"Islam is taking root in Europe"
Ms. Gole, you surveyed people in Germany, France, England and other countries over the course of four years, asking those you refer to as "ordinary Muslims" what distinguishes Islam as practised in Europe. What do you mean by "ordinary Muslims"?
Gole: These are Muslims who are integrated into society, members of the middle class. They feel like completely ordinary citizens and yet they are not ordinary. Those who are really ordinary disappear into the majority society. But these Muslims stand out, because they want to live out their faith in their daily lives. As a result, Europe needs to come to terms with the symbols of this Islamic faith – such as mosques or headscarves – appearing in public life. Muslims share the public space with long-established citizens, many of whom are almost anti-religious as a consequence of secularisation. This leads to a certain proximity, but not really to any close links, let alone mutual appreciation.
The visibility of Islam seems to be a big problem for many. Conflicts are often sparked by mosque-building projects or the headscarf.
Gole: Not only the religious aspect is viewed with apprehension, but also the fact that with the migrants a whole new world has arrived in the middle of European society. A large section of the European public expects nothing less of the Muslims than complete cultural assimilation.
So the conflict is about culture?
Gole: There is widespread rejection of strangers and Islam is right at the top of the list. Islam is criticised not only by right-wing populists but also by leftist intellectuals, feminists and some sections of the homosexual movement. Having fought long and hard against the power of the Church in order to attain sexual freedom and gender equality, many people now feel threatened by the return of religion to the public sphere. They are less than willing to develop new standards together with Muslims.
Is there a lack of openness? Islam is after all debated frequently enough.
Gole: Yes, but the debate is not evolving in a way that brings us closer together. When it comes to questions of halal food, for example, the discussion quickly turns to animal rights. Religion is then side-lined.
So the majority society is still constrained too much by its age-old cultural boundaries?
Gole: Yes – and the debate then misses the point – which is the reality faced by Muslims today. Yet even they no longer practise their religion in their everyday lives like their parents and grandparents once did. And nor do they want to, because they see themselves as part of the European cultural landscape.
For most of them, there is no question that they therefore have to act in accordance with secular laws, while also trying to abide by Islamic codes of behaviour. As Muslims are in the minority, it is not a given that they can practise their religion here to the fullest. For example, anyone wishing to pray five times during the typical European workday needs a strategy. That′s why young Muslims are very considered when it comes to practising their faith.
By bringing their religion out into the public space, they are casting Europe in a completely new light. The same can be said of the European converts. Islam is taking root here.
So we are witnessing the birth of a specifically European Islam?
Gole: We are witnessing a new iteration of Islam. Not dictated by politics, but taking shape at the everyday level, at the grass roots.