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Beyond the minaret ban: Some European nations are more tolerant of Muslims

While a backlash persists in some nations, others are including Muslims in debates on national identity.

Muslims attended the recent installation of the dome of the Grand Mosque in Strasbourg, France. Across Europe, Muslims are becoming more assertive, prompting, and, in some cases, participating in, full-throated debates over national identity.

Vincent Kessler/Reuters

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Call it a continental midlife crisis, or just a new symptom of the familiar angst about immigration and globalization.

Either way, the new decade will find Europeans in a full-throated debate over how to define their national identities in light of the heightened visibility of their fast-growing Muslim populations.

The debate over Islam in Europe has been largely owned by anti-immigration populists, as it still is in some countries, or it has focused on terrorism.

In the future, it may increasingly be a two-sided discussion, one conducted not just by the doubters and the fearful but also by newly assertive European-born Muslims who have set down roots and are eager to defend them.

Until very recently in France, for example, public discussion of issues concerning Muslims featured a familiar cast of non-Muslim academics and politicians talking about crime and alienation out in the ghettos, far from where they lived and worked.

But that pattern is changing. In November, the right-wing government ordered up a nationwide series of public hearings, set to run until next spring, on what it means to be French. In a remarkable shift, the mainstream newspapers and television channels are featuring an array of Muslim business owners, professionals, educators, and political activists who insist they have something to say about national identity.

“The media didn’t notice how society had changed and that people of different communities, not just Muslim but also black, could be invested, could be thoughtful, and could have something to say as witnesses and active participants,” says Marc Cheb Sun, the editor of Respect magazine in France.

Rather than shying away from a debate on national identity, he adds, French Muslims want to influence it. “It’s a real subject,” says Mr. Cheb Sun, the French-born son of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother. “We are always pressed to prove our French-ness, and I want it known that I have the right to be proud of all my multiple origins.”

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