The Multifaceted Journey of Islam in Europe and The Netherlands

Islam is the second largest and fastest-growing world religion today, with majority populations in 56 countries extending from North Africa to Southeast Asia and encompassing significant minorities in Europe and the United States (Lipka & Hackett, 2007). The Netherlands is one of the countries in which Islam is a fast-growing religion (CBS, 2009a). Although this growth is fairly recent, Muslims are no strangers to the Dutch society. The Netherlands became familiar with Muslims centuries ago in its role as a trading nation and colonial power (Rath et al., 1997). Before the Second World War, small numbers of Indonesian students visited the Netherlands, their colonial ‘mother country’, and in the 1950s a few Moluccans (from Indonesia) and Hindustani Surinamese (of Indian descent) decided to settle there. These communities consisted mainly of Christians and Hindus respectively, but they included small numbers of Muslims as well. The number of Muslims increased significantly after 1965 as a result of the arrival of foreign workers and their families from North Africa (Morocco) and Turkey. The estimated number of Muslims in the Netherlands in 1971 was approximately 50,000; in 1975 about 100,000; in 1995 about 626,000 (Rath et al., 1997) and in 2012 about 825,000 or 4.5% of the Dutch population (CBS, 2012). In-depth interviewing in 2015 showed about 5% to be Muslim.[1]

There are many different groups of Muslims in the Netherlands, of different denominations and countries of origin. If we look at the ethnic origin[2], we see that the vast majority (two-thirds) of Muslims are of Turkish or Moroccan descent. According to the latest estimate of CBS, there are 296,000 Muslims of Moroccan descent and 285,000 Muslims of Turkish descent living in the Netherlands (CBS, 2009a), which accounts for 68% of all Muslims in the country (See Figure 5 in the appendix two for Muslims in the Netherlands by ethnic origin).

Debates on ‘European Islam’ figure largely in the discussion of whether Islam has already undergone a process of localization by adapting to the European context, or whether it is and will “remain an alien transplant” (Yükleyen, 2009). Cherribi (2003, p. 196) observes that “over the past three decades Islam has become increasingly visible in the European public space”. The appearance of Islam took the Dutch by surprise. At the height of secularization, the country was surprised to be confronted with communities in which religion is very much alive and flourishing, and is furthermore a noticeable basis for social organization (Maliepaard & Gijsberts, 2012). Muslims currently make up about five percent of the total population and Islam has become a cultural factor in Dutch society.

Despite Islam’s rapid growth in Europe and the Netherlands, many in the West know little about the religion and are only familiar with the actions of a minority of radical extremists. Islam has had a significant impact on world affairs, both historically and in the current era (Cesari, 2015; Ramadan, 2009b; Shadid & Koningsveld, 2002b). Muslims understand Islam as more than a religion: it is a comprehensive way of life that includes spiritual, social, economic and political dimensions (Turner & Nasir, 2013; Turner, 2003a, 2003b). The reality of European Islam is also very diverse (Cesari, 2015). The differences are related to national, cultural, religious and linguistic elements and these elements definitely remain important (Dassetto et al., 2007; Huijnk, 2018; Yükleyen & White, 2007). Anyone working on the sociology and anthropology of Islam will be aware of this extensive diversity in Muslim beliefs and practices. The first problem is therefore one of organizing this diversity in terms of an adequate concept (Asad, 1986). Unfortunately, this challenge has not yet been met successfully with the existing conceptualizations and the use of the twin concepts “Islam/Islamic” does not express a coherent object of meaning (Ahmed, 2016).

The Direction of Islam in Europe

For centuries, Muslim countries and Europe have engaged one another through theological dialogues, trade and diplomatic missions, and power struggles. Over the last thirty years, however, and to a large extent as a result of globalization and migration, the debate has ceased to be a debate of remote and isolated communities and has become a debate of endogenous, face-to-face cultural and religious interaction. The recurrent question nowadays is: are Islamic religious principles compatible with liberal secular European values? (Cesari, 2015). There are several models that try to answer this question and try to explain the direction of Islam in Europe by focusing on a particular aspect of Muslim immigrant life.

On the one hand, there are some studies that suggest that an inner incompatibility between Islam and the West determines the direction of their religious choices. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, the train bombings in Madrid of 11 March 2004, and the London metro bombings of July 2005 have increased the tensions between European society and its Muslim minorities and lent support to the essentialist argument of an inner incompatibility between Islam and Western democratic, liberal, and secular culture. Some scholars suggested that Islam was the new ‘other’ of ‘the West’ incompatible with Western values of freedom, liberty, and democracy. Political scientist Samuel Huntington (Huntington, 1993)  suggested that global politics would be dominated by a “clash of civilizations” in which Islam would replace Communism as the “other” of the Western world. Historian Bernard Lewis supported these predictions with historical arguments about an inner incompatibility between Islam and Western culture. According to his arguments, the textual sources and historical development of Islam are inherently hostile to democracy, freedom, liberalism and even peace. He argued that this inner structure of Islam would not change over time and was not adaptive, either in Europe or in Muslim societies (Lewis, 1990).

Other scholars, on the other hand, with representatives such as Bulliet (2004), Bassam Tibi (2001, 2014), Mohammed Arkoun (Arkoun, 1996, 2003), Nasr Abu Zayd (Zayd, 2006), and Tariq Ramadan (Ramadan, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2012) reinterpret Islam in accordance with democracy, liberty, and secularism in Europe. Bassam Tibi proposes the emergence of Euro-Islam, a form of Islam that is assimilated into the secular European public sphere (Tibi, 2001, 2014). This Euro-Islam would limit itself to the private sphere, be pursued as an individual form of spirituality and would assure peaceful Muslim participation in European cultural pluralism. Tibi speaks out in favour of an enlightened and open-minded Islamic identity that would be compatible with European civic culture. Bulliet argues that Islam and Christianity have the same cradle of a common civilization from which they descended “as siblings” in the sixteenth century. He emphasizes the similarities in the developments and experiences of the two civilizations (Bulliet, 2004).

Indeed, the present discourse aims to delve into the intricate dynamics of Dutch-Turkish religiosity, placing particular focus on its social, economic, and cultural facets. This exploration is deemed critical in our quest to comprehend the potential trajectories Islam is embarking on within the European landscape.

This discourse, however, seeks to tread a nuanced path, straying from the polarized essentialist arguments that either proclaim inherent incompatibility or advocate for unbridled compatibility between Islam and European culture. Scholars studying Muslim societies frequently remind us that the development of Islam, similar to other religions, is far from being a monolithic process. Whether it aligns with or conflicts with European values, or even assimilates as encapsulated by the notion of 'Euro-Islam',  Islam presents itself in an elaborate array of interpretations and practices that mirror the diversity of the communities and cultures in which it is embraced. From the spiritual contemplations of Sufism to the varied traditions within Sunni and Shia Islam, the diversity is notable. There are also progressive movements such as liberal and feminist Islam that push for reinterpretation of religious texts in light of modern societal norms. Moreover, there is a significant political dimension to Islam, represented by movements such as political Islamism that seek to merge religious principles with governance, and the rise of various Islamic political parties across the globe. Furthermore, localized folk traditions and customs seamlessly blend central tenets of the faith with indigenous practices, creating unique manifestations of Islam across African, Asian, and European Muslim communities. This intricate mosaic of Islamic expressions underscores the dialogue between conservative and progressive voices within the Muslim world. Recognizing this breadth of diversity is paramount for understanding how Muslims articulate their faith in Europe, as well as discerning the evolving trajectories of Islam across the continent.

A more nuanced perspective is proposed here, one that takes its cues from Nielsen's argumentation (1999, 2007). Nielsen emphasizes that since there exist numerous ways of embodying 'European-ness'—be it in religious practice, culture, or identity—there also exist multiple pathways for Muslims to shape their European identities. As such, the interplay between Islam and Europe may be viewed as a dynamic spectrum, with the multifaceted identities of European Muslims constantly evolving, integrating, and interacting within this diverse panorama. By acknowledging this complexity and variety, we can hope to enrich our understanding of Islam's place and future within European societies.



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[1] Up to a few years earlier, the number of Muslims was estimated on the basis of the religious makeup of the country of origin of the parents of citizens. Following this method, the number of Muslims was overestimated. For example, in 2004, the CBS estimated the number of Muslims in the Netherlands to be 944,000 (almost 6% of the Dutch population) (CBS, 2006, 2009b). In 2010, Kettani estimated the number to be 966.000, amounting to 5.8% of the Dutch population (Kettani, 2010).

[2] Here, ‘ethnic origin’ means belonging to or deriving from the cultural or religious traditions of a specific country.