Leading Article: Fears for Muslims as Bosnia burns

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The Independent Online
IT IS not easy to be a Muslim in Europe today. Scattered across the Continent, Islamic communities watch events in Bosnia with trepidation. They see Muslims in the Balkans being defeated, slaughtered and driven into ghettoes. They cannot but doubt their own security and are outraged and disgusted that no force from the West, or indeed the East, will save their Bosnian co-religionists. They perceive that the United States, under the UN banner, is prepared to bomb Mogadishu but stands back from such military action in the Balkans. The Saudis, who helped orchestrate and fund the defeat of Iraq, appear to have done little beyond providing humanitarian aid.

The Bosnian crisis is particularly poignant for British Islam. Many people were surprised to discover that there existed such a community of white, Slavic, European Muslims. Ironically, Bosnia, and Sarajevo in particular, had until recently represented the flowering of multicultural ideas so valued in Britain: there was a great deal of inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriage. Communities whose differences date back to the Ottoman victory in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo lived in peace together. So, at a time when Islam is increasingly characterised as hardline and incompatible with multiculturalism, the best example challenging that stereotype is being destroyed half-way across the Continent.

The Bosnian crisis could mark the beginning of a new self-consciousness for European Muslims. Not since the Moors were defeated at Granada in 1492 and Catholic forces ended the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 has there been such a vivid symbol of European Islam. The new image is of Muslims abandoned and vulnerable. It encompasses not just the Balkans, but Germany and France, where Turkish guest workers and North African immigrants are threatened by the rise of the extreme right.

This image of vulnerability at least has one advantage: the Bosnian experience has softened Western perceptions of Islam as the new enemy, a view growing out of the Lebanese hostage crisis, the Gulf war and the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Bosnia, Muslims are acknowledged to have been largely in the right and have won the sympathy vote, if little action. Inevitably, parallels are drawn with European anti-Semitism, which is also on the rise. Muslims certainly suffer from demonic stereotyping. Some might argue that they are fast taking on the downtrodden status once attached to Jews. There is a familiar ring about the comment voiced by some British Muslims after Bosnia: 'Could it happen to us?'

The different Muslim groups in Europe do not immediately seem to have much in common, aside from their religion. Ethnically, they are quite different and their relationship with their adopted cultures varies greatly. The Turks in Germany are largely excluded from citizenship. North Africans in France are effectively second-class French citizens, always judged immigrant by the colour of their skin. Every problem, be it unemployment or drugs, is blamed on them. In both countries, these immigrants retain close cultural and economic ties with their countries of origin. France, for example, remains the mentor for political development in North Africa, as exiles come and go.

Britain has witnessed perhaps the most successful incorporation of an estimated two million Muslims. Tight immigration laws have been combined with full citizenship for those living here, mostly of Asian extraction. Those belonging to the second generation are shedding their parents' nostalgia for Pakistani village life and have vigorously taken on the nationality of their birth. They do not call themselves English or Welsh or Scottish. They are British, a term which itself describes a multicultural concept.

Ironically, the Salman Rushdie affair is perhaps a mark of how safe British Muslims have felt here. In supporting Khomeini's fatwa, some Muslims deeply offended fundamental British liberal values. Yet the tolerance of British society was not overstretched. There was no violent backlash. By contrast, the horrors of Bosnia and the inaction of the world community have fed feelings of persecution and left British and European Muslims a great deal more insecure.