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What It's Like To Be Young And Muslim In Europe


Twenty million Muslims now in Europe are a mixed group - some born there, others who immigrated, still others who came as refugees. With a median age of 32, Muslims are eight years younger than Europeans overall. And the idea of who Muslims are, their image, has come to be co-opted by a few violent extremists. This week, NPR's Audie Cornish is traveling through three countries with the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe to find out what life is like for them. She began her trip in the U.K. and joins us this morning from Paris. Good morning, Audie.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Muslims have been in Europe in large numbers at least since the 1960s. So, you know, that's, you know, 50 years, half a century. What's new about the discussion going on now?

CORNISH: That's right, Renee. And just to give some context, you know, the Muslim population has actually been growing. And take a country like Germany. They've seen influxes in just the last two to three years - right? - of asylum-seekers from Arab Spring countries and the war in Syria. But, you know, before leaving Europe, we actually spoke to the former special representative to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith. She worked at the State Department. And so her job was to go around speaking to Muslims in the U.S. but also in Europe. And she talked about what this kind of scrutiny means for young Muslims, the millennial generation.

FARAH PANDITH: Every single day since September 12, 2001, they have seen the word Islam or Muslim on the front page of a paper online and offline. Think about that. There is no generation before them in which that has happened.

CORNISH: So, Renee, you know, even though this discussion about terror should be focused on kind of high-risk populations, right - say, prisons - if you look at the papers, the public debate is about Muslims generally, you know - their immigration numbers if they're new to the country; their integration if they're already there - a lot of questioning of their identity.

MONTAGNE: And, Audie, there in Paris, where are you now, exactly?

CORNISH: I'm standing in the Seventh Arrondissement in the kind of central Paris, and we're in this capital because Paris has one of the largest Muslim populations in France and, of course, France has, like, the second-largest population in Western Europe. But no matter what country we've been to, we've heard the word belonging kind of over and over again, you know. In Britain, there was a poll, for example, asking people if they felt loyal to Britain. And a lot of people found this question insulting, especially those Muslim families who have been there for generations. You know, I spoke to this British author who was born in Bangladesh - his name is Zia Haider Rahman - and we were comparing notes kind of as immigrants. You know, I'm from Jamaica and every once in a while, I talk about having a hyphen identity. And he said something that surprised me, which is that he didn't feel that way about the U.K.

ZIA HAIDER RAHMAN: How is it possible that a Bangladeshi-born - British-educated and American-educated - but how is it possible that such a person can feel most at home as he comes into JFK Airport in New York? And it's because America is a welcoming nation. It's an open nation.

CORNISH: And you don't feel that at Heathrow?

RAHMAN: Never.

CORNISH: So there you go, Renee. I mean, that author, Zia Haider Rahman, he is Bangladeshi-born, obviously British-educated, but still saying I don't feel like I belong.

MONTAGNE: And, Audie, you're there to do a number of stories. Who else will we be hearing from this week?

CORNISH: To begin, we're actually going to hear voices from that millennial generation you heard Farah Pandith talking about. We're actually going to speak to 29-year-old, Salman Farsi. He's like the social media guru for the East London Mosque, which is one of the biggest mosques in the U.K. He was talking about how parents are calling him up to say, you know, how do I know what my kid is doing online? We're going to be in Paris talking to some young Muslim schoolteachers who, you know, they're at the center of the country's debate about French values and how they teach them to young people.

MONTAGNE: That's Audie Cornish speaking to us from Paris. Thanks very much.

CORNISH: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.