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Islam: Imams, EU Officials To Discuss Muslim Integration

  • Eugen Tomiuc

A poster by Turkish artist Burak Delier depicting a woman wearing a chador made from an EU flag at an exhibition in Istanbul in October 2005 (AFP) A conference of Muslim prayer leaders, or imams, from all over Europe, is due to open in Vienna on April 7. On the agenda at the three-day meeting is how to integrate Muslim communities into the European mainstream while maintaining European Muslims' identity. The imams will be joined by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

PRAGUE, April 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Conference of European Imams is being jointly organized by the Islamic Community of Austria, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, and the city of Vienna.

It brings together some 130 imams from more than 40 countries and is expected to issue a final statement on the state of Muslim communities in Europe.

Carla Amina Baghajati, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Community of Austria, told RFE/RL that top European and Austrian officials will attend the opening of the Vienna gathering.

"The [European] Commission president, Mr. Barroso will chair the conference on Friday during the opening ceremony," she said. "We'll have the chancellor of Austria, Mr. [Wolfgang] Schuessel, we'll have the foreign minister of Austria, Mrs. [Ursula] Plassnik, the president of the Austrian parliament, Mr. [Andreas] Kohl, and we are happy to have [EU External Relations Commissioner] Benita Ferrero-Waldner."

The conference in Vienna will focus on the question of integration of European Muslim communities amid what is seen as an increasing divide between secular Western Europe and Islam. The conference is a follow-up to a similar gathering that took place in June 2003 in the Austrian city of Graz.

Spurring Dialogue, Understanding

Baghajati told RFE/RL that Austria, the current EU president, intends to give new impetus to dialogue and better understanding between European countries and their Muslim communities.

"At the moment, Austria has the [rotating] presidency of the European Union, and in this situation, it's, I think, a very good sign that Austria is picking up the long tradition of dialogue, especially with Islam, and gives something like an impulse to European countries [on] how to build bridges, how to find solutions to the challenges we face together, and to talk together -- and the inner Muslim dialogue is very important as well," she said.

European Muslims have found themselves under increasing pressure lately. Far-right groups, such as the British National Party and Austria's Freedom Party are blaming immigrants in general, and Muslims in particular, for what they say is a threat to the European way of life.

Attacks by Muslim extremists such as the 2004 killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh or the Madrid and London transit bombings in 2004 and 2005 have further contributed to the isolation of European Muslims.

The violent backlash in the Muslim world to the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper, further deepened what was perceived as a growing divide between the Western and Muslim worlds.

'Part Of Europe'

Baghajati said that the current crisis highlights the need for European Muslims to reaffirm their dual identity as good Muslims and law-abiding, integrated citizens of a democratic Europe.

"Muslims, whether they are in Great Britain, in Spain or in Russia, share the same feeling that we are part of Europe, and we want to be seen as part of Europe, and we want to get over all these misunderstandings about Muslims," she said. "We want to show we are Muslims, we live up to our religion, but that it is compatible to feel a part of Europe, to feel happy about the values of democracy, pluralism, human rights, and the role of state."

Amid the prominent imams due to attend the Vienna conference are Dr. Adly Abu Hajar, secretary-general of the European Islamic Conference and president of the Scandinavian Muslim Academic Council; Dr. Abduljalil Sajid, chairman of Britain's Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony; and Eyup Ramadani, who represents the Muslim Community of Kosovo.
Clash Of Cultures

Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie (epa file photo)

The furor raised by the publication in Europe of cartoons believed by many Muslims to be insulting to Islam is far from being the first time that Western notions of freedom of expression have clashed with Islamic sensibilities. Below are a few of the major incidents in this long-running tension.

2005: London's Tate Britain museum removes from exhibition the "God Is Great #2" sculpture by John Latham for fear of offending Muslims, citing the "sensitive climate" after 7 July suicide bombings in London. The sculpture piece consists of three sacred religious texts -- the Koran, the Bible, and the Talmud -- embedded in a sheet of glass.

2004: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered after release of his film "Submission" about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of Dutch parliament who wrote script, plans another film about Islam's attitude to gays. She has also received death threats.

2002: Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incenses Muslims by writing in "This Day" newspaper that Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the "Miss World" contest and might have wed a beauty queen. Muslim-Christian riots in northern city of Kaduna kill 200. Daniel flees Nigeria after a fatwa urges Muslims to kill her.

1995: An Egyptian court brands academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid an apostate because of his writings on Islam and annuls his marriage on grounds that a Muslim may not be married to an apostate. Abu Zaid and his wife move to the Netherlands.

1994: Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh for Sweden after court charges her with "maliciously hurting Muslim religious sentiments." Some Muslims demand she be killed for her book "Lajja" (Shame), banned for blasphemy and suggesting free sex.

1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on all Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Dutch Immigration -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Report Says No Anti-Muslim Backlash In Europe

Vienna Conference Ends With Appeals For Understanding, Tolerance


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