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The Janus-face of bureaucratic incorporation of Islam in Europe

By Thijl Sunier

On October 28, 2022, I shall give my valedictory lecture speech as professor of anthropology, chair of Islam in European Societies. The theme of the speech, and of the seminar preceding it, concerns the two faces of the process of bureaucratic incorporation of Islam into European states, as it has taken place in recent decades. Here I briefly sketch the main argument I want to elaborate in my lecture.

Muslims face numerous setbacks, there is a continuous proliferation of Islamophobia, and in media and politics Muslims are systematically problematised. But although in the past decade some dramatic developments took place, there also seems to be a remarkable stability and continuity, and a lot of ‘business as usual’, with regard to the bureaucratic incorporation of Islam in European states. For Muslims in Europe, this has generated a certain level of institutional stability and legal protection, and provided access to material, legal and financial resources. Even if the situation is far from satisfactory and setbacks are frequent, the formal and legal incorporation of Islam into European states has rendered Muslims relative protection against political and public volatility and hate campaigns. This status quo cannot easily be reversed.

But there is another side to this process of bureaucratic incorporation of Islam; it provides the state with tools to regulate Muslim organisations and their activities. Bureaucratisation is by no means a neutral process, but the elaboration of a political-ideological program of nation states to ‘nationalise’ religions, in this case Islam, and to mould them into a national format. Administrative bodies therefore use their bureaucratic apparatus to push developments in a desired direction.

These controlling mechanisms have been scaled up as a result of the deteriorated political climate, especially after 9/11, resulting in an obsession with security and the continuous problematisation and racialisation of Muslims. It generated an even stronger pressure towards Muslim organisations to comply with the ‘national common sense’ and internalise the nation state’s hegemonic classifications of Islam.

There are numerous cases where this could be observed. Most obvious is of course the process of securitisation; the increasing efforts of European governments to control Islamic movements that would threaten European societies, to stop foreign money flows, and even to close certain mosques. In the Netherlands, the government commissioned undercover research in certain mosques that were branded as radical, but control measures stretch far beyond the very small group of Muslims who may be a security risk. Especially France has recently applied very harsh measures against Muslims. In relation to these policy measures, governments in Europe have a keen interest in training a generation of imams who promote a ‘nationalised’ and ‘pacified’ Islam. Many countries subsidise training programs provided they comply with policy priorities.

The bureaucratic incorporation of Islam in European states has yet another implication, one that is hard to grasp but nevertheless fundamental in its effects. For a long time, Muslim were actual outsiders in Europe, but over the years they were gradually incorporated into society and became citizens, or citizens-to-be. Parallel to this, an image of the ‘ideal Muslim’ emerged, which became the yardstick, the point of reference, which Muslims were supposed to live up to and embrace.

The ‘ideal Muslim’ is modelled on the dominant conventions of the nation state. It is an elusive concept, with implicit assumptions, goals, and expectations, hard to objectify and to pinpoint, and its meaning shifting continuously. It is supposed to be a frame of reference for appropriate behaviour, but it is almost impossible to accomplish. Seemingly paradoxically, the more Muslims are to be found in all layers and corners of society, the stronger they feel the compelling presence of this image and the implicit pressure to aspire to it. This is what Muslims experience on a daily basis in individual interactions with other members of society, but it becomes particularly challenging and demanding for Muslim collective actors in public encounters and negotiations with administrative authorities. The message is that if you want to be recognised as a reliable interlocutor and a successful representative of your community, you have to make yourself recognisable: attune yourself to the cultural and performative conventions, speak the dominant symbolic language, and act as the ‘ideal Muslim’, whatever this would imply.

Despite the challenges that Muslims in Europe face, and the deteriorating political and social climate facing Islam and Muslims, I tend to be a bit more optimistic than pessimistic about the future. The main reason for my optimism is the changing characteristics of consecutive generations of Muslims in Europe. Today, most young Muslims in Europe have been born and raised here. Their position and their opportunities have improved considerably. They are not in the least isolated from society, as many politicians suggest. They know society, are vocal and demand a place not as guests, but as equal citizens and on their own terms. Some of them may turn away from society, but the vast majority consider themselves to be European citizens. The allegations uttered by secret services and politicians across Europe about growing radicalisation are contradicted by mere facts.

Many young Muslims I speak with are fed up with the ‘ideal Muslim’ obsessions of politicians. To comply with this image perpetuates existing power relations and is disadvantageous, even detrimental for new generations. They demand to be accepted as European citizens on their own terms. Some young Muslims are actively involved in developing an Islam that is grafted on Europe, built by European citizens, by European Muslims. Their experiences generate new ideas and insights. They can no doubt contribute to unmasking the artificial image of the ‘ideal Muslim’, and can seriously transform the organisational Islamic landscape in Europe. This process takes time, but cannot be reversed. Hence my optimism.

Thijl Sunier worked at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam as a professor of Islam in European Societies. On Friday the 28th of October at 3.45 pm he shall give his valedictory lecture. For more information about the lecture, which is open to the general public, or to sign up for the seminar preceding it, click here.

Image: By Peter Valckx and previously published at Advalvas

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