Islamic Influence Grows In Europe, Along With Tensions

October 13, 2008

Author: Shelley Emling

Source: Cox News Service

It's just before lunchtime and a cadre of local women in body-covering garments are perusing a medley of halal markets filled with foods that comply with Islamic law.

The surrounding streets are decorated with special lights – funded by the Leicester City Council – to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid.

In all, there are more than 30 mosques nearby, as well as a public library boasting shelves of books in Punjabi, Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu, along with newspapers from across Asia and the Middle East.

The neighborhood Islamic schools receive state funding, just like Christian and Jewish ones.

This is Leicester, a former manufacturing city of 285,000 people in England's heartland. It is home to large pockets of Sikhs, Hindus, Africans, and Muslims – indeed the latter makes up more than 15 percent of the population.

At least in one large Muslim neighborhood, called Highfields, there's not a white English face to be found.

It's not surprising. When the 2011 census is taken, Leicester is on track to become the first European city with a non-white majority.

"Cities from all over Europe are finding that they are becoming a lot more like Leicester," said Mustafa Malik, chief executive of the Pakistan Center in the Highfields neighborhood. "We welcome people from all over the world and there is a lot of harmony here.

"Sure there are tensions, but there are tensions even in any household," he said.

Depending upon whom one asks, the rise of Islam in Europe could either sound the death knell for institutional Christianity or act as a barricade against growing secularism.

No one knows for sure exactly how many Muslims reside in Europe today, partly because several European nations don't count religion in the national census.

Most experts estimate there are between 15 million and 20 million Muslims, constituting the continent's second-biggest religion, living among Western Europe's predominantly Christian population of 400 million.

But an aging population has taken a toll on Christianity and today church attendance in many countries – including Britain – hovers at around 5 percent.

Without taking into account the possible admission of Turkey to the European Union, the number of Muslims is expected to grow to more than 40 million by 2050, representing about 15 percent of the population.

In the face of this growing Muslim population — fueled mostly by immigration but also by higher birth rates — tensions have arisen amid an anti-Muslim attitude that sprang up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and gained steam after the transit bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.