In recent weeks, violent terrorist attacks have shocked France and Vienna, putting pressure on political leaders to rein in what they have referred to as Islamist terrorism. But Europe’s Muslim communities are also in the spotlight, as nativist right-wing politicians trumpet the need to preserve the continent’s ‘Christian roots’.
The EURACTIV Network looks into how Muslim communities in France, Germany and the Balkans – the most sizeable ones in Europe – are faring in an increasingly tense climate.
Knife attacks in front of the former premises of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty, the recent knife attacks in Nice and the French embassy in Jeddah, as well as the more recent gun rampage in central Vienna have all been labelled “Islamist terror attacks”.
Critics suggest that by putting the entire Muslim communities across Europe in the same box, Europe risks scoring an own-goal in its fight against Islamist terrorism.
For Alexander Ritzmann, terrorism and security researcher at the German Society for Foreign Policy, Europe needs to be smart and avoid being trapped in terrorism’s ultimate goal: forcing Europe to marginalise its Muslim communities.
“We have to empower Muslims who speak up against extremism, who want to work in their communities against those who preach some radical version. And we have to be precise in targeting those who are actually fighting against our societies and our freedoms,” he told EURACTIV.com.
Asked about the thorny issue of the return of EU foreign fighters from abroad, he said it would ultimately be better for them to come back home.
“[In this way], we will have them under control here, put them in jail if European courts find that they have committed crimes and offer reintegration and rehabilitation support on the other hand,” he said.
France: training for imams, fate of its foreign fighters still under debate
Following the attacks in France, President Emmanuel Macron’s calls to uphold secularism and freedom of speech have been met with strong criticism, notably by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose call to boycott French products was echoed in various Muslim countries, including Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and the West Bank.
After Macron was forced to explain himself in an interview with broadcaster Al-Jazeera, the French government sent a letter on 4 November to British daily Financial Times, urging it to not confuse the term Islam with “Islamic separatism”.
“I will not let anyone say that France […] cultivates racism against Muslims,” said the president adding that “Muslim leaders speak in unison […] to fight against radical Islamism.”
Many Muslim organisations in France have shown their support for the republican model. “When you attack one religion, you attack all religions,” the rector of the Paris Mosque, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, told France Info in an interview.
However, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s proposal to dissolve the collective against Islamophobia, CCIF, and the Muslim NGO Barakacity for having troubling links with radical Islamists has been heavily criticised.
Some members of the Muslim community have accused the government of a totalitarian drift that is only likely to reinforce hatred of Islam and play into the hands of the far-right.
To combat terrorism, France wants to focus on the education of imams. “The ambition to train and promote in France a generation of imams but also intellectuals who defend an Islam fully compatible with the values of the Republic is a necessity,” pleaded Macron.
About 300 imams currently in France come from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. Yet, according to the head of state, the system of importing imams from abroad “feeds rivalries, dysfunctions but above all, continues to carry this post-colonial superego (…), with enormous ambiguities.”
The French president has tasked the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman – a national elected body that serves as an official interlocutor with the French state in the regulation of Muslim religious activities – with creating a training programme for imams, but also a “charter whose non-compliance will lead to the dismissal of imams”.
The French government also plans to regulate pilgrimage to the Mecca with discussions between Paris and Riyadh already underway. “This deregulated market [of pilgrimage] exposes our compatriots either to fraudulent practices or to hotbeds of radical Islamists,” said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
France is also facing the problem of its own foreign fighters. Although the government wants French jihadists to be tried abroad, some say trials in France would make monitoring easier.
About 150 to 200 French jihadists and about 200 to 250 children were incarcerated in Syria, according to figures published at the end of October. Another fourteen were detained in Iraq, though previous figures have shown that several hundred more left to fight or disappeared in the region.
Meanwhile, only 13 adults and children were repatriated to France as of October 2019, according to the Egmont Institute.
Germany: worrying trends among students
Though public leaders in Germany also condemned the attacks, there are worrying signs of a rise in the number of radicalised Muslim youths.
While Aiman Mazyek, the president of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany told German public broadcaster NDR Info that “our indignation about these bestial murders must be light years away from the indignation about the cartoons of our Prophet,” some teachers in Germany are worried about the rise of what they see as a form of radicalisation of some of their students.
In Berlin, for instance, some high school students welcomed the death of Samuel Paty and did not respect the minute of silence held for him in Germany, EURACTIV’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.
These students – who have been brought up in extremely conservative circumstances, with their worldviews shaped by strict parents and in the mosque, according to the teachers interviewed by the German daily – are posing an increasing problem for teachers, even though a majority are open to other religions and belief-systems.
The training of imams in Germany and in German is also one of the priorities of the current government, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told a conference devoted to the training of imams.
“It is about creating an Islam for Muslims in Germany” and thus reduce “foreign influence”, he insisted. Berlin’s goal is clear: Germany wants to reduce the number of imams sent from other countries, starting with Turkey.
Between 4.4 and 4.7 million people of the Muslim faith live in Germany, between 5.4-5.7% of the population, according to interior ministry figures.
Muslims of Turkish origin alone make up half of the German Muslim community, although this figure is declining (50.6% in 2015 compared to 67.5% in 2011). There are about 2,180 places of worship in Germany and a large number of the imams who serve there come from Turkey for a fixed period of time, according to the interior ministry.
Next April, the Islamic College (Islamkolleg Deutschland) in Osnabrück will begin training imams, community educators and pastoral workers. The seminar is supported by, among others, the Central Council of Muslims and the Islamic Community of Bosnians.
“Teaching at the Islamic College will be exclusively in German. It aims to provide access to education to all interested people, regardless of their linguistic, ethnic or cultural backgrounds,” Islamic College President Esnaf Begic told German public radio Deutschland Funk.
Balkans: Different approach to foreign fighters
In the Balkans, where ethnic Muslim communities are autochthonous and form the majority population of Albania and Kosovo, as well as sizeable parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, religious and political leaders have condemned the recent terrorist attacks, with little controversy or dissenting voices.
Although the number of returnees who have been formally repatriated back is unknown, Kosovo alone repatriated 110 citizens in April 2019, according to a recent study.
The research found that “the Kosovo example demonstrates that despite the myriad challenges, overcoming the lack of public support for a political decision to bring back citizens is possible”, especially if communication to the public is handled adequately.
“Undoubtedly, the risk posed by repatriation will never be zero.”
However, the analysis concluded that “in the long run, repatriation remains a more suitable approach for addressing the foreign fighter threat, upholding human rights, and preventing the issue from resurging down the line or morphing into a different, but equally menacing, threat.”
Macron caused an uproar in Bosnia and Herzegovina last year when he called the country a “time bomb” due to returning Islamist fighters from Syria, prompting angry reactions from Bosnian Muslims.
Similar to Kosovo, Bosnia’s Muslims were largely secular until the 1990s. Religious radicalism emerged during the 1992-95 war, when groups of jihadists came to fight on the Bosnian Muslim side.
After the war, some of them stayed on and started preaching Wahabi/Salafi Islam in small, tightly-knit communities that, until recently, were outside the control of the country’s Islamic community, but by now have been largely integrated.
Around 180 Bosnian men and 60 women went to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS.
In Bosnia, the Islamic community, ordinary people, as well as Šefik Džaferović, the Bosniak (Muslim) member of the country’s presidency, were united in condemning the latest violence in Europe.
Ordinary Bosnians almost criticised violent Islamism on social media, and the city hall of the capital Sarajevo was lit in the colours of the Austrian flag for days, in a show of solidarity and sympathy.
Bosnia’s police immediately heeded the call from Austria and Interpol and dispatched a dozen police officers to help with the international investigation.
Albania was forced to be secular during the Communist regime, but some Albanians now appear to be searching for their religious roots with the help of radical preachers.
107 people from Albania went to fight in Syria and Iraq, compared to around 300 from Kosovo.
Kujtim Fejzulai, the 20-year-old ethnic Albanian with a dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship, was killed by the police after his terror attack in Vienna.
Fejzulai was born in the Austrian capital but his family hailed from a North Macedonian village of Cellopek before moving to Austria in 2000.
Nuri Ganii, an Islamic cleric from the Cellopek village where Fejzulai’s family hailed from, told Reuters that “everyone here speaks well about his family … only today have we learned that a person (from that family) was involved in terrorism. I want to say that terrorism has no link to Islam.”
In Serbia, Parliament Speaker Ivica Dačić, who was until recently the foreign minister, has said that Serbia warned the Austrian authorities earlier that there was a centre of Wahhabism in the country.
After the attack in Vienna, the head of the Meshihat of the Islamic Community in Serbia, Mufti Mevlud Dudić, strongly condemned the criminal act, which, as he stressed, had nothing in common with Islam and Muslims.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia, a non-parliamentary party, have asked competent institutions to terminate contractual obligations regarding the reception of migrants returned from Austria to Serbia, because they do not want a “Vienna scenario” to happen in Serbia.
[Louise Rozès Moscovenko | EURACTIV.fr, Claire Stam | EURACTIV.de, Julija Simic | EURACTIV.rs, Zeljko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr, Zoran Radosavljevic | EURACTIV.com – Edited by Daniel Eck and Vlagyiszlav Makszimov]