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Muslim Political Participation in Europe

0 Comments 🕔16.Oct 2013

The increasing participation of Muslims in the European political arena has challenged some of the established boundaries in the relations between religion, state, and politics. The existing relations are being re-assessed, contested, and negotiated from different angles – state policies to accommodate new arriving faith communities in the contemporary European societies, organized religious groups entering the political arena and making their claims within a democratic order, and individual believers’ diversified preferences for practicing and perceiving their faith. Some of the lines of contestation center around migrant-related issues such as access to citizenship, challenges of integration, and socio-political rights. Yet others raise faith-specific issues ranging from principles of Islamic law and legitimate authority to material necessities of religious practice. How do Muslims mobilize to challenge and re-negotiate the nexus between migrant status, religious concerns, and political responses in current European societies? What determines their success to lobby and pressure for their demands? And finally, what are their priorities, which they pursue once they engage in politics? Muslim Political Participation in Europe sets to explore Muslims’ expanding engagement with politics – channels of political participation, claims, and achievements – vis-à-vis the broader context that influences the community in different European locales. The empirical chapters are structured in four sections: the first focuses on Muslims’ experiences in terms of voting and standing for elections; the second discusses non-electoral channels of social mobilization and activity; the third emphasizes the role of historically rooted institutional channels; and the last analyzes futuristic trends toward participation.

The first set of chapters presents five different cases of Muslims’ electoral participation: active representation in the parliament of the Brussels-capital region, particularly in areas dominated by citizens of Turkish and Moroccan ethnic backgrounds; effective campaigning of the Confederation for Peace and Fairness, a Muslim-based association, in the Municipal Council elections in Bonn; lack of parties representing the views of Young Muslims Association members in Sweden; diverse attitudes of Lithuanian Muslims toward democratic participation, with new converts being more reluctant to engage in the democratic processes; and finally the emergence of a ‘Muslim vote’ among multi-ethnic migrants in the United Kingdom and France. These diverse forms of participation and electoral success are explained first and foremost by the structure of political opportunities, including access to citizenship rights, degrees of socio-political integration, and other arrangements of inclusion and exclusions. The particular ideas and beliefs of Muslims – perceived affinities with party programs, socialization with Islamic literature, and access to various religious sources and interpretations – hold some explanatory power, especially when it comes to analysis of diversified preferences toward participation. Finally, leaders’ and organizational strategies to tap into the power of the Muslim community – especially in terms of the concentration of migrants in certain urban areas, individual sources, and ready-to-use religious and associational networks – proved to be powerful drivers in the electoral success.


The next four chapters discuss different cases related to the civic engagement of Muslims. The first chapter in this section recaps the arguments that Muslims adopt different approaches to their faith, ranging from strict practices to critical attitudes. Therefore, some mobilize to reach religious goals, while others assemble around alternative socio-political targets. The subsequent chapter investigates the socio-political activity of Muslims during the cartoon controversy in Denmark in terms of both trust in democratic institutions, adherence to basic liberal democratic values, and participation as active citizens. The next chapter examines Muslim women’s engagement with and challenge of established models of citizenship in the context of the British and Italian approaches to socio-religious pluralism. The last chapter in this section takes up the socio-economic divisions among the Muslims of Lyon as the main predictor of their political engagement – with middle-class activists preferring to work with the state as a means of integration, and with poor Salafists retreating into parallel communities that develop in opposition to the state. Explanations provided here also vacillate between the role of state policies and socio-economic status and the traits of migrant identities, including their religious beliefs.

The third section deals with individual and collective manifestations of participation and institutional channels – be it formal structures and/or informal collective identities – that shape how Muslims locate themselves collectively vis-à-vis the wider polity. The opening chapter in this section discusses the position of state-created organizations such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research as an impressive official accomplishment of European Islam on the one hand and a contested institution representing few Muslim believers on the other. The next chapter narrates the historical integration of Tartar communities in Polish society during a long course that extends from the state awarding of a privileged social status in return for their military services to their current strong identification with the Polish nation and state. The subsequent chapter brings in the experience of the Alevis, a minority group that has developed a strong religious identity following decades of official marginalization in the Turkish Republic. The political openings for minorities in Turkey and newly acquired migrant rights in Western Europe have provided Alevis with new opportunities to revive their identity claims. The last chapter is an account of the successful assertion of ‘Muslimness’ among migrant communities in Leicester, a struggle evolving at the intersection of citizenship and secular regimes. The chapters in this third section explain the positioning of different groups, negotiations, and the reinterpretations of their identities vis-à-vis existing institutional opportunities and historical conditions.

The final two chapters explore forward-looking developments, change, and transformation in the patterns of participation of Muslims, further drawing attention to the emerging traits of Islamic politics in the European context. Respect Party, the first political organization dominated by Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom, is the focus of an innovative analysis that explores the party’s bottom-up links with mosques, faith-based organizations, community groups, trade unions, and dissatisfied young Muslims as a crucial factor of its electoral success. The last chapter, which analyses the contribution of comedians of Turkish origin to the German entertainment industry, exposes how political satire can help to address problems of injustice, discrimination, and structural exclusion in a political atmosphere marked by social taboos and suspicion. Both chapters emphasize Muslims’ innovative use of available social spaces to assert themselves politically.

The book, in its entirety, recaps the broad array of Muslims’ social and political activity in addition to the dynamic nature of their demands and achievements. The analysis provided refuses convincingly de-contextualized approaches that conflate the diversity of Muslim voices into a single platform and/or a universal banner of Islam. Instead, empirical cases provide ample cross-country evidence that Muslims in Europe have been actively engaging with and responding to the real or perceived structure of political opportunities. Furthermore, their preferences in the political arena reflect multiple linguistic, ethnic, and socio-economic divisions more than a uniform set of beliefs. The book also provides a wide range of explanations as to how, why, and when different groups succeed to promote their concerns within the respective socio-political order.

Both the empirical analysis and the explanations provided, however, follow a case-by-case logic, which brings to the fore the idiosyncrasies of the case under investigation but misses the chance of drawing parallels and exerting generalizations. Given that previous research has documented that European Muslims have long mobilized at the national level and proved a crucial asset at local elections, what is needed are new efforts to systemize evidence and generate comparable findings about their patterns of political behavior. Hence, the examination of the cases could have gone a step further and attempted to sort out and also explain the marked differences in the way Muslims relate to the state and society in different European contexts. The absence of a common theoretical standpoint and a conclusive chapter that sums up the findings do not help to bring together what often seem like separate cases. In this sense, the book leaves the door open for new studies that pursue theoretically driven puzzles on the participation of Muslims in the European public sphere.

Reviewed by Arolda Elbasani
Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, Florence

Muslim Political Participation in Europe
By Jorgen Nielsen
Edinburgh University Press
346 pages / February 2013
ISBN: 9780748646944

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