Events

Connecting Muslim Communities and Governmentsin the United States and Europe

March 05, 2008 // 8:30am10:30am
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The Honorable Sue Greenwald, Mayor, City of Davis, California; Bernard Godard, Advisor, Central Office of Religions, Ministry of Interior, France
Sajida Madni, Birmingham Citizens Organisation, England; Mounir Azzaoui, Spokesman, "Green Muslims," German Green Party, and Member, Working Group on Constitutional Issues, German Islam Conference. Co-sponsored by the West European Studies Program, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the German Embassy/German Information Center USA.

The Muslim populations of Western Europe and the United States have grown dramatically as a result of immigration over the last decades of the twentieth century. In an effort to explore the ways in which governments and Muslim communities can communicate with each other for the purposes of advancing integration and combating terrorism, the Division of United States Studies organized a conference that brought together government officials and Muslim community leaders from Germany, France, England and the United States. The first part of the conference was an all day invitation-only workshop. The second part, summarized below, was a public discussion of best practices and problems encountered in each country.

One question that was raised had to do with the ways governments can identify interlocutors within the Muslim communities who are truly representative. Government officials often seek to engage Muslim representatives through mosques, despite the fact that large numbers of Muslims do not attend mosques regularly. Mounir Azzaoui noted, for example, that only 20 percent of the German Muslim population goes to mosques regularly. (Fifty percent, however, have some relation to mosques, as they must turn to them for purposes such as the burial of family members.) The German government has tried since 2006 to facilitate communication by establishing the German Islam Conference, which includes representatives from the largest Islamic umbrella organizations and Muslim citizens from various areas of public life. Bernard Godard suggested that an additional difficulty in identifying representatives lies in the fact that various parts of the larger Muslim community in France, as in some other countries, are at odds with each other. Sajida Madni contended that governments will find more authentic Muslim representatives if they are willing to work with groups that challenge the government's policies toward Muslims as well as those that simply affirm them.

Another part of the discussion concerned the way Muslims in the West are creating new versions of Islam. In Germany, for example, the architecture of mosques is changing, becoming more Westernized to the point where some new mosques are being built without minarets. Muslim citizens in England are working not only with each other but with multi-faith civic and faith groups to combat racism. Birmingham Citizens has brought together 40 leaders of different faiths to speak out against a hate crime in the local school system – the kind of collaborative effort between Muslims and non-Muslims that may be unique to the West. Godard noted that in France the younger generation of Muslims is more invested in the country in which they reside than in the country from which their parents or grandparents came.

The speakers picked up on the theme of generational differences as a cross-cultural phenomenon. Godard emphasized the reluctance of the older Muslim generation in France to cede leadership roles in national Muslim organizations to the younger generation, which identifies itself culturally as both French and Muslim. Similarly, Madni commented that young English Muslims feel alienated in their community in part because imams (prayer leaders) often do not speak the language or the idiom of the young people. Eighty percent of the imams in Germany come from Turkey. Madni emphasized the importance of young Muslims becoming more active in civic endeavors, such as voting, participating in civic groups, or joining the police force, which would help distance them from the influence of the kind of extremist messages they find on the Internet.

Speaking of the American experience, Sue Greenwald detailed the pre- and post-9/11 measures that the city of Davis, California has implemented to better integrate the Muslim community. These include educating all students about Islamic culture and a city-sponsored iftar, the evening meal breaking the fast during Ramadan. Davis has also sponsored interfaith organizations, such as "Care for God's Creations," which works on environmental issues. Californian cities have been particularly motivated to build connections with Muslim communities, Greenwald noted, because of their experience and awareness of the kind of discrimination that led to Japanese-Americans being placed in "relocation" camps during World War II.

The participants offered various suggestions for further improvement of Muslim-government relations. Madni proposed that NGOs with both Muslim and non-Muslim members should be more proactive in the integration process of Muslims. Azzaoui recommended that the German government grant Muslim representatives the same access to schools that it has given to other religions, so that they can educate students about Islam. Greenwald added that the police forces in all the countries must work on the long-standing problem of racial profiling. Above all, the panelists stressed, opportunities for dialogue between Muslim communities and Western societies and their governments must be enhanced, both to counter extremism and to allow for a natural integration process that is more far-reaching than any that has yet been achieved.

Drafted by Acacia Reed

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

 

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