the view of the European powers are less visible. 

Muslim integration in Western nations

It is a common assumption that the Muslim presence in Europe began after the Second World War; it is fed by media stereotypes and racist polemics of Muslims invading and flooding Europe. But the roots of Muslim immigration go back much further (Nielsen 1992). The origins of the Muslim community in Germany lie in the close relationship between Germany and the Ottoman empire through periods of war and peace. Even earlier, Muslims had settled in the southern German states after the second siege of Vienna in 1683. After that period Prussian kings often employed Muslim soldiers. It is the same link that allowed the Ottoman sultan to patronize the mosque built in a Muslim cemetery in Berlin in 1866. The economic and diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Germany thus has deep roots. The picture is the same for France and Britain, where many immigrants arrived during the last century. Seamen from Africa and Asia settled in London and other ports. We know of the early Yemeni settlements (Halliday 1992). The first mosques were opened for these seamen, and mosques were then opened in Woking in 1889 and Liverpool in 1891. The Liverpool mosque did not survive the outbreak of the First World War. In 1935 the mosque in Woking declared its adherence to SunniJslam (earlier it had been associated with the Ahmedis). Marmaduke Pickthall and Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose translations of the Qur'an into English continue to be read all over the world, were both associated with this mosque. In 1944 King George VI inaugurated the Islamic Cultural Centre on a site near Regent's Park in London, in exchange for a site in Cairo for a new Anglican cathedral. In due course Britain's main mosque would be built there. 

France shows an even more pronounced pattern of immigration than Britain before 1945. Mohammad Ali of Egypt in the last century had encouraged Egyptian students, scholars and business people to go to France. Before the First World War immigrants from Algeria, mostly from the Kabyle tribes, were drifting to the Marseille region for jobs in the olive oil refining and related industries. During the First World War Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians joined the civil and defence industries. It was in recognition of this that the French allowed the opening of a mosque in Paris in 1926. During the Second World War the Vichy government in 1942 imported North African labour to help Germans in their war effort. By the time of the 1954 census there were 200,000 Algerians in France. Immigration was caused largely by the European governments themselves, who actively encouraged people from their former colonies to emigrate to the 'mother country' because of the need for labour in the post-war reconstruction. For example, in Britain, at a time of full employment in the 1950s it was difficult to recruit people to work in the most menial and arduous jobs; the governments therefore sought to attract Asians and West Indians to Britain and offered them the worst jobs, those that they could not fill with native British. This occurred throughout Europe. It is often forgotten by native inhabitants that Muslims were actually invited by the governments. 

Most of these immigrants had no intention of staying permanently in Europe. But most did. At first their problems were not so severe. However, changes were taking place in Europe. The colonies had disappeared. The economy was stagnant and the oil prices began to rise sharply. The question of race was now in the air. European countries reacted by stricter immigration laws, Britain being the first with its Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962. This did not prevent immigration from continuing and indeed increasing. But there was a difference: wives and children were now arriving. 

As the governments had only wanted immigrants for their labour, they tried to restrict immigration when Muslim men started to bring their families over. By this time the governments had achieved their objectives and did not assume responsibility for the break-up of Muslim families as a result of migration. 

When discussing Muslims in the West we often overlook the 'local' convert. Many Europeans and Americans are attracted to Islam, especially its Sufic strand. Small communities, such as that at Norwich in the UK, became famous for attracting British middle-class converts. In the 1970s they drew attention because many of their members were academics and intellectuals and some from influential families. Interestingly, these groups have now been marginalised by the more noisy, aggressive, turbulent and ethnic Muslim politics of the 1980s and 1990s. 

What can Muslims do to improve their chances in the West? Some answers are provided by a sympathetic Christian scholar in the USA (Poston 1991). He believes that five main actions are crucial for the future well-being and expansion of Islam in America: (1) The need to develop an indigenous American leadership: American converts should be trained quickly and thoroughly for positions of leadership in order to avoid the categorization of Islam as a foreign 'cult'. (2) The stereotypical negative image of Islam must be transformed through proper use .of the media. (3) Provocative anti- Christian polemics should be avoided lest they provoke a strong reaction among Christians (whether practising or non-practising). (4) Muslims should attempt to reach more achievable goals by promoting co-operation among themselves instead of focusing their concern on homogenizing diverse Muslim ethnic groups. (5) Muslim individuals should become involved in dawah (social welfare and missionary) activities in order to overcome the powerful assimilative influence of the American mainstream. These are practical and sensible suggestions, and most Muslims will find little to argue in them. Many Muslims may have reached these conclusions themselves but as communities they are still some way from implementing them. Unless they do so, strife will result from their minority position. Muslim leaders and writers need to do more serious thinking. 

In the midst of accounts of prejudice, alienation and anguish there is a success story of integration and harmony. It is located in the unlikely setting of the Outer Hebrides, off the Scottish coast. 

Living Islam, From Samarkand to Stornoway, by Akbar S. Ahmed, Published by BBC Books Limited, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London, U.K. W12 0TT©1993. This book accompanied the BBC television series "Living Islam" which was first broadcast in 1993.