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Volume 30, Number 1January/February 1979

In This Issue

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Muslims in Europe

The Workers

"In France foreign workers construct one out of every three miles of highway build two out of every five homes and produce one out of every four automobiles."

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Muslim communities in Europe vary in size, background and character. Although united by the faith of Islam, Muslims in France, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands and other countries differ considerably. Their origins are different. Their histories are different. And so, as a result, are their lives in Europe.

France. Europe's largest Muslim community lives in France. Almost two million strong, it represents about one-sixth of the Common Market's 12 million foreign workers and one-tenth of France's manual work force.

In France, foreign workers construct one out of every three miles of highway, build two out of every five homes, and produce one out of every four automobiles. Like the immigrants who poured into the United States in the 19th century, they have started on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, cheerfully accepting the demanding jobs that Europe's "economic miracle" provided - and needed done.

Because many of the workers came from former French colonies, they arrived with a crucial advantage: they spoke French. Furthermore, they were familiar with French ways and thus adapted easily. As a result many moved swiftly up the economic ladder; in France today numerous Muslim immigrants have moved into the ranks of business, trade, communications and even art. They have, said one observer, left an indelible mark on modern French society.

That mark is almost instantly visible in some areas. The approximately 250,000 Muslims who live in Paris have added color and variety to the costumes and languages of the French capital. The 300,000 Muslims in Lyons have done the same for that region's industrial assembly lines. And the 600,000 Muslims of Marseilles - the largest concentration of Muslims in France - have virtually transformed the great port into an extension of the Maghrib.

The colonial ties of the past, of course, have disadvantages too. Despite the advantages of knowing French and French culture, Muslims from former French colonies - particularly Algeria - have had to face a measure of opposition in France. And when the pace of economic growth faltered, the guest workers - despite their contributions to that growth - were the first to feel the effects of inflation and unemployment.

In the 1960's the foreign workers willingly accepted not only the toughest jobs, but also minimal wages. Because they were accustomed to a less extravagant life-style, thrifty foreign workers were able to both survive and send their savings home. Later, as inflation eroded earnings, many found that they could neither save nor return home themselves. Even worse, they found themselves competing fiercely for jobs that the local work force had once happily turned over to them.

To solve such problems, the French government, four years ago, slammed the door on new immigrants. And although it did adopt a generous admission policy toward the families of workers already in France, the government also began to encourage the departure of such workers. In 1977 France began offering bonuses to each guest worker willing to return to his home in North Africa, Central Africa or the Middle East.

By the end of 1977 an estimated five percent had accepted bonuses and left, but in 1978 many foreign workers were protesting this policy and the Muslim community was in the forefront. As Khurshid Ahmad has quietly pointed out, workers who have contributed immensely to today's prosperity have earned a right to stay in Europe permanently. To try to reverse history, he argues, is counter-productive; future efforts should be directed at developing a new and healthy relationship between the foreign workers and their European hosts.

In pursuit of that goal, the Islamic Foundation is working with national and local Muslim organizations, and with the Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe.

West Germany. As in France, the Muslim guest workers of West Germany - Gastarbeiter - have been adversely affected by the economic slump, yet plan to stay. Also as in France, they have left a colorful imprint on often staid social patterns.

This imprint, however, is more Turkish than North African; although there are some 400,000 North African and Middle Eastern Muslims in Germany, there are well over a million Turks - a reflection of Germany's geographic and historic ties with Turkey. The results, in places like West Berlin and Munich, are streets swarming with women clad in colorful Turkish pantaloons, their heads modestly covered with kerchiefs as they shop for the staples of their special diet: flat pide bread, mutton, and cheese.

There are other signs of the Turkish presence in Germany too. New mosques have been built at Munich, Hamburg and Aachen, and there are cinemas, restaurants and banks catering almost exclusively to the Gastarbeiter. In addition, three of Turkey's major newspapers print daily editions in Frankfurt, and Turkish politicians, mindful of the economic clout of the immigrants back home, even campaign in West Germany.

As in France, unemployment problems persuaded government officials that they had to reduce the numbers of Gastarbeiter. In 1973 they banned new recruitment and imposed certain other restrictions; by 1977 as a result, the number of foreign workers in Germany dropped from its 1973 peak of 2.5 million to about 1.9 million, plus 2 million dependents.

But even this, says a Bonn official, hasn't solved the problem. "We should reduce our foreign work force by a further 400,000 to 500,000 by 1981."

Some steps in this direction have already been taken. A special government commission has been set up to find ways to encourage guest workers to return to their homelands. Furthermore, the government has established a fund to provide low-interest loans to help would-be Turkish entrepreneurs in Germany finance their own businesses back home.

Like their fellow Muslims in France, many workers oppose these moves and argue that the government should pay less attention to sending them home and more to improving the conditions of those already there.

Those conditions, Muslim spokesmen say, do need improvement. Because they are congregated in industrialized areas - more than 80 percent live in regions of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hessen, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria - the result has been crowded housing, exorbitant rents and poor education; according to the reports presented at the Turkish Workers' Congress in 1977 as many as 250,000 Turkish children have not completed their high school studies.

On the other hand, support for the Gastarbeiter is growing. Some German companies - reluctant to lose hardworking help trained at their expense - point out that without the Gastarbeiter many industries would be hurt. This is particularly true of the hotel and catering trade, and the metals industry; according to I.G. Metall, an employees' union, some 600,000 foreigners work in the metal industry alone.

The government, furthermore, is fully aware that they owe a debt to the industry and ability of the guest workers and that Germany, therefore, must act. As Hermann Buschfort at the Bonn Labor Ministry said, "It is important that these children should be given the same educational opportunities as their German counterparts. Otherwise they will be pushed to the edge of society's spectrum..."

Realization of this danger has prompted prompted the Bonn government to provide more special help for migrant children at school and training programs once they have left. Special schools offering remedial courses for unqualified school leavers have been established, along with day nurseries, play centers and youth clubs

Muslim organizations, of course, had noted the problem much earlier and have been organizing German language training programs and cultural activities at Islamic centers. Above all, they are backing parental efforts to provide the religious education that is the backbone of Islamic life from Mecca to Manchester.

The Netherlands. Unlike those of France or Germany, the Muslim community in Holland was not drawn primarily from any one area. Although small, compared to Muslim communities in Britain, West Germany and France, the one in Holland is probably the most cosmopolitan in Europe. Its 200,000 members include Muslims from Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Surinam, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda and Yugoslavia. Their activities, furthermore, demonstrate graphically how Muslims in Europe can transcend national, geographic and linguistic differences in a common cause.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, for example, about a dozen women sat around a table in a converted ground floor storeroom of an Amsterdam high-rise. One wore a colorful red and gold silk Indian sari, another a simple gray cotton North African robe, and a third - a Dutch convert - a chic white toga. They spoke a variety of languages - Dutch, English, Arabic and even Urdu - with bilingual participants explaining to monolingual countrywomen what was going on - but they had a single goal: organization of a Western-style "church" bazaar to raise funds. The funds will be used to purchase a small offset press to print books on Islam - already translated into Dutch - and the earnings from book sales will be added to a building fund for a huge Islamic Center.

The Islamic Center in Amsterdam - which will replace the makeshift meeting places of the city's 40,000 Muslims - will cost close to $5 million. And although contributions from Muslim countries, and Dutch government grants, may cover part of the cost, the Muslims of Amsterdam themselves are determined to help. "The aim of all our Muslim organizations," says Anwar V. Syed, President of the Amsterdam Islamic Society, "should be self-reliance."

In accordance with that principle, the Society is not only raising funds from book sales and bazaars, but is also collecting $225,000 in personal donations: $450 each from 500 Muslim families. "There are many Muslims here," explains Syed's wife Athia, head of the Amsterdam Muslim women's organization. "The problem is to reach them."

Muslims have been a living reality in The Netherlands since the early 1960's. And some Muslim groups have been functioning since then. But no national organization was formed until 1973, when a delegation from Mecca's Rabitat al-'Alam al-Islami visited The Netherlands and began to talk with local Muslims. As a result, it was decided to organize on a national scale and no less than 15 Islamic groups of all nationalities were established - within three months.

In the meantime, plans to unite the local organizations nationally were drawn up, with a decided stress on collective leadership, equal representation and distribution of responsibilities among all nationalities. In March 1975, the Federation of Muslim Organizations in the Netherlands received its charter; it was inaugurated one month later.

Since then, Islamic activities in Holland have been gathering a surprising momentum. Abdulwahid van Bommel, a Dutch convert and chairman of the Federation, says this is partly because of religious and cultural gaps in the lives of Muslims, who left their native lands and emigrated to Holland. "Many who came here for material gain now realize that this is not enough," he says.

The Federation's headquarters are located in a converted house near the seaside resort of Scheveningen, close to The Hague, Holland's seat of government. Set up with the help of a grant from Saudi Arabia, the center includes a prayer room, a meeting hall and administrative offices. Its main functions are to coordinate Muslim activities in Holland, advise the Dutch authorities on Muslim affairs and improve contacts with Muslim countries and organizations abroad.

The Federation has also attempted to obtain a fair share of social services for the Muslim community in Holland, and clarify some of the misconceptions the Dutch people in general have about Islam. In addition to its national activities, the Federation gives Koranic courses and language tuition to children of Muslim families and to Dutch women married to Muslim men in The Hague. It also publishes an information bulletin, books on Islam and timetables for prayers during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Unlike some other peoples, the historically tolerant Dutch extended a warm welcome to their Muslims. Local Christians, for example, formed a committee and raised $100,000 towards construction of Holland's first real mosque at Almelo, and Dutch radio and TV regularly air special programs for immigrants. With its talent for rational solutions to complicated problems, the Netherlands has helped its Muslims avoid many of the problems that have beset their fellows elsewhere in Europe.

Great Britain. The experience of Britain's Muslims also differs somewhat from that of Muslims in France and West Germany. Although some Muslims emigrated to Britain to share in the 1960's boom, many had moved there much earlier - not as temporary workers, but as British subjects from Commonwealth countries in search of a new life. One of the oldest Muslim communities, in fact, goes back to the beginning of the century; it was established in Liverpool by Yemeni seamen.

As a result, the Muslim community in Britain is one of the most stable in Western Europe. Islam in Great Britain, moreover, is no longer a "foreign religion." According to the Rt. Rev. David Brown, Bishop of Guildford and the Church of England's foremost authority on Islam, Islam is now firmly implanted on British soil. "Muslims in Britain'' he adds, "are growing in self-confidence and are quickly developing their own organization."

By 1977 there were more than 100 Islamic societies grouped together in the Union of Muslim Organizations of the United Kingdom and Eire - and their impact today is widespread and obvious. In many British cities they have built new mosques and established some 250 temporary mosques in converted houses and halls. At the same time, the Muslim Educational Trust has begun to provide religious education to Muslim children in 57 county schools throughout Britain. There is even a flourishing Arabic press.

The Muslim impact in Britain is different in other ways too. Because Britain once ruled many parts of the Arab world - such as Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - many Arab businessmen have come to Britain to invest their oil revenues in real estate, industry, health farms and the hotel business.

This influence, as well as that of thousands of Arab tourists and shoppers, has added considerably to the Muslim presence, and London, as a result, is showing more than one touch of the Orient. In the West End, for example, Middle Eastern restaurants are proliferating and grilled lamb - in the form of kebab and shawarma - is challenging fish and chips as the British capital's most popular take-away food. In addition, the streets are thronged with members of a huge fraternity of Arab students sent to England to study - particularly engineering and medicine.

Beyond London - in the industrial Midlands and London's satellite towns - the Muslim presence is more Asian and African than Arab and more permanent. In Southall, for example, the High Street shopping area suggests India or Pakistan rather than England, with grocers selling exotic Asian fruits and sweets, tailors displaying saris, and cinemas showing films in Urdu.

But precisely because the Asian and African Muslims are not transient workers - as British subjects they have greater legal rights and earning power than Muslim migrants elsewhere in Europe - they feel that some changes in British attitudes are necessary. "Democracy in Britain is primarily a political democracy," said Khurshid Ahmad. "It does not extend to cultural rights."

"Muslims want to live in Europe as Muslims, not as a culturally uprooted people," argues Ahmad, "and Europeans should not expect them to imitate the West in all their dealings."

Specifically, he says, the Muslim community in Britain wants recognition of Islamic law and Islamic festivals, and arrangements so that Muslims can take time off to pray at work and in schools, and to attend noon prayers on Fridays in mosques.

Furthermore, spokesmen say, Muslim girls should not be compelled to wear short skirts or leotards during physical education lessons in schools, public land should be allotted to build mosques and separate cemeteries should be established in areas of Muslim concentration. Last, Muslim spokesmen say, the government should provide abattoirs where meat animals can be slaughtered according to the requirements of Islam.

None of those requests, according to Ian Percival, a member of a parliamentary committee set up to study Muslim demands, presents insuperable problems. "There should be no problem in accommodating most Muslim ordinances within the fabric of established British law"

Syed Aziz Pasha, General-Secretary of the Union of Muslim Organizations of the United Kingdom and Eire, also feels confident that Muslim demands can eventually be met. "Until the late 1950's the Muslim community was too small to make an impact" he says. "But now we are large enough to be heard."

This article appeared on pages 15-22 of the January/February 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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