© Tim Smith
Although the numbers of Muslims in Europe are growing, they remain a small minority. In 2010 there were some 20 million Muslims in the European Union, about 4% of the total population. Muslims form majorities in some neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia-Herzogovina. European Muslims are mixed. They are from many different national and ethnic backgrounds, from various classes and sects, from rural as well as urban areas. They have had different experiences depending on their age, gender and sexuality. Some have lived in Europe for several generations, including many Turkish Muslims in Germany and Pakistani Muslims in the UK. Others have arrived more recently, from North Africa and the Middle East. The experiences of migration and re-location, and of Islamophobia, have contributed to a shared sense of Muslim identity despite these other differences.
Diaspora or not?
Is there a single Islamic diaspora, several Muslim diasporas – such as the Pakistani or Iranian Muslim diasporas – or none at all? There is no definitive answer to this question, but it does raise interesting issues about whether all religious groups can be said to be diasporas, or only those that are closely tied to particular places or ethnic groups.
Islam had its origins in Mecca and Medina in Arabia in the early 7th century CE, and spread out from its Middle Eastern homeland to countries as far afield as South East Asia and Western Europe. This gradual dispersal of people and ideas was linked to trade and conquest rather than exile, as in the case of the expulsion of Jews from Israel. Mecca continues to be important in Islam, with Muslims from all over the world directing themselves towards it in prayer (salaat) and going there on pilgrimage (hajj).
Like members of ethnic diasporas, Muslims share certain beliefs and practices, and these are lived out in diverse national, social and cultural contexts. And Islam is certainly a global religion, with Muslims living in all the countries of the world. Many scholars have questioned whether these features make Islam a truly diasporic religion or just a universal one.
What has led recent researchers to describe today’s Muslims as diasporic is not their shared beliefs and practices, their history of dispersion, the centrality of Mecca, or the mass migration of certain ethnic Muslim populations. It is the consciousness that many Muslims share – particularly those living as minorities – that they are part of a global community or Umma. This feeling is strengthened for some by the marginalisation, hostility and discrimination that they believe Muslims are now subject to, particularly in the West. Media and wider public fears about terrorism since 9/11 have led to the stereotyping of Muslims as extremists and have contributed to this shared consciousness.