Monday, June 10, 2013

Religion and EU Identity

by Michelle Asbill

Throughout the academic year, the European Union Center (EUC) has hosted a wide range of lectures presenting different perspectives on the topic of Muslims in the European Union (EU).  The topics of both Islam and Muslims in Europe are both frequently and widely debated. For example, these issues often resurface in debates concerning the membership process of Turkey, the increase in right-wing political parties, and the EU’s struggle to address immigration. These three topics share something else in common, (besides the fact that all three are related to Muslims) mainly that of identity.  The concept of an “EU identity” and what this exactly this means (both in theory and practice) is still and will continue to be subject to debate.

However for many people, religion proves to be a significant identity marker, which can sometimes even be either equal or more important than ethnicity.  In September of 2012, the EUC hosted Dr. Cesari, who presented her lecture entitled “Religion and Political Participation of Muslims in the West.”1 Her lecture summarized her research regarding how Muslims balance their religious beliefs with their responsibilities as citizens.2 Additionally, Dr. Cesari reminded listeners that religion (of all kinds) often provides a strong sense of identity and belonging.


Continuing this conversation on what it means to be Muslim in Europe, the EUC recently sponsored a lecture entitled “Being German, Becoming Muslim: Religious Conversion, Islamophobia, and Belonging in Germany.”3 In her lecture, Dr. Esra Özyürek, presented her research on the topic of Germans converting to Islam and subsequently, how they are being perceived in German society.4 Dr. Özyürek engaged listeners by re-telling specific stories of Germans who have converted, often to the disappointment of family and friends, and then must strive to find their place in German society, and perhaps somewhat expectedly, also within the Islamic community.

Dr. Özyürek’s lecture was quite thought provoking, as this group seems to break so many of the social and cultural norms associated with German society. For example, far-right political parties are known to promote policies which do not seem to favor minorities, such as Muslims and Jews.5 However, what if the Muslims are ethnically German? Perhaps far-right political parties will not distinguish or be dissuaded in their activity, however how will German society respond?  By converting to Islam, will these Germans lose their positions as “insiders” in the community and become ostracized? According to Dr. Özyürek, many of these new converts have found Islam to possess values which, in their perspective, would benefit society, but how will this be welcomed by German communities? Will other Germans be able to appreciate these new German converts who are interested in promoting, from their perspective, what are Islamic values?

Obviously, it is too early to uncover the answers to these questions, however these German converts add yet another page to the EU identity’s “diversity book”.  In addition to the previously posed questions, it will be interesting to see how the concept of an “EU identity” continues to be shaped and molded by the constantly changing EU landscape.

Michelle Asbill is a first year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) degree program at the University of Illinois.  Her previous graduate work has been in the area of social work (MSW—U. of Wisconsin-Madison) and community development (Wheaton College).  Michelle lived in Sofia, Bulgaria for three years (2008-2011), as both an employee of a small Bulgarian non-profit organization and also as a graduate student at New Bulgarian University (degree pending defense of thesis).  Michelle has been awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for Bulgarian language study for the 2012-2013 academic year.  Her research interests include EU policies and programs related to combating trafficking and how they impact the effectiveness of non-profits working in this area, as well as Bulgarian agriculture.    



1For more information on Dr. Cesari, please see:
2To see the event description, please see: For more information on this event, please see:
3For more information on the speaker, please see:
4For more information on the rise of far-right political parties, feel free to read this recent article:

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