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The Third Generation of European Muslim Immigrants

27 October 2016


*This article was published in the Trending Events periodical, issued by Future for Advanced Research & Studies - Issue 7, Feb 2015.

Every terrorist attack, carried out by Muslims in Europe, is always followed by mounting arguments about the reasons that led some members of the European Muslim communities to become extremists and engage in terrorist activities. Most often, the majority of trends deliberately blame such operations on the "integration" policies and their failure to integrate Muslims in European communities.   

France has recently witnessed terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of about 17 people. Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, announced that about 5,000 European Union citizens have joined jihadist movements. Perhaps these attacks, along with Wainwright's declaration, reopened the discussions about the integration of Muslims (especially those of the second and third generations) in European countries.

First: Muslim Communities in Europe

According to one of the statistics conducted by Pew Research Center, there are more than 20 million Muslims in Europe, making up about 6% of the total population. Hence, Muslims represent the largest minority in Europe. In addition, the birth rate for Muslims in Europe is three times higher than that for non-Muslims. Some estimates suggest that Muslims will make up about 20% of the European population by 2050.

The largest bulk of Muslims in Europe is located in the west. Germany has the largest number of Muslims (4.76 millions), followed by France (4.71 millions). There are also 2.96 million Muslims in Britain.  The members of the Muslim Community in Europe are younger than other Europeans in which European Muslims are middle-aged, in comparison to the Christian Europeans whose average age is 42.

The majority of Muslims' migrations to Europe were after World War II – a time when Europe was devastated.  In order to rebuild Europe, and in light of the scarcity of national workforce, there was an urgent need to bring in foreign labor. For doing so, Europe relied on bringing workers from its former colonies. Hence, the migration trends were relevant to the colonial history of Europe. Germany received large numbers of Turks; Britain brought workers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; France depended on Algerian and Moroccan immigrants; while Spain relied on Moroccans.  

These workers were called "Guest Workers", for they were not supposed to stay long, and thus no one thought of integrating them into the society, until recently. The European countries even strained to keep these immigrant workers as provisional labor, waiting for them to return to their countries after they finish their job. But contrary to their expectations, such labor settled in Europe, and hence emerged what was known as the second and third generations of Muslim immigrants. These two generations came to represent the largest immigrant community in Europe now.

Second: The Policies of Integrating Immigrants

When the presence of immigrants of Islamic origins became an inescapable fact in western societies, governments began to look for ways to integrate them. Every country developed its own model according to its vision on how to integrate immigrants. The integration policies followed by the European countries can be classified into three main policies:

  1. Assimilation Policy: This policy has been adopted by France. It is based on the necessity of everyone's assimilating the French secular culture, while promoting the notion of citizenship as a fundamental tool for integration. This trend strictly separates religion from the state, and ensures that everyone has the right to express his/her beliefs, but with the exclusion of religion from public policies. In this way, France does not protect religious groups or distinguish them. It does not, for example, follow any quota system to maintain rations of representation for religious minorities. It rather followed the concept of equal rights, which leads to equal opportunities. And according to the French model, religious pluralism shouldn't be practiced in the public domain. Everyone is supposed to adopt the French values and learn the French language.
  2. Multiculturalism: Britain has adopted this concept, which supports religious freedom and respects cultural autonomy. In contrast to France, Britain allows the practice of beliefs in public. There are no restrictions on the hijab (headscarf), for instance, in public institutions. According to some analyses, this policy enhanced the values of pluralism.
  3. A Compromising Hybrid of the Two Previous Models: Germany, for example, has fused the two models, while focusing on the concept of citizenship. In the past, the German policies were strict to a great extent, not allowing for much pluralism. But it has recently exerted efforts to adopt more moderate policies, especially towards the Turkish community inside the country, which represents a large proportion in Germany.

It's notable that according to some opinions, the policies of assimilation and multiculturalism are not sufficient for achieving adequate integration for the Muslim minorities in European societies.  This is proved by the terrorist attacks that Britain and France have witnessed, and which were carried out by Muslims belonging to the second and third generations of immigrants.

Third: The Classes of Extremists

The recent (and other) incidents witnessed in Europe have drawn the attention to underlying radicalism inside Europe. Terrorist attacks became executed by individuals born and raised inside European communities. Such individuals most probably belong to the second and third generations of immigrants who have given up on the success of their attempts to integrate, or rejected the notion in the first place. These Muslim extremists who live in Europe are divided into three types:

  1. Outsiders or the First Generation of Immigrants: They are those who have recently migrated to Europe for diverse reasons related to work, education, or political asylum. Extremist imams from Islamic countries, whose sermons promote militancy and extremism, also fall under this category.
  2. Insiders: They are the second and third generations of immigrants who were born and educated in Europe. Although they are considered European citizens, they felt like strangers and turned to religiosity, and then extremism.
  3. Transformers or the New Born: They are the ones who came to Europe for education or work, blended in the European society, and spoke the language of the host country fluently. Thus there are no barriers hindering them from interacting inside the country in addition to their success in proving themselves. However, at a certain moment, they suddenly turned to extremism. "Muhammad Atta", who got involved in the events of 9/11, is an example of this category. These people were not originally extremists in their countries in the Middle East; they became so while in Europe.

The focus here will be on the second class, i.e. the second and third generations of immigrants, who have been subjected to different European policies of integration, yet some of them became extremists.  

Fourth: The Reasons behind the Failure of the European Policies of Integration

It can be said that the European policies of integration failed, mainly because a sector of the second and third generations of immigrants rejected the kind of integration imposed by European countries.  Moreover, some western communities rejected Muslims and rejected merging them into the European society, for they think Muslims represent a main source of threat in the following way:

1. The Different Conceptions of the Limits of Integration:

The escalation of the problem of the second and third generations of Muslim immigrants to Europe could be explained by their desire to integrate in the society, where they were born and brought up. But they want to merge without having to give up their beliefs or rights. Here the problem becomes prominent, especially in the countries that adopt the assimilation policy. A conflict emerges between the limits of integration set by the country, and the limits sought by the members of the two generations, who regard themselves as full-fledged citizens.

It's noteworthy that the members of the first generation are accustomed to confining themselves to their peers from the Muslim minority. They only deal with the majority within the European society when necessary, with no interest in blending with them. Thus, they live in what is known as "parallel communities" or ghettos. On the other hand, the second and third generations do not want to confine themselves to this small community. They regard themselves as part of the larger community, where they were born and raised, whose language they speak, whose culture they understand. They believe they have the right to all their privileges as citizens of this society; therefore, they strive to integrate into it, but in their way. However, they clash with the method of integration adopted by the country. This method may require them to give up their identity, and to blend in the culture of the larger community as a condition for accepting them, which enhances their sense of isolation.

This problem is aggravated by the point of view that many European politicians adopt, that the integrated Muslims who participate in political life are the ones who gave up their beliefs and faith. In Germany, for instance, they commonly use the term "Kultur Muslim" (culturally Muslim) to describe the Muslims who do not display their beliefs or faith. Regarding them as people who abandoned their Islamic identity in exchange for their European identity reflects the notion of mono-identity, i.e. a person is either an unintegrated Muslim or an integrated European.

On the other hand, the members of the second and third generations feel rejected by the European culture. They feel that they are still regarded as "strangers" no matter what, even when they are European citizens who belong to the third generation of immigrants. They are strangers, not just because of the culture, but also because factors like physical features and skin color. In the Netherlands, for example, they use the term "Allochtoon" (stranger) to describe those who are not white.

As a consequence, the European society, unintentionally, enhanced the two generations' adherence to their Islamic identity above other identities, due to this dichotomy. A study remarked that the second and third generations of Muslim immigrants identified themselves neither according to their parents' national identities, nor their European identity. Instead, they identify themselves as being Muslims first, which means that their religious affiliation is stronger than both identities.

2. Feeling Existentially and Morally Threatened by Islam:

The second problem appears clearly in a sector of the western society which adopts a negative mental image about Islam – an image full of fear and feelings of being threatened.  They believe that Muslims are the rising minority in Europe; they have a set of social values and beliefs that are totally different from those in which the west believes. The Europeans still remember what they consider to be the "Arab occupation of Andalusia". Add to this the history of conflicts between Christian Europe and Muslims, as well as the Europeans' strife to stop the Ottoman Islamic expansion in Vienna. Those were historic events that were entrenched in the European mind. Such conflicts are sometimes apparent in questioning the compatibility between the "Muslims' culture" and freedom and other European values. This doubting stance is adopted by the Extreme Right Wing, which has recently started to become highly popular.

This dimension was manifested by the memoirs of Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of West Germany, which was published in 2004. He mentioned that he had "regretted" allowing Muslim immigrant labor into Germany. According to him, it was clear that there couldn't be any tolerance between Islam and Christianity. He also stated that "Muslims and Christians cannot coexist, except in despotic countries, like Singapore." On the other hand, many politicians believe that the presence of the Muslim minority in Europe is like a setback for the European struggle against the authority of the "priesthood". This view came in light of their belief that Islam rejects separating religion from the state.

This view that Europeans have in mind made them deal with the Muslim minority in a reserved way. The society saw the second and third generations of Muslim immigrants from a political angle. They regarded them as "ambassadors" for the primary identity of their parents, or the Islamic identity.  This might lead some of the immigrants to militancy. On the other hand, the European colonial history in the Arab and Islamic countries is still dug deep in the minds and sentiments of those immigrants. They keep passing it to their children in one way or another, thus aggravating the mutual negative perception.

Fifth: The Hybrid Identity of the Second and Third Generations

The unilateral perception of identity is highly deficient. The Islamic identity can be one of the identities one regards as important. However, this does not mean there aren't any other identities that are as much important. The minorities growing up in the country of immigration have a hybrid identity, combining the identity of the majority in the society and that of their mother land. And since one's sense of any of the two identities can vary from one person to another. Having said that, there are four possible attitudes towards both identities, which are as follows:

  1. Dissociation: It means that a person's sense of his/her ethnic identity is high, compared to his low sense of identity towards the majority in the society.
  2. Assimilation: This is when a person's sense of identity towards the majority in the society is high, whereas his sense of his/her ethnic identity is low.
  3. Acculturation: Is when a person has a strong sense of both his/her ethnic identity and that of the majority in the society.
  4. Marginality: Is when a person has a low sense of both his/her ethnic identity and that of the majority in the society.

A field study conducted in the Netherlands, aimed to observe the balance between the different identities of the second and third generations of immigrants, showed that there are five main factors in the daily life of these generations that enhance their sense of identity. These factors are: school, after-school activities, life indoors, neighbors and the neighborhood, and religion. The study remarked that they can reach a high level of integration when they are exposed, through these five sources, to the identity of the Netherlands and the ethnic identity of their country of origin. This means they need to get exposed to both cultures in their everyday life in order to have a balanced identity. Any disruption to this process may lead to a disruption in the lives of the second and third generations in a way that makes them reject both identities and turn to extremism.


Integration is one of the most important problems Muslims face in Europe. Its implications are expected to aggravate considering the waves of hostility and hatred from the part of the Extreme Right wing towards Muslims, in the wake of the terrorist attacks some European countries have recently witnessed.

Some might regard the problem of integration as one of the reasons behind the extremism of some Muslims from the second and third generations, and their involvement in terrorist attacks. However, there are other reasons for fanaticism, some of which are symptoms of the failure of integration policies. Among the traditional reasons of extremism are unemployment, political and economic marginalization, as well as the absence of a moderate religious education.   The last reason in particular results in resorting to self-education, along with its consequent possibility of receiving an extremist religious education. Such education is usually promoted by fanatic imams coming from abroad, and their hatred speech. In addition, some European countries' support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and their support for the US in its war against Iraq fuel this aggravation. This stance is inconsistent with human rights, which these countries claimed to advocate all the time. This contradiction caused some individuals to be extremists, join terrorist groups, and carry out terrorist attacks.

Finally, one of the important approaches to tackle extremism among members of the second and third generations of immigrants is developing balanced policies for integrating Muslims in the European society. But that has to be done without obliterating their religious identity. Also, the racist practices, adopted by some fanatic movements in Europe, should be defied. Such practices deepen the Muslims' sense of alienation.