The clash of perceptions: Comparison of views among Muslims in Paris, London, and Berlin with those among the general public

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Although Muslims have been living in some areas of western Europe in relatively large numbers since the second half of the twentieth century, their presence generated political debate only when it became associated with a possible threat after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Many alarmists considered Europe's Muslim communities guilty by association, and anti-immigration parties wrote about European Muslims' perceived lack of loyalty to their Western host countries. Negative stereotypes of Muslims, however, are not restricted to pundits on the extreme right, but are fairly widespread in European countries. Perceptions that Islam represents a violent culture intent on subverting Western values have been influenced by events both outside Europe (for example, the sectarian strife in Iraq and Palestinian suicide bombings) and within Europe itself (for example, attacks by homegrown terrorists, and controversies over building new mosques and wearing Muslim head scarves in public). All of these factors became major determinants of how policies toward Muslims are formed in the West. Though many speak about or on behalf of Muslims in Europe, few seem concerned about actually reaching out to hear what Muslims think about integration and related issues that affect their lives. The lack of adequate dialogue and real knowledge about Europe's Muslim communities has fostered the negative public image of Muslims among the general public in some European countries. According to Thomas Petersen, surveys in Germany show that Germans are "increasingly convinced it will not be possible to coexist peacefully with the Islamic world in the long run."1 The Pew Research Center's findings also show that "many non-Muslims associate negative traits with Muslims. Majorities in Nigeria, India, Spain, Russia, and Germany see Muslims as violent."2 Perceptions and expectations matter in politics.3 One example of how the two publics were misreading each other's intentions concerns perceived silence. It is often heard that European publics view Muslims in their own countries as sympathetic to jihadist terrorists when Muslims did not vocally condemn violent attacks. While many religious leaders did denounce terrorist activities, many Muslims say in public and private conversations that they did not feel compelled to react to such attacks simply because they felt no more represented by the extremists who carried them out than did their non-Muslim neighbors. Yet Muslims might have underestimated how this would affect public perception, especially when the public did see orchestrated and organized condemnation of Denmark across different communities after a Danish newspaper printed, and others reprinted, cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. Framing dialogue about the Muslim presence in Europe primarily in terms of secular issues like security concerns and cultural symbols disguises existing commonalities between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as the real nature of their differences. Like most deeply religious communities, European Muslims exhibit socially conservative values - so their attitudes regarding such issues as abortion and homosexuality are markedly different from those of the more liberal and secular European general population.4 The intercultural dialogue tends to stall for a number of reasons. Government attempts to establish explicitly Muslim interest groups to be incorporated in the political system are not particularly successful because of the fragmented nature of Muslim communities in Europe.5 Muslim organizations in Europe tend to have limited perceived legitimacy among their constituencies, and therefore play only a very weak role in mediating between mainstream European society and its Muslim minorities. Recently, Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran, and Zein Ja'far reported that only 6 percent of the British Muslims named the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization set up to represent all Muslim organizations and institutions within the United Kingdom, as an organization that represents their views as Muslims.6 These limitations imply that organizational dialogue is unlikely to replace real discourse by the people when it comes to grappling with the status of Muslim communities in Europe.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationManaging Ethnic Diversity after 9/11
Subtitle of host publicationIntegration, Security, and Civil Liberties in Transatlantic Perspective
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780813547169
StatePublished - 2010


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