Reflections on Being a Muslim in Europe: The Big Divide

Having read, examined, explored and enjoyed many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars’ writings on Islam and its future in the West (Tariq Ramadan, Vincent Geisser, Laurent Lévy), I felt compelled to post a series of replies to Gabriele Marranci’s posts, as well as his academic research papers and contributions in scholarly publications.

I wish to take part in the ongoing debate of the place of Islam in the West, particularly in Europe and on being a Muslim in Europe, a European Muslim, with all the challenges that accompany the journey of the Muslim citizen, immigrant in the Old Continent.  I have lived intermittently between the UK and Tunisia since 1999 (studying and working), during which I have come into close contact with European Muslims in the UK with their different lifestyles, religious leanings, traditions, colours and cultures, I have fulfilled a long-time dream of immersing myself in a real multicultural context: that of the UK and its different cultural components: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh.

I wish to comment on Gabriele Marranci’s blog “The Atomic Burqa“, as well as subsequent articles on Tabsir’s website (NDLR: “Roland of Scotland” , “Italian Muslims or Basta Alla Matriciana”, “Bat-Fallaci, Bat-Bin Laden and Robin-Zarqawi” and “Straw Women Unveiled (Victorian Style)” , which I found thought-provoking and quite funny. As a Muslim feminist, I feel that the debate on the headscarf has been hyperbolically and extensively pushed into extremes so as to discredit the silent majority among the Muslim Ummah in the West.

At the height of the War on Terror gripping Western nations since the sinister 11th of September, Muslims found themselves under constant surveillance, in an Orwellian world of intense scrutiny from the forces of law and order in democratic nations and so European Muslims found themselves compelled to take an oath of allegiance to further prove their Europeanness (British Citizenship Test introduced by Charles Clark is another reminder of the Cricket Test by Lord Tebbitt, a couple of decades ago).

I was appointed as French language assistant in Glasgow by the British Council Tunisia for the school year 2005-2206, I was told: “you are going to be the cultural ambassador of your country in Scotland”. But who has ever heard of Tunisia in the east end area of Easterhouse, blighted by sectarianism, as is the case in other West of Scotland towns, a no-go zone for a trebly handicapped person: Black, Muslim, and female? French colleagues felt sorry for me: what on earth should a headscarved woman do in an area torn between a war of religious, cultural and sports symbols.

I was a teaching assistant in a high school and a French teacher in a primary school. Being a foreigner in Glasgow, I was unaware of the realities of the conflict, exported from Ireland to the West of Scotland: between the Catholics and the Protestants. I kept telling everyone, sometimes crying: I HAVE NEVER ASKED TO COME TO SCOTLAND TO BEAR THE BRUNT OF THIS WAR OF DOGMAS. I realised how awful young people as young as 11 can be indoctrinated in “a democracy” like the UK and told to choose between who your friend is and who your enemy is.

Certainly I was a threat to many because I was the foreigner for some, the exotic African young woman for others, the threatening Muslim terrorist for others, the personification of the Scottish Pakistani thug who killed the poor 15-year old Scottish boy in Pollokshields, south Glasgow in 2005 and recently the refugee, would-be asylum seeker living in Sighthill. To top it all, I chose to live in the east end of Glasgow (Dennistoun), another hotspot for tensions between loyalists and republicans (Sundays have become synonymous of Orange Marches in my 11-month stay in Glasgow).

Pupils asking me which football team I supported, I naively replied: “Glasgow Rangers because Hamed Nammouchi who is Tunisian plays there”. The reaction was rather hostile. I realised later that it was the wrong answer: I should have chosen Celtics. The pupil who begged me to choose Celtic was of course an Irish Catholic. I was constantly faced with tests of allegiances (See Marranci’s Pakistanis in Northern Ireland (2005): “The Catholic Muslim” syndrome).

In February 2006, I visited a Tunisian friend, who just like me, was a “cultural ambassador of Tunisia in Northern Ireland”, in Belfast, Lisburn Road (little by little becoming a middle class Catholic area). I felt the tense atmosphere in the city, beautiful though, nice people, and most importantly divided: Protestants and Catholics. The most extreme of both communities, the Loyalists in the Shankill Road area and the Nationalists in the Falls Road area (we went on an exploration trip to see the famous murals: I was OVERWHELMED BY EMOTION). My friend lived with a Catholic couple, who, just like most Irish Catholics I have met, whether in Scotland, England and even in Tunisia (working or as tourists), often confronted me with the same choice making: are you with US (poor, oppressed Irish or with THEM (the oppressors, the English)?

What have I learnt from all this? Many lessons need to be drawn from all that. That in such a tense environment, I learnt how to survive, to be optimistic for the future of Muslims there in spite of all the hardships I encountered (I was harassed, assaulted by some of the pupils in the school I was working in), but that never undermined my spirits. It made me appreciate the Scots, the English and the Irish better, without having to shift allegiances to please any side. Scottish Muslims are clever enough not to let themselves carried away and trapped in those bickerings. I admired their strong sense of Scottishness in Glasgow and Irishness in Belfast and taught me to appreciate both communities with their strengths and weaknesses.

My experience as a Muslim in Scotland is not that different from my experience as a Muslim tourist in Italy in January and April 2006, this time, with members of my family, Italian citizens with Italian children, but not as Muslim Europeans. Completely assimilated in Italian culture, in total opposition to British multiculturalism. My relatives had to sacrifice their Muslim traditions, though not their identity, for their mixed parentage children to become Italian citizens, sometimes in vain.

Houda Mzioudet.

University of Tunis.

December 4th 2006.

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Categories: Europe, Islam, Scotland | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Being a Muslim in Europe: The Big Divide

  1. Larbi

    I have really enjoyed reading your article my dear friend. It is true that leaving in Europe as a Muslim is not always easy but it is up to us Muslims to make all the prejudices fall down through humility, patience, courage and above all good temper and good actions. And as may my dear Italian friends say: bisogna dare tempo al tempo. however I have to add that we should not just wait but be an active part in our society even if it is not a Muslim society. I strongly believe that every Muslim male or female ought to take a very active part inside the European society he/ she is living in. Now I have been living in France since June 2010 and in Italy for the seven precedent years and since I started wearing the hijab I felt that people where looking at me differently but I discovered recently that the fact that I don’t care anymore about their gazes, rendered their gazes as normal as before. I conclude that we Muslims should be as visible as the others, if not More. Besides we should never forget that it is our responsibility to represent to the best Islam, the religion of tolerance, the religion of peace and Love.
    May Allah the merciful guide us forever on the right path, forgive our sins and bless us with His eternal love and light.

  2. Thanks Lilia for the though-provoking comments and encouragement

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