Perspectives on Islam in Europe

221In 2016, the Pew Research Centre estimated that one in every twenty Europeans self identifies as ‘Muslim’, making a total Muslim population in Europe of just under 26 million. This is a significant increase over the 2010 population that Pew reported at 19.5 million. With the dramatic rise in the number of migrants arriving in Europe between 2014 and mid-2016, Pew refocused its interest on the EU countries and attempted to project future shifts in the religious population as a result of immigration. Their research shows that 53% of migrants entering Europe between 2010-2016 were Muslim.

In addition to the increase in the Muslim population in the EU through immigration between 2010 and 2016 (3.5 million), there was an increase through 2.9 million children born to Muslim parents. Importantly, the Pew research also estimated that over the same period 320,000 Muslims switched or abandoned their religion.

Brill’s Yearbook of Muslims in Europe (Volume 5, 2013, p.18) points out that literature about Islam in Europe can be broadly distinguished according to its region of origin. Literature from the West tends to focus on Muslim immigration whereas literature from south and eastern Europe focuses on Muslim ethnicity and history. Of course, since the rapid acceleration of immigration between 2014 and 2016, all regions of Europe have been faced in new and challenging ways by the immigration of Muslims Reflecting this trend, the Pew Report provides definitions for key terms such as ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ but worryingly does not define ‘Muslim’. The widely regarded Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, now in its 9th edition admits that ‘attempting to define ‘Muslims’ is not an easy task’ (Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, 2009, pp.9-14). The Pew Report states on page eleven, ‘Europe’s Muslim population is diverse. It encompasses Muslims born in Europe and in a wide variety of non-European countries. It includes Sunnis, Shiites and Sufis. Levels of religious commitment and belief vary among Europe’s Muslim populations. Some of the Muslims enumerated in this report would not describe Muslim identity as salient in their daily lives. For others, Muslim identity profoundly shapes their daily lives. However, quantifying religious devotion and categories of Muslim identity is outside the scope of this report.’

These are important qualifications for a report that some readers of Vista might have consulted and used as they have considered responses to the presence and growth of number of Muslims in Europe. The statement from Pew obscures the fact that self-identifying as ‘Muslim’ does not necessarily signify devout observance of the pillars of Islam. It also overlooks the decision by Pew (in the absence of census or survey data) to assume that Muslim identity can be predicted by ethnic and national origin. Whilst the report’s authors acknowledge that, for example, ‘there is a higher share of Christians among Egyptian migrants to Austria than there is among those living in Egypt.’ It continues, ‘this type of data is used to estimate the religious composition of new migrants, but only when available’ (emphasis mine). The problems of such an approach are underlined by Jørgen Nielson who realises that ‘religion becomes an ambivalent marker for ethnicity and national belonging’ (Yearbook of Muslims in Europe, 2013, p.18).

“Pew’s research obscures the fact that self-identifying as ‘Muslim’
does not necessarily signify devout observance of Islam.”

A further eccentricity of the Pew report (seen on p.46) is that their estimate of religious switching across Europe is based on a figure of 10% reported from the French Trajectories and Origins survey of immigrants in France. It found that ‘approximately 10% of those raised Muslim later switched to no religious affiliation or to some other religion’. I am aware that there is little hard data available on conversions by Muslims to another or no religion, but this edition of Vista features important stories of Muslims who have become followers of Christ and descriptions of many thousands of Iranians who are now also following Jesus. This frequently comes about through the active witness of evangelical protestants and it is not as common to evangelical Christians in France as it is elsewhere. The likelihood is that the witness of evangelicals in historically protestant countries (rather than the traditionally Catholic and officially secular nation of France) is likely to contribute to conversation rates of higher than 10%. However, until we have access to hard data, we can only rely on the estimates of organisations like Pew.

More important, perhaps, are the many stories that point to significant movements of migrants towards faith in Christ and who have migrated from countries that are historically Muslim. Reza Gholami is not a Christian but has investigated the question of why so many migrant Iranian Shi’a Muslims seem determined to distance themselves from Islam (Gholami, Secularism and Identity, 2015). He worked with Iranian communities in Aarhus, Paris, and London and discovered something the he calls ‘non-Islamiosity’ to be widespread among Iranians. He saw that they seemed determined to find a secular explanatory framework for expressing freedom-related concepts, such as ‘identity’ and ‘community’, both personal and social. Doing this meant that they had to jettison the explanatory framework of Islamiosity held previously.
He rejects an either-or approach to ‘secularity’ and ‘religiosity’. He argues instead that secularity allows an individual to negotiate new ideas of self and community which are not necessarily non-religious; rather, they are non-Islamic. This finding is of significance for Christians with experience of Iranian (or Persian) background believers. The offer of faith in Christ must be offered as a journey into new forms of religious-framed freedom for them. Those of us with personal experience of talking with new Iranian believers will probably be able to testify that this is a central part of their stories of coming to faith (alongside their frequent reporting of a vision or dream in which they encountered the risen and exalted Christ).

In the face of the politics of fear, Christians in Europe have new opportunities to present Christ to new Muslim friends, for the Muslims of Europe are here to stay. Robert Pauly (Islam in Europe, 2004, p.174) makes this point in arguing that European governments should develop domestic policies of social integration as these are more appropriate and more effective than Governments directing their immigration policies towards excluding Muslims. Intentional and committed Christian witness to Muslims, even in the face of the revivalist Islamic movements such as Tablighi Jamaat (see Jenny Taylor’s article in this edition of Vista), is a particularly evangelistic way of working towards greater social stability in the countries of Europe. It is costly and long-term, but the Iranians who are now faithfully and joyfully following Christ are a shocking reminder of the power of God to change lives and hearts at a time of unprecedented Muslim migration into the nations of Europe.

Darrell Jackson
Rev Dr Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College, Sydney, and continues to research and lecture in the area of Islam and Muslims in the contemporary world.

Read the rest of Vista 29 here

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