Politics and power: The Muslim factor in European politics

Muslims demonstrated in large numbers, like this rally in London on Jan. 3, 2009, to protest against Israel during its recent incursion into Gaza.  (Claudia Vieira / Creative Commons)

Muslims demonstrated in large numbers, like this rally in London on Jan. 3, 2009, to protest against Israel during its recent incursion into Gaza. (Claudia Vieira / Creative Commons)

Protest in London on Jan. 3, 2009 against Israel's operation in Gaza was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, British Muslim Initiative and others. (Claudia Vieira / Creative Commons)

Protest in London on Jan. 3, 2009 against Israel’s operation in Gaza was organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, British Muslim Initiative and others. (Claudia Vieira / Creative Commons)


BRUSSELS (JTA) — Viviane Teitelbaum was a new member of Brussels’ regional legislature when she sponsored a bill in 2005 to renew the region’s scientific and industrial research agreement with Israel.

Legislators had frozen the cooperation pact three years earlier to protest what they said was the Jewish state’s inhumane response to the second Palestinian intifada. But when Teitelbaum’s proposal came up for discussion at a committee meeting, she says she was shouted down by Socialist Party opponents.

“The only lawmakers who showed up to the meeting were Muslim,” recalled Teitelbaum, a Jewish member of the Liberal Party. “They screamed insults at me, saying, ‘Israel is a fascist country. You will never get this passed.’ “

Later, at the actual vote, Teitelbaum again was shouted down. Her proposal was defeated.

Ten minutes later, she said, “We voted for an agreement between Libya and the Brussels region, and everyone supported it. It was very painful for me.”

Although rarely discussed in Europe, the political impact and influence of the continent’s growing Muslim population is playing an increasingly significant role in European politics. In some cases, politicians are catering to Muslim interests and concerns with an eye toward winning votes. In others, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant political parties are capitalizing on a backlash against Muslims to expand their power base.

With Muslims now roughly 5 percent of Europe’s population and demographers predicting their proportion to double over the next 20 years due to birthrate disparities, their rising political awareness and ever-growing constituent base is likely to make them a factor in Europe’s political constellation for decades to come.

Eventually that may translate into a tougher stance toward Israel, says Robin Shepherd, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“As Muslims become more electorally significant, the obvious casualty is Israel,” he said.

Many European politicians, particularly those from socialist parties, long have been strong critics of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians without any prodding from European Muslims.

When the streets of Europe exploded in January during Israel’s 22-day operation against Hamas in Gaza, top European political figures were among those who participated in protests against the Israeli operation.

In Stockholm, the head of Sweden’s Socialist Party and the country’s former foreign minister joined 8,000 protesters Jan. 10 in a mostly Muslim demonstration full of anti-Israel slogans. In Spain, representatives of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero attended a rally in which some participants called for jihad, praised Hezbollah and cursed Israel. After the protest, which drew 100,000 people, the vast majority of them non-Muslims, the Israeli Embassy in Madrid took the rare step of openly chastising the prime minister for fueling anti-Israel anger.

Some analysts believe Europe’s Muslims will exert further pressure on political leaders when it comes to Mideast policy.

“Muslim-related issues will be a growing focus and shaper of the European political scene,” the U.S. National Intelligence Council noted in its forward-looking 2025 global trends report. “Ongoing societal and political tension over integration of Muslims is likely to make European policymakers increasingly sensitive to the potential domestic repercussions of any foreign policies for the Middle East, including aligning with the U.S. on policies seen as pro-Israeli.”

Yet despite their rapid growth rate, Muslims will not be able to dictate foreign or domestic policy in Europe anytime soon, the report said.

For one thing, in some European countries up to 50 percent of Muslims do not have citizenship or national voting rights, according to some estimates.

Among Muslims in Europe generally, there is no hard data on what percentage are citizens with national voting rights, since European countries do not collect citizenship or immigration data by religion. Experts interviewed by JTA estimated that only about half of Europe’s Muslims are citizens; those who are not include recent immigrants, those whose home countries prohibit dual citizenship and immigrants unable to meet stringent citizenship requirements. The proportions of Muslims who are citizens are higher in France and Britain, countries with long histories of Muslim immigration, and lower in Germany, where until 2000 the children of immigrants born in the country were not automatically granted citizenship.

The vast majority of Muslim immigrants to the continent hold legal residency permits, akin to green cards, which give them the right to vote in local elections but not national elections. In recent years, as concerns over the cultural integration of Europe’s Muslim population have risen, some countries have made their citizenship tests much harder. In the Netherlands, applicants must demonstrate a certain level of financial independence and approval of Dutch values, such as affirmation of gender equality and tolerance of homosexuality.

Another factor limiting Muslim influence on European foreign policy is that the primary concerns of Muslims in Europe, who tend to be poorer than average, are economic, not religious issues, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center survey.

Rather than forming political parties of their own, Muslim voters have helped strengthen socialist and other left-leaning parties that cater to disadvantaged populations.

Nowhere is Muslim political influence in Europe more evident than in Belgium, where fully one-third of the residents of the capital city, Brussels, are Muslim. This is more than in any other major European city except for Marseilles, France, which has roughly the same proportion of Muslims. In some of Brussels’ local municipalities, Muslims account for 80 percent of the population.

Following the last election of the Brussels regional legislature, in 2004, half the 26 legislators from the Socialist Party were of Muslim background, a record high for that legislature. Some Belgians attribute the strong showing by the Socialists in that election to the party’s outreach to Muslim immigrants and the record number of candidates with Muslim names on the ticket.

Ermeline Gosselin, a spokeswoman for the Socialist Party in Belgium, insists that no one in her party looks at religion or ethnicity when selecting candidates.

“We are proud to represent Belgians of all backgrounds,” she said.

The mere discussion of Muslim political influence is taboo in some corners of Europe. Several European academics interviewed by JTA refused to consider the issue, arguing that it is misguided and possibly racist because it addresses the religious rather than economic or cultural concerns of Muslim immigrants.

Susanne Nies, head of the French Institute of International Relations in Brussels, said religion plays no role in Europe’s secular politics.

“If you want to talk about being critical of Israel, that is a feeling among many Europeans, so how can you characterize that as Muslim?” she said. “There is no such thing as a Muslim issue in Europe or growing Muslim influence on politicians.”

To be sure, many European politicians have their biases against Israel. On Jan. 23, the minister of culture, youth and sport in the Flemish government in Belgium, Bert Anciaux, compared a deadly attack that day by a deranged gunman on a nursery school near Brussels to Israel’s recent operation in Gaza. The Belgian Foreign Ministry later distanced itself from the remark.

Shepherd says the 2008 mayoral campaign in London is a revealing example of Muslim influence in European politics.

In 2005, London Mayor Ken Livingstone accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and called then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a war criminal. His criticism of Israel helped win him the support of Azzam Tamimi, the director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought and a public supporter of Hamas and Palestinian suicide bombers.

Tamimi mobilized British Muslims to support the mayor in his re-election bid last May, forming a group called Muslims 4 Ken that lambasted Livingstone’s opponent for supporting Israel. Ultimately, however, Livingstone failed to win a third term, losing to Boris Johnson.

“Livingstone definitely sought Muslim support by slamming Israel,” Shepherd said.

European governments increasingly are afraid of offending Muslims, Shepherd said, leading them to refrain from criticizing Islamic attitudes toward women or even toward terrorism.

“This is a potentially volatile constituency, as we saw with the Danish cartoon controversy,” Shepherd said, referring to the widespread Muslim rioting in 2005 that followed publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed. Government leaders made sure to criticize publication of the cartoons even as they defended free speech, Shepherd noted.

Jana Hybaskova, head of the Israel committee in the European Parliament, says that despite the hostility of many European Muslim organizations toward the Jewish state, they rarely petition lawmakers on Israel-related issues.

Presuming that Muslims share all the same political goals is a mistake, she added.

“To see Muslim as common denominator is like seeing Christians as all the same,” Hybaskova said. “I don’t see any common denominator on policy.”

One major obstacle to Muslim political power is the absence of any significant pan-European Muslim political organization. Muslims even have trouble organizing politically within their own countries in Europe. In France, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, a Muslim umbrella organization created in 2002 at the behest of then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has been virtually paralyzed by a rivalry between its Algerian and Moroccan factions.

The level of political activism among Muslims varies from country to country. In Britain, Muslims vote in higher proportions than non-Muslims, whereas in Belgium the Muslim vote is below average.

Another major obstacle, according to Riva Kastoryano, director of research at Sciences Politique in Paris and an author of several books on Islam in Europe, is the relative poverty of Muslims.

Muslims are not “in an economic position in Europe to make a big impact in politics,” she said.

Muslim organizations often are completely in the dark about how to lobby government officials for their most pressing needs, Kastoryano observed. In some cases, Muslim groups have even sought the help of Jewish groups.

“In Germany a few years back, when there was a wave of anti-Muslim violence, Muslim clerics turned to Jewish leaders to ask how to get government support,” she said.

In France and several other countries, Muslims have turned to Jewish organizations for help in acquiring overnment permission to continue to use halal meat — kosher for Muslims — when the method of Muslim slaughter risked violating local ordinances.

As for the few politicians in Europe of Muslim backgrounds, they tend to care more about loyalty to party, not Islamic ideology. On the national level, they’re also all secular.

“I am a socialist first, then Dutch, then someone with a Turkish-Kurdish background,” said Sadet Karabulut, a Dutch member of Parliament whose parents are from eastern Turkey.

Asked whether her religion affects her political choices, Karabulut said, “My parents are Muslims and it is my background, but I am not. It’s not important for me.”

Last October, Rotterdam became the first major city in Europe to elect a Muslim mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb. Aboutaleb, who holds dual Dutch and Moroccan citizenship, has a reputation as a bridge builder between minority and majority groups. In 2004, after the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist, Aboutaleb told an audience at an Amsterdam mosque that Muslims who do not like Dutch values should leave the country.

That is little comfort to politicians like Teitelbaum, who points out that socialist politicians who used to condemn Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide now stay silent for fear of offending Belgium’s large Turkish community.

Teitelbaum sees it as further evidence of pandering to an increasingly influential political constituency.

When, in 2005, Teitelbaum sponsored a bill condemning a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Belgium, the bill could not pass until she generalized the bill, adding condemnation of “racism and xenophobia.” She was even urged by some colleagues to remove the word “anti-Semitism” from the bill.

She refused.

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