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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Muslim European Youth
Edited by Steven Vertovec and Alisdair Rogers

(Brookfield, USA and Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998)
215pp. Bibl. Hb.:35.00; ISBN 1-84014-341-X.



This edited book addresses whether young Muslims growing up in five West European countries are assimilating to the European cultures, retaining the traditional Muslim cultures of their parents, contributing to a revival of some kind of fundamentalist Islam, or doing something else. In their theoretical introduction, the editors argue that these youth are mainly doing something else -- gaining "multiple cultural competence" (p. 6). That is, they flexibly use and combine different aspects of the cultures of their parents and of the countries in which they live. The multiple-competence perspective is broadly supported by the individual contributions. It is also important for the editors' more general critique of cultural essentialism, and as their rebuttal of the commonplace that these youth are helplessly "caught between two cultures" (p. 17).

However, those interested in ethnic conflict will want to conceptualize the cultural responses of Muslim youths in categories which permit exploring possible connections between cultures and politics. Are the emerging Muslim cultures consistent with the liberal-democratic political orders of Western Europe? Are they likely to be influenced by Islamic states and movements outside Europe? What kind of substantive demands are Muslim youths likely to bring to the politics of their new countries? Indeed, the editors sketch a number of trends which arise from general aspects of the immigrant experience since the 1960s, and which bear on these questions. Muslim youth have been exposed to widespread discrimination by natives in their new countries; they have also experienced three decades of ethnic and religious mobilization by Muslim groups, as well as anti-racist and human-rights campaigns on their behalf by natives. Presumably, these experiences make them more likely to identify and mobilize politically as Muslims or as members of ethnic minorities. As an expression of their estrangement from European society, Muslim youths are also self-consciously engaging in a regeneration of Muslim practices. This includes identifying with an international Islam rather than their parents' ethnonationalist understanding of Islam. Under the influence of Western education, and breaking from their parents' generation, they tend to adopt a critical, intellectual approach to religion and to keep religion separate from other parts of their lives. Indeed, younger Muslims often become interested in religion only after marrying and having children, and even then, many of them - like their Christian counterparts - limit their religious practice to festivals, births, marriages, and deaths. Unlike their parents, young Muslims are comfortable with the local European languages, largely accept Western consumerism, join new associations and subscribe to new publications to discuss topics such as sexuality and racism, and question their parents' authority at least on selected issues.

In short, Muslim youths tend to possess large repertoires of possible responses to their conditions as immigrant minorities in Europe. This has an important implication for ethnic conflict: the kinds of responses which come to the fore and predominate have depended, and will continue to depend, upon particular political events and contexts. Three of the book's ten empirical chapters (which were written by sociologists and anthropologists) include a major focus on ethnic conflict or political participation. These contributions note that the Rushdie affair and the Gulf War were occasions for media attention on Muslims in Europe, some widely reported attempts at extremist Muslim mobilization, and increases in Muslim identification.

But these authors also show that political contexts, locally as well as nationally, are important factors shaping the form which Muslim mobilization takes. As the editors write, "the political organization of Muslim youths is ... shaped by their own needs and interests on the one hand, and the availability of political openings on the other" (p. 16). For example, Samad's chapter on Britain traces the rise of British Muslim organizations and identities as in large part a response to the Thatcher governments' attacks on the strongholds of multi-culturalism in local government. Moreover, local political contexts are also important in shaping ethnic mobilization, and the responses of local political systems can vary a great deal. For example, in his chapter on Muslim organizations in the Netherlands, Thijl Sunier describes how the Rotterdam borough governments provided access to political decision- making, in part by subsidizing Islamic organizations to participate in a massive urban-renewal process. As urban renewal was coming to a close in the mid 1990s, some of these organizations' younger leaders have turned toward representing Muslim interests in other aspects of local urban policy, in contrast to the inward-facing orientation of the older generation of leaders.

By contrast, Steven Vertovec, in a chapter on Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims in the small city of Keighley, near Bradford, describes a pattern of social and economic exclusion from the white community, and the failure of the traditional Muslim organizations to successfully incorporate Muslim youth. This pattern of exclusion and disorganization helped to spur a politically militant response to the Rushdie Affair, including a 1989 demonstration attended by more than one thousand young Muslim males, many carrying "Kill Rushdie" signs. Even after the affair subsided, many Muslims remained bitter and become angry when Rushdie is mentioned. While openings in local politics can help socialize the next generations of Muslim leaders into democratic politics, as in Rotterdam, the failure to provide such openings creates new opportunities for the next generation of extremist leaders to mobilize outside and even against the practices of liberal democracy.


Roger Karapin, Hunter College, City University of New York



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