The Rise of Islam in Europe

Much of the contemporary discussions about Islam in Europe, frequently quite heated discussions, tend to lack historical depth. If historical reference is made it is often to an Islamic past ideologised by both Muslims and non-Muslims – each from their own perspective and with contradictory purposes – in ways which have serious historians in frustration. For the story of Islam in Europe there is another history which needs to be remembered, one characterized by its own complexity and by the European environment.

For the purposes of this article, Europe is the north-western part of the Eurasian subcontinent which geographers have traditionally bounded by the Arctic Ocean in the north, the Atlantic in the west, and the Mediterranean and the Black Seas in the south, and in the east by the Urals and the Caucasus. Turkey and Cyprus are not included. The Europe covered is thus larger than the European Union (without Cyprus) while smaller than the membership of the Council of Europe. This geographical and political diversity should of itself be a warning against oversimplification. This article will seek to throw a little light on this diversity to provide some of the often missing historical dimension. The origins of European Islam differ in time and place, sometimes quite significantly. The political, social, economic and cultural developments which contribute to local organizational and religious variety also raise basic questions of definition: who is a Muslim? And the consequent question: how many are there? Variety and difference also have roots in educational and social status, all of which contributes to the continuing development of various religious responses both in organizations and in ideas about traditionally core Islamic themes. The article concludes with a short reflection on current debates.


While there has been a steady interaction between the Muslim world and Europe since the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE, there have been four major phases of Muslim presence, all of which leave their mark in the present:

1. From the early 8th century parts of the Iberian Peninsula were under continuous Muslim rule ending only with the fall of Granada in 1492. For a shorter period in the 9th to 11th centuries, Malta, Sicily and parts of southern Italy also came under Muslim rule. The resulting Muslim populations gradually left or assimilated into the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal with the last vestiges lasting well into the 16th century, leaving behind a rich cultural, institutional and intellectual heritage which continued to mark Europe over the following centuries till the present.

2. A series of Mongol expansions into eastern Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries left behind Mongol realms whose rulers had become Muslims. Their successor states were the Tatar khanates of the Crimea and the Volga river basin, and Muslim Tatar populations and culture survived the Russian conquests which were completed with the capture of the city of Kazan in 1552. Subsequently Tatar populations migrated around the greater Russian empire settling in, for example, today's Finland, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

3. Soon after this, the Ottoman state expanded out of Anatolia into Southeastern Europe, conquering Constantinople in 1453. Muslim communities grew up through migration and conversion across the region over subsequent centuries. While many left as the Ottoman retreated before Habsburg and Russian expansion and, later, the appearance of new nation states in the region, many remained and their descendants are still there today.

4. Since the mid-19th century Muslims from European colonies in Africa and Asia started to move to the imperial metropolises, a movement which grew exponentially after 1945. The large Muslim communities of western Europe have arisen out of the arrival of economic migrants, refugees and family reunion from all parts of the Muslim world of the last fifty years.

This history immediately points to two major and different components of the European Muslim scene. On the one hand are those, particularly in eastern and southeastern Europe, who have been an integral part of their societies for generations and centuries. While they have participated in the economic, social and economic life of their countries, they have also on occasion played collective political roles mostly as ethnic, but occasionally also as religious groups in periods of conflict, most notably in the collapse of the Yugoslav state in the 1990s. On the other hand are those who have arrived more recently, mostly into western parts of Europe, whose story has been one of the struggles of settling and finding a place and a role in established nation states, which have not always found it easy to acknowledge them as fellow citizens. Since the collapse of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War in 1989–1991, Muslim immigrants have also been arriving in increasing numbers in the countries of central and eastern Europe. A combination of these two experiences is those migrants of Muslim cultural background who have been part of the migration into western Europe coming from the old east European Muslims populations, first and foremost Yugoslavia, as it then was.

There is much argument over numbers of Muslims in Europe. Two problems are at the centre of these arguments, namely identifying ‘Muslims' and statistical uncertainties. In some countries there is a census every ten years, and some of them include a question on religion. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the question asked is clearly under the rubric ‘religion'. But in others, especially in eastern Europe, Muslim is either considered an ethnic or even national category. In circumstances where ‘Muslims' are a minority under pressure there is also a probability that the figures are underestimates, because people may be reluctant to report themselves as Muslim, or the authorities seek to keep the figure low for various domestic political reasons. In a few countries, such as Norway and Finland, religious communities which in some way are recognized, such as Muslims, such communities are obliged to keep membership records and report statistics. But these also can often be underreported for a variety of reasons. Where no such direct figures are available, researchers (and media and politicians) attempt to make estimates. In a few cases, they are figures given by a national Muslim religious authority, but they are likely to be exaggerated: we know that where such figures exist in parallel to formal census counts it turns out that they are sometimes substantially larger than the census result. But mostly such estimates are based on extrapolations from what is known about ethnic and national subgroups of the total population. In some countries - Bulgaria is an example - the census provides ethno-national data (in the Bulgarian case principally of Turks and Pomaks) from which assumptions are made about religion. In other countries, including most of the western European ones, even ethno-national figures are estimates, as no official data usually exists covering such groups. The Muslim figure is thus an estimate based on an estimate! With all these provisos an intelligent calculation suggests that the Muslim population of the countries of the European Union plus Norway and Switzerland lies between 14 and 16 million, i.e. 2.5 to 3.5 percent of the total population. In the countries of former Yugoslavia plus Albania (but not Slovenia, which is in the EU) the figure is in the region of 7 million, about 29 percent of the total population.

Another issue relates to the previous one, namely how far one can assume religious belonging from an ethno-national starting point. Research in a variety of countries, mostly in those parts of Europe where Muslim populations have arisen out of 20th century immigration, indicates that the degree of active identification with Islam among people from Muslim cultures is less than half, and sometimes significantly less than half, of the population in question. Recent Danish research shows, for example, that there are about 222,000 ‘Muslims' in the country. This has been calculated on the basis of ethno-national data referring mainly to original citizenship and statistics on acquisition of Danish citizenship, assuming that almost all Turks (which includes Kurds with Turkish nationality) are Muslim. Similar calculations are made for groups originating from other parts of the Muslim world. Simultaneously, other research indicates that substantially less than half of that population engage in any kind of activity normally associated with being Muslim, e.g. performing prayers with any degree of regularity, celebrating the major festivals, fasting during Ramadan, etc. The degree of religious identification also varies enormously in different parts of Europe. It is probably justified to suggest that the Muslim populations originating out of recent immigration, mostly in the west, are relatively more ‘religious' than are the much older and established communities of, for example, south eastern Europe. The Bosniaks of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Albanians of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, not to mention the Turks, Pomaks and Muslim Roma of Bulgaria are generally much more secularized. Just because one's name is Muhammad or Aysha it does not mean that one is Muslim in anything but name.

Ethnic and national variety

The ethno-national character of the European Muslim communities of recent immigrant origin can be broadly classified as South Asian, North African and Turkish. This is connected to the period of European empires overseas. The first small number of immigrants in modern times came to Britain from various parts of the empire in the 19th century (especially Yemen) but the much larger post-1945 immigration came from the colonies in the Caribbean (mostly Christians) and the Indian subcontinent (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims). French Muslim immigration started in the late 19th century from Algeria, a process which took off after 1945 and expanded to include Tunisia and Morocco and later parts of former French sub-Saharan Africa. When Germany began to import labour for its growing post-war industries, Turkey became the largest supplier from outside Europe (arguably there had developed a pseudo-colonial economic relationship between Germany and Turkey at the end of the 19th century). These patterns set the tone also for the smaller European countries as they imported migrant works, with Belgium and the Netherlands as the clearest examples with Muslims originating mainly in Morocco and Turkey. Turks also came to France in substantial numbers. In Scandinavia, the mix was more diverse but in varying patterns also combined South Asians, North Africans and Turks. It should be noted that these very rough regional and national definitions cover a range of ethnic and linguistic groups. North Africans include both Arabs and Berbers, South Asians include Bengalis and Sylhetis, Punjabis, Pashtuns and Sindis, and Gujaratis, not to mention a number of other smaller groups. Turks include Kurds (and in government statistics also Christians, especially Syrian Orthodox). Smaller number of immigrants from Indonesia and Surinam (former Dutch Guyana) also moved to the Netherlands.

This overly coarse perspective needs refinement with closer approaches. Yugoslavia was a significant source of migrant labour in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, Bosniaks have become a notable component of the Muslim communities in Austria and Switzerland, making up the majority in the latter. The opportunities for comparatively open labour immigration were sharply restricted in 1973-74 (in 1962 in the United Kingdom). Subsequently attention has shifted to people coming as refugees, where restrictions were only introduced gradually later. This category of immigration was pushed by a number of conflicts and upheavals. The Lebanese civil war starting in 1975 led to both Lebanese and Palestinians moving. The Iranian revolution in 1979, repression and uprisings in Iraq, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, civil war in Sudan, disintegrating states in Yugoslavia and Somalia, and economic or environmental collapse in places like Albania and parts of sub-Saharan Africa were among the chief drivers of large refugee movements from the 1970s and till the present. Countries like Germany and the Scandinavians started out with comparatively liberal refugee policies which were gradually tightened from the 1980s, most slowly in Sweden. This has since produced growing numbers of illegal immigrants, including growing problems with criminal networks facilitating the movement of people across borders.

The countries of southern Europe had for decades been countries of emigration, both to the Americas and, after 1945, to northern Europe. Only in the 1980s did their economies become attractive enough for them in turn to become countries of immigration, mostly across the Mediterranean. So numbers of people from North Africa, especially Morocco, entered Spain, often with the intention of transiting or temporary stay only, but for many the stay became long-term. Italy became the recipient of a marked mix of groups from North and sub-Saharan Africa as well as eastern Europe, while Greece had started already in the 1980s to attract immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, different parts of Africa Arab and non-Arab, as later from neighbouring Albania and Macedonia. This is quite distinct from the quite special case of the settlement at the end of the first world war in the Treaty of Lausanne 1923 which regulated the reciprocal status and rights of the Greek minority in post-Ottoman Turkey and the Turkish minority in the western Thrace districts of Greece.

Under Communist regimes in eastern Europe before 1990, the most common form of Muslim migrant presence was that of students from favoured countries, which included parts of the Arab world. Small numbers, usually men, stayed and settled, sometimes with difficulty, when they met and married local women. From the early 1990s these regions also began to take part in the broader European immigration process, leading to the growth of especially Arab and Pakistani communities.

Uncertain social status

Across the whole of Europe the general picture is one of communities of Muslim cultural backgrounds who are concentrated towards the bottom of the social range. This is in the eastern regions due to their traditional concentration in small towns and villages either as agriculturalists or as travelling craftsmen. In the western parts it is mainly because the immigration from Muslim parts of the world came from similar backgrounds into unskilled or semi-skilled occupations in those traditional industries which have been under marked downward pressure since the 1980s - textiles, metals and the like. Across the whole European subcontinent there has also been a tendency for Muslim communities, usually constituting some form of ethnic minority within national states, to be politically and culturally marginalized. Access to social and economic advancement has therefore been difficult.

There are, of course, exceptions, to this general pattern. As is the case in the United States, the small number of Muslims of immigrant origin in the republic of Ireland are predominantly middle class professionals. Successful professionals and business people are also significant among the Arabs in London, and professionally trained people, including teachers were not uncommon among the Turkish settlers in Germany, but many of them would also mainly have been Kemalist secularists and therefore not considered themselves Muslim in much more than name. Most of the Iranians who came to Europe after the 1979 revolution, as also the South Asians who expelled from Kenya and Uganda in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were also comparatively comfortably off, although many had had to leave property behind and build up new businesses. Everywhere there have often been sufficient numbers of professionally and socially successful individuals to be available for community leadership and representational functions.

Among the younger generations, in western Europe the children and increasingly the grandchildren of the immigrants, this situation is changing. Growing numbers of young people are going through higher education and finding appropriate employment afterwards. A general pattern seems to be for a small proportion of young people to experience educational and career success, in some countries a larger proportion than in the general population, while the large majority continues to fail at school and live on the margins. They can experience unemployment levels two or three times those of the general population. Such conditions often underlie social disturbances such as those in Britain in 2005 and in France a couple of years later. What in many countries is missing among the ethnic minorities is the large middle range of clerical and skilled workers otherwise characteristic of the majority. It is worth noting that the pattern of growing educational success among young women generally applies if anything even more strongly among ethnic minorities, Muslim or otherwise.

Mosques and organisations

All European countries have experienced an increasingly visible growth in the number of mosques. In the immigration countries, both material and organizational resources have grown parallel with a growth in demand. In principle, the conversion of existing properties to mosque use or the construction of new mosques is subject to the same rules which apply to church, synagogues and other places of worship. At various times and places mosque projects have been the focus of local and sometimes national opposition. In Norway in the late 1970s objections were made that religious freedom should not extend to Muslims - today there are three purpose built mosques in Oslo. Campaigns and demonstrations have accompanied mosque projects at various times in Britain (in the 1970s), in Rome (in the 1980s), in Germany (in Cologne in 2007-9), and in many other places in between. Often after the first experience has passed, subsequent mosque projects proceed without remark. However, the rise of populist nationalist movements since the 1990s has made mosque projects more difficult and has come to the most extreme expression in the Swiss referendum which in late 2009 voted to ban minarets.

Mosques and Islamic organizations have tended to grow out of three different kinds of initiatives, arising out of, respectively, local, national and international initiatives. The earliest and still very common way has been for a local community to get together to find a prayer room and to provide some basic Islamic instruction for their children. However, as soon as resources of time and money have been required a more structured approach has been required. This has meant the mobilization of greater organizational skills and adaptation to the formal requirements of the laws of association in the particular country as well as to the practices of the particular local government. The process of finding resources as well as the processes of local negotiation has been the main entry point for transnational Islamic movements and institutions. In some cases the local initiative has linked into the larger network, in other cases the larger network has sought local partners. Some such networks have been and still are government-sponsored. Usually these networks have been a way for the governments of the countries of origin to retain links - and control - over their émigrés. This has been the case especially with the governments of Morocco and Turkey, in the latter case through the external offices of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (commonly known as the Diyanet) of the Turkish Prime Minister's Office. The Algerian government has similarly sought to preserve such links, especially through the Paris Mosque and Islamic Centre whose director is appointed by Algeria.

A distinct category of such government-sponsored networks are those maintained by Iran, Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Libya and Egypt which are linked less to émigrés from their own countries and more to Muslim communities more generally. The Iranian authorities have sponsored ‘Islamic cultural centres' in various European countries, not always with a similar objective. The oldest initiative is probably the big Persian-style mosque on the Alster lake in Hamburg which has hitherto had a quite ‘ecumenical' practice providing support, education and cooperation with a wide range of other Muslim groupings locally and nationally. The centre established in London in the early 1990s is much more oriented towards supporting Shi'ite communities, Iranian, Indian, Pakistani or others. Saudi Arabia maintains quite active structures in most European countries. Minimally these are offices to administer pilgrims for the annual hajj, but in many countries the activities include financial support for mosques and organizations and the secondment of preachers and imams. Particularly during Ramadan Saudi Arabia also sends delegations of preachers and teachers.

The countries of former eastern Europe have a sometimes very different background. The communist states usually supported some form of officially recognized religious authority, in the case of Islam often called the muftiate with a state-appointed mufti at its head, while at the same time putting in place a wide spread of measures to restrict the activities of religions. Albania was the exception in so far all religion had been prohibited. In some areas Muslim religious activity survived in informal networks, mostly of a Sufi tradition, and by word of mouth. With the collapse of the communist regimes, these networks began to resurface and find ways of expressing themselves publicly, both in practice and in writing. In south-eastern Europe, in the areas formerly under Ottoman rule, it was especially the Bektashi tradition which had managed to survive, although often in a continuity of name and self-identification rather than in firm rituals and continuity of teaching.

Foundations for change

Since the late 1990s, and particularly after 11 September 2001, much public attention has been focused on so-called Salafis. They are usually attributed to initiatives out of Saudi Arabia and often linked with the more hard-line end of the Muslim Brotherhood spectrum. There is little doubt that there have been Salafi advances among Muslims in Europe, especially the young. This is part of a more multi-faceted process of Muslims born and brought up in Europe, either of immigrant parentage or as an aspect of a religious revival in parts of older, more secularized European Muslim communities.

At the core of this process is a search for what it means to be Muslim in a secular and post-Christian European environment. Various methods are mobilized to distinguish between contingent cultural traditions and necessary core Islamic values and practices. Especially in communities of immigrant origin this can often put the young into conflict with their parents, for whom their traditional ways of life remains valuable, and with the older generation of religious leaders who find it difficult to provide an authoritative model in the face of experiences with which they are unfamiliar. The result of such searching is to an extent experimental and leads to a wide range of different solutions, such that it is difficult to conclude that we see the development of a European Islam, unless that is thought of as covering a wide range of phenomena. Among these the range of responses which is subsumed in the label Salafi is particularly attractive to young families who feel threatened by the apparent lack of public standards of behavior, including sexual mores and loose family values.

A central theme of much discussion is the nature and role of the Shari'a, the Islamic ‘law'. While in more traditional circles this is mixed up with inherited local custom or, occasionally, with the personal family law system of the country of origin, in others, ranging from France to Bosnia, it is argued rather that the Shari'ah should be regarded as a set of ethical standards. A particular development since the 1990s has been a discussion around the concept of a ‘law of minority', fiqh al-aqalliyyat. The principle here is that essential Islamic norms should be interpreted with reference to the particular position of European Muslims and thus devise solutions which may be radically different from those of the classical Shari'a tradition while adhering to perceived underlying – and eternal – principles. While this approach produces, in the minds of some of its participants, a European ‘school' (madhhab), it remains fully part of the general rethinking of Shari'a taking place throughout the Muslim world today.

Reflections on current developments

Since the end of the Cold War the European public policy environment has witnessed a growing mistrust of Islam and Muslims, in many instances amounting to a visceral enmity, often called ‘islamophobia', not dissimilar to the anti-Semitism Jews have traditionally had to struggle with. After the collapse of the Soviet system a new discourse on ‘Islam the new enemy' arose, reinforced by the ‘clash of civilizations' made famous by Samuel Huntington. The terror attacks of 11 September 2001 became the iconic focal point for this continuing debate. It legitimized the political appeal of extreme right-wing political parties targeting Islam and Muslims across the European region. Building on several decades of cumulative restrictions on immigrants and then refugees from outside Europe, many European countries saw pressures growing also on the domestic acceptance of ethnic and religious minorities, especially Muslims – or those that people chose to call Muslims – leading in some cases to what can only be termed discriminatory legislation against long-term residents and citizens. This has culminated in the feverish spread over the last couple of years of measures against Muslim women wearing head scarves or face covering, even if often disguised in some form of religion-neutral terminology (the wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols').

My personal view of these processes is that they are an expression of much more complex and profound processes which have more to do with European societies than they do with Muslims or Islam. Centrally, I suggest, the collective identities which developed with the nationalisms of the 19th century across the European subcontinent no longer retain their conviction; they are no longer satisfactory for large portions of society as a satisfactory explanation of the collective commitment. They reached the pinnacle of that function in the decades immediately after 1945, but already within a decade the ground was being laid for contesting narratives to that of the nation-state. The foundations of what is today the European Union proposed a new European supranational entity with its discourse of identity and backed it up with institutions of increasing impact. Europe became for some the first step towards a threatening globalization: the strange and foreign world out there could not be controlled in the way in which the myth of the sovereign nation state had led people to feel in control of their own individual and collective fates. In western Europe immigration and settlement of people from outside Europe similarly challenged traditionally static and increasingly ahistorical senses of the collective self. The withdrawal of the repressive Soviet cover from the countries of eastern Europe two decades ago made space for the resurfacing of struggles over collective identity and belonging there, contributing to the bloodshed in collapsing Yugoslavia and communal tensions elsewhere.

I fear that Muslims have become the scapegoat for these other and deeper fears and uncertainties.


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