Muslims in Europe: Questioning Identity and Values in a Time of Change

Professors Daryl Lee and Quinn Mecham discussed the issue of identity politics of Muslims in Europe in a Café CSE installment.


IMG_5309PROVO, Utah (September 16, 2015)—Europe’s refugee crisis is in the headlines across the globe, which has spurred on hundreds of questions for leaders and citizens. Can European nations support the influx of refugees? Are the nations willing to do so? How will Muslim refugees and migrants be accepted into society?

Café CSE speakers Daryl Lee, associate French professor, and Quinn Mecham, assistant professor of political science, along with moderator Wade Jacoby, a political science professor, discussed the integration of Muslims into European society and the identity issues that accompany it.

Jacoby started the session by asking, “To what extent does a practicing Muslim in Europe today run into problems with a European host society of which he or she may not be a full citizen at that moment?”

Lee explained that in France, Muslims face societal struggles daily. France’s version of state secularism, wrapped up in the term laïcité, isolates public and religious spheres of society in an attempt to guard the state from religious interference. This differs from the United States’ Establishment Clause, which was designed to keep the state from interfering with religion. Laïcité is an innate part of French culture and is supposed to keep religions equal, but it has become controversial for being deployed to outlaw the hijab in public institutional spaces such as schools. This has led many Muslims to feel that laïcité is being used to target their religion and culture. Because their language and appearance serve as easy identifiers of their religion, many Muslims in France have  fallen victim to amalgam, a term used to describe the confusion of an everyday practicing Muslim for an Islamist.

Lee noted, however, that the situation varies within France because there are various groups of Muslims throughout the country. The variety of groups throughout Europe, then, is even greater.

“The problems begin when you step into another country,” said Lee. “It’s not quite as simple as saying Europe has a single Muslim problem.”

Mecham related this back to Europe’s current refugee crisis. He explained that even within their host nations, many Muslim populations are isolated geographically in lower class areas. They often do not associate with their host societies because they have different backgrounds, and many nations are now viewing this as a threat.

Mecham cited the example of Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, who called the flow of Muslim refugees a threat to Christian Europe. In a similar fashion, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in July where he outlined a “counter-extremism strategy.”

“Europe is wrestling with this idea of what European values are and to what extent those are different than the assumed values that Muslims moving to Europe might take on,” said Mecham.IMG_5296

Mecham, who worked with refugees during his time at the State Department, noted that this wave of migration is different. He explained that many of these refugees do have skills, and they would not have left the country if it were safe. This presents Europe with the opportunity to expand their economy; however, Mecham is unsure that European nations have both the capacity and will to receive such a high influx of refugees.

There are also many cultural concerns that accompany the refugee crisis in Europe –trying to incorporate a community that has not had the same experience with human rights and government is a daunting task. However, Lee thinks this mass displacement will spur on a cultural revolution as people seek to answer the question of identity. He explained that the children of immigrants find a voice through music and literature that helps them explain their search for identity, resolution and acceptance.

“I’d be curious ten years from now to see the kinds of stories, poetry and music that comes from this mass migration and see how these people are going to celebrate, narrate and explain through fictional means their acceptance or lack of acceptance,” said Lee.

Lee and Mecham agreed that the question of identity is pertinent to Muslims in Europe, but Europe has a history of diversity, and that is an asset.

“There’s an underlying European value of giving people opportunities and expressing appreciation for diversity, and those kinds of things may allow Europeans to successfully reach out to Muslim communities,” said Mecham.

—Kayla Goodson (B.A. Communications and French studies ’17)

Kayla covers the French and Italian Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a dual degree in French studies and Journalism with a minor in international strategy and diplomacy.