Migration and Islam

Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:4 July 2019/Last Updated Date:19 August 2021

Free Article

The specter of xenophobia in Europe

For years Europe has been haunted by a specter threatening its political, social and cultural cohesion. This specter is a fear of immigrants, and particularly Muslim immigrants, astutely manipulated through media narratives. In our societies – in those less open and democratic – the refugee is sometimes seen not as a person fleeing war and violence, who deserves protection and welcome in accordance with international law, but as an enemy who threatens our wealth, our tranquility and our culture.

The same is true of the “economic immigrant” who, driven by destitution, hunger or drought, seeks safety and employment for him and his family in Europe and in its imagined riches. In some media coverage, essentially propaganda,  immigrants are presented as potential terrorists who intend to sow chaos and death throughout our cities.[1]

La Civilta Cattolica

Hostility toward immigration (particularly Muslim immigration), which is perceived by some as a risk to national identity, has certainly favored the progress of populist parties and movements across Europe. On a national level, we have seen this in recent political and electoral events in France, Germany, Austria, the UK, Italy and most recently Sweden, as well as countries of the Visegrad Group.

[2] In all these countries, the issue of migration had already been transformed by populist agitators into a political weapon used to damage the establishment – accused of dealing too weakly with the phenomenon of migration – and to impose more restrictive policies on immigration, with the aim of discouraging it. Some have sought to increase border controls between countries in the Schengen Area or to impose extremely strict limitations on welcoming refugees, while other EU countries have built physical walls or barriers to prevent the entry of people fleeing war in the Middle East.

Undoubtedly, the recent influx of migrants from Muslim countries has been a catalyst for the fear and discontent of many. However, it is important to remember that recent electoral results in many EU countries have undoubtedly been influenced by changes caused by globalization and increasingly rapid rates of technological innovation. Many workers employed in the old European manufacturing industries – now obsolete and unable to compete on the market – “have found themselves required to retrain and compete for any other available position or rely on state subsidies.”[3]

This economic crisis, which began in 2008, has pushed an increasingly large portion of the moderate electorate – which historically voted for liberal-democratic or socialist parties – toward the new populist and nationalist movements that have formed in almost all European countries. These movements have used and continue to use their fight against immigration as a banner, under which they have rallied considerable popular discontent.

According to psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati, the migration “emergency” has had a strong impact on our identity, in some cases causing the reemergence of a desire for fascism – a tendency to favor authoritarianism that is present in the human spirit, that tendency to “do away with the uncertainty of freedom, preferring the consistency of chains and dictatorships over the randomness of life, seeking refuge in cementing our own identity rather than risking openness and contamination.”[4] In these cases, Recalcati says, we tend to demand a “heavy hand” against those who are different or foreign, as well as the militarization of our lands, ethnic exclusion, and the rejection of those we presume to be invaders.

On the subject of European immigration, it is worth noting three points as a premise. The migration we have seen in recent decades – which has intensified following wars in the Middle East – is not a transitory phenomenon, but a structural issue that our continent will likely have to contend with for a long time to come.[5] This migration is due to various causes. These causes may be geopolitical (where people are fleeing conflicts and wars like the one in Syria that has displaced some 7 million people in eight years), environmental (where people are fleeing drought or a lack of arable terrain), demographic, or simply socioeconomic. This is seen in the migration of many young people from sub-Saharan Africa who seek to enter Europe via the Mediterranean, often relying on human traffickers, to escape misery and hunger.[6]

It is also worth noting that Muslims living in Europe – both first- and second-generation immigrants – are often employed to do unskilled labor. In the United States, on the contrary, some 3.5 million Muslim residents are statistically better educated and wealthier than the national average: 58 percent have a degree and a well-paid job.

European countries – particularly Germany and France – recruited many unskilled laborers from northern Africa and Turkey after the Second World War. In the 1950s and 1960s, Europeans simply saw these people as workers who were needed to support national reconstruction. From the 1980s onward there was a shift in how these people were perceived in certain countries: they went from being seen as workers to being seen simply as Muslim or Islamic immigrants whose integration was considered problematic by national institutions and some sections of the local population.[7]

Finally we must not forget that, from a purely economic point of view, some European countries – Italy first and foremost – cannot survive without welcoming and integrating a certain number of immigrants each year, for reasons connected to demography and the survival of the welfare state. According to some analysts, a rate of immigration amounting to roughly 200,000 immigrants per year is needed to “maintain our productive machinery” and keep our pensions systems functioning, particularly since the population in our country (Italy) has declined (by 130,061 people in 2017) despite a slight increase in foreigners, while the average life expectancy has increased to 83 years of age.[8] Within Europe, Italy is one of the countries where people live longest and have the lowest number of children.

These figures demonstrate that closed borders would lead to increasing demographic imbalance. They also highlight the fact that “immigration has remained considerably lower than what is theoretically required to balance the composition by age of the Italian population.”[9] And this is true of other European countries, as well.

Most immigrants from African nations are young and male, meaning that – as we face an aging population and plunging birth rates – if properly integrated into the workforce, they could contribute significantly to our unbalanced economies in the longer term.

Muslim immigration

In February 2017, following Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, Chatham House, a British institute for international affairs, published a study based on polls concerning Muslim immigration carried out in 10 EU countries.[10] The question was whether, in order to combat Islamist terrorism, Europe should block immigration from majority-Muslim countries. In response, 55 percent of interviewees said yes, 20 percent said no, and 25 percent abstained. The highest percentage of affirmative answers was recorded in Poland (71 percent), where the number of Muslim immigrants is very low (0.1 percent). This was followed by Austria (65 percent) with its various xenophobic political movements and where the Muslim population is 7.9 percent, and France (61 percent), which has been particularly hard-hit by jihadist terrorism in recent years. In Italy the rate of affirmative responses was 51 percent. In this country – despite the fact that Italy has not been targeted by Islamic terrorism – Islamophobia is fomented by a false perception that Muslims are generally supportive of terrorists.

Another report, published in Limes, outlines levels of Islamophobia in different European countries.[11] The countries most hostile to Muslim immigrants are Hungary (72 percent), Italy (69 percent), Poland (66 percent) and Greece (65 percent), whereas the most tolerant countries (where hostility to Muslim immigrants is between 28 and 29 percent) are the United Kingdom, Germany and France. This research demonstrates that Islamophobia among the population is least strong in countries with a higher number of Muslim immigrants. However, this does not prevent the formation of political movements or parties strongly opposed to migrants, such as Marine Le Pen’s Popular Front in France, or prevent major issues of national politics, such as the UK’s Brexit, from being influenced by a fear of migrant arrivals.

So how many Muslim immigrants are there in the EU today? According to the Pew Research Center in the United States, there are some 25.8 million Muslims currently living in the EU countries plus Switzerland and Norway, representing 4.8 percent of the total population.[12] In 2010 the number was 19.5 million. This increase within a few short years is connected both to the extended Syrian conflict and to the arrival in Europe via the perilous Mediterranean route of economic migrants generally from sub-Saharan Africa.

After Bulgaria (11 percent Muslim), which was formally part of the Ottoman Empire until 1908 the European countries with the highest percentage of Muslim residents are Sweden (8.1 percent), because of its generous welfare system (now under review following a wave of xenophobia), and the former colonial powers (France 8.85 percent, the UK 6.3 percent). In Germany – which welcomed approximately one million Syrian refugees before closing off the so-called Balkan route via an agreement with President Erdogan of Turkey – Muslim immigrants represent less than 6 percent of the national population. In Austria, where a new government is threatening to close its borders to immigrants, this figure is 7.9 percent.

In Italy there were only about 5 million foreigners at the start of 2017, of whom one-third were Muslims. This number had remained more or less fixed over the previous decade. Today, the number of Muslims in Italy is around 1.7 million, not including refugees or those who have entered the country illegally. The largest Muslim communities in Italy come from Morocco (421,000 residents), Bangladesh (122,000), Egypt (113,000), Pakistan (108,000), Senegal (101,000) and Tunisia (94,000).[13]

According to the Pew Research Center, there will be 57.9 million Muslim residents in the EU by 2050, 11.2 percent of its total population. This is slightly higher than what is predicted by other researchers. According to Italian academic Massimo Livi Bacci, the presence of Muslim residents in the European Union will stabilize around 50 million people, or 10 percent of its total population. This estimate is based firstly on a reduction in the birth rate of Muslim residents in Europe in the longer term, and secondly on a likely tightening of regulations governing immigration to European countries and ongoing efforts to combat illegal immigration.

In any case, it is worth remembering that migration is one of the least predictable social phenomena because of the complexity of factors that can accelerate or decelerate flows.[14] Aside from famines, wars and so forth, there are two main factors that can accelerate migration to Europe. One is the demographic weakness of many European countries that, without migration, are facing a significant drop in population numbers, and particularly in their number of citizens of working age who can create income, wealth and pension security. The second factor is the existence in Europe of large and often close-knit Muslim communities that generally maintain strong ties with their countries and ethnicities of origin. Diasporic communities in Europe may attract more migrants, who in turn can attract others. Some of these communities are well-established in their countries – for example, first-generation communities from the Maghreb in France – and have created a sort of “European Islam” which, in a climate of mutual encounter, has assimilated important values of the European tradition.

The factors which, on the other hand, tend to decelerate migration flows to Europe are largely political, and concern the migration policies implemented both by the EU and by individual states. For example, a decelerating factor might be the choice to facilitate immigration for those who have a better education and are trained in skilled employment, including professional services, rather than workers with no qualifications, who constitute the majority of young people currently arriving in Italy from sub-Saharan Africa.

Individual countries can decelerate migration by building physical barriers at their borders, as many already have done,[15] through agreements with countries of origin or transit, or by pressuring countries of origin to support the return of so-called irregular immigrants. States can also pursue various legal avenues, for example tightening the regulations that govern family reunification. In summary, there is no shortage of ways in which EU countries can attempt to decelerate immigration.

These factors make it difficult to estimate the number of Muslim immigrants who will be living in Europe in the long term, in 2050. Most researchers, including Livi Bacci, predict moderate growth, and not – as some would claim – an invasion of our continent by Muslims who are enemies of the West and generally supportive of jihadism.[16]

Many are now asking whether there is a “magic number” above which the presence of Muslims in Europe poses a threat to our culture and identity, not to mention our national security. Of course, this number does not exist. What does seem to hold true, however, is that the countries least open to Muslim immigrants are generally those with the lowest number of Muslim residents, including Italy and Poland.

Unfortunately, it seems that statistics are no match for subjective perceptions of migration, deformed by media narratives and professional troublemakers. Our fear of difference and of the stranger is stronger than the practical or political logic of viewing migrants – including those who have traveled across the Mediterranean – as a positive factor for our economic, cultural and social growth.

According to recent polls, natives in many EU countries tend to overestimate numbers of immigrants, and particularly of those from Muslim countries, on average guessing twice the actual number. In Italy, this perception is more distorted than in other EU countries. Italians “see” at least three times as many immigrants as there are. According to the latest statistics, immigrants are 7 percent of the national population, but Italians believe they are 24.7 percent.[17]

It is well known that a fear of foreigners can modify our perception of reality and create alarming fake news. For example, many Italians believe that crime rates have risen in direct correlation with the recent rise in immigration. This has led to a purported law-and-order crisis, constantly publicized by some politicians. In fact, the opposite is true: in Italy crime rates have recently fallen, and Italian jails hold more of their own citizens than immigrants.[18]

Once again, Islamophobia is born of ignorance or misconception and fueled, on a structural level, by propaganda that aims to create disinformation and foment unfounded fears.

The Islamophobia of some EU citizens has not been matched by hostility from Muslim residents toward the countries that welcome them or their public institutions. According to research conducted over the past few years in 16 countries by academics from the University of Münster, Muslim residents have a higher level of faith in European institutions than Christians or non-believers. Of Muslims interviewed (generally first- or second-generation immigrants), 95 percent held a positive view of their own economic and social situation, and expressed appreciation for the democratic institutions of their country of residence and of the European Union.

Of course, we should take these facts with a pinch of salt, bearing in mind it is not easy to create a representative sample, free of bias (including psychological bias). On the other hand, this trend is confirmed by a recent study commissioned by the EU, according to which the majority of Muslim immigrants perceive their country of residence as their new home. Unfortunately, Italy rates among the lowest countries in this poll. This tells us there is still much to be done to integrate immigrants in our country: a new law on a moderate version of ius soli was not approved by the last parliament, and we do not know how it will fare with the current one.

A different case is presented by third-generation Muslim immigrants who, particularly in francophone countries, are often critical of integration policies adopted by European governments, viewing themselves as marginalized by institutions and even, sometimes, by their societies. As we know, in recent years this has led to many young people joining Islamist movements for reasons of identity rather than faith, and becoming radicalized as a form of political protest.

Islamophobia and neoethnicity

Bearing in mind the data on Islamophobia in the EU, it seems important to analyze this phenomenon from a socio-cultural point of view. Islamophobia has become widespread across Europe in recent years both because of an increase in numbers of economic migrants and because of terrorist attacks carried out by IS in various European capitals.

Conceptually, Islamophobia reduces religion to ethnicity.[19] Regardless of all else, Islamophobes consider anyone arriving from a country identified as Muslim to be Islamic: the Syrian and the Afghan refugee, the Algerian doctor, the Egyptian dentist, the Turkish laborer and the Nigerian beggar are simply Muslims, all belonging to the same ethnicity.

Islam is viewed as a unified religion, while in reality it is an “archipelago” of beliefs, of different cultures, languages and dialects.[20] Think of the difference that exists in terms of religion and culture between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or of the fact that within these confessions there are many different confraternities and schools of thought, sometimes in competition with each other. In reality, “the Islamic monolith exists only in the minds of fanatics and Islamophobes” who have created a single people out of many, in accordance with the “essentialist culture” of our times.[21]

As regards the use of religion as a factor in identity politics, it is worth noting that many Muslim immigrants in EU countries have become more secular over time and have drifted away from practicing Islam. As for Italian Muslims, it seems that 74 percent no longer practice the fundamental precepts of Islam, and only 10 percent go to a mosque or prayer hall on Fridays.[22] According to some researchers, this low rate of participation may be due to a shortage of places of worship in Italy; it is certainly true that, in some places, Muslims are forced to pray in garages, or even on the streets.

The French political theorist Olivier Roy studied this phenomenon from the 1990s onward, and coined the term “neoethnicity” to describe this sociocultural dynamic. According to Roy, “neoethnicity is the adoption of an ethnic category (a group defined by a shared origin), particularly based on criteria of geographic origin; however, this is not the direct transfer of a given culture to the West, but the reconstruction of a group based on markers selected according to the logic of the country of arrival, which separates religion from other spheres of meaning.”[23]

There are three specific reasons why this sociological category is used in Europe. Firstly, we presume that all people of Muslim origin, regardless of where they come from, are tied to the same culture of origin that is based on Islam as its essential component. Secondly, this culture is attributed to people regardless of their faith and is therefore dissociated from how religious they are, to the extent that we could even talk about an atheist Muslim. Finally, these characteristics form a collective identity that differentiates Muslims from native Europeans who are culturally Christian but not identified solely by their religion.[24]

This new category creates ambiguities. On the one hand, it is useful to public institutions and their bureaucracies, as it simplifies their approach to diaspora communities for administrative or statistical purposes. On the other hand, it is also useful to immigrants who wish to disengage from their countries of origin “to alleviate their sense of guilt at having left them, duplicating or triplicating their identities.”[25]

In reality, by grouping together Muslim communities that are very different from each other and identifying them as a single pan-Islamic community – reducing them to a neoethnicity – we are laying the groundwork for Islamophobia on a social and cultural level. As a result of this, new-generation immigrants – or in other words, young people – feel increasingly excluded from the societies and communities that claim to welcome them and develop a sense of hatred toward Western culture, which is seen as colonizing and imperialist. Meanwhile, native Europeans are increasingly convinced that foreigners may be temporarily camouflaged, but will later join forces in the battle against European civilization.

In order to break this vicious cycle that hampers the welcome and integration of migrants, we must combat the culture in which Islamophobia is rooted. In particular, this requires the support of both civil society and public institutions, which have a duty to pass laws that are fair and can balance the value of welcome with the interests of national security.

The Church is also called to play an important role in combating Islamophobia by example and through its own witness (opening centers that can support migrants and displaced people who are struggling), by preaching the Gospel, and by strongly condemning the culture of fear and xenophobia.

When he visited the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome for the 50th anniversary of its foundation, Pope Francis said: “The world today is often inhabited by fear […]. Our age is marked by great fear in the face of the vast scale of globalization. And fears often focus on those who are foreigners, different from us, poor, as if they were an enemy.”[26] Speaking off the cuff, the pope then said: “Nations’ development plans are also driven by opposition to these people. And thus we defend ourselves from these people, believing we are preserving what we have or what we are.”[27] This fear can infect not only our communities, but also our media, politics and institutions, and divert our open and democratic societies toward an authoritarianism that benefits no one.

For Pope Francis, the “sacred” duty of welcome implies effort and understanding on both sides. On the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the pope reminded us that “for new arrivals, to welcome, understand and recognize means to know and respect the laws of the countries where they are welcomed.”[28] For Pope Francis, respecting European law and cultural identity is a necessary premise for the participation of migrants in the societies that welcome them. This constitutes the difference between immigration and invasion. The pope, writes Andrea Riccardi, is not a “fundamentalist” in favor of welcome at all costs, nor does he wish to chastise “the fears of the global person who faces a world without borders.”[29] Instead, he hopes we will not allow our choices to be informed by fear, which feeds hatred and rejection toward those who knock at our door.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 7, art. 3, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1907.3

[1] This propaganda, which indiscriminately associates Islam and terrorism in Europe, fails to account for the fact that, around the world, 94 percent of terrorist attacks target Muslims and are carried out in Muslim-majority countries. Moderate Muslims, known as “infidels,” are in fact the primary target of jihadists because they are seen to have betrayed the Islamic cause and sold themselves to the West.

[2] Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Minister of the Interior, has sought an allegiance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in an attempt to create a unified European front against the Dublin Regulation, which has been under review for some time. However, this allegiance is surprising. The two share a desire to halt immigration from African countries and the Middle East and to close national borders, but their positions on the Dublin Regulation are actually very different. Hungary, like other countries in the Visegrad Group, opposes any form of relocation, whereas the Italian government wants the relocation of asylum seekers to be compulsory and automatic, and all European countries to share the burden of immigration equally.

[3] N. Temko, “I migranti sono il capro espiatorio,” in Internazionale, March 9, 2018, 22.

[4] M. Recalcati, “L’immortale desiderio di fascismo,” in la Repubblica, March 1, 2018.

[5] This phenomenon does not only concern the Mediterranean region and Muslim immigrants, but affects various parts of the world and involves several hundred million people. Cf. G. Sale, “L’immigrazione in Europa e i diversi modelli di integrazione,” in Civ. Catt. 2016 IV 253-268.

[6] Cf. W. Sumani, “Migranti africani: dove rifare casa?” ibid. 2008 I 156-166.

[7] The attack on the Twin Towers (September 11, 2001) was followed by a gradual shift from using the noun “Muslim” to using the adjective “Islamic” – often associated in public perceptions reinforced by propaganda with the word “terrorist” – to describe Muslim residents who had been living in Western countries for several years.

[8] Cf. M. Livi Bacci, “All’Italia servono persone prima che braccia,” in Limes, 7, 2016, 103ff.; G. Salvini, “L’Italia diventa più anziana,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 II 400-403.

[9] A. Rosina, “L’Italia senza culle che può salvarsi grazie ai migranti,” in la Repubblica, November 24, 2017.

[10] “What Do Europeans Think About Muslim Immigration?” in Chatham House, February 7, 2017. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/what-do-europeans-think-about-muslim-immigration

[11] Cf. “Aspettando Averroè,” in Limes, 1, 2018, 11.

[12] “Europe’s Growing Muslim Population,” in Pew Research Center, February 19, 2017.

[13] Cf. M. Livi Bacci, “In Europa i musulmani resteranno minoranza,” in Limes, 1, 2018, 35.

[14] According to the Pew Research Center, between mid-2010 and mid-2016 some 3.7 million Muslims arriving in Europe – including 2.4 million legal migrants and 1.3 million irregular arrivals – were refugees from countries at war, like Syria, or from so-called failed states, like Somalia. Most refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. This number does not include 1 million refugees who were not granted international protection. These are exceptional circumstances, particularly as regards Syria and Iraq, and we cannot predict whether similar situations will occur again in the near future. Therefore, researchers do not generally factor them into statistical calculations on migration. Cf. “Europe’s Growing Muslim Population,” ibid.

[15] Cf. T. Marshall, I muri che dividono il mondo, Milan, Garzanti, 2018, 185ff.

[16] Cf. M. Livi Bacci, “In Europa i musulmani resteranno minoranza,” ibid., 38.

[17] Cf. “Immigrati in Italia, la percentuale di presenza percepita è la più alta d’Europa,” in Blasting News, (blastingnews.com/cronaca/2018/04/immigrati-in-italia-percentuale-di-presenza-percepita-e-la-piu-alta-deuropa), April 19, 2018.

[18] Cf. A. Alesina, “La forza dei numeri sull’emergenza immigrati,” in Corriere della Sera, July 9, 2018.

[19] Cf. “Aspettando Averroè,” ibid., 17.

[20] Muslims no longer share, as they once did, a knowledge of Arabic as the sacred language of the Koran. Arabic is no longer known or practised by many young people.

[21] Cf. “Aspettando Averroè,” ibid., 17.

[22] Cf. L. Declich, “Chi parla a nome di chi: il puzzle dell’islam europeo,” in Limes, 1, 2018, 52.

[23] O. Roy, Global Muslim. Le radici occidentali del nuovo Islam, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2003, 52ff.

[24] Cf. L. Declich, Islam in 20 parole, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 2016, 187. As Roy points out, the term “neoethnicity” includes the prefix “neo” because this concept “ignores the concrete culture both of the individual and of origin, since it does not wish to see these characteristics simply as a religion, realized only through affirmation of the faith, but as a fact acquired at birth.”

[25] “Aspettando Averroè,” op. cit., 18.

[26] Francis, “I rischi della paura,” in Oss. Rom., March 12-13, 2018, 7.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Quoted by A. Riccardi, “Francesco traccia la differenza tra immigrazione e invasione,” in Corriere della Sera, January 15, 2018.

[29] Ibid.