In a recent poll, conducted after the controversy over the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, 40 per cent of British Muslims supported the introduction of Islamic law in parts of the country where they are concentrated, and 20 per cent expressed sympathy with the "feelings and motives" of the 7/7 bombers. Such findings often appear to confirm the worst prejudices of the "clash of civilisation" warriors.
Jytte Klausen, to her credit, sets herself the task of probing beneath anti-Muslim rhetoric in European politics by exploring the outlook of Europe's new Muslim political elites - legislators, local officials, engineers, educators, lawyers and social workers, owners of small businesses, translators and community activists - in order to find out "what they want". Based on a survey of 300 individuals across Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, UK, France and Germany, her findings challenge the conventional stereotypes.
According to Klausen, these elites are not fundamentalists, nor terrorists, or the proponents of sharia , but "realists" as well as mainly secular in their outlook. Most are keen to engage with the workings of Western European democracies, but the main difficulty arises from the fact that "they seek integration into European societies and claim a voice in European institutions while insisting on equitable treatment of their communal organisations". This tension has created a "Muslim line" in European politics that can be erased only by reconfiguring the state-church relationship so that it better reflects and accommodates new religious pluralism within states. In fact, according to Klausen, Muslims in Europe are a new interest group, a social movement not unlike socialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with a potential for restructuring these polities as well as ushering in a new form of "European Islam".
While strong evidence is marshalled in support of the argument that Muslim demands can be accommodated by European democracies, less plausible is the suggestion that "European Islam is emerging based upon a new epistemology of faith and a new hermeneutics of textual interpretation". No doubt it is easy to find some evidence of such groups and individuals engaged in such rethinking. However, the results from Klausen's own survey appear to cast a strong shadow over such a development. In the UK, for example, 71.4 per cent of her sample subscribed to what was identified as a "neo-orthodox"
view that holds that "Western norms are incompatible with the exercise of Islam". Indeed, across Europe as a whole, 40 per cent of those surveyed concurred with this outlook.
The main virtue of this book is that it refocuses attention on the political. The fear of a globalised Euro-Islam often acts as a powerful spectre, fuelling nativist backlashes. However, failure to act is likely to undermine Muslim secular elites while creating spaces for ideological Islamists to take their place. In this hiatus European democracies may end up with outcomes they least desire.
Gurharpal Singh is chair of inter-religious relations, Birmingham University.
The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe
Author - Jytte Klausen
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 253
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 19 928992 1