Muslims Seek a Delicate Balance in a Secular Europe

muslim women

Malikka Bouaissa, left, is the founder of the online magazine and Assia Missaoui is a contributor to the publication. Image by Nick Shindo Street.

Source: Pulitzer Center


A light rain was falling as young men and women — some in hip European street clothes, others in hijabs or ankle-length robes — made their way under the high, saw-toothed roof of a former train depot for the annual Muslim Fair of Brussels. This year’s theme was “Islam and Reforms.”

“Where are the women?” asked Julie Pascoet as she took stock of the crowd in the fair’s VIP area. Pascoet, 32, her face and shining brown eyes framed in a light-colored hijab, is a policy analyst with a progressive anti-discrimination group that includes several prominent Muslim activists.

“I’m trying to promote the inclusion of Muslims in the majority society, but I have also been saying that it’s not acceptable, for example, to have so few Muslim women speaking in front of mixed Muslim crowds — both men and women,” Pascoet said.

Finding that delicate balance of interests — between a majority culture that has become increasingly secular and liberal, and members of a religious minority who fear being forced to abandon their beliefs — is the primary mission of a rising generation of Muslim activists in Europe.

Young and progressive-minded, they envision a future Europe in which they can feel fully at home. But as they seek the peaceful integration of Islam into European life, they face an array of forces aligned against them.

Pascoet encountered one of those forces when she looked at the clique of men in the VIP area at the Muslim fair. But the true depth of the problem became apparent a week later when Molenbeek, the heavily Muslim neighborhood that hosted the fair, became the scene of an international manhunt.

Police had quickly zeroed in on the district in their hunt for suspects in the attacks on Paris, in which extremists apparently guided by Islamic State had killed 130 people. It was another bitter setback for those who would champion tolerance and diversity.

Pascoet’s work with the European Network Against Racism, or ENAR, involves negotiating alliances with partners — gay and lesbian, feminist and Jewish activists, for example —who are sometimes suspicious of her motives. She must also convince conservative members of her own community that it’s in their interests to form alliances with progressive groups to oppose discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example, as well as religious identity.

“The dilemma is there’s no neat equation between any Islamic movement and secular, left-wing politics,” said Arun Kundnani, a scholar at New York University who writes on race, Islamophobia, political violence and surveillance.

In Europe, he said, some of the leading Muslim organizations trace their ideological origins to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt, and Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia. Kundnani said that in their countries of origin, these are conservative organizations with repressive approaches to gender roles, gay rights and the accommodation of religious minorities. But in Europe, where Muslims are in the minority and young people are looking for advocates who speak out against the racism and poverty that many of them experience, there are signs of change.

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