Vol. 2    Issue 5   01-15 July 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family
  Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus     Challenges, Opportunities and Responses
Professor A. R. Momin

(This is an expanded version of the first Sayyid Khalilullah Husaini Memorial Lecture, delivered at Hyderabad on June24, 2007.)

While dwelling on the condition of Muslim minorities living in non-Islamic environments, I wish to begin by presenting an outline of their geographical distribution and their demographic and cultural profile. This will be followed by a brief discussion of the relations of Muslim minorities with the majority populations and their contribution to the wider society. I will then focus on three distinct areas, namely, the challenges and impediments facing the Muslim minorities, the opportunities and positive prospects afforded by non-Islamic milieus, and the ways in which they deal with the challenges and avail of the opportunities. Since I am a sociologist, the focus of my discussion will be on the contemporary state of affairs in respect of Muslim minorities, rather than on the past. Furthermore, my analysis is informed by a comparative perspective.

I. Dialectic of unity and diversity in Muslim societies

One of the distinctive features of Islamic civilization is the fascinating interface between the unity and universality of the Muslim ummah and the extensive ethnic, cultural, linguistic and regional diversities that characterise Muslim communities across the world. An eminent British anthropologist Ernest Gellner has perceptively observed that the heterogeneity of Muslim societies is evident but for all the indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other. This uniformity is all the more puzzling, says Gellner, in the theoretical absence of a Church and hence of a central authority.

The factors that knit together Muslim communities across the world, including Muslim minorities living in predominantly non-Islamic environments, include the central place of the Quran in the lives of Muslims, the primacy of the Islamic Shariah as an eternal source of inspiration and guidance, the place of Arabic as the universal medium of liturgy, a transnational, trans-ethnic global community of the faithful (ummah), and the fundamental uniformity of doctrines and rituals (such as the confession of faith, prayers, fasting, charity, the Hajj pilgrimage, and the two Ids).

A mosque in China

The dialectic of unity and diversity in Muslim societies is informed, on the one hand, by the universality of the Islamic faith and, on the other, by Islam’s attitude towards other cultures and civilizations. The Islamic faith eschews narrow ethnocentrism and xenophobia, which are widely prevalent across the world. Islam’s attitude towards other cultures is marked by openness and selective appropriation and accommodation, rather than exclusiveness and absolute rejection. Thus the Prophet is reported to have said: “Wisdom is (like) the lost animal of a Muslim; he catches hold of it wherever he finds it.” The Prophet occasionally wore Persian and Roman clothes and advised the use of Indian medicines. In the famous Battle of the Ditch, the Prophet unhesitatingly accepted Salman the Persian’s suggestion to dig a wide ditch around the city of Madina as a defence strategy, which was common in his native Persia. Islamic law recognizes the legitimacy of local customs and traditions (‘urf and ‘adah) in respect of trade and commerce as well as in some other spheres of life.

The dialectic of unity and diversity in Islamic civilization and in Muslim societies is reflected in the ethnic composition of Muslim populations, in the architecture of mosques and madrasas, in languages and dialects, in customs and cultural patterns, and in cuisine and dress patterns. In China, for example, one can clearly see in the architecture of local mosques distinctively Chinese architectural styles and motifs, especially the curved roofs. Similarly, old mosques in Kerala (in southern India) exhibit the distinct influence of regional architectural designs and patterns.

II. Muslim minorities: Demographic and cultural profile

Nearly one-third of the global Muslim population today are living as minorities in predominantly non-Islamic environments. A precise estimation of the size of Muslim minorities across the world is difficult because of the paucity of reliable demographic data. The Islamic World Association (Mu’tamar al-alam al-Islami) gave an estimate of the Muslim population in China in 1965 as 75 million. However, according to the 1991 Chinese census, the population of Muslims in the country is around 20 million. The problem arises because the Chinese census enumerates the size of populations in different regions of the country on the basis of nationalities and not on grounds of religious affiliation. In some countries, Muslim minorities constitute a sizeable proportion of the general population. In Kenya, for example, Muslims constitute nearly 20% of the population while in India they constitute about 14% of the population. The proportion of Muslims in the population of Ethiopia is more than 40%. In Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, nearly 25% of the country’s 400,000 citizens are followers of Islam. In the former Yugoslavia, Muslim communities constituted more than a quarter of the total population. In Tanzania, Muslims constitute about one-third of the population. In Cameroon, located in West Central Africa, the Muslim population is more than 20% of the country’s 2.3 million people. In Singapore, Muslims constitute more than 15% of the country’s 2.7 million people. In Ghana, Muslims accounted for 15 percent of the national population according to the 1990 census. In Thailand, Muslims, who number about four million, constitute nearly10% of the population.

In Sri Lanka, Muslims number about 1.2 million, comprising about 8% percent of the country’s 15 million people. In China, Muslim communities form about two percent of the country’s population. In South Africa, Muslims comprise less than two percent of the country’s population. According to a 2002 government report, there are some 80,000 Muslims in Hong Kong. Nearly half of them are of Chinese origin. The population of Muslims in Uganda, according to the national census of 1959, was less than 6% of the total population. In Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), according to the 1983 census, Muslims constituted less than 4% of the country’s 34 million people. Muslims in Australia constitute less than two percent of the population. The Cham Muslims of Vietnam constitute less than one percent of the country’s 70 million people. They are the descendants of Champa, an indigenous royal clan that ruled much of southern Vietnam from 192 to 1490 A.D. Muslims have lived in Vietnam from at least the 10th century.

Europe is home to a sizeable—and steadily growing—Muslim minority. According to a 1986 estimate, the number of Muslims in Europe was 23 million. The current estimate of Muslim population on the continent is around 33 million. This includes Muslim communities who have been living in Europe for centuries (such as Muslims in the Balkan region and in Siberia and the Polish Tatars), immigrants and their descendants, and converts. The largest concentrations of Muslims in Europe are to be found in France (5 million), Germany (3 million), Britain (1.6 million), Italy (600,000), the Netherlands (500,000), Spain (450,000), Belgium (300,000) and Sweden (300,000). There are more Muslims in Europe than the combined populations of Finland, Ireland and Denmark. In most European countries, Islam is now the second largest religion after Christianity. The number of Muslims in the US, Canada and Latin America is around 17 million. Post-communist Russia has nearly 20 million Muslims. In some European countries, Muslims constitute a miniscule minority. Thus, according to the official Hungarian census of 2001, some 4000 of the country’s residents declared themselves as Muslim. A very small proportion of Europe’s Gypsies, who number around 8 million, are Muslim. There is a tiny minority of Tatar Muslims in Finland, who number about 850 persons.

A bazaar in the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province of China

Muslim minorities across the world, like the Muslim population in general, are characterised by a great deal of ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversities. In China, there are 55 distinct ethnic groups, officially designated as nationalities or national minorities, which comprise nearly 120 million people and constitute about 10% of the country’s population. Ten of the 55 national minorities follow Islam. The most important among Muslim minority groups are Hui (9 million), Uighur (7.5 million), and Kazakh (1.2 million). The Hui, who comprise about half of the Muslim population in China, are spread over 97% of China’s provinces. They are the descendants of Arab and Persian merchants who began arriving and settling in China since the 7th century. They married local Chinese women, which resulted in their gradual assimilation into Chinese society. The Hui Muslims thus represent a blend of Chinese, Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultural traditions. Unlike other Muslim communities, they speak a variety of languages. The other Muslim communities are Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tatar, Salar, Bonan, Tajik and Dongxiang. The Uighur, Kazakh and Kirghiz Muslims have substantially retained their original languages and cultural traditions. Their largest concentration is in Xinjiang, which was known as Chinese Turkestan in earlier times. They speak variants of Turkic languages and share substantial cultural and oral traditions with the Muslims of Central Asia.

The Siberian Muslims are among Russia’s oldest surviving Muslim communities. According to local legend, Islam reached western Siberia in the 14th century. There are three large and distinct ethnic groups in the region: Siberian Tartars (80,000), Western Siberian Kazakhs (160,000) and the Volga-Ural Tartars (60,000). Every Tartar and Kazakh settlement has a mosque and a religious functionary.

Extensive ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversities among Muslim minorities exist not only globally but also within countries and even regions. Thus the long-established Islamic Centre of Greater Toledo in Ohio, USA, has a membership of about 600 families drawn from more than thirty national and ethnic backgrounds. Muslim communities in the Sussex area in Britain speak nearly 40 languages. The Muslim community of Hong Kong comprises Chinese Muslims (who constitute about half of the local Muslim population) and immigrants from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Muslim population in Australia is composed of at least 64 distinct ethnic groups who speak more than 55 languages and dialects.

Migration and transnationalism

Large-scale transnational migration is one of the defining features of globalisation. It is estimated that some 175 million people live outside of their countries of origin. According to the United Nations’ International Migration Report (2000), one person out of ten living in the industrialised nations is an immigrant. In France, nearly 14 million French citizens—nearly a quarter of the country’s population—have at least one immigrant parent or grandparent. The majority of Australia’s population consists of migrants from over a hundred countries.

The process of migration, including forced displacement, has played an important role in the global spread and distribution of Muslim minorities. In some regions of the world, Muslim majority populations have been reduced to a minority, thanks to the machinations of some Western powers. Thus, following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, more than 50% of the local Palestinian population were driven out of their homeland. More than four million Palestinian refugees took shelter in the neighbouring Arab countries and in Europe and North America. In 1992 the Arab minority in Israel constituted about 18% of the country’s population (excluding the Muslim population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). A whole generation was born and raised in foreign lands, cut off from their homeland and cultural moorings.

Muslim communities in Europe, North and Latin America and Australia have migrated from over 80 countries. The first generation of Muslim migrants in most European countries was recruited as cheap labour for the post-War reconstruction of European societies. Initially, European states believed that migrant labour would be a transient phase and the immigrants would return to their native countries after the expiry of their contract. However, the demand for cheap labour in the rapidly developing European economies continued unabated. Meanwhile, various European states allowed family reunion for immigrants. Consequently, the first generation of immigrants decided to stay back in the receiving countries where their children were born and raised. In France, for example, more than 30% of immigrants belong to a second, French-born generation.

By and large, Muslim immigrants, especially the first generation, in Europe, USA, Latin America and Australia, maintain close contacts with their countries of origin through visits and marriage alliances. Increased facilities for travel, modern information and communication technologies and the electronic and print media have reinforced the cultural links of diasporic Muslim communities with their homelands. Satellite television, telephone and the Internet have emerged as highly important instruments in strengthening such ties. Al Jazeera, an independent television channel started in Qatar in 1996, has become enormously popular not only in the Arab world but also among the Arabic-speaking diaspora in Europe, North America and Australia, with an estimated audience of more than 40 million.

Relations with the majority populations

The relations between Muslim minorities and the dominant populations of the countries where they are living differ from region to region and range from isolation and alienation to repression and discrimination and from resistance and confrontation to coexistence and accommodation. Furthermore, these relations remain subject to processes of change in different contexts. Muslims in China, for example, have faced exclusion, repression and discrimination for several decades. In 1949 the communist regime began carrying out a policy of Sinization through population transfers. The majority Han Chinese were encouraged to migrate to the Muslim-dominated region of Xinjiang in large numbers and in about a decade the Han population in the region increased sevenfold. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Muslims in China had to bear the brunt of widespread persecution and harassment. Mosques and madrasas were forcibly closed down and religious instruction was outlawed. In one brutal massacre in the Yunnan province, more than a thousand Muslims were gunned down by the government forces. After 1978, due to a combination of factors, including liberalization and increasing ties with the Muslim world, the Chinese government became more responsive and sensitive to the grievances and demands of Muslims.

Muslims in the Philippines, who constitute about five percent of the predominantly Christian population, have faced repression and persecution for nearly four centuries. They fiercely resisted the Spanish conquest of the region in which they were concentrated for nearly 300 years. The repressive and discriminatory policies of the post-colonial Christian-dominated Philippine state exacerbated the feelings of alienation among Muslims and led to the formation of a separatist movement aimed at the establishment of an independent homeland for the Muslims of Philippines.

Until the 1950s, Muslims formed the majority in the fertile and sparsely-populated southern region of Philippines. In order to curb the growing assertiveness among Muslims, the Philippine government began to sponsor the clandestine migration of Christians from the poor regions of the northern and central parts of the country to the Muslim-dominated southern region, especially to the island of Mindanao. By the late 1960s Mindanao Muslims were reduced to a minority. The mounting tensions between Muslims and the Philippine authorities led to violent clashes, following which the underground Moro National Liberation Front was revived as an armed separatist movement. The armed cadres of the Front valiantly fought the Philippine armed forces. From 1972 to 1980, southern Philippines witnessed violent confrontations between Muslim fighters and the Philippine military. This resulted in the massacre of more than 100,000 Muslims and the forced migration of more than 100,000 Philippine Muslims to Malaysia.

Kenya’s six million Muslims constitute about 20% of the predominantly Christian population of the country. Until quite recently, Muslims were well represented in government and in public institutions. After the 1997 elections, there were 30 Muslim MPs out of 210. The state provided sufficient religious and cultural spaces to the Muslim community. The Id festival was declared a national holiday in the country. The position of the chief qadi as well as Shariah-based courts to settle disputes pertaining to family matters were recognised by the state.

In recent years, the relations between the Muslim minority and the majority Christian population have come under strain. The growing Islamic consciousness among Kenya’s Muslims led to the formation of the Islamic Party of Kenya. Most African countries espouse the principle of the separation of church and state and accordingly prohibit the formation of political parties on the basis of religion. The Kenyan government has refused to recognise the Islamic Party of Kenya, as a result of which the gulf between the Muslim community and the government has widened. In recent years there have been violent clashes between Muslim groups and government forces.

More than half of the African continent is Muslim. In many African countries, especially in Ethiopia, Chad and Nigeria, there is an intense competition and rivalry between Christian and Muslim missionaries. This has exacerbated the tensions between the Muslim minorities and the Christian majority in some countries. However, the relations between the Muslim minority and the majority Christian population in some African countries have been exceptionally peaceful and cordial. In Tanzania, where Muslims constitute about one-third of the population, Ali Hassan Mwinyi succeeded Julius Nyrere as the country’s president in 1985, while the latter remained head of the ruling party. Salim Ahmed Salim vbecame secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity.

The Cham Muslims of Vietnam, who form a minuscule minority, are isolated from the wider society. They are surrounded by poverty and illiteracy and are treated by the majority population with suspicion and distrust.

In Sri Lanks, the Tamil-speaking Muslims have faced persecution and displacement at the hands of both the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In October 1999, more than 75000 Muslims, including women and children, were thrown out of their homes. Today they live in over-crowded settlements in the impoverished areas of the country, without any facilities for the education of their children and without any hope for the future.

The relationship between Muslim minorities and the majority population in a given country is not always uniform. It varies from one segment of the community to another and is determined by a particular segment’s historical, social and ethnic linkages with the majority population. In Myanmar, for example, the long-established Burmese Muslim community, unlike recent migrants from India and Bangladesh, has cordial relations with the Buddhist majority. In the past they identified with the majority and participated in the Burmese nationalist movement. Following the independence of the country in 1948, many indigenous Burmese Muslims were appointed ministers in the government of the Buddhist prime minister U Nu and many Muslims continued to serve in the military. On the other hand, immigrant Muslim communities have often been at loggerheads with the government. In Hong Kong, Chinese Muslims, who are indistinguishable from the majority population except in respect of their religion, get along very well with the Chinese majority, while immigrant non-Chinese Muslim communities often face discrimination and marginalisation.

Official policies on immigration have a significant bearing on the relations between the wider society and the migrants and on their integration into the host society. Different European countries follow different models of societal integration. These models have evolved over a period of time in response to changing economic, social and political conditions. Thus, Germany, Austria and Switzerland initially started with what came to be known as the guest worker model, which assumed that the immigrants would eventually return to their countries of origin after the expiry of their contracts. Accordingly, the state did not make any serious efforts to integrate them into mainstream society. In Germany, for example, the descent-based model of nationality and citizenship operated for a fairly long time. However, from the late 1980s, when permission for family reunion was granted and the immigrants decided to settle permanently in the country, the guest worker model was abandoned in favour of an alternative model which was more inclusive and accommodative.

The prevailing models of societal integration in European states reflect a good measure of ambivalence and incoherence. Some European countries, such as France and Belgium, insist on the assimilation of immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities into mainstream society. Others, such as Britain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the Scandinavian countries, follow broadly multicultural policies. They have accorded public recognition to ethnic and cultural diversity and are far more accommodative of the rights and sensibilities of the minorities.

In some cases, the links of immigrants with the receiving countries in Europe are embedded in the transnational labour migration circuits. Thus, Muslim immigrants from Senegal or Mali residing in France or Italy have little or no attachment with the host societies. Their identities and loyalties are firmly rooted in the home countries. On the other hand, Turks in Germany and North Africans in France identify with their countries of residence.

In some countries, Muslim communities have substantial geopolitical significance due to their concentration in certain sensitive regions. Kenya’s six million Muslims, for example, are concentrated in economically and strategically important areas. Muslim communities living in China’s border regions of Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, where they comprise more than 60% of the population, have significantly influenced China’s domestic and international relations, especially with Central Asia. Xinjiang’s largest trading partner is the neighbouring Muslim-dominated Kazakhstan in Central Asia. China is Kazakhstan’s fifth largest trade partner, while Uzbekistan the second largest central Asian trading partner. China is expected to import gas from Turkemenistan to meet the growing energy requirement in the northwest region of the country. Work on the proposed Turkemenistan-China-Japan natural gas pipeline, which would connect Central Asia’s richest gas fields with China and Japan, is underway. In 1996 China signed an agreement with the Muslim-majority Kazakhstan for exclusive rights to the Ozen oil field in that country, the largest oil field in the whole of Central Asia. China’s growing trade links with the Middle Eastern states have had some positive impact on its treatment of Muslim minorities. Recent incidents of unrest and independence movements spearheaded by Muslim groups in the Uighur Autonomous Region have reinforced their geopolitical significance. Chinese rulers have realised that unrest in the Muslim-dominated regions, which have substantial mineral and energy resources, may lead to a decline in outside oil investment and revenues.

Contribution of Muslim minorities to the wider society

Muslim minorities have made, and continue to make, highly significant and wide-ranging contributions to the countries they are living in. These contributions encompass diverse areas, including the military, economy, architecture, languages and literary traditions, education, arts and crafts, sports and music. For example, France’s rapid economic expansion after World War II owes much to the sweat and toil of Muslim immigrants from the former French colonies in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. They worked on the docks of Marseilles, in the construction of the Paris Metro and in the mines of northern France. During the First World War the French government encouraged the migration of more than 132,000 North African Muslims to work as farmhands and in armament factories. North African mercenaries, who were part of French troops, played an active role in liberating Paris from Nazi occupation. The French national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 1998, included some players of Algerian descent, notably the team’s star performer Zinedine Zidane.

A substantial proportion of the labour force across Europe as well as in other industrialised countries like Japan is aging, resulting in a falling supply of labour and skills. The immigrants fill in this lacuna. A UN study points out that Europe will need 1.6 million migrants a year for the next 45 years to maintain its work force at current levels to replenish aging populations and falling birth rates.

Muslims in China have made highly significant contributions in the fields of medicine, astronomy, urban planning, trade and commerce, navigation, literature, art and philosophy. The architectural blueprint of Beijing was prepared by a Chinese Muslim architect, Ihedierdin, who lived during the Yuan dynasty. In the 13th century, Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din (d. 1279), who served as the governor of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Yunnan provinces, built new highways and introduced new irrigation and production technologies. Muslim generals fought in the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion in 1894. China’s Hui Muslims have traditionally dominated certain crafts and trades, such as leather work, jewellery designing, wool trading and beef and lamb restaurants. In the 13th century, the celebrated Uighur poet Yusuf Has Hajip wrote an epic poem which contained 13,290 verses.

The Muslim community in India, whose presence in the subcontinent goes back to more a thousand years, have made highly significant and wide-ranging contributions to the enrichment of Indian civilization. These contributions cover languages and literary compositions, trade and commerce, urbanisation, administration and civic planning, architecture, arts and crafts and music. They played a leading role in the anti-colonial struggle. Muslims introduced in India the spinning wheel and right-angle gearing, which greatly facilitated water lifting and irrigation. Paper was introduced in the country by Muslims. Carpet weaving was introduced in the Kashmir Valley by King Zainul Abideen. The art of lacquered papier-mache was introduced in Kashmir by Persian craftsmen. The famed blue pottery of Jaipur in western India bears the unmistakable influence of Persian and Central Asian techniques and pigments. Muslim artisans and craftsmen introduced a variety of materials and pigments, including glass, lapis lazuli and cobalt blue. They introduced the technique of enamelling glass. The contribution of Muslims to the development of Indian music is well known and is widely appreciated. Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore in the 18th century, introduced sericulture in Mysore. He played a pioneering role in the development of irrigation and agriculture.

In South Africa, Muslims played an important role in the resistance against apartheid. Muslims in Tanzania took a leading part in the struggle for independence, particularly in the Tanganyika African National Union (founded in 1954), the party that was in the vanguard of the independence movement. In Cambodia, during the pre-French period, Muslims played important military and political roles under the local kings and held high titles for several centuries. After the country’s independence in 1953 they continued to enjoy high ranks in the Cambodian military.

In Poland, the Tatar Muslims have been known as valiant soldiers. Following the collapse of the Polish state in 1795, the Tatars fought alongside the Poles for the country’s independence. The Tatar fighters swore their allegiance to Poland on the Quran in the presence of their religious leaders. They actively participated in the two national uprisings against Russian imperialism in 1830 and 1863. Many of the customs and traditions of the Tatar Muslims were adopted by the Polish nobility.

Muslims have left an indelible mark on African history, culture, architecture and art, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founder-president, often maintained that Africa’s heritage is based on three elements: indigenous traditions, Islam, and the Euro-Christian impact.

Though Muslim communities are dispersed across different regions of the world, which are often separated by long distances, they have not existed in complete isolation from the global Muslim community. There have been frequent contacts and interaction among them, which were facilitated by the Hajj pilgrimage, the visits of itinerant traders, scholars and Sufis, and transnational Islamic movements.

III. Challenges and impediments

Racism, xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities have been fairly widespread in human history. In 1492, the Spanish Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, known as the Catholic Kings, expelled Muslims, Jews and Gypsies from Spain. Mosques were either razed to the ground or converted into churches and cathedrals. Kazakhstan was occupied by Russia in 1730. In 1929, the fertile lands of Kazakh Muslims were confiscated by the communist rulers, as a result of which one million Kazakh Muslims died of starvation. Stalin tried to eradicate the presence of Islam in the former Soviet Union by closing down mosques and madrasas and proscribing the observance of religious rituals. The most horrifying manifestation of intolerance and barbarism was manifested in Nazi Germany where Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were stigmatised and persecuted. The Jews were eliminated from public life, state education and the armed forces. Ultimately, six million Jews were ruthlessly massacred. Many European countries have followed policies which aimed at the forcible assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities.

Anti-Semitism has been one of the darkest spots on the face of many European societies. In 1995 there were more than 1800 incidents of attacks on Jews and on synagogues in the US. In France, which is home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, there were 974 anti-Semitic incidents in 2004, following which the former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon called French Jews to migrate to Israel because of the “wildest anti-Semitism prevalent in the country.”

Institutionalised racism, xenophobia and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities have deep roots in the history and cultural traditions of European societies. The 2004 report of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia has pointed out that a significant degree of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities in respect of employment and housing exists in several European countries, including France, Germany, Denmark, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden. The report points out that the British police received almost 53000 reports of racist incidents in 2004, followed by Germany which received 6474 reports. The report found that Europe’s eight million Gypsies or Romas and Muslim immigrants were the most vulnerable.

Muslim minorities living in different countries face a variety of challenges and problems. Some of these challenges seem to be universal or near-universal while others are embedded in regional contexts. The major challenges facing Muslim minorities include exclusion, marginalisation and stigmatization, pressures of assimilation, secularisation and globalisation, especially on the younger generation, and obstacles in preserving and safeguarding their religious and cultural identity.

Exclusion, discrimination and demonization

Muslim minorities in Europe, the United States and Australia as well as in China and other countries have suffered repression and persecution for several decades and continue to bear the brunt of exclusion, stigmatization and humiliation. The last communist regime of Bulgaria pressurised Bulgarian Muslims to change their Turkic-Arabic names to Slav names. Muslims resisted this move and preferred to leave the country. In the summer of 1989, 500,000 Bulgarian Muslims migrated to Turkey. The genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after 1975 led to a virtual decimation of the Muslim population. Thousands of them were brutally massacred while tens of thousands of Muslims had to flee the country and take refuge in Malaysia and other neighbouring countries. Most of the country’s mosques, madrasas and Islamic literature were vandalised and destroyed. Members of the Muslim elite were targeted and killed.

Palestinians living in Israel continue to suffer repression, discrimination and humiliation at the hands of the Israeli authorities. According to the constitution of Israel, Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli women are not eligible for Israeli citizenship, residency or entry permits. Two human rights groups in Israel submitted a petition to the Supreme Court for overturning this law, which was rejected.

Muslims living in Western societies are faced with a host of challenges and problems, including xenophobia and institutionalised racism, unclear citizenship status, lack of legal security, exclusion, discrimination and stigmatization. Laws, policies and procedures and nationalist discourses in many European societies betray bias and discrimination against Muslims and other minorities. For example, Spanish national identity is defined and articulated in a manner that excludes Muslims. It is articulated in terms of the discourse of cultural nationalism or Hispanidad, which refers to a monocultural, exclusive community of Spanish-speaking Catholics, to the exclusion of Muslims, Jews and other non-Spanish speakers.

In Britain there is an avowedly colour-blind allocation of housing, which in reality is discriminatory in respect of non-whites. Similarly, thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish schools in Britain are funded by the state. About a quarter of all pupils in the country attend state-funded religious schools. It was only a couple of years ago that this privilege was extended to a few (five) Muslim schools and one Sikh school. In Britain, until recently (December 2003), acts of discrimination against Muslims were not considered illegal because the courts did not recognise Muslims as an ethnic group although, ironically, Jews and Sikhs are recognised as ethnic groups.

Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right British National Party, had said in a recent speech that Islam is a vicious, wicked faith. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred, but on February 3, 2006 walked free at the end of the trial. In his defence, Griffin argued that he was attacking a religion (which, in the case of religions other than Christianity, is not an offence under British law), not a race. Muslims in Britain who sought a ban on Salman Rushdie’s controversial book Satanic Verses on grounds of blasphemy were disappointed to discover that the anti-blasphemy law in Britain is applicable only to the state religion, namely Anglicanism.

The resentment and hatred towards Muslim immigrants in European countries is manifested in assaults on Muslims and in the vandalization of mosques and Islamic centres. The opening of new mosques in Italy and Switzerland is often accompanied by protests by the local people. The Swiss People’s Party, which has the majority of seats in Switzerland’s parliament, recently started a campaign to ban minarets on mosques. It argues that minarets symbolise Islamic law, which has no place in Switzerland’s legal system. It is seeking a referendum on the issue and until such time as the referendum is held, mosques are not permitted to raise minarets. The move has caused shock and deep resentment among Switzerland’s Muslims, who number about 35,000. At present only two mosques—one in Geneva and the other in Zurich—have minarets, but they are not allowed to use them for calling the faithful to prayer.

France swears by the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In reality, however, immigrants from North Africa (including their second and third-generation descendents born and brought up in France) experience widespread discrimination, exclusion and racism. French society is differentiated according to class, religion and ethnicity. Mainstream jobs and positions remain largely with the white, upper class, Christian majority. The suburbs, where the majority of Muslims live, are characterised by poverty, high unemployment rate (over 30% as compared with the national average of 10%), crime and drug abuse. Faced with such gloomy prospects, many French youths are forced to change their names and to conceal their local addresses for fear that the disclosure of their real identity will jeopardize their chances of employment. In November 2005 North African youths indulged in large-scale rioting and vandalism on the streets of Paris. The violence was triggered by the accidental death by electrocution of two French youth of North African descent who were being chased by the French police.

During the past couple of decades, racist sentiments and violence against immigrants and foreigners spearheaded by neo-Nazi and other racist outfits have been on the increase in many European countries. The far-right political parties in Europe, such as the British National Party, Front Nationale in France and Vlaams Belang in Belgium, which make no secret of their antipathy towards Muslims and other immigrant groups, are growing in popularity. Thus in Belgium, the far-right, anti-immigrant Vlaam Belang Party won nearly a quarter of the national vote in the 2004 elections. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his dislike for immigrants and Muslims, scored a landslide victory in the recently held elections.

Following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the Madrid train bombing in 2004, the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the London bombing of 2005, the stigmatization and harassment of Muslims have greatly increased in large parts of Europe, the US and Australia. In San Francisco, more than 700 hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims were reported in the aftermath of 9/11. There were several incidents of attacks on mosques and Islamic schools in the Netherlands and in other European countries. On July 14, 2002 the main cemetery of the Muslim community of Argentina was vandalised and 150 graves were desecrated. .Soon after the London attack, the London police erroneously shot an innocent electrician suspected to be a suicide bomber. On June 2, 2006, the London police carried out a massive pre-dawn raid, with 300 officers, on the house of two Muslim brothers living in East London, on suspicion of terrorist links. One of the brothers was wounded in a shot fired by the police. The police recovered nothing which could suggest that the brothers were involved in any terrorist activities. They were later released without charge. This incident fuelled anger and resentment in the Muslim community.

The Muslim minority in India, which comprises the third largest Muslim population in the world, has been groaning under the oppressive weight of exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination since the independence of the country. Frequent communal riots add to their economic hardships and deepen their sense of insecurity and alienation. Communal violence destroys local industries, impoverishes artisans and craftsmen and undermines local initiative and entrepreneurship. The economic, social and human costs of communal violence are enormous and in fact incalculable.

Official reports and surveys, notably the Sachar Committee report, as well as studies commissioned by Muslim institutions present a grim and depressing picture of the social, economic and educational condition of Muslims in India. The majority of Muslims in the country are surrounded by poverty, educational backwardness, high unemployment rate and poor living standards. The state of educational backwardness among Muslims is particularly glaring in higher, technical and professional education. The representation of the community in government and in public institutions, especially in the police and armed forces, bureaucracy and judiciary and in the private sector is extremely meagre.

Some far-right political parties and quasi-political organisations continue to carry on a well orchestrated campaign of vilification and stigmatization against the Muslim minority. Thousands of Muslims in Gujarat, who were forcibly evicted from their homes and villages during the pogrom of 2002, are unable to return to their native villages for fear of reprisals. They are told that they could return to their villages if they renounced their faith and embraced Hinduism or if they took back their complaints against the perpetrators of the riots.

Muslims in Nepal are denied the freedom to follow their religious laws in respect of family matters. According to the country’s law, which is contrary to Islamic prescriptions, a Muslim wife gets an equal share in her husband’s property while a daughter is not entitled to a share in her father’s property until she reaches the age of 35 or remains unmarried.

Racial tensions erupted in the otherwise peaceful Australia in December 2005. Beer bottle-wielding white youth rioters attacked Muslims of Middle Eastern origin on the beaches of Sydney. Youth gangs and white extremist groups like the Australia First Party and Patriotic Youth League have gathered strength in recent years. In Australia as well as in many Western countries, draconian anti-terror legislation poses a serious threat to the security and freedom of Muslims. An Amnesty International report reveals that nearly 32 million people in the US, mostly Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia, have reported that they have been racially profiled in the aftermath of 9/11. The late UN human rights chief Sergio Vieirade Mello emphasized that the “war against terror” was exacerbating prejudices around the world, increasing discrimination and stigmatization against Arabs and Muslims and damaging human rights in the industrialised countries as well as the developing countries.

In many countries where Muslims are living as minorities, there is a lack of fit between legal and constitutional norms—such as equality, justice, fundamental rights—and actual practices which are often at variance with such norms. Quite often, the institutions of the state—government, bureaucracy, judiciary law-enforcement agencies—indulge in practices which are unfair and discriminatory against Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities. This is the case in France, India, Britain, Italy and many other countries.


The Runnymede Trust in Britain set up a Commission on Islamophobia in 1997. The report of the Commission revealed that Islamophobia—fear of and hostility towards Islam and Muslims—is one of the chief forms of racism in Britain. The report pointed out that for many in the Muslim community, to demean and vilify Islam was as exclusionary as racism and sapped their confidence to engage with reassurance with the wider society.

The wide prevalence of Islamophobia in large parts of the world, especially in Europe, the US and Australia, is reflected in the vilification and demonization of Islam and Muslims, in the opposition to the visibility of Islamic symbols (such as minarets on mosques or the Islamic headscarf) in public places, in the distortion and misrepresentation of matters related to Muslims by the Western media, in the racial profiling and surveillance of Muslims (as in the US), in the discrimination against Muslims in respect of employment and housing, and in the tirade against Muslim immigrants by the far-right political parties and racist groups.

It is widely believed in Europe that Islam is at variance with progressive values, that it encourages intolerance, fanaticism and aggression in its followers, and that it poses a threat to world peace. The writings and speeches of some public intellectuals and writers, such as V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis and Oriana Fallaci, have fuelled Islamophobia. Shortly after 9/11, Fukuyama wrote in an article in the Newsweek that the attacks on the United States represent a desperate backlash against the Western world. He spoke of Islamo-fascists who, in his view, are out to destroy Western values. Writing in the same issue of the magazine, Samuel Huntington spoke of the age of Muslim wars and argued that Muslims fight each other and fight non-Muslims far more often than do people of other civilizations. He predicted that Muslim violence could “congeal into one major clash of civilizations between Islam and the West or between Islam and the Rest.” Oriana Fallaci, Italian writer and journalist, has described Europe as “Eurabia” and said that “the continent has sold itself and sells itself to the enemy (Muslims) like a prostitute. Europe has become more and more a province of Islam, a colony of Islam.”

Although most Western countries allow the wearing of the hijab in public places, the issue has been surrounded by controversy in recent years. In France, the controversy erupted in 1989 when three Muslim girls wore headscarves to their public school in Ceil, a suburb in the north of Paris. The incident triggered a heated public debate. Some commentators argued that the incident reflected a clash between the identity of Muslim immigrants and the French national identity (which is defined by secularism and the republican model of cultural assimilation). In their view, the incident provided a confirmation of the fact that Islam was incompatible with the secular principles of French society. The controversy resurfaced in 1994 when the right-wing French government issued a circular to public schools forbidding the wearing of any ostentatious religious symbols, including the headscarf, in public schools. In the same year, some Muslim girls wearing headscarves were expelled from a public school. In 2003, the former French president Jacques Chirac appointed a commission under the chairmanship of Bernard Stasi, a former minister, to consider the question of religious symbols in public schools. The Stasi Commission suggested in its report that wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as the Christian cross, the Jewish yarmulke, the Islamic headscarf and the Sikh turban, should be banned in public schools. The report was accepted and implemented by the government.

The headscarf controversy has surfaced in several European countries. In the Netherlands, the wearing of headscarves by three Moroccan girls in a French public school in 1989 generated an intense public debate. Jack Straw, Britain’s former foreign secretary, stirred up a hornet’s nest on October 6, 2006 by stating that the veil creates a barrier and “separateness” between Muslims and other people and makes relations between communities more difficult. A few days before the parliamentary elections were held in the Netherlands in November 2006, Rita Verdonk, minister of immigration and integration, stated the cabinet’s intention to ban the Islamic headscarf in all public places. Her party lost the election and the new government has shelved the idea.

The negative image of Islam and Muslims prevalent in Western countries is projected and reinforced by the Western media. Disney’s 1993 animated film Aladdin referred to Arabs as “barbaric.” The Hollywood film True Lies stereotypes Arabs as violent anti-American fanatics who launch terrorist attacks for no apparent reason. This kind of stereotyping and labelling not only presents a distorted picture of Muslims also glosses over the fact that there are more than 15 million Arab Christians in the Middle East. The media tend to selectively focus on certain contentious issues, such as Islamic fundamentalism, violence and terrorism, jihad, and the subordination and oppression of women in Muslim societies. Since control over the media has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of global news agencies which are inimical to Islam, it is difficult to challenge their agenda.

In September 2005, a minor Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published highly derogatory caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. In one of them he was shown wearing a bomb-shaped turban (thus portraying him as a terrorist). In early February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries republished some or all of the cartoons. This generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment among Muslims across the world and led to unfortunate political, economic and diplomatic repercussions. There were massive and violent protests in several Muslim countries, resulting in the death of scores of people and injury to hundreds of protesters. Danish embassies in Iran, Beirut, Syria and Libya were attacked and vandalised. Iran snapped all trade ties with Sweden. Muslim consumers across large parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, boycotted Danish products on a massive scale.

A large number of surveys and polls in various parts of Europe clearly demonstrate that Islam and Muslims are often perceived negatively. According to the report of the Swedish Integration Board (2004-2005), two-thirds of people in the survey felt that Islamic values are not compatible with the values of Swedish society. Nearly 37% of the respondents were opposed to mosques being built in Sweden. According to a poll published in September 2006, nearly half of Denmark’s population consider Islam incompatible with democracy. According to a poll published in The Daily Telegraph on August 26, 2006, more than half of all Britons think that Islam poses a threat to the West.

Pressures of assimilation and globalisation

Muslim minorities living in non-Islamic environments are often blamed for tenaciously adhering to the tenets of their religion and for maintaining their identities in public spaces. At the same time, they are under constant pressure to conform to the norms and values of mainstream society. In many countries, such as in China, Australia, Canada and the former Yugoslavia, inter-marriage with non-Muslims has led to the assimilation of Muslim minorities into mainstream society. In Georgia, during the Soviet era, isolated Muslim communities were assimilated into the dominant culture. It became quite common for young Muslims to drink alcohol and eat pork and offer wine to guests, which was a part of Georgian culture. In Australia, assimilation was reflected in the adoption of Christian names by Muslim convicts and early settlers. The Tatar Muslims of Poland were assimilated into Polish society through inter-marriage with non-Muslims and the adoption of Polish customs and cultural traits. Muslims began settling in Australia in the 1970s following the government’s decision to allow non-white migration. Initially, they led secluded lives but in the course of time many Muslim men married non-Muslim women. This led to their gradual assimilation into mainstream society and the dilution of their cultural identity. Small and isolated Muslim communities living in the remote and inaccessible hilly regions of Nepal have adopted many customs and rituals from the surrounding Hindu population. Local Muslim women often pray to local deities and pay obeisance to the souls of dead ancestors. Similarly, many Hindu customs and rituals associated with birth, marriage and death have found their way in the local Muslim communities. This can be observed among some Muslim communities in India as well.

Assimilationist pressures are reflected in immigration policies and procedures in many European countries. Thus in Germany, the southern state of Baden-Wurttenberg has designed its own searching exam exclusively for Muslim applicants seeking German citizenship. Questions in the test include: If your son told you he was a homosexual and wanted to live with another man, how would you react? If your adult daughter dressed like a German woman, would you try to prevent her from doing so? In the Netherlands, prospective settlers and immigrants are shown a film depicting a topless woman cavorting on a beach and another on two men locked in a passionate kiss in a park.

The second and third generations of Muslim immigrants born and raised in Western countries have been particularly vulnerable to the pressures of assimilation and globalisation. Unlike their parents or grandparents, they have no emotional ties with their homeland. The influence of the surrounding environment is reflected in their language, peer group, lifestyle and attitudes. The children of the Syrian-Lebanese immigrants in Argentina, for example, no longer speak Arabic, their mother tongue, and are not interested in learning it. In our globalising era, the role of parents and other members of the family has been greatly reduced. Peer group, global media, school and networks in the wider society now play a much larger role in the socialisation process. Muslim children and adolescents living in Western countries as well as in the metropolitan cities of Asia and Africa are being increasingly exposed to influences which are often at variance with Islamic values and traditions. Muslim youth are becoming increasingly influenced by the global culture, including individualism and consumerism, the free mixing of sexes and dating, hip hop culture and American rap music, discotheques and nightclubs, and drugs. This has brought about distance and alienation between the older and younger generations.

The descendents of immigrants born and raised in Western countries are faced with a peculiar predicament. While they identify themselves with the country of their birth and residence, they are not fully accepted by the wider society on account of their ethnicity and identity. On the other hand, their identification with the homeland and culture of their parents or grandparents is at best mixed and ambivalent. Consequently, they experience fragmented, confused identities. A second generation French youth of Algerian descent voices this dilemma in the following words:

We don’t consider ourselves completely Algerian or completely French. Our parents are Arabs. We were born in France (and visited Algeria only a few times). So what are we? French? Arab? In the eyes of the French we are Arabs. But when we visit Algeria, some people call us emigrants and say, “You have rejected our culture.” We’ve even had stones thrown at us.

Transnational diasporas of Muslim minorities have produced a small breed of modernist and secular Muslims who are alienated from their religious and cultural moorings and who have disparaged and slandered Islamic values and traditions. These include Taha Husain, Salman Rushdie, a self-professed atheist (who has now been knighted), Taslima Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, among others.

A few Muslim communities living in isolated regions are faced with the challenge of conversion to other religions, particularly Christianity and Hinduism. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church has accelerated its campaign to convert the Muslim community in Georgia’s southwestern autonomous region Ajaria. There is a great emphasis in post-Soviet Georgia on the country’s Christian heritage. Georgian nationalism and Christianity are being projected as identical and conversion to Christianity is interpreted as the return of Muslims—who are contemptuously described as Turks—to their native faith. A similar l\kind of campaign, aimed at the conversion of Muslim communities to Hinduism, is being carried out in the remote and inaccessible hilly region of Rajasthan in western India.

In addition to exogenous challenges, Muslim minorities, like the Muslim peoples in general, are faced with a set of endogenous or internal challenges and problems. The most insidious challenge faced by Muslims across the world is widespread fragmentation and dissension and lack of communitarian unity and consensus. This fragmentation and dissension is largely due to ethnic divisions, national affiliations and sectarian and denominational differences. It is reflected in the structure and organization of mosques, madrasas ad local organizations. In Australia, for example, mosques are designated according to the ethnic identity of the dominant segment in the local Muslim community. There is, for example, the Albanian Mosque in Victoria and the Lakemba Mosque built by the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney. The Lebanese Muslim Association, Bosnian Islamic Society and Islamic Egyptian Society in Australia betray the pervasive influence of regional, ethnic and sectarian divisions among Muslim minorities. Friday and Id sermons in many mosques across large parts of the world are delivered in the language of the dominant segment of the local Muslim community. In Hong Kong, the Wan Chai Mosque is mainly patronised by Muslims of Chinese origin while the Kowloon Mosque is used primarily by immigrant Muslims from India and Pakistan. A Chinese imam from China proper leads the prayers at the Wan Chai Mosque while an Indian or Pakistani person serves as imam at the Kowloon Mosque. In Suriname there are more than 150 mosques. Indonesian Muslims comprise nearly 65% of the Muslim population and Muslims of Indian origin comprise about 30% of the population. The remainder are African converts. The organization of mosques in Suriname reflects this ethnic division in the local Muslim population. Since the Friday sermon and religious discourses at the Indian mosques are conducted in Urdu, Indonesians rarely pray in these mosques.

IV. Opportunities and prospects

To maintain that Muslim minorities everywhere are in the iron grip of repression and discrimination and are altogether denied religious and cultural freedom will be grossly unfair. The fact of the matter is that many countries in which Muslim minorities are living provide them sufficient religious and cultural spaces and substantial opportunities for their individual and collective well-being. These opportunities are mediated through international conventions, constitutional safeguards, courts, official policies on integration, and civil society. Thailand, for example, is a Buddhist country where Buddhist ethos and cultural traditions understandably have a place of prominence in national and public life. At the same time, the state allows the Muslim community sufficient autonomous spaces in respect of their beliefs, institutions and cultural traditions. It allows them to run and manage Islamic schools as well as local Islamic courts to adjudicate family matters according to their religious laws.

In South Africa, the constitution of the erstwhile apartheid regime declared that South Africa was a Christian country. The new, post-apatheid constitution of the country asserts that South Africa is a country of four religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Furthermore, the constitution explicitly states that all the four religions are placed on an equal footing. Muslims in South Africa are a highly visible community, especially in the urban areas. They are well represented in the government and in public institutions as well as in professions such as medicine, law and accountancy. Muslims in Suriname enjoy full religious and cultural freedom. The feat of Id is celebrated as a national holiday.

Many countries in which Muslims live as minorities, such as Russia, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa, Suriname, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, recognize Islamic courts for the settlement of matters relating to family affairs. The constitution of South Africa recognises the Islamic personal law, including local Islamic courts. The constitution of India recognizes Muslim personal law and guarantees religious and cultural freedom to the Muslim community. In post-Soviet Russia, Shariah courts are recognized in Chechnya and Ingushetia. In Singapore, the Shariah Court and Registry of Muslim Marriages were set up in 1958. In addition to settling divorce petitions, the Shariah Court also issues inheritance certificates relating to Muslim estates. There is also a Minister in Charge of Muslim Affairs who acts as a liaison between the Muslim community and the government. The government policy has been to emphasize and support self-help groups among Muslims, such as Council on Education for Muslim Children and Association of Muslim Professionals. In Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, Islamic courts were established by the Kadhi Act of 1985. The courts have jurisdiction over all family and personal matters involving Zanzibar’s Muslim community.

North America and the continent of Europe are home to nearly 50 million Muslims. In recent years, the relations between Western countries and the Islamic world have come under tremendous strain. It will be a gross over-simplification and distortion to say that the West per se is anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. Undoubtedly, there is a strong undercurrent of Islamophobia in the Western world, but there are other undercurrents as well. The most vociferous protests against the impending invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies came from the general public in the Western world, including writers, intellectuals, human rights groups and journalists. Tens of millions of people participated in these protests and demonstrations. Some of the major European powers, such as Germany and France, strongly opposed the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

By and large, Western societies are characterised by a set of features which are conducive for the protection of the human rights of Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. These include fair political and judicial systems, the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights, the central importance attached to education and human development, gender justice, and self-responsibility and self-correction.

There are autonomous watch-dog institutions, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which act as vigilant guardians of human rights irrespective of class or ethnicity. The constitution of the European Union includes a Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Race Directive, which ensure non-discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity and religion in respect of training and employment. Some Western countries have effective legal instruments for dealing with complaints of discrimination on grounds of religion or ethnicity. These include the Committee for Equal Treatment in the Netherlands, Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, and Equal Opportunity Agency in the US. Australia also has an anti-discrimination instrument, known as Racial Discrimination Act 1975.In Argentina, the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism is aimed at serving a similar purpose.

On the whole, Western societies offer Muslims as well as other immigrant communities a fairly good package comprising excellent opportunities for higher education and professional training, better economic prospects, political and civil rights, personal autonomy and religious and cultural freedom. Muslims in Europe, North and Latin America and Australia have their own mosques, prayer halls, community centres and cultural organisations. Paris, for example, has nearly a hundred mosques. They have their burial grounds and Islamic schools (which are funded by the state in some European countries). They enjoy the freedom to celebrate their feasts and festivals and have facilities for halal meat. The slaughtering of animals according to Islamic prescriptions is allowed in most European countries, except in Switzerland and Sweden. Muslim women can be seen moving about freely in all Western cities, dressed in their traditional attires, including the Islamic headscarf. Nearly all European countries provide facilities for imparting instruction to the children of immigrants in their national languages. It was reported in September 2006 that public elementary schools in a southern German school would shortly begin offering classes in Islam, as part of an effort to better integrate Muslims in German society. Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands support imams brought from Turkey, Morocco and other Muslim countries to provide Islamic instruction to Muslim children. Many European countries allow tax deductions on donations to Muslim charitable organizations. In many European counties, Islamic dietary rules are respected in prisons, hospitals, schools and army clinics on request from Muslims.

In keeping with the state ideology of laicite (France’s secularism), no religion is officially recognised in the country, but the state guarantees freedom of religion as long as this does not infringe on public security or the rights of the followers of other religions. France was the first European country where an Office for Relations with Islam was created by the Catholic Church in 1973 and where a Christian-Islam Commission was formed a few years later by the Protestant churches. Belgium passed a law in 1974, which granted to mosques the same legal status as churches and synagogues. Since 1975 Islam has been taught in public schools in Belgium along with Christianity and Judaism. There are about 700 Muslim teachers in the country who are entrusted with providing Islamic instruction in primary and secondary schools. Their salaries are paid by the state. Many European countries recognise the Jewish institution of rabbinical courts for the settlement of disputes related to family laws. In recent years some European countries have begun to informally recognise the loosely constituted religious courts of Muslims for the settlement of family disputes. In the US and Canada, the family courts recognise the Islamic marriage contract as a valid legal document.

Muslims in Europe and North America have the freedom to not only practice but also propagate their faith. In recent decades more than 100,000 French, more than 50,000 Germans and more than 40,000 whites in Britain have embraced Islam. In the Netherlands there has been a ten-fold increase in the number of white converts after 9/11/. In Spain, several thousand Spanish people have embraced Islam, which is interpreted by them as a return to the faith of their ancestors who were forcibly converted to Christianity after the Reconquista. Interestingly, the majority of these converts are white women. The converts include many prominent persons and intellectuals, including Roger Garoudy, the celebrated intellectual and former French minister, Martin Lings, a former Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the British Museum, T. B. Irving, Rene Guenon, Fritjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Julius Germanus, Yusuf Islam, the former pop singer Kete Stevens, T. J. Winter, an Oxford scholar, Yahya Birt, the son of BBC’s former chief, and Joe Ahmad Dobson, the son of a former cabinet minister in Britain.

Courts and statutory organisations in many European countries have played a highly significant role in protecting and safeguarding the rights of Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities. This is illustrated by a recent case which came up before the Supreme Court in Germany. A Muslim woman of Afghan descent had lived in Germany from 1987 and acquired German nationality in 1995. In 1998 she completed her education to become a teacher in an elementary school, but was refused admission because she was not willing to remove her headscarf before the class. She filed a petition in the Supreme Court. She argued that her wearing of the headscarf represented individual and religiously motivated conduct that was protected by the German constitution. The Supreme Court gave the verdict in her favour. In the Netherlands, a Muslim woman’s registration in a teacher training programme was cancelled because she refused to shake hand with a male colleague on religious grounds. She approached the Committee for Equal Treatment, which upheld her case.

In recent years, governments, public institutions, corporate houses and commercial establishments and media and advertising agencies in Western countries have displayed greater sensitivity towards the cultural preferences, religious sensibilities and aspirations of Muslims. From the 1990s ethnic marketing and packaging targeted at specific ethnic groups and communities has become increasingly important. Candy producers in Europe, like Haribo and Van Melle, are now substituting their meat-produced gelatine with alternative substances, so that they will be acceptable to Muslim and Jewish consumers who prefer halal and kosher products. Advertisers are advised not to use the white colour in advertising for the Moroccan community because white is regarded by the Moroccans as the colour of mourning. Los Angeles boasts of Chinese and Thai Islamic restaurants where only halal meat is served. In Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and many other Muslim countries, McDonald’s serves halal meat products.

In response to the growing demand for Shariah-oriented financial services from their Muslim clientele, some of the major international banks have started their own Islamic financial services. Leading global banks, such as HSBC and Citi, have set up full-fledged Shariah advisory boards of Islamic scholars to offer advice on new financial products such as Islamic bonds and hedge bonds. In 2003 HSBC Bank launched an “Islamic mortgage” scheme in Britain to provide halal loans for house purchase. Other banks, such Lloyds TSB, have followed suit. Germany’s Deutsche Bank is a majority shareholder in Dar al-Istithmar Shariah Consultancy. Investment bankers in the Western world are competing to create a range of new Islamic capital market products on a large scale. Some health insurance companies in Europe cover the costs for male circumcision.

In the past few years some British banks have begun to offer loans to Muslims for house purchase which accommodate the Islamic prohibition of interest. In Britain, one is required to pay a tax on the registration of a change of title to a property, which in effect functions as a tax on house purchase. In the 2003 budget the British government announced that the burden of double stamp duty would be removed in the case of Muslims.

In Britain, the government has displayed in recent years a greater sense of accommodation in respect of Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities. Three Muslim peers were appointed to the House of Lords in 1997. In 1998 the government agreed to extend the same right to state-funded Muslim schools as in the case of Christian and Jewish schools. The Home Office has funded a project to determine the extent of religious discrimination in the country. The Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords has recommended that, in addition to the Anglican bishops who sit there by right, this right should be extended to cover those of other Christian and non-Christian faiths. A few years ago, Prince Charles had remarked that he would like to be called “Defender of Faiths,” rather than “Defender of the (Anglican) Faith.”

There is a growing realisation in the West that terms such as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and ‘Islamic terrorism,’ which are popularised by the Western media, have highly derogatory and offensive connotations. In December 2005, the European Union launched an initiative to deepen ties with Muslim countries and reach out to tens of millions of Muslims living in Europe. This is sought to be done by clarifying the discourse on Islam, by using the right vocabulary to steer clear of misunderstandings and misrepresentation, and by avoiding references to pejorative terms like Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism. The emphasis is on “developing a non-emotive lexicon for public communication related to Muslims.”

In June 2007, British academics unanimously opposed the government’s move to fight Islamic extremism through surveillance on teachers and students. The University and College Union, which represents more than 120,000 British academics, opposed the ethnic profiling of teachers and students on British campuses and condemned the move as a witch-hunt that would single out and victimise Muslims.

Will Kymlicka, a leading Canadian political theorist, argues that ethnic groups deserve protection of their cultures since such protections further their integration into mainstream society. There seems to be positive correlation between the public recognition of the cultures and identities of minorities and the degree of social and cultural spaces available to them, and their integration into the wider society. A reassuring and enabling environment—free from xenophobia, mistrust and hostility—is likely to facilitate and strengthen their involvement and engagement with the wider society and to channel their capabilities, energies and resources in a socially productive direction. On the other hand, repressed identities are often the breeding ground of separatism, alienation and extremism. In Germany, the public recognition of ethnic and religious minorities, especially Turkish immigrants, has played a significant role in their integration into the host society. Like churches in Germany, which are recognised as a religious community, Muslim associations also this enjoy this status in several provinces. In Hamburg, language teachers, even those with Turkish nationality, are treated as civil servants.

V. Responses

Muslim minorities living in different regions of the world display considerable variations in the manner in which they cope with challenges and obstacles as well as in the extent to which they avail of the opportunities provided by the wider society. These variations are due to a combination of factors, including demographic size, geopolitical location and importance, human resources, historical relations with the wider society, and internal organization and cohesion. One of the key factors which determines the response pattern of Muslim communities is the nature and depth of their commitment to Islamic values and principles, which acts as a major source of resilience and dynamism in Muslim societies.

By and large, Muslim minorities have responded to the challenges emanating from non-Islamic environments with courage, determinism and perseverance. Similarly, they have sought to avail of the opportunities afforded by the wider society for their individual and collective well-being. They have not given in to despair and despondency in the face of trials and tribulations, but have faced trying circumstances with fortitude. They have created substantial religious and cultural spaces—mosques, prayer halls, community centres, Islamic schools, local organizations, Islamic cyberspace—in order to meet their religious and cultural requirements. They have sought a redress of their legitimate grievances within the legal and constitutional framework. At the same time, they have tried to build bridges with the wider society.

Transnational Islamic movements and organizations, notably the Tabligh movement and Sufi brotherhoods, have played a highly important role in sensitizing Muslim minorities to their religious and cultural heritage, in infusing in them a deep sense of Islamic unity and brotherhood, and in reinforcing cohesion and solidarity.

Safeguarding Islamic identity

It is remarkable that many Muslim minorities, which have been surrounded by non-Islamic environments for centuries and had little or no contact with the Muslim world, have scrupulously safeguarded their Islamic identity and their religious and cultural traditions. This is evidenced in the case of the Muslim Gypsies of Romania, the Cham Muslims of Vietnam, the Muslims of South Africa, Muslim communities of Siberia, Philippine Muslims, China’s Kirghiz Muslims, the Muslim community of Nepal and the Tatar Muslims of Poland. This is a testimony to the incredible resilience of the Islamic faith.

The Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) had a devastating impact on the country’s Muslim minorities. They faced brutal persecution by the government forces, in which scores of mosques and madrasas were destroyed and hundreds of their religious leaders were imprisoned. All external symbols of Islamic identity were outlawed. However, this repression failed to demoralise them or to wean them away from their religious and cultural roots. After the end of this horrifying ordeal, Muslims in China began rebuilding their mosques and madrasas with renewed vigour and commitment. It is significant to note that female Muslim teachers in China have played a highly important role in the dissemination of Islamic teachings, especially among women. Realising the need to knit together the country’s diverse Muslim communities, Muslims formed an umbrella organization known as China Islamic Association, which coordinates religious and cultural affairs among Chinese Muslims.

In recent years, many Chinese Muslims have been enrolled in Islamic institutions in the Middle East, Turkey and Malaysia. There are nearly 300 Chinese students at Al Azhar University in Cairo. In 2000 I had met a young Chinese student in Cairo who spoke fluent Arabic. He informed me that he had learnt Arabic at a madrasa in Beijing.

A wave of Islamic resurgence is sweeping across Russia’s Islamic regions, especially in Dagestan, Chechnya and Tatarstan. This is reflected in the building of new mosques, Islamic centres and madrasas and in the revival of Shariah-based courts which deal with matters of inheritance and divorce as well as theft and problems arising from alcohol abuse. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria officially proclaimed itself as an independent Islamic state in 1996. The amended preamble of the Chechen constitution says that “the Quran and Shariah are the principal sources of legislation.”

The Tatar Muslims of Poland, whose were secluded from the Islamic world and whose religious and cultural identity was diluted as a result of assimilationist pressures, have recently experienced a revival of their Islamic consciousness and heritage. They have sought to establish closer ties with Muslim countries. Mosques were rebuilt with grants from some of the Gulf states. In 1984 the foundation stone for the construction of a new mosque complex in Gdansk-Oliwa was laid. The complex includes an Islamic library and a madrasa.

During the past couple of decades, a wave of Islamic awakening and resurgence has been sweeping across large parts of the Muslim world, including regions where Muslims are living as minorities. This is particularly reflected in the construction of new mosques and prayer halls and in the expansion and renovation of old ones. In Western counties, sometimes old and dilapidated churches, which are in disuse, are purchased by Muslims and converted into mosques. There are more than 1200 mosques in Britain. The mosque has acquired an added significance for Muslim minorities living in Western countries. In most countries a mosque serves not only as a place of worship for the local Muslim community but also as a multi-functional institution and as a cultural centre for education, religious programmes and community solidarity. The Wan Chai Mosque in Hong Kong is an eight-floor complex, composed of a prayer hall, a halal Chinese rrestaurant, a halal bakery, medical services, a library and conference rooms. The Islamic Union of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Islamic Youth Association are located in the Wan Chai Mosque complex. The Islamic Centre of Greater Toledo in Ohio (USA) has a large Friday mosque, a centre for educational activities and programmes, a bookstore, clinic, mortuary, cemetery, recreation field and dining facilities. Similar large centres exist in several cities in the US, Canada and Europe.

Providing Islamic instruction to children and inculcating in them Islamic values in the formative period of their life has remained one of the highest priorities for Muslim minorities. Islamic schools serve as the corner-stone of Muslim society in that they ensure the transmission of Islamic identity and traditions from generation to generation. In South Africa, for example, Islamic schools have played a crucial role in safeguarding the Islamic identity of the miniscule Muslim minority over the past several centuries.

Muslim minorities living in Western countries expend a great deal of effort in providing Islamic instruction to children. In the US and Canada, Islamic instruction is imparted through more than 1500 Sunday schools, youth groups and retreats run by the various mosques and Islamic centres. Islamic schools generally follow the conventional syllabus but supplement it by lessons in Islamic learning and Arabic. In March 2007 the third Islamic school was established in France in the city of Lyon. Named after the 9th century Arab philosopher Al Kindi, the school will offer instruction in Islamic learning and Arabic to 140 Muslim boys and girls.

From the 1990s a huge and rapidly expanding halal business network has emerged in the Middle East and in several Western countries. This network deals with Shariah-compliant food, garments and cosmetics. Nestle has a four billion dollar halal business which caters to Muslim consumers in the Middle East and in Western countries. The demand for halal meat in Western countries is steadily increasing. Halal meat stores are conspicuous in all large cities across Europe.

The felt need for community solidarity among Muslim minorities living in Western countries is reflected in the large number of Islamic associations and organizations. France, for example, has more than a thousand Islamic organizations. These organizations play a highly effective role in providing support systems and social networks to local Muslim communities, in seeking a redress of their grievances and problems, in drawing them closer to Islamic values, in reinforcing community solidarity and cohesion, and in facilitating their integration into the wider society. Muslim organizations in Trinidad worked for the recognition of Muslim marriages and for the right to establish Islamic schools. In Britain, the Islamic Foundation at Leicester carries out a wide range of activities aimed at the welfare of the Muslim community and at building bridges with the wider society. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the International Institute of Islamic Thought, Washington DC have an influential presence in the US.

Muslim women living in Western countries are playing an important role in focusing on Islamic education, gender issues and women’s rights. In Germany, the Muslim Women’s Training Centre, founded in Cologne in 1996, supports a wide range of activities and programmes for Muslim women living in Germany, including facilities for education, training and counselling. One of the important activities of the Centre is to foster an atmosphere of understanding, harmony and dialogue in the host society. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, established in 1982, focuses on women’s rights, gender justice, Islamic education and outreach programmes involving women from different backgrounds.

A positive development in Western countries in recent years is the growing inclination on the part of Muslim minorities to claim their legitimate rights within the legal and constitutional framework and in the context of Western traditions, and not in the name of minority rights. The German constitution, for example, allows religious instruction in state-funded schools. The demand by German Muslims for allowing Islamic teachings in schools is legitimized in the framework of this constitutional provision. Similarly, the decisions by the Supreme Administrative Courts in Germany that allow Muslim girls in some cities to be exempted from coeducational sports classes, or the recent court decision that guarantees Muslims the right to slaughter animals according to their religious ritual, were informed ad guided by the basic principle of freedom of religion guaranteed by the German constitution. Similarly, young Muslim women in European countries are claiming the right to wear the Islamic headscarf in the name of the values of freedom and tolerance, which are at the heart of the liberal and democratic tradition in Western countries.

There is also a growing realisation among Muslim minorities that they should seek a redress of their legitimate grievances, not through confrontation, but in a spirit of negotiation and dialogue with the wider society. In Britain, 80% to 90% of students in several inner-city schools are Muslim. In the 1970s a big controversy erupted over school uniforms that required girls to wear short skirts. Girls who did not comply with the requirement were expelled from schools and in some cases Muslim parents took their daughters out of school over the issue. A Muslim liaison committee was formed in Bradford to negotiate with the local authorities about the issue. Compromises were eventually worked out, allowing Muslim girls to wear trousers as long as the trousers match the colour of the school uniform. Girls are now generally allowed to put on headscarves and they can wear tracksuits for physical education classes. Several schools organise separate swimming classes for boys and girls.

Following the publication of the sacrilegious cartoons of the Prophet in 2006, Britain’s Muslims took out a peaceful rally of over 10,000 protesters on February 11, 2006. The rally was organised by the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain and was backed by several Christian organizations as well as by London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone.

Islamic cyberspace

One of the distinctive characteristics of globalisation lies in the unprecedented advances in information and communication technologies. Computer-driven telecommunications have intensified global interactions and created networks which bind together individuals located in different countries into virtual communities. What is emerging, in other words, is a global network society.

In recent years, varied computer technologies, including websites, CD-ROM, homepages and audio streaming technology, have been increasingly used for archiving, retrieval and dissemination of Islamic knowledge. The entire text of the Holy Quran, with its exegesis and translation in English and other European languages, and major collections of Hadith are available on CD-ROM as well as on the Internet.

Islamic websites, which are rapidly multiplying, provide a wide range of information and materials, including explication of verses of the Quran, selections from Hadith literature, informed opinion on the social, economic, political and cultural affairs of the Muslim world, and online fatwas. Some of the websites offer radio and television channels, chat rooms and electronic greeting cards. IslamiCity, for example, has published more than 5000 fatwas on the Internet. Prominent Islamic institutions of Islamic learning, such as Al Azhar University, offer online fatwa services.

Contemporary Islamic movements, especially those with a transnational following, are making increasing use of modern information and communication technologies. The use of these technologies by transnational communities or diasporas has greatly expanded in recent years. For example, the descendents of Palestinian refugees born and raised in Western countries are now discovering, thanks to homepages on the Internet, their religious and cultural traditions as well as the villages of their parents and grandparents. The growing use of computer technology is thus transforming the Palestinian refugees living in North America and Europe into a transnational virtual community and facilitating the reconstruction of their identity.

There is a sizeable Iranian diaspora in North Canada, USA and Europe. The Internet is playing a highly significant role in connecting the members of this widely dispersed diaspora to each other and to their common homeland. One of the online Iranian magazines has links to more than 150 online newspapers and magazines in the Persian language. Interestingly, Iran’s online newspapers appear much before the print editions are available on news stands in Tehran and other cities. In Stockholm, local Iranian radio stations download programmes from the Internet and rebroadcast them for the local Iranian community.

Islamic law for Muslim minorities

In 1994, the North American Fiqh Council launched a project to develop a distinctive sub-field of jurisprudence for Muslim minorities living in non-Islamic countries. Dr. Taha Jabir al-Alwani, Chairman of the Council, has used the term ‘Jurisprudence of the Minorities’ (fiqh al-aqalliyyah) and has argued that this constitutes an autonomous body of jurisprudence based on the principle of the relevance of Islamic laws to specific conditions and circumstances. He argues that the traditional categories of Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb have become obsolete and meaningless in the context of our globalising world. The eminent Egyptian scholar Yusuf al- Qaradawi has carried the argument further in his books Fiqh al Aqalliyyah al Muslimin (in Arabic) and Fiqh of Muslim Minorities (in English).

The European Council for Fatwa and Research, created in London in 1997, is an important initiative in developing the field of jurisprudence for Muslim minorities living in Western countries. Some of the fatwas issued by the Council have been highly controversial and contradicted by Al Azhar as well as other institutions of Islamic learning.

Tariq Ramadan, son of the late Said Ramadan and grandson of the celebrated Egyptian scholar Hasan al-Banna, has forcefully argued for developing an Islamic identity which is attuned to the cultural context of Europe. In his books To be a European Muslim (1999) and Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003), he argues that Muslims living in Western countries have to learn to differentiate between their religious beliefs and practices and the baggage of cultural traditions which they or their parents brought from their countries of origin. Ramadan says that Muslims in Western countries need not have any guilt or reservations about living in the non-Muslim West. Instead of focusing on the minority status of Muslims which, in his view, encourages ghettoization, he emphasizes the concept of citizenship and urges Muslims to actively participate in the affairs of the wider society. A prominent Muslim intellectual in Germany, Bassam Tibi, speaks of Euro-Islam, which is attuned to the value system and legal traditions of European societies.


The prevailing perception about Islam and Muslims in large parts of the world, especially in Western countries, is generally negative. Muslims are often stigmatised and demonised for belonging to a faith which, according to the prevailing belief, harbours intolerance, fanaticism and violence. Muslim minorities living in Western countries have to bear the brunt of a pervasive Islamophobic environment in their day-to-day lives.

However, there seems to be a silver lining in the clouds. Several European states, human rights organizations, writers and intellectuals are engaged in a sincere and serious effort to dispel prejudices and stereotypes surrounding Muslims, to secure their legitimate rights and to facilitate their integration into the wider society. On the other hand, Muslim organizations, intellectuals and prominent individuals from amongst the converts are trying to reach out to the wider society and to establish channels of communication with it in a spirit of dialogue and negotiation.

There is an increasing appreciation among Muslims of the positive role of inter-cultural and inter-faith dialogue in creating an atmosphere of understanding and harmony. A pioneering move in this direction has been taken by Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In his key-note address at a Unesco conference on April 5, 2005, Mr. Khatami emphasized the central importance of dialogue among civilizations for the management of global affairs. He stressed that dialogue among cultures and civilizations signifies the rejection of terrorism and violence. Islamic associations like the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) are playing an important role in projecting the value of inter-civilizational dialogue and harmony as an important means of removing misunderstandings about Islam. The concluding statement of the first European conference of Imams in Graz (Austria) in 2003 declared that Muslim identity is compatible with the values of democracy, the rule of law, pluralism and human rights.

There has been a good deal of discussion among Western intelligentsia and human rights organizations on the cultural rights of ethnic and religious minorities. The discourse on the cultural rights of minorities may be clouded by myopia unless it is accompanied by a discussion on cultural responsibilities and obligations. Muslim minorities living in Western countries are obliged not only to obey the laws of the countries where they are living but also to respect local customs and traditions and the sensitivities of the host society. The integration of Muslims in Western societies cannot be regarded as a one-sided affair nor can it be entirely left to the state or the host society. Muslims also need to make sincere and sustained efforts to earn the goodwill of the wider society by learning the local language, by showing deference to the sensitivities of the host society, by participating in local-level voluntary action, by inviting their non-Muslim neighbours and colleagues to their homes on festive occasions, and by encouraging their young children to join voluntary organizations and youth leagues. This kind of meaningful engagement can go a long way in tearing down the walls of mistrust and separation and in building bridges of goodwill and amity between Muslims and the wider society.

In some countries, such as in India and South Africa, Muslim minorities have made highly significant and wide-ranging contributions to the wider society and continue to participate in the economic, political and cultural affairs of their respective countries with confidence and reassurance. In fact, they serve as a role model for Muslim minorities living in other regions of the world. The Muslim minority in India, for example, has left its mark in three distinct areas. First, Indian Muslims have assiduously safeguarded their religious and cultural identity, Islamic institutions and traditions even in the face of adversity. Second, they have made an incredibly vast contribution to the promotion, advancement and dissemination of Islamic learning and scholarship. Prominent institutions of Islamic learning, such as Darul Uloom Deoband (Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh), Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama (Lucknow) and Jamia Nizamiya (Hyderabad), among others, continue to attract students from scores of Muslim countries, including the Arab world, and from Western countries. These students, after completing their education in India, return to their respective countries and engage in the dissemination of Islamic teachings. Sufi saints and brotherhoods in India have played a significant role in the diffusion of Sufi orders in Central Asia, China and other countries. Third, Indian Muslims have played a major role in the shaping of Indian civilization and in the making of modern India. This clearly suggests that Muslims can not only amicably live with people of other faiths and cultures but also contribute to the progress and development of the wider society.

Social Justice in Islam
The Challenges of Globalization and the Muslim World
Inter-Cultural Dialogue in a Globalizing World
Inter-Cultural Dialogue in a Globalizing World
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