The Muslim population in Europe has been growing since World War II, topped off by the migration crisis in 2015. Today, about 33 million Muslims live in Europe, equal to 6 percent of the population. Not since the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna in 1683 has Islam played such a prominent role in European affairs.
Yet the numbers are slightly deceiving. Islam has become such a serious political issue in Europe not because of the growth in Muslims itself but because the Muslim population is younger and growing faster than other demographic groups. This is in part because of the migration wave and in part because European fertility rates have fallen below replacement level. The trend sows fear among the native population that its influence and way of life is ending, and it is compounded by the desire of the immigrants to retain at least elements of their previous national, ethnic and religious identities. These demographic shifts have led to internal disagreements that threaten to tear the European Union apart. They also profoundly shape internal political dynamics in many of Europe’s most powerful countries. Forty-five percent of Europe’s Muslims live in one of three countries: France (5.7 million), Germany (5 million) or the United Kingdom (4.1 million).
The future of the EU, and of countries like France and Germany, will be shaped by whether these countries can assimilate Muslims. Since France, Germany and the U.K. have the largest Muslim populations, this Deep Dive will focus mainly on the challenges that each faces. We’ll attempt to estimate the scale of the challenge of integration, but we’ll also cover its benefits for the host countries, where immigration will help solve labor shortages to come. We then draw on the history of European Jewry in the 18th century for insights into how European Muslim integration might proceed. We conclude that the significant minority of European Muslims who thus far have refused to assimilate will continue to pose a problem for their host countries, and the prospects for the majority to eventually “belong” in their new homes are mixed.
The Nature of the Problem
First, a caveat: Demographic data on European Muslim populations are difficult to parse and fraught with inconsistencies. France, for instance, does not account for religion in its national statistics, as doing so would violate its strict adherence to “laicite,” a distinctly French approach to secularism to which we will return. Whereas Pew estimates that Muslims make up 9 percent of France’s population, a French think tank called the Institut Montaigne puts the figure at closer to 6 percent. German data on religious affiliation depends on public affiliation with a public law religious society – in Germany’s last census in 2011, 33 percent of Germans did not identify with any religious society. Furthermore, there is no specific category for “Muslims” in the German census – they are instead subsumed by a general category of “others.” The data that follows thus constitute a useful but imprecise snapshot of the issue.
Europe’s Muslim population first began to increase during the dramatic period of economic growth and reconstruction after World War II. There was a critical need for low-skilled labor throughout Western Europe, and though the bulk of that need was satisfied by internal European migration from east to west, substantial numbers of Muslim migrants also came to Europe for work. In 1936, there just 70,000 Muslims living in France, or 0.17 percent of France’s population. By 1960, there were 1 million, or 2 percent of the population. From 1960 to 1970, the Muslim population of the United Kingdom increased from 105,000 to 668,000. The German figures are perhaps the most staggering, growing from 20,000 Muslims in 1951 to 1.2 million in 1971.
The ethnicities and nationalities of the immigrants depended somewhat on their destination. Many of the Muslim migrants to France came from Algeria, which France ruled as a colony from 1830 to 1962. Today, 38 percent of French Muslims are of Algerian descent. Muslim migration to the U.K. came predominantly from Britain’s former colonies in South Asia: More than 50 percent of British Muslims today are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. Germany had fewer former colonial holdings from which it could import foreign labor, which is a major reason Germany has had a tougher time integrating its Muslim population than the U.K. and France. Germany instead recruited cheap labor from its former World War I ally: Turkey. More than half of all Muslims in Germany in 1973 were Turkish, and the German Federal Office of Statistics estimates that the current population of Turkish descent in Germany is roughly 3 million – a number that is widely considered conservative.
The demographic makeup of Muslim migration to Europe in this period was equally important. Many Muslims who came to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s were young, single men. They were taking advantage of labor shortages in European countries, and the jobs that they got were often menial. This was not a problem at first. In fact, Muslim migration was one of a number of migrations that helped supercharge the Western European economies after the war. But by the end of the 1970s, the period of economic growth had run its course. The first workers to get laid off were the foreign workers and migrants who had left their families and homes behind in search of higher wages and better opportunities. In West Germany, the government did not even count Turkish workers in its official unemployment statistics; instead, it encouraged Turks to return home. But many Muslim migrants throughout Europe decided to stay – and used the money they had earned to bring their families to join them in Europe too.
The result was a self-perpetuating disconnection between Muslim migrants and the countries they now called home. Even though European countries had encouraged Muslim migration to fill low-skill jobs, the concern was never to integrate them into German or French or British society but to profit from their labor. The social mobility that a citizen of these countries enjoyed was not enjoyed equally by Muslim migrants. Furthermore, the migrants were far from home, living in a political culture and a religious environment radically different from the ones in which they had grown up. Sour prospects and the innate human desire for familiarity led to a de facto segregation that was as much by choice as it was by imposition. Muslim migrants felt unwelcome, so they created their own, often separate communities, which only raised suspicion and hostility among the natives toward Muslims, for whom there were fewer jobs and prospects.
This dynamic has only worsened over time as more Muslims have migrated to Europe, not in response to labor shortages but to escape violence or poverty. A 2016 U.K. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government report identified 42 wards where a minority faith or ethnic group was a local majority. Nine of the top 10 were Pakistani Muslim wards. The same report also found that almost 16 percent of all British Muslims speak little or no English – double the next highest group (Hindus at 8 percent). In France, the Institut Montaigne estimates that the unemployment rate for those of North African descent is roughly 30 percent, whereas countrywide unemployment is 9.1 percent as of July 2018. Similar conditions are present among Turkish workers in Germany. They face an unemployment rate of roughly 16 percent, more than three times the national average of 5.2 percent in August.
The issue has been aggravated by high fertility rates among European Muslims relative to other religious and ethnic groups. In France and the U.K., for example, Pew projected the average total fertility rate for Muslims would be around 2.9 children per woman – compared to 1.9 and 1.8 children per woman for non-Muslims, respectively. In Germany, the total fertility rate of 1.9 for Muslims is actually below replacement rate, but that is still significantly higher than the non-Muslim rate of 1.4. The average European total fertility rate for non-Muslims is around 1.6, compared to 2.6 for Muslims. Combine this with continued migration to European countries from the Muslim world – Germany alone received almost 1 million Muslim migrants from mid-2010 to mid-2016, before Chancellor Angela Merkel came under intense political pressure to stop migration – and it is not hard to imagine the more aggressive projections on Muslim population growth in Europe coming to fruition.
These statistics led one well-known French financial analyst, Charles Gave, to estimate in 2017 that within 40 years, Muslims would become a majority of the French population. That seems far-fetched, and Gave wouldn’t be the first to be guilty of overestimation. After all, in 2003, Pew estimated that Muslims would make up 10 percent of Europe’s population by 2020 – well over the actual rate, according to Pew in 2018, of 6 percent – and worried that it was projecting too low a figure. Even so, the broader issue remains: Muslims have more babies and are younger and poorer than non-Muslims. In the U.K., the median age for Muslims is 25; the national median age is 39. In France, the average age of Muslims is 35.8 years, compared to 53 for Christians. That Europe will become more Muslim in the coming years is a given – what’s unclear is how much more.
The Challenge of Integration
The deeper and often unasked question is why the growth of Europe’s Muslim population is so controversial. Muslims are not the only minority group in Europe. Both the U.K. and France, for instance, have significant black minorities (at roughly 3 percent and 1.5 percent of the total population, respectively). The U.K., France and Germany have all seen significant migration from India, Vietnam, China and other Asian countries in recent years as well – to say nothing of intra-European migration, including the high number of Poles who have migrated west in search of better jobs. The number of Muslims in these countries is also still quite low. Pew estimates that if European countries get tough on migration, by 2050 the Muslim population in most European countries won’t exceed 10 percent, with France being an exception at 12.7 percent. Western European countries are not as monochromatic as Eastern European countries, but compared to a country like the United States, where a recent U.S. census report projected that whites will be a majority-minority by 2045, they aren’t especially diverse.
The primary reason the Muslim population is problematic for European governments is because of its reluctance to assimilate into European society. “Islam,” after all, does not denote where one is from; it denotes adherence to a faith, one that informs how a believer should think about politics, cultural norms and justice. Non-Muslim migrants, or Muslim migrants who are not particularly religious, have typical immigrant struggles – overcoming language barriers or nostalgia for their home or their family or a particular kind of food. But these obstacles do not lead groups to want to be treated differently from British, French or German citizens. If anything, it leads to a greater desire to “belong.” There are, however, groups of religious Muslims in Europe who have no desire to belong at all. They want to practice their religion free of government influence and are even confused as to why this is problematic – from their perspective, European states are supposed to be “freer” than the states they came from. They also view European society as potentially corrupting – and try to isolate themselves from those influences as much as possible.
To be clear, these Muslim communities are a minority of the Muslims in European countries, and a fairly small minority at that. In the U.K., for instance, almost half of all Muslims were U.K.-born. Even more striking, a recent U.K. government report found that 86 percent of British Muslims feel a “strong sense of belonging to Britain” – higher even than the national average of 83 percent. Seventy-eight percent answered in the affirmative in a follow-up question about whether they desire full integration into British life. This is an overwhelming majority – but it’s the other roughly 20 percent who are the problem for London. The same U.K. study showed that 23 percent of British Muslims supported the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in parts of Great Britain. Thirty-one percent said polygamy should be legal (compared to 9 percent for the national average), and 32 percent would not condemn violence against someone for mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Four percent even said they sympathized with terrorists and suicide bombers.
In other words, in the U.K., there are some 800,000 Muslims who do not value some of those basic fundamentals of British political life like the rule of law and freedom of speech. That 4 percent of British Muslims sympathize with Islamist terrorists may seem like a small figure, but it adds up to more than 150,000 people. The national average for Britain was 1 percent, so this is not a strictly Muslim issue – if no one except these Muslims supported terrorism, they would make up 0.3 percent of the total British population. The larger issue is that although all societies have radical fringes, the fringe of European Muslims is a relatively larger part of the whole and is resistant to assimilation or change. This, in effect, poisons the well. Even though the vast majority of British Muslims identify with their country and want to integrate, their reputation in Britain is damaged by those who resist assimilation. And the fear and suspicion that these Muslims create only reinforces prejudices and discrimination, which in turn further radicalizes British Muslims who feel isolated from British life.
A similar picture can be seen in both France and Germany. Institut Montaigne found that while 71 percent of French Muslims generally supported the French secular state, 29 percent “consider religious laws to be more important than the laws of the French state.” The study also pointed out that the vast majority of people with these views are young, low-skilled laborers living in segregated communities inside France. As in the U.K., a significant minority of French Muslims reject some basic tenets of French political life and French culture. Even more distressing in France is that those with more radical views are also the youngest – 50 percent of young people held these views as opposed to 20 percent of the French Muslim population over 40. Whether growing old will moderate the views of these young French Muslims is an open question – that 20 percent is still a distressingly large figure is not.
For Germany, the picture is less clear, partly because Germany experienced such a massive influx of Syrian refugees in the past three years. These migrants have had as little time to assimilate into German society as German sources have had to collect data on how well they are assimilating. Yet in a 2015 study, before the influx of Muslim refugees to Germany had really begun, independent German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung noted that almost a quarter of the 4.7 million Muslims in Germany at the time had arrived since 2011. That Germany opened its doors to Muslim migrants has historical precedence: Germany recruited Turkish laborers to come to Germany in the 1960s to help cope with labor shortages. But Germany, more so than France and the U.K., never expected or wanted Muslims to integrate. Muslims and other migrants were not considered part of German society, and Germany only began trying to integrate Muslims (and migrants in general) in the 1990s.
Indeed, until legal reforms were instituted in 2000, it was hard for Muslim migrants and their families, the majority of whom were Turkish, to become German citizens. (German nationality laws were based on a Wilhelmian law from 1913 that stressed German descent over all else.) But though the German government has sought to make Germany more welcoming to immigrants and has instituted policies specifically to better integrate them into society in recent years, their success so far has been mixed. The Bertelsmann Stiftung study found that 96 percent of German Muslims feel “connected with Germany,” though it also noted that almost one quarter of Muslims born in Germany did not learn German as a first language. A U.S.-based think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, pointed to high membership among Muslims in German associations (50 percent) and high numbers receiving school qualifications (85 percent) as signs that integration is succeeding.
What is most striking about this evidence is how similar the situation is in the U.K., France and Germany, despite radically different politically structures, ethnic makeups of the Muslim populations and approaches toward integration into society. In all three countries, a large majority of Muslims assimilate into society and become as British, French or German as any citizen, despite discrimination and in general poorer economic prospects compared to the national average. And yet in all three, a significant minority of the population not only resists assimilation but hives itself off from the rest of the country’s citizenry, espousing different views on everything from who should possess legitimate authority to what women should be allowed to wear in public. All three countries have also in recent years experienced Islamist terrorist attacks, which have reinforced mistrust of Muslims, which creates a vicious cycle that gives way to the very isolation that breeds radicalization among Muslim youths.
A Historical Comparison
The only real historical basis for comparison to the challenges European Muslims currently face is the fate of European Jews in the 20th century. Like European Muslims, European Jews were spread throughout the Continent, and at times, Jews would migrate to new countries to escape persecution or violence. This is not to say it’s a perfect comparison. The Jews living in Europe had been there for centuries, and especially in Western European countries, they were often well-off. And unlike European Muslims, the majority of European Jews lived in Eastern Europe (in 1933, in Poland, they made up 9 percent of the population, as compared to just under 1 percent of Germany’s population). Despite the differences, the experience of European Jews – a religious minority in Europe – informs thinking about Islam’s future in Europe.
European Jews lived through one of the most transformative periods in European history – the slow, centuries-long transformation of Europe from a patchwork of multiethnic monarchies into individual nation-states. The European Jewish experience varied greatly depending on the given state. In Great Britain, membership in a religious community was not mandated by law. As a result, British Jews felt less dissonance between their religious lives and their national lives. British Jewish institutions even mimicked the Anglican Church in their development, so strongly did Jews want to integrate into British society.
The situation was much different in France. After the French Revolution, the National Assembly debated granting citizenship to French Jews and concluded famously that “the Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals.” To become French, Jews had to check their religion at the door. In that sense, not much has changed in the intervening centuries.
Germany was a more complicated case. Before 1871, there was no Germany to speak of, and local Jewish communities interacted with the various Germanic states in a variety of ways. In Prussia, Jews were offered equal rights – but only if they recognized the absolute authority of the Prussian government and did not hold views antithetical to those of Prussian society. That “but” helped create a de facto Jewish reformation. For a long time, European countries were often made of different confessional groups, with authority delegated to the spiritual leaders of those groups. But the advent of the nation-state and the attempted integration of Jews into the new national European societies created crises in various religious communities, and Judaism was no exception. The very concept of today’s three main Jewish denominations came from this tumultuous time and from internal arguments about how much tradition to conserve versus how many reforms should be undertaken so that Jews could live prosperously in the new Europe.
Germany became the center of gravity for Jewish religious reform, but in truth, throughout Europe, Jews reconceptualized their relationship between organized religion and the state. (Eastern Europe, which we won’t address at any length here, became the epicenter of Jewish nationalism, one strain of which became Zionism.) Many Jews assimilated seamlessly into European society. Others held on to tradition with fundamentalist zeal, closing themselves off from what they saw as the corrosive influence of European modernity. In the end, it didn’t much matter. European Jews was never truly integrated into European society. The word “anti-Semitism” was coined by a German association in 1879 – eight years after a recently unified Germany had granted Jews full equal rights. Jews eventually became an easy scapegoat for Hitler during his rise to power, and European Jews, as well as gypsies and political dissidents, were marked for slaughter as a result. (Anti-Semitism also was not a strictly German phenomenon – Germany had only some 600,000 Jews. With the notable exception of Denmark, no European nation-state conquered by the Nazis defended Jewish citizens as if Jews were national brethren.)
European Muslims come from countries that, like 18th-century Europe’s multiethnic empires, are not organized on the basis of liberalism or nationalism. One of the reasons some Muslim migrants have such difficulty integrating into European societies is that in Islam, there is little distinction between governance and piety, and in most Muslim states, there has been no social or political revolution that necessitated the reinterpretation of Islam to allow for a separation of mosque and state. A religious Muslim’s primary identity is wrapped up in the “ummah” – the greater Islamic community – not his or her state of residence. Tribes, families and sects – not nations with constitutions and individual rights – are the political environments from which most of these Muslim migrants come. As with European Jews in the 18th century, this clash between Islam and Western political values may well lead to institutional religious reform to attempt to integrate.
This is not a process that will happen overnight, nor will it be seamless. But it is already possible to see the different ways in which European Muslims are struggling to maintain their religious beliefs while integrating into their new national communities. For example, in a recent 134-page report published by the Muslim Council of Britain, a Muslim sheikh made a religious case that Islam actually requires Muslims integrate into the societies in which they live. Quoting heavily from the Quran, the sheikh concludes that “Islam places a lot more emphasis on integration and human relationships than the worship of God itself.” The problem, for both European Muslims and for the nation-states where they live, is that while compromises and reforms may help integrate Muslims into European society better, no country or group has yet found a successful way of bringing the fringe elements in from the cold. And for as long as a fifth of European Muslims resist assimilation, domestic hostility toward Muslims will continue, as will Islamists attacks.
A Silver Lining?
There is one silver lining to this story. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the horrors wrought by World War II were in part a result of economic crisis. The dismembering of Germany after World War I, followed by the Great Depression, essentially catapulted the world into a temporary Dark Age. Discrimination is often a byproduct of economic duress, and Jews in Europe were an obvious target for the masses: a religious minority that had always seemed to be a nation living within nations, with whom Christendom had a violent past, and which had in general profited seemingly at the expense of ordinary people, or so the line of thinking went. It is easy to dismiss it now, but it is impossible to dismiss how attractive such ideas were in the decade leading up to World War II.
European Muslims are by and large not wealthy. They are also generally younger than their neighbors. And that may make all the difference. Muslim migration first came to Europe when European countries were experiencing shortages of labor due to economic growth. Now, European countries are getting older and their populations are shrinking, a situation that is in turn creating new demand for labor. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suffered grievous political harm because of her open migration policies, but the flipside is that migrants in Germany have essentially functioned as an economic stimulus. Oxford Economics recently published a report suggesting that the influx of Muslim migrants into Germany would raise gross domestic product by almost 1 percent by 2020, and that the influx of people might also curb inflationary pressures. The deeper problem for Germany is that it is simply an aging population: Next year, there will be fewer Germans under 30 years old than Germans over 60. Making its Muslim migrants truly German would go a long way toward combating Germany’s aging process.
The U.K. and France, while also aging, do not face as stark a challenge as Germany does in this regard, but neither are they immune from demographic factors. France is in the least danger, though its non-Muslim total fertility rate has dropped for three consecutive years, falling to 1.9 children in 2017. Indeed, both the U.K. and France have total fertility rates that exceed the European average. The rub, however, is that Muslims in the U.K. and France are having babies at a significantly higher rate than non-Muslims. And though it is impossible to know whether the Muslims who are reproducing at these higher rates belong to the portion of the Muslim populations that have not assimilated into European societies, it is a good bet that they do, as a combination of traditional values, marriage at an early age and lack of access to education all lead to higher birth rates – and are all ways one could describe those Muslim communities that don’t integrate into British and French society.
The aging of Europe provides an opportunity. Nothing is better for integration than the prospect of economic opportunity and social mobility. And there will be plenty of jobs for young people in Europe in the coming decades, so much so that Poland is literally paying women to have babies, and Germany was willing to break taboos on immigration just to attract younger people to a country that has historically been hostile to immigration. The existence of opportunity is hardly a guarantee of Muslim assimilation, but it also means that Muslims will not be seen as stealing jobs from qualified German, French or British citizens. For the first time since the 1970s, European societies are actively encouraging migration and attempting to integrate Muslims into European societies, which may help balance against the hostility toward Muslims in these countries. At the very least, economic issues will not exacerbate the problem of integration that is already there.
The situation can be summed easily, even if it defies an easy solution. The size of the European Muslim population is increasing. While many European Muslims have assimilated into European society, a substantial minority, perhaps as many as one-fifth of all European Muslims, have not only failed to assimilate but reject the basic political and cultural tenets of the countries in which they live. These pockets of resistance to assimilation, often egged on by lack of economic prospects and discrimination, lead to hostility and suspicion on the part of the domestic population, while only exacerbates the problem of integration. The countries with the three biggest Muslim populations in Europe – France, Germany and the U.K. – have struggled to integrate Muslims into their societies, and despite the various differences in their approaches, all have failed to prevent the emergence of a strain of Islamic identity that the nation-state has yet to metabolize successfully. Europe is aging, and the economic opportunity that this will offer to young and relatively less wealthy European Muslims may help lead to assimilation. Even so, Europe’s historical approach to religious minorities leaves much to be desired and suggests integration will never truly be successful.