Immigration and Islam in Europe

In addressing the topic of Muslim in Western Europe, it is striking to observe that the analysis of Islam in all countries is closely linked to the immigration debate. With the understanding that this is a nuanced issue that is in many ways country-specific, it is interesting and can be informative to identify similar transversal trends along with significant differences when looking comparatively at issues related to Muslims and immigration in Western Europe. In an effort to most effectively address this topic, there are a few distinct issues that are helpful to approach as a whole, including descent of Muslim immigrants, motivations for migration, legislation which directly affects Muslims, the idea of multiculturalism and integration policies for immigrants, and changes to policies concerning asylum seekers.

Before beginning an analysis of these main issues, there are a few significant points to highlight in order to provide a framework through which we can best understand Muslim immigration in Europe. Firstly, it is important to recognize that immigration is of necessity a central issue within the broader context of Muslims in Europe due to the fact that most Muslims in Europe are either immigrants themselves or have an immigrant background. Hence, any discussion of pertinent issues relative to Muslims in Europe must take place, at least in part, within the context of Muslims as immigrants in their communities. Building off of this point, it should also be noted that there is a distinct connection between Muslim immigration and larger socio-economic issues owing to the fact that the majority of Muslim immigrants are low-skilled laborers. And the last significant point is that there has been a dramatic increase in the relationship between immigration and national security issues following the attacks of 9/11 and the modifications to security measures that have subsequently occurred.

Origins and Demographics

In terms of sheer numbers, France has the largest population of Muslims, with approximately 4.5 million in the country today. Along with the large Muslim population in France, there are also approximately 3 million Muslims in Germany, 1.5 million in the UK and more than half a million in Italy and the Netherlands. In addition to having the greatest number of Muslim individuals, France also has the largest proportional percentage of Muslims, comprising roughly 8% of the total population. Muslims residing in the Netherlands constitute nearly 6% of the total population. The percentage of Muslims who live in European countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, Greece, and Switzerland is roughly 4% of the total national population. While Muslims in Italy number close to 600,000, they constitute less 2% of the total population.1

The ethnicity, historical background, and socio-economic conditions of Muslims who reside in various Western European countries differs with each area, but a common factor among these groups is that the vast majority have a shared immigrant origin. Immigrants from Morocco constitute a large portion of the total Muslim population in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and especially Spain. Along with a large Moroccan population, the Muslim population of France is also comprised of a significant amount of immigrants of Algerian descent. Muslims of Turkish origin make up nearly 70% of the total population of Germany and close to 33% of Austria’s Muslim population. The majority of Muslims in the UK are from South Asian descent, and most Muslims in Greece are immigrants from Albania.2

In several European countries an increasing demand for labor in the 60s and 70s was the catalyst behind the movement of thousands of Muslims into the country as guest laborers. In Germany, for example, the large percentage of Turkish Muslims who now live in the country first began to arrive in the 60s in response to domestic labor shortages. Though the original idea was for all these workers to leave the country after completing their labor, nearly half of them remained and were eventually joined by their families.3 This phenomenon of guest laborers is also true of Muslims in Sweden, the Netherlands, France, as well as with Turkish, Yugoslavian, and Albanian guest laborers in Switzerland—all migrating “temporarily” in the 60s and 70s and eventually choosing to stay in the country following the completion of labor assignments.

Due to the fact that a large majority of European Muslims have immigrated to fill low-skilled labor positions, most Muslims tend to be socio-economically marginalized as a result of their class situation. As an example of this marginalization, a 2003 EUMC report addressing unemployment rates shows that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the UK have an employment rate of nearly two percent, whereas the broader population is somewhere around six percent.4 A similar trend exists as well in Germany, where the largest group of Muslims in the country, namely Turkish Muslims, have an employment rate of twenty-one percent, relative to the national rate which is somewhere around eight percent.5 Data also shows that along with having lower employment rates, individuals with a Muslim background in several European countries including Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands also have resultantly poorer educational outcomes.6

In addition to immigration motivated by economic reasons, other European countries such as the UK have also opened their borders to those seeking refuge from political instability or forced expulsion. East African Asians escaping “Africanisation” policies in Kenya and Tanzania and those fleeing Uganda as a result of forced expulsion arrived in large numbers in the UK in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Immigration Policies

As an example of the changes which have come about due to dramatic increases in sheer numbers of immigrants, even countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, often characterized as having more liberal immigration policies, have begun in the last two to three years to tighten their requirements and reform their vision of immigration. The issue of illegal immigration—already a significant problem in several European countries—has been dramatically compounded by increasing amounts of immigrants, growing skepticism concerning multiculturalist ideologies, and perceived potential threats of terrorism or radical extremism.

During the 1960s and 1970s the immigration policies in the Netherlands were minimally regulated and for the most part accommodated Muslim immigrants who were guest workers in the country. In the late 70s and into the 80s, as more immigrants began to permanently settle in the country, there was subsequently a great increase in family reunification and marriage migration. Owing to this influx in marriage migration and family reunification along with the growing skepticism concerning the concept of a multicultural society, since the 1990s there has been a trend of increasingly less favorable treatment towards Muslim immigrants and greater difficulty in regular migration. As an example of these changes, since 2004 the age at which a person can bring over a partner has been raised from 18 to 21, and the partner residing in the Netherlands must earn 120% of the legal minimum wage.7

Before 9/11 there was a trend of relatively favorable treatment of immigrants in Germany. As an example of this, the Foreigners Law was created 1991 to allow foreigners who had lived in the country for a significant amount of time to more easily become German citizens. Also, the new citizenship law created in 2000 automatically granted German citizenship to children of foreigners who have legally resided in the country for at least eight years. But in recent years, the trend has been towards a stricter stance against immigrants. In 2004 the first Immigration Law (Zuwanderungsgesetz) was introduced in Germany. It focuses on an active integration policy which restricts new immigration and allows only temporary immigration of qualified individuals, besides immigration on the basis of family reunification.

While both the Netherlands and Germany have experienced a certain amount of changes in regards to immigration policies following 9/11, perhaps no other country has experienced more dramatic changes in its stance since 9/11 than France. While for a time there appeared to be a more softened stance towards immigrants, since 9/11 France has trended back towards more restrictive immigration policies. In the past two years, for example, France has also become more explicit in pointing the finger of blame at Islam in its discussion of immigration problems. President Sarkozy has been fairly transparent in asserting that Islam is at the center of the immigration problem, stating that immigrants need to “learn to respect the country” and “[accept] French laws, even if they don’t understand them,” because “it is up to them to adapt, not for France.”8 With a clear focus on the Muslim population, Sarkozy has called for a selective immigration and has stressed that immigrants must learn French, accept political cartoons, and that women must provide uncovered photographs for identity cards and be seen by male doctors.9 He has also backed a bill, in October 2007, which calls a more selected process of immigration that entails, among other points, DNA testing, language exams, and proof of ability to support oneself at a minimum economic level for all immigrants.10

In Spain, while respect and support of immigrants has long represented a fundamental illustration of a political correctness in harmony with the democratic rule of law, growing numbers of Muslim immigrants (mainly from Morocco) and reported conflicts involving Muslims are eroding the image of a Spanish society in favor of the integration of Muslim migrants. Since the first law dealing with immigration was passed in 1985 (OL 7/1985), there have been a series of reforms and two additional laws passed, which have affected immigration policies in the country. While there have been shifts and fluctuation in the liberality or restrictiveness of immigration policies, generally speaking policies in Spain have also become increasingly strict with more effective deportation procedures, greater access for security forces into municipal registers, and the limitation of rights to reunite families of immigrants.11

There are occasional signs of more favorable attitudes towards Muslim immigrants. Though the UK has been subject to violent terrorist attacks at the hand of Muslim extremists, there has been little in the way of changes to immigration policies or legislation since 9/11 that has had a significant impact on Muslim communities. And the Greek government, which has historically been known to neglect confronting the problems of immigrant communities, has facilitated the creation of amnesty programs which regularize the status of undocumented immigrants. But while examples of more positive trends such as the following do exist, these examples are clearly the exception. The overwhelming trend across Western Europe appears to be increasingly negative for Muslim immigrants, as evidenced through stricter immigration policies, more explicit anti-immigration rhetoric, and more selective immigration processes.

Policies Concerning Asylum Seekers

Relative to the trend of increasingly negative treatment towards Muslims as reflected in immigration policies, there is also a growing shift in the discourse concerning asylum seekers in the majority of European countries which calls for stricter policies and a greater number of requirements. Changing approaches towards asylum seekers in Belgium is evidence of the more widespread shift in discourse and policy. While Belgium has historically had relatively liberal policies concerning asylum granting and has enabled foreigners to easily apply for citizenship and obtain employment, these procedures are beginning to become stricter and more reserved. Belgium remains one of the more liberal countries in Europe in terms of granting asylum, but there is a growing toughness in its approach towards asylum seekers that calls for tighter requirements in terms of income, language ability, and length of stay.12

Similar trends can be seen in Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, and France. Greece, for example, has been roundly criticized by human rights officials for their mistreatment of immigrants, who are rarely notified of their rights and often deported without any access to any asylum procedure. In the case of the Netherlands, the Alien Act of 2000, which revised the process of seeking asylum, has led to a significant decrease in the number of foreigners granted asylum—now receiving a mere 25% of the amount of applications received in the late nineties.13 And in Germany, an immigration law was passed in January 2005 which regulated the influx of asylum seekers and made it easier to deflect or deport those suspected of terrorism.

Even in the UK, which accepts more asylum seekers in absolute numbers than any other European country, tighter enforcement has been employed in the past few years which makes it more difficult for asylum seekers to be eligible for financial support. The Immigration, Asylum, and Nationality Act passed in 2006, along with other recent British legislation, removes several appeal rights for asylum seekers, calls for a refusal of financial assistance to asylum seekers who don’t apply within three days of being in the country, and introduces electronic tagging for asylum seekers.14 Overall, it can be generally stated that in the majority of European countries it has become increasingly more difficult for asylum speakers to obtain financial support, employment, long-term security, and citizenship.

Multiculturalism and Integration

Historically speaking, the integration policies of several Western European countries, including especially the Netherlands and the UK, have been based on the ideological foundation of multiculturalism. An increase in the number of new immigrants has caused for the design of specific integration processes distinct from previous models such as regionalism in the UK or the Pillars in the Netherlands.

The concept of a multicultural society was originally centered on the general idea of “‘compromise, interdependence, [and] a relativizing universalism’” that was expected to lead to a kind of “intercultural community.” But as the amount of immigrants has continued to increase and great difficulties were encountered in the integration process, countries which once placed multiculturalist ideals at the center of their immigration ideology have experienced the so-called “failure of multiculturalism”, which has lead to subsequent shifts in approaches towards integration of immigrants. Over time multiculturalism appeared, more than anything else, to provide more of “an institutionalization of difference, with ‘autonomous cultural discourses and separated interactional communities.’”15

The supposed failure of Muslim integration into European societies is an issue that has especially contributed to the critique of multiculturalism. Some have begun to feel that liberal multicultural approaches to integration have allowed, and will continue to allow, for the unmonitored growth of ultra-conservative strains of Islam. Acts of significant violence involving Muslims seem to validate these fears and lead to the notion that Muslim immigrants should instead be forced to conform to some definition of a national citizen. In addition to this threat of rising radicalism is the notion that as Muslim minorities are allowed to retain their own culture and advance their own moral, religious, and political ideas, the national culture of the majority is thereby undermined. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands provide relevant examples of these growing tensions.

The United Kingdom has traditionally had a multicultural approach that is similar to the Netherlands in terms of its immigrant integration policies. In fact, multicultural arrangements have taken roots perhaps most easily in the UK due to the distinct lack of strong British identity among its citizens as compared to countries such as the United States and France where a “national” identity is more pronounced. The controversy surrounding the Satanic Verses and Solomon Rushdie in the late 80s began to cast a shadow of doubt over the notion of multiculturalism. Before the Rushdie controversy, immigration was viewed primarily as the adjustment of minorities to dominant society; but following the controversy it was viewed as more of a mutual process that would also transform the majority population. The critique against multiculturalism escalated even more dramatically following the London train bombings in 2005. The bombings, which were undertaken by “homegrown bombers,” caused many to begin seriously questioning the very possibility of cultural difference and to instead assert the abstract notion that Muslims must become some kind of “ideal British citizens.”16

In the Netherlands, multiculturalism was the explicit policy of the Dutch government in the mid-1980s and much of government policy was thus oriented towards assisting immigrants with difficulties in education and the labor market. But with continued tension in the process of immigrant integration, multiculturalism has begun to be seen in a less positive light. In this new light, the growing assumption is that laws and policies dominated by the concept of multiculturalism have been unwisely instituted merely to conform to the notion of political correctness. Consequently, Dutch politicians such as Geert Wilders, the late Pim Fortuyn, and others have begun to break out of the climate of political correctness and openly criticize Islam, as they feel they are merely saying out loud what the majority inwardly feels.

In support of this trend, beginning in the 1990s the Netherlands government has labored to pass laws which emphasize, not the need for a multicultural society, but rather the need for immigrants to embrace Dutch culture and to assimilate to a common set of values.17 Integration policies in terms of language and employment requirements are not a new or particularly remarkable phenomenon—Spain, France, and other European countries began to advance such policies long before the 9/11 attacks. What is noteworthy then about the Netherlands and other similar countries is how recent changes in integration policy are more clearly focused on Muslim immigrants.

The Dutch Integration of Newcomers Act (INA), created in 1998 to promote the swift acquisition of self-sufficiency in Dutch society, called for new immigrants to take a simple civic integration program. But as of March 15, 2006, this process was modified in a significant way. As a part of this integration process, immigrants are now shown a film which portrays Dutch society and highlights some of the ways that Dutch values may differ from the values of immigrants. Immigrants are informed that violence, female circumcision, and honor killing are not allowed in the Netherlands. They are also shown footage of gay men kissing and a bare-breasted woman coming out of the sea.18 The film is designed to prepare newcomers for what they may experience in the Netherlands and is obviously geared at least in part towards Muslim immigrants.

Dissatisfaction with multiculturalism has also spread from the Netherlands into neighboring countries such as Germany where long-standing consensuses concerning multiculturalism are also beginning to be thrown into question. One policy change that reflects an increasingly tightened stance is that beginning in January 2005 it became required of all new immigrants to participate in integration courses where they obtain general knowledge on Germany, the state system, and the German language.19

One conservative German political figure has been quoted as saying that “‘the notion of multiculturalism has fallen apart….Anyone coming here must respect our constitution and tolerate our Western and Christian roots.’”20 Such statements are striking in that multicultural policies have long protected and supported the country’s sizeable Turkish population. But certain segments of society are becoming increasingly critical of such policies. As one German political commentator noted concerning the situation, “‘If multiculturalism means that it’s OK for 30,000 Turks to live in a certain quarter of Berlin, and never leave, and live like they’re still in deepest Turkey, then the term is now discredited.’”21

A more extreme example of an increasingly harsh discourse in relation to Muslim immigration is that of the Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, which has continued to gain support since its creation in the early 1990s. This party views immigration as a threat to the Flemish people and culture and speak of the growing threat of Islamic radicalism as evidenced by the increases in the number of new mosques and state funding for Muslim organizations. The party now also insists on the assimilation of Muslim immigrants to Western values, claiming that Islam is incompatible with democracy and that Muslims must therefore choose between religion and democracy.22

In contrast to the example of several of the preceding countries, in France the term “multiculturalism” has historically had a distinctively derogatory meaning. A fundamental tenet of French political society is the notion that the republican ideal does not admit the importance of cultural or ethnic difference. But even in a France, a country with a historic unwillingness to recognize differences in its citizens, the difficulty of integrating a large minority population has caused movement towards a more pluralist conception of society which recognizes particular identities. The state’s organization of the Muslim Council in 2003 along with the creation of the Ministry of Equal Opportunities in 2006 is evidence of an increasing attempt to integrate immigrant populations. As mentioned previously, there is an easily observable trend over the past few years of policies and rhetoric which clearly focus on the Muslim presence in the country as being a source of several domestic problems.

While countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany have been heavily affected by multiculturalist or pluralist approaches to integration of immigrants, in other European countries multiculturalism has had a minimal effect. As just mentioned, until recently the concept of societal pluralism was not even recognized in France. In the case of Italy and Spain, these countries have only recently become net countries of immigration and thus do not currently have such developed discourses or policies in relation to cultural pluralism.

Security Issues

Among the several differences between each country, one factor that is consistent in most all Western European countries is that the events of 9/11 have had a significant effect on domestic policies and legislation. “Anti-terrorism” is a watchword that has been employed in a large portion of immigration legislation, especially in regards to legislation produced immediately following the attacks of 9/11. This legislation, while applying generally to any kind of terrorist or source of terrorism, has primarily targeted Muslim immigrants.23

One example of this type of legislation is the Law on Everyday Security that was passed on November 15, 2001 in France, which has been controversial in that it has led to greater harassment of Muslim immigrants. Critics of the new legislation argue that it extends beyond the boundaries of anti-terrorist activities and that Muslims have been unfairly singled out and abused as a result.24 The Law on Everyday Security and pieces of similar post-9/11 legislation, including the British Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Bill passed on November 13, 2001 and legislation passed in Germany also immediately following 9/11, increase the power of police forces in dealing with the problem of anti-terrorism. German policies introduced in 2002 have greatly increased the power of police and military forces to demand financial records, email and postal communication, and transportation records. The new law also allows for wiretapping and a certain amount of eavesdropping.25 Similarly, the UK bill grants the right to legal authorities to arrest individuals in anticipation of violence rather than in response.

Under the UK bill, legal authorities are granted the right to indefinitely detain foreign nationals with whom it is deemed unsafe to return them to their country of origin. And in Spain, there has been an increasing amount of reports of legal residents being expelled from the country since 9/11 who were never convicted of any crime, as a part of “effective anti-terrorist policies.”26 While the current analysis does not warrant a detailed look into security issues, these few examples provide a brief illustration of the effect of security-related legislation on the broader issues of Muslim immigration in Western Europe.

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  1. Jocelyne Cesari, et al. “Securitization and Religious Divides in Europe Muslims In Western Europe After 9/11: Why the term Islamophobia is more a predicament than an explanation,” Submission to the Changing Landscape of Citizenship and Security 6th PCRD of European Commission, June 1, 2006, p.10–12. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Wolbert, B., Migrationsbewältigung [Coping with Migration] (Göttingen 1984). 

  4. “Migrants, Minorities and Employment: Exclusion, Discrimination, and Anti-Discrimination in 15 Member States of the European Union,” on behalf of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), October 2003. Accessed at 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.17. 

  7. M. Maussen in Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.120. 

  8. TF1, Le journal télévisé de 20h – 27 April 2006. 

  9. TF1, Le journal télévisé de 20h – 27 April 2006. 

  10. “Exams and DNA testing for France” The Express 19 September 2007. 

  11. José María Ortuño Aix in Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.246. 

  12. International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), International Helsinki Federation Annual Report on Human Rights Violations (2005): Belgium, 27 June 2005. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at: [accessed 22 April 2008]. 

  13. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.100–142. 

  14. “Immigration, Asylum, and Nationality Act 2006,” accessed at 

  15. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.25. 

  16. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.25. 

  17. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.23–26. 

  18. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.12 –122. 

  19. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.151. 

  20. Angela Merkel as quoted in Ray Furlong, “Germans Argue over Integration,” BBC News, November 30, 2004 accessed at 

  21. Nikolaus Blome as quoted in Ray Furlong, “Germans Argue over Integration,” BBC News, November 30, 2004 accessed at 

  22. “Immigration and Belgium’s Far-Right Parties” Migration Information Source June 2007. Online: 

  23. Institute of Race Relation, “Terror Policing Brings Many Arrests but Few Charges,” March, 5 2003, accessed at 

  24. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.20. 

  25. Jocelyne Cesari, et al, p.148–149. 

  26. See Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims in the EU. Developments since September 11. International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, March 2005, p. 7.