There's standing room only in a converted warehouse in the decaying industrial hinterland north of central Paris. It's mid-October, just days after the first U.S. bombs fell on Afghanistan, and the French magazine La Médina which serves as an outlet for the country's Muslim population has organized a public meeting on the significance for Islam of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath.
The atmosphere is electric. The men are in jeans and sportswear, while most of the women wear scarves over their heads. With few exceptions, the audience is made up of North Africans in their mid-20s. On the podium, 39-year-old Swiss university professor Tariq Ramadan whose grandfather founded Egypt's Islamic revival movement the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 begins to speak. "Now more than ever we need to criticize some of our brothers," he tells the packed hall. "My dignity depends on saying, 'You're unjustified if you use the Koran to justify murder.'" The French establishment with its traditional mistrust of religion views Ramadan with suspicion, but tonight he sounds like the voice of reason.
Then a young woman steps up to the microphone. With her black hijab she could be from almost anywhere in the Muslim world, but her accent is unmistakable it's pure northern Parisian: "It's urgent for Muslims today to do everything they can to make the truth about their religion understood." The crowd bursts into thunderous applause.
Although most media have focused on a hard-core fringe calling for armed struggle against America, the overwhelming majority of Europe's Muslims see their religion as a moderate one. A survey carried out by the Mori agency for Eastern Eye, Britain's biggest selling Asian newspaper, shows that 87% of the Muslims polled are loyal to Britain, even though 64% oppose the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan.
These people and thousands of others like them are crafting a new strand of Islam, one that aims to reconcile the basic tenets of the faith such as social justice and submission to the will of God with the realities of contemporary European life. Though this process has been under way for some time, the events of Sept. 11 and afterward have lent it new urgency.
For many of Europe's 12.5 million Muslims, now is the time to redefine Islam in the context of their identities as believers who were born and bred in Europe. The result is a kind of Euro-Islam, the traditional Koran-based religion with its prohibitions against alcohol and interest-bearing loans now indelibly marked by the "Western" values of tolerance, democracy and civil liberties. This new vision could well end up influencing the world these young Europeans' grandparents left behind.
For this new generation, Euro-Islam is not a zero sum game: it is possible to be Muslim and European at the same time. In fact, unlike that of their Christian neighbors, the religious faith of Europe's Muslims is getting stronger. A survey published by French newspaper Le Monde in October shows that people from Muslim backgrounds are praying more, attending mosques more often and observing the Ramadan fast more assiduously than they did in 1994, when the survey was last conducted. The increased devotion is particularly marked among those who have been to university. In Britain, more women are wearing the hijab today than 10 years ago.
Euro-Islam is a bridge between two cultures, providing young believers with a way of respecting inherited traditions while living in a different world. It also gives them the confidence to practice their religion more openly, unlike their parents or grandparents who thought their sojourn in Europe was temporary and so were content to express their faith in private. Their children view Europe as their home and see no reason not to worship more publicly.
During Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that ended last week, Ahmid a Moroccan-born imam at an Islamic cultural center in Rome was selling Korans and cassettes of Muslim preachers at his stall outside the central mosque. A practicing Muslim back in Morocco, Ahmid has become more devout since arriving in Italy 13 years ago. "The immigrant turns to religion for support," he says. "Muslims have always gone anywhere in the world and adapted to learn to live as they must and let others live their lives."
As Ahmid suggests, the story of Islam in Europe is a story of immigration. During the Continent's reconstruction after World War II, Britain and France turned to their former colonies in South Asia and North Africa to fill their manpower shortages, while Germany opened its doors to "guest workers" from Turkey. Most of these guests never went home again, and their children were born and grew up as Europeans. Today, the Muslim communities in these three countries are the biggest in Europe: 5 million in France, 3.2 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain. These numbers have been augmented by more recent waves of immigration to countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and the Scandinavian region.
But Islam itself is nothing new in Europe. After advancing as far as Tours in 732, the Arabs remained in Spain until 1492, when they were driven from Granada. Over those centuries they bequeathed the Spanish their distinctive pronunciation of the letter J as well as masterpieces of Moorish architecture. The Islamic scholars Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd reintroduced Greek philosophy to the West during the Middle Ages, while Arab mathematicians revolutionized science with the invention of algebra. And when the Ottoman armies pushed west through the Balkan peninsula in the 14th century, they established Muslim communities in Central Europe that still exist today.
In Sarajevo, the imams' calls to prayer from reconstructed mosques blend with the chimes of bells from Orthodox Christian medieval churches and 19th century cathedrals. "I have more in common with Bosnian Serbs than Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan," says former Bosnian Interior Minister Muhamad Besic. His words offer striking testimony of the strength of Islam's historic roots on the Continent, given that not 10 years ago his city was under siege from those same Bosnian Serbs. But they also speak of an assimilation that even war could not affect.