Where in Europe is the best place to be Muslim?

Recently a graphic has been doing the rounds on Muslim Twitter: a map compiled by the Pew Research Foundation, showing the results of a poll conducted throughout Europe asking people various questions about their tolerance and acceptance of people of other cultures and religions. This particular map showed the results of the question of whether the respondents would be willing to accept Muslims as members of their families. The results vary widely, with very high (above 80%) figures in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, between 60% and 80% in much of western Europe, dipping to around 50% across most of central Europe, to less than 40% in most of eastern Europe. What has been remarked on is that the figure for the UK is only 53% which is the lowest in western Europe except for Italy (43%) and this has had some Muslims commenting that it is mistaken to regard the UK as more tolerant than elsewhere in Europe. A summary with a link to the full report (PDF) can be found here.

There are a number of answers to these claims. One is that, as with almost any opinion poll, the number of people asked is tiny and any techniques used to ensure an even or representative sample further result in tiny samples from populations which are themselves huge. The same was true, for example, of a poll of Muslims that led to an entire documentary a couple of years ago, What British Muslims Really Think, presented by Trevor MacDonald: only 1,081 people were asked, 405 of them in London and only 56 in the East Midlands which includes several large Muslim populations. If they had done, say, two large surveys in two cities (say, London and Leicester), it would have been greatly more representative. In this case, just under 56,000 adults were surveyed in 34 countries; that is the population of one medium-sized town, which if you divide it by 34 means an average of 1,647 people interviewed per country (of course, the survey sizes would have differed from country to country depending on size).

As for what the result means, I suspect that people’s view of what is or is not a Muslim may influence the outcome of this survey. In the UK, religious Muslims are very visible and Muslim immigration tended to be from countries where religious freedom for Muslims has not been suppressed in either the colonial or post-colonial eras. People in British India still wore the shalwar-kameez and the sari at the end of the colonial era and they still do, while traditional forms of dress in much of the Middle East outside the Gulf region have given way to western forms of dress. Traditional approaches to Islam and independently-run religious schools are still the norm in India and Pakistan while in much of North Africa, religious teaching has been co-opted by the governments and in some places the practice of Islam has been monitored and even suppressed for extended periods. Hence, in Britain, Islam is associated with beards, hijabs and praying five times a day while in Europe it could be seen more as an ethnic identity, which is why a British person might think having a Muslim family member might be more difficult than a French person would. If you specified a practising Muslim to a French respondent, the answer might be different.

The biggest problem with the statistic, though, is that it is not just attitudes that make one country a better place for Muslims to live than another; it is laws and politics. Much of Europe has the Far Right receiving a double-figure percentage of the vote at general elections on a regular basis; Britain does not. Much of Europe has laws which make parts of the normal practice of Islam in daily life illegal and Britain does not. Some have banned foreign support for mosques and even threatened to regulate translations of the Qur’an. France has laws banning girls from wearing the mandatory headscarf in schools; several German states ban it for teachers; there have been numerous cases of women in headscarves being prevented from entering public buildings or commercial ones such as banks. Several countries ban halal slaughter (without stunning); some countries have started banning circumcision while others use handshakes as a way of filtering out people who are “too Muslim” to be “one of theirs”. This is not to say that there is no discrimination; many a Muslim job applicant has found that a prospect melted away when they told an interviewer that they could not shake hands with their female prospective manager; hostile newspaper headlines have been a regular occurrence and violent Islamophobia has been a mounting problem for years, both individual attacks (particularly on women) and organised violence. But the law, currently, is on our side even if racism, immigration restrictions and intrusion by the Prevent scheme is making Muslims’ lives increasingly difficult.

So, it does not matter much whether people would or would not accept a member of your religion in their family; the feeling may well be mutual. I know for a fact that many Muslims here would not accept a Muslim from another ethnic background into their family. School is not family; work is not family; a country is not family. What Muslims want is to be able to work, get an education, to be able to live their lives free of restrictions and harassment and for their own families to be left intact.

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