Why you should care
Because the rise of the far right is only one part of Europe’s story.
Burqa bans. Sharia courts. Hate crimes. Migrant crisis. The rise of far-right politics and, in some cases, white nationalist violence, including attacks on mosques and refugee centers. More than two-thirds of Europeans in some central and southern European countries say they have an unfavorable view of Muslims, and just under a third of residents of France, the U.K. and Germany say the same thing. Islamophobia is on the rise across Europe, as concerns over immigration, integration and economic malaise boil over into social tension and acts of prejudice.
But it’s not that simple.
Across the continent, Muslims are breaking into politics, becoming parliamentarians, assembly members, senators and mayors to represent their increasingly diverse electorates. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan made headlines around the world when he was elected in 2016, and, according to a recent poll, he is the most popular Labour Party politician in the U.K. But he’s not alone: Ahmed Aboutaleb has been the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam since 2009 and is considered one of the Netherlands’ most popular politicians. In Romania, the appointment of Sevil Shhaideh in late 2016 would have made her the EU’s first Muslim prime minister (though the country’s president rejected her nomination).
The diversity of voices from these Muslim representatives, their widespread popularity and the variety of ways in which they confront (or steer clear of) issues related to Islam, integration and immigration show there’s more to the story than a rising tide of Islamophobia. A succession of hot-button issues from burqas to cartoons of Muhammed each “left behind an ever more deeply rooted misapprehension of Islam” often “expressed in explicitly Islamophobic terms,” says Jorgen Nielsen, a leading expert on contemporary European Islam, but “to accuse Europe of being Islamophobic is far too simplistic.”
There are currently more Muslims in Parliament than members of populist parties …
European Muslims may be gaining prominence in sports and entertainment — soccer players Paul Pogba of Manchester United and France, and Mesut Özil of Arsenal and Germany; One Direction’s Zayn Malik — but those most apt to engage with the controversial issues surrounding the role of Islam in European society are elected politicians. There remains an underrepresentation of Muslims in European legislatures — of the roughly 8,500 representatives in Western European countries and the EU Parliament, only 120 or so have Muslim backgrounds, according to Abdulkader Sinno, a professor at Indiana University. That 1.5 percent rate of representation compares to around 5 percent of the population who identify as Muslim in many Western European nations. In the U.S., by comparison, Sinno estimates there are only “a couple dozen” Muslims among the 9,000 or so state and federal legislatures — in a country where around one in 100 people is Muslim.
The majority of Europe’s Muslim politicians represent left-wing parties and serve diverse, urban constituencies. Of the U.K.’s 13 Muslim members of Parliament, nine are Labour Party representatives from one of the country’s four largest metropolitan areas, and a 10th, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, represents the left-wing Scottish Nationalist Party. That said, Sajid Javid, a Conservative MP of Pakistani descent, was elected by an English constituency that is 94 percent white and 70 percent Christian, proving “it’s not just about representing one particular ethnic community anymore,” says Tim Peace, a researcher who studies the political participation of ethnic minorities in Europe at the University of Stirling.
Indeed, across the continent, a number of conservatives confront issues of Islam and integration in surprising ways. Take Naser Khader, Denmark’s most outspoken Muslim, whose switch to the Conservative Party after a long career attached to a left-of-center party was accompanied by a policy to ban the burqa and controversial calls to reform the interpretation of Islam to be more compatible with Western liberal democracy.
Each of these individuals reflects the particular character of each country in Europe’s patchwork political community, says Nielsen. “The problem in Denmark is it’s only people like Naser Khader [who can speak openly about Islam as a Muslim politician]. It’s not people like Sadiq Khan,” he says, praising the fact that, in the U.K., a popular politician can have a Muslim background and publicly assert their faith in a positive way. “There are not many other places in Europe that have got to that point,” he adds.
“The majority” of Europe’s elected Muslim representatives are forced to downplay their faith so as not to alienate the voting public, says Sinno. France’s secular culture runs so strongly through the veins of its political system that politicians don’t dare discuss their personal faith, Muslim or otherwise, in public. “Ça ne vous regarde pas,” former French presidential candidate Rama Yade, of Senegalese descent, has told reporters in the past — “It’s none of your business.” London’s election of Sadiq Khan caused quite a stir in France, says Peace, where “the idea of a mayor of Paris from a similar background [to Khan] would be quite difficult to imagine.” That said, perhaps “the most interesting” of Europe’s Muslim politicians, says Peace, is Khalid Chaouki, an Italian MP who conforms to the British mold of having an “open” relationship to his faith in public while acting as “a spokesperson for young Muslims in Italy.”
Some are more cynical: “Many parties like to recruit young Muslim women” to satisfy diversity quotas, says Sinno. At a certain point in both Belgium and the Netherlands, he says, there was actually an overrepresentation of Muslims in Parliament, but he credits that to each country’s many parties each needing “a token Muslim.” Nevertheless, as the continent grapples with the thorny issues attached to Islam, immigration and integration, boosting Muslim representation can only be a good thing — far better that these issues be aired and resolved in a “forum for political deliberation” than “on the streets,” says Sinno.
With two of Europe’s largest cities led by hugely popular Muslims, there is cause for optimism that this particular minority will become an increasingly familiar sight in parliamentary chambers. And as TV talking heads warn of the rise of the far right, it is worth remembering that in the U.K., France and Germany, there are currently more Muslims in Parliament than members of the populist U.K. Independence Party, National Front or Alternative for Germany parties.