Literary Reflections

'Muslim Communities of the West' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This selection on Muslim communities in western countries provides background for Leila Aboulela’s Minaret and for the American Stories theme. The article by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad is reprinted from The Oxford History of Islam in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Although there are no reliable statistics on the number of Muslims currently living in the West, a 1986 estimate placed about twenty-three million Muslims in Europe. The majority lived in the Balkans and southeastern Europe; they were Slavic converts and remnants of the Turkish expansion into Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Bosnia or of the westward migration of Tatars into Finland and Poland. More recent Muslim sources speculate that the current estimate of Muslims in western Europe (Austria 100,000; Belgium 250,000; Denmark 60,000; France 3,000,000; Germany 2,500,000; Greece 150,000; Ireland 5,000; Italy 500,000; Luxembourg 1,000; the Netherlands 408,000; Norway 22,000; Portugal 15,000; Spain 450,000; Sweden 100,000; Switzerland 100,000; and the United Kingdom 2,000,000) and the Americas (Canada 250,000; Latin America 2,500,000; and the United States 5,000,000) may be as high as 17.4 million.

The composition of the Muslim communities in various nations of western Europe is in part a by-product of earlier relations established between European nations and the Muslim world as well as the European expansion into Muslim territory during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is also conditioned by the predatory political, economic, and cultural relationships that were developed during the colonial period. Thus the first significant group of Muslims to settle in France in the twentieth century were North African and Senegalese mercenaries who were recruited to fight in French colonial wars, including a group that was the vanguard of the Allied troops that liberated Paris from Nazi occupation. A significant number of harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought with the French colonial government to suppress the Algerian revolution, settled in France after 1962 to avoid reprisals. In Germany early settlers were Tatars and Bosnians, many of whom enlisted in the German army. In the Netherlands the first significant Muslim migration came from its colonies of Indonesia and Surinam, and in Britain they were from South Asia and Africa. The majority of Muslims in western Europe, however, were recruited as temporary guestworkers to relieve the shortage of manual labor during the post–World War II economic reconstruction. The host European countries had the full expectation that imported foreign laborers were a transient commodity, and that once their contracts expired, they would return to their homelands. Since then a large number of asylum seekers and refugees from Albania, Algeria, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Kashmir have augmented the number of Muslims in the West.

The oil boycott that was declared during the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 precipitated an economic depression and widespread unemployment in Europe. Consequently, European economies underwent a dramatic restructuring that decreased the demand for unskilled labor, as more emphasis was placed on service industries while manufacturing jobs were exported to Asia. These changes exacerbated the unemployment problem in the ranks of the guestworkers. Several European nations, including Germany, France, and the Netherlands, eager to shrink the ranks of the unemployed and to expedite foreign laborers on their way home, offered financial incentives for their repatriation. A few took advantage of the offer, but the majority—faced with the prospects of unemployment in their home country and the lack of future access to the European labor market—decided to stay, preferring the unemployment and welfare benefits of living in Europe. This inadvertently led to a substantial increase in the number of Muslims in Europe, as various governments later allowed family reunification. The policy of thinning foreign labor thus backfired, swelling the ranks of Muslims with unemployed dependents, straining social services as well as the educational systems in the settlement areas. In the process the Muslims were transformed from a collectivity of migrant, predominantly male laborers to immigrant families, from sojourners to settlers, and from transients to citizens. The passage of legislation in the 1970s in most European countries that virtually halted labor migration has led to the creation of Muslim minority communities, who increasingly appear to have become a permanent fixture in western European nations.

The emigration of Muslims during the last quarter of the twentieth century to Europe and the Americas is part of the worldwide movement of people from east to west and from south to north in search of higher education, better economic opportunities, and political and religious freedom. Other emigrants are refugees, often the by-product of Euro-American military or political activities. This movement also includes a smattering of those opposed to the authoritarian regimes that dominate the Muslim landscape. The largest Muslim concentrations in western Europe are in former imperial powers: Britain and France. As an economic powerhouse that attracts many immigrants, Germany also holds a large Muslim population. Each European nation has a particular relationship with its immigrants, which has been influenced by its colonial legacy, its historical memory, and its traditional perception of its former subject people. Each nation is in the process of developing policies and models for the treatment of its newest citizens, who put the nation's self-perception of liberal traditions and religious tolerance to the test.

The British model, formalized by the creation of the Commonwealth, permitted citizens of the member nations of the Commonwealth and the colonies to reside in the British Isles. The majority of Muslim immigrants in Britain, for example, came from the Indian subcontinent (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) and Africa. As members of the Commonwealth, they enjoyed the privileges of citizenship and were granted equal political and civil rights, a privilege not available to Muslims in the rest of Europe. Most of the Muslim immigrants are lower class laborers, except for a small number of professionals and a small group of wealthy Arabs from the Gulf oil-producing states who maintain luxury homes in London. More recently, conflicts in various Muslim countries have increased the ethnic mix of the Muslim community in Britain.

Muslims in France are predominantly of Maghribi (North African) origin (from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia), who have mostly come after World War II. They also include Muslims from such various Muslim states as Nigeria, Iran, Malaysia, Bosnia, Turkey, Senegal, Mali, and Pakistan. More than 30 percent of Muslims in France are second generation. Because Germany has had extensive diplomatic relations with Muslim nations since Charlemagne, a small number of Muslims have lived in Berlin since 1777. A Muslim cemetery still in use by the Turks was opened at Columbia Dam in 1798 when the Ottoman envoy to Germany, Ali Aziz Effendi, died. When a Muslim society that was organized in Berlin in 1922 with members from forty-one nationalities attempted to construct a mosque, however, it failed because of a shortage of funds. The growth of the Muslim community in Germany, however, is a twentieth-century phenomenon, the result of the guestworkers' decisions not to return to their homelands.

The Muslim population in the Netherlands and Belgium is predominantly made up of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants who were recruited as laborers in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Netherlands it also includes a substantial number of immigrants from Surinam, the former Dutch colony that won its independence in 1975. The pattern for Scandinavian nations is similar except for Finland, which has a tiny minority of Tatar traders and craftspeople who have lived there since the nineteenth century, when it was part of the Russian Empire. Their number has recently increased because of the influx of Somali refugees who arrived by way of Moscow. In Sweden and Denmark, Muslim labor migration came in the late 1960s mainly from Turkey and Yugoslavia. Smaller numbers have come from Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt. In the 1980s Sweden's liberal policies toward the settlement of refugees augmented the numbers of Muslims by a steady inflow of Iranians, Lebanese, Kurds, and Palestinians. Labor migration to Norway began a decade later than labor migration to other western European countries. The largest number of migrants in Norway are from Pakistan, with small contingents from Turkey, Morocco, Iran, Yugoslavia, Somalia, and India. The majority live around the capital, Oslo.

Muslim emigration to southern Europe came a decade after emigration to western Europe, when the southern economies began to prosper and they changed from labor-exporting to labor-importing nations. The first significant number of Muslims began emigrating to Spain in the 1970s. Muslims had a presence in Sicily as early as the seventh century, however, and dominated the island between the ninth and the eleventh centuries. Vestiges of their history can be seen all the way to northern Italy, where a small Muslim minority continued to live until the nineteenth century. Muslim emigration to Italy is a recent phenomenon that has taken place during the past two decades, spearheaded by students from Jordan, Syria, and Palestine who decided to settle. They were followed by the labor migration from other parts of the Muslim world. More recently, illegal immigrants, mostly Bosnians, Albanians, and Kurds, have been trying to settle in Italy, to the consternation of the other members of the European Union.

In Western nations with a tradition of European immigration—the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Australasia (Australia and New Zealand)—the suitability of Muslims for citizenship was questioned in a variety of ways and eventually somewhat resolved. This has not necessarily lessened the prejudice against their presence. The dominant characteristic of the Muslim population in North America is its diversity, which is apparent in national origin and class as well as in political, ideological, and theological commitment. The Muslim community in the United States and Canada is composed of several generations of Muslim people who have emigrated in a quest for a better life, beginning in the mid-1870s with groups from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. A small number of displaced people came from eastern Europe after World War I. The repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act in the 1960s in the United States and the membership of Canada in the British Commonwealth brought a large number of immigrants from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. The majority of those immigrants initially admitted were the educated professionals (doctors, scientists, and engineers) recruited to fill the needs of the technological industry. Immigrants continue today to come from all over the world, including displaced people seeking refuge for political, ideological, or religious reasons.

Muslim immigrants found freedom in western Europe and North America not only to practice but also to propagate their faith. They have taken advantage of this opportunity and created a variety of missionary outreach activities in various countries. They have also created a corpus of literature geared toward proselytizing. A substantial number of Europeans and Euro-Americans have converted to Islam, including an estimated fifty thousand Germans and one hundred thousand North American “Anglos”: Christians, Jews, and agnostics, the majority of whom are women. The largest convert community, however—estimated by various scholars at anywhere between one million to two million—is African American. Their conversion initially came through the teachings of the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad and promulgated by his disciple Malcolm X, who initially promoted a racist theology of black supremacy, a mirror image of the teachings of the Ku Klux Klan. The movement developed in the urban United States as a response to the racism encountered by African Americans who emigrated from the cotton fields of the South to the industrial North. Their relegation to particular working and living spaces in the ghettos consolidated new forms of white supremacy and oppression.

Observers estimate that more than eighty nations in Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe are represented in the mosque community of the United States and that these many groups constitute one ummah (Islamic nation), yet they bring with them a variety of traditions and practices as well as a kaleidoscope of doctrines and beliefs fashioned over time in alien contexts. Members of the community are initially surprised at the discrepancy between the ideals they have appropriated and the reality of their differences. Their similar experience of the West is forging some of them into a community of believers engaged in a process of creating a sense of solidarity through common traditions and seeking common ground in their quest to provide a comfort zone where they can fashion a better future for their children.


Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck. "The Globalization of Islam." In The Oxford History of Islam edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #240: 'Muslim Communities of the West' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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