Europe in the Arab Media

Differentiated Perception

Whether discussions on controversial prophet caricatures in a Danish newspaper or naturalization tests for Muslims – the theme of European Muslims is not only making headlines in Europe, but in the Islamic world as well. By Götz Nordbruch

Whether discussions on controversial prophet caricatures in a Danish newspaper, naturalization tests for Muslims, or xenophobia in Germany – the theme of Muslims in Europe is not only making headlines in the western Media, but in the Islamic world as well. Götz Nordbruch reports

A Kuwaiti man reads the Arab Times, photo: AP
Warning signs of increasing hostility toward Muslims and Arabs are not limited to the situation in Denmark. They can also be found in other countries of the European Union

​​"Boycott Danish products!" It all started with this demand circulating through Arab Internet forums. In the meantime, the discussions surrounding the Mohammed caricatures published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have grown into a full-blown international crisis.

Warning signs of increasing hostility toward Muslims and Arabs are not limited to the situation in Denmark, however. They can also be found in other countries of the European Union.

TV station Al-Jazeera recently devoted a half-hour report to the problem of Neo-Nazis in Germany. At a soldier's cemetery near Bensheim in Hessen, Al-Jazeera correspondent Husam Shahadat interviewed Matthias Adrian, a former participant in the Neo-Nazi scene about their rituals and political goals.

In view of the successes achieved by right-wing extremist parties and the inspections of Muslim associations and mosques that are being planned in some countries, many feel justified in their fears that the situation will only get worse in the coming years.

Political capital for the Islamists

Especially for Islamists, this presents an occasion to point out the alleged inconsistencies in the European attitude. The website of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ikhwan Online, states:

"The recent news from Europe does not bode well for our western brothers in the faith. This West is no longer – as the people there claim – the land of human rights and democracy. In the aftermath of an unexpected incident such as the explosions in London, the legacy of humanity's decades-long battle for the enforcement of human rights and the stabilization of democracy on the old continent was extinguished in one fell swoop."

Similar reactions were voiced to the introduction of a questionnaire at the beginning of this year for evaluating naturalization applications by Muslims in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Many authors were appalled at this measure.

The "loyalty test is the most recent expression of the humiliation and exclusion that Muslims are subject to in Europe," wrote Fahmi Huwaidi in the daily paper Al-Sharq al-Awsat. "And at the same time, it's a warning signal that the new year will not be a good one for European Muslims."

Self-critical appraisals

Nevertheless, particularly since the calls to boycott Danish products, criticism on the Muslim side has also spread. "The Muslims appear to have forgotten that, just because it is forbidden for them to depict the Prophet in any way, this prohibition by no means applies to all the others," wrote Egyptian commentator Mona El-Tahawy with respect to the controversial caricatures.

"What should have remained a local matter developed into a diplomatic firestorm – the kind that Muslims only rarely precipitate in their fight for their rights. Perhaps the Islamic governments that are spearheading the campaign – with Egypt front and center – thought that this would be an easy way to show how Islamic they are, particularly now that the Islamists have been showing their strength for the past several years."

Like El-Tahawy, many commentators expressed anger at the protests, which would only serve to distract attention from the causes behind such perceptions of Islam. After all, these causes include the behavior of the Muslims themselves.

Conspicuous in this connection are the lively discussions that have developed in past months on Islamic Internet forums. More and more entries can be found here dealing with everyday life issues for Muslims living in non-Muslim societies.

The Internet portal Islam Online, for example, took the opportunity offered by possible conflicts during Ramadan and the Christmas season to launch a discussion of how Muslims should deal with non-Muslims in accordance with the precepts of Islam.

In a live chat on the topic "How should I treat my non-Muslim neighbors?" forum visitors could ask an Islamic scholar for advice on their mundane day-to-day problems. It quickly became evident here that ordinary everyday problems often conceal deeper-lying fundamental issues.

"Is it permitted to wish someone a 'Merry Christmas'?" asked Faisal Hasan from Austria. "Many Salafi brothers claim that this would indicate that the well-wisher believes that Jesus – may peace be with him – is God. Is this wish really so bad? I always thought it was just part of being friendly."

In the past, Islamic scholars in Egypt or Saudi Arabia usually had the final word on correct behavior for Muslims in Europe. Now, however, many on the Islamic side realize that this is an untenable situation.

Overcoming the social divide

After all, to provide Muslims with the information they need in their daily lives, it's not enough to simply translate Islamic writings out of Arabic, according to Islam Online.

"We need to promote programs aimed at improving the skills and knowledge of Muslims born in the West, which speak their language and which can handle their way of thinking. This is necessary in order to overcome the divide that threatens to widen as the next generation of Muslims comes of age."

Despite all criticism of the Mohammad caricatures, they are currently being used on websites like Islam Online to underline the fact that the Muslim side needs to do some rethinking. A recent article about Muslims in Europe remarks emphatically:

"If people don't feel at home in Europe and don't want to do anything to change the situation here, then the case is clear: Go back where you came from, or wherever you feel at home. For those of us who want to remain in Europe, there's only one thing to do: We have to change. We have to integrate and, even more important, to show the Europeans that Islam is every bit as European as Christianity. We have to demonstrate to them that Muslims are just as European as the original Europeans."

The dossier "European Muslims – Routes to Recognition," which contains opinions such as this one, is however only available on the English pages. The Arabic-speaking public is thus deprived of access to such viewpoints.

Götz Nordbruch

© 2006

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