Europe was horrified when an eighteen-year-old Muslim extremist beheaded high school teacher Samuel Paty in the streets of France for showing caricatures of Muhammed in his classroom in 2020. This act of terrorism was targeted and in the middle of France, one of the most secular nations in the world.
France also has one of the fastest-growing Muslim populations.
Again in 2020, a German man opened fire in Hanau on people with a Muslim background. He expressed fear and hatred toward foreigners. He shot and killed nine people of a migrant background and injured six more.
Though extremes don’t reflect the everyday lives of people in Europe, it does highlight the cultural conflict boiling up there.
Stories of such violence reveal a desperate need for Jesus’ love and peace.
In considering the increase of Muslims in Europe and our role as Christians in response, this article seeks to answer these questions:
- Is Islam the fastest-growing religion in Europe?
- What are the Muslim population trends in Europe?
- How are European fertility rates affecting Muslim growth?
- How are European migration trends affecting Muslim growth?
- Do Muslim conversions increase the Muslim population?
- Has an increased Muslim population led to more radicalization?
- Will Islam dominate Europe?
- How can Christians respond to a growing Muslim population?
The fastest-growing religion in Europe?
The statement “Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Europe” swept many headlines in 2017 when Pew Research conducted a study of Europe’s Muslim population. The study appeared in CNN, Time, and other European news outlets.
The statement raises questions about integration and immigration policy for Europe. For years it has been a hot-button issue. With cultural conflict, social and political upheaval is expected, and it’s what we’ve witnessed: scattered knife attacks, nationalist backlash, and many more caught in between.
In recent years, the Muslim population has increased due to several factors, including refugees from the Syrian war, migration from other predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and higher birth rates among Muslim families.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims possess peaceful intentions as they migrate, and many are fleeing from war-torn countries. Nonetheless, tensions seem to swell between Europeans and Muslim communities. In two decades, Islamic terrorism has devastated the lives of several thousand in Europe, even while millions of wholeheartedly peaceful Muslims migrate there for a better life.
The smooth inclusion of Muslims remains a top priority and frequent political talking point, though each country has its own nuanced political atmosphere. Simmering animosity exists in part due to the prejudiced idea that all Muslims are associated with terrorism. Additionally, many Europeans believe Islamic values are antithetical to their own.
This article posits that European Muslims will continue to gain ground on non-Muslims, albeit at a slower rate than some may suspect. We will show later that many of these Muslims are nonpracticing, cultural Muslims. The reciprocal influence of Western culture on Islam must be taken into account in predictions or policy decisions. Western values will continue to erode traditional Muslim beliefs in second and third-generation Muslim migrants.
Cultural integration may be difficult, but a clear picture of the issues will help ease that process in practical ways.
Ultimately, Europe needs Christ’s love.
European Muslim population trends
The best data from Pew Research projects three possible scenarios of Muslim population growth in Europe depending on the level of migration.
- With no migration, 7.4 percent of the population in Europe will be Muslim by 2050.
- Given medium levels of migration, 11.2 percent of Europe will be Muslim by 2050.
- At high rates of migration, 14.0 percent of Europe will be Muslim by 2050.
(Note: Pew Research states these are projections, not predictions, given the current data.)
Migration will disproportionately affect some countries.
In the “high” migration scenario, Sweden will become 30.6 percent, France 18.0 percent, Germany 19.7 percent, and the UK 17.2 percent. If this scenario plays out, it will signal a massive cultural shift in these countries.
A fascinating paper published in 2010, “Muslim Population in Europe: 1950 – 2020,” estimates the Muslim population in Europe over time from 1950 until 2010, then projected the probable population in 2020. (Note: This paper was mostly accurate in its predictions. As mentioned, the Pew Research survey placed the population at 5 percent in 2016. According to this paper’s projections, by now the population would certainly have reached 6 percent, which was the predicted population size of Europe by 2020 in the paper.)
For instance, it shows that France’s Muslim population consisted of only 0.55 percent Muslims in 1950, and current data places France at higher than 9 percent.
In Sweden, the population was .01 percent Muslim in 1950. In 2016, around 8 percent were Muslim. According to the Pew Research study, it is possible that, by 2050, 30 percent of Sweden will be Muslim if they receive an influx of migrants.
Therefore, it is plausible that Sweden will grow from 700 Muslims to 4.5 million in less than one hundred years.
Indeed, one piece of research projected that many European countries may become Muslim majority in less than 200 years; for example, France by 2135, Sweden by 2125, and the UK by 2180. (Note: The referenced paper was produced out of a United Arab Emirates University and the UAE is Muslim, so a bias might exist, though the authors declared no conflicting interest.)
Aside from migration, the projections are based on one main trend: fertility rates.
How European fertility rates are affecting Muslim growth
Fertility rates indicate how many children each woman will have on average. If the number is less than 2.1, then the population will decrease over time. (The number is 2.1 to replace the mother and father, with the 0.1 added to cover premature deaths.) Additionally, if the population is older, the birth rate will be lower. It so happens that currently more Muslims are younger than their non-Muslim European counterparts.
In Europe, on average, the fertility rate for non-Muslims is 1.6 children per woman. For Muslims, it is 2.6 children per woman—a full child more statistically. From natural births, Europe’s Muslim population increased by 2.92 million while its non-Muslim population decreased by 1.67 million between 2010 and 2016 (since their birth rate is below 2.1).
Muslim birth rates are significantly higher than non-Muslim birth rates in Europe, but those rates are on a downward trend. Typically, as women globally gain access to education and become “Westernized,” their birth rate decreases. (Literacy explains about 60 percent of the fertility differential across the Muslim world according to Goldman.)
The preponderance of evidence shows that, as Muslims lose traditional values, gain access to education, contraceptives, etc., their birth rate declines.
So, from 1990 to 2010, the global Muslim population increased at an average annual rate of 2.2 percent. However, the projected rate of average annual growth will slow to 1.5 percent for 2010 to 2030 due to those declining birth rates. (Pew Research reports that “while the global Muslim population is expected to grow at a faster rate than the non-Muslim population, the Muslim population nevertheless is expected to grow at a slower pace in the next two decades than it did in the previous two decades.”)
In Germany, the birth rate of Muslims is higher than the national average (1.4) but is still below the necessary 2.1 birth rate to maintain their population (1.9). Birth rates are rapidly decreasing in even the most traditional Muslim countries. Afghanistan’s fertility rate was 7.5 children per woman on average in 2000, which nearly halved to 4.3 to 2019.
All things considered, the Muslim population will grow, but not at quite the shocking rate from birth rates since Western cultural influence will probably slow it.
How European migration trends are affecting Muslim growth
A great deal of the growth in Europe comes from migration.
Note that the Pew Research study does not include illegal immigrants in its numbers since that data is nearly impossible to gather, though they estimate that as many as 3.8 million illegal immigrants (those not seeking Asylum) were living in Europe in 2017.
For our purposes, we will use Pew Research’s definitions for migrants:
- Migrant is a broad term, referring to anyone moving to another country.
- Regular migrant refers to someone who legally moves countries for reasons such as job, family, or other non-extenuating circumstances.
- A refugee refers to a migrant who has sought asylum from a country and received refugee status.
Migrants and refugees into Europe generally come from Muslim-majority populations. (From migration, between 2010 and 2016, Europe gained 3.48 million Muslim migrants, as opposed to 1.29 million non-Muslim migrants. Of those, 1.6 million people migrated to the UK, and 43 percent of that population was Muslim.) For instance, from 2010–2016, there were 650,000 regular migrants and an additional 610,000 refugees from Syria. One-fourth of all migrants to Europe in recent years have been refugees.
The impact of migration on the Muslim population greatly varies based on the policy of certain countries. For instance, “between mid-2010 and mid-2016, Germany accepted an estimated 670,000 refugees, roughly 86 percent of whom are Muslims.” For context, they accepted three times as many as the next country, Sweden. Germany’s policy of extremely open borders naturally affects its demographics and its future.
The plight of these migrant families is beyond comprehension. Many are fleeing from the violent oppression of Muslim terrorist groups. The assumption that all of them migrate to destroy the West is simply false; most are peaceful people.
As Muslims integrate and adapt to European culture, they will also influence it. For instance, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is a second-generation Muslim Pakistani immigrant. He became the first Muslim mayor in a major Western capital city.
The outspoken Christian Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, said in 2018: “It is beyond question that our country was historically formed by Christianity and Judaism. But it’s also the case that with 4.5 million Muslims living with us, their religion, Islam, has also become a part of Germany.”
Suffice to say, the massive influx of Muslim migrants to Europe reflects the acceptance of refugees in these countries. (Though, of course, some countries remain closed off.)
Conversions and radicalization
Conversions play a relatively small role when considering Muslim populations. Overall they lose more converts than they gain in Europe. Between 2010 and 2016, Islam had a net loss of approximately 160,000 followers.
Notably, just as nominal, nonpracticing Christians include a large swath of those who identify as Christian, the same is true of Muslims. A huge population of European Muslims doesn’t observe orthodox Islam.
For instance, according to a small study conducted in Sweden, only 10 percent of young Muslims consider themselves “religiously active” which is defined as “participating at least once a month in an activity organized by a religious association or organization.”
In other words, though not many young people are leaving Islam when they get older, and they value Islam as a cultural marker, many don’t actively practice orthodox Islam. In France, 54 percent of Muslims consider religion “very important” in their lives. (For context, in 2015 in the US, 66 percent of Christians, across all denominations, considered religion “very important.”) The point is that Muslims are varied in their beliefs and levels of commitment to Islam. It’s false to assume that all Muslims hold a zealous commitment to Islam. Like any other group, their beliefs vary from person to person.
Those who do convert to Islam testify that it provides order and discipline amid secular, truthless culture. It seems that prisons can become a dangerous place of radicalization. One estimate places one-third of the French prison population to be observant Muslims. It is also believed that converts are more prone to terrorism because they feel they have “something to prove.” In 2017, British authorities reported that 850 Britains had radicalized and gone to fight for ISIS.
Backlash and conflict
Numerous stories of conflict and tension are told by non-Muslim Europeans, as well as European-born Muslims and Muslim migrants. It seems that the increasing Muslim population has given rise to a small but firm surge in nationalist sentiments, which can fuel fringe alt-right groups.
Most political conservatives take a more moderate position that sees a cultural threat in Islam. That said, Muslims sometimes face both official and street-level harassment for wearing head coverings, and law-abiding Muslims often find themselves associated with terrorists.
To provide the whole picture, we should examine the cultural (and moral) differences between the beliefs of many Muslims and other Europeans. Pew Research surveyed Muslim and non-Muslim views of each other in 2008. At that point, the overwhelming majority of non-Muslims in European countries did not view Muslims as respectful of women.
In 2008, around one-in-seven Muslims in Europe believed that suicide bombings targeting civilians were at least sometimes justifiable in defense of Islam. That number may have decreased since then, but that number is not insignificant. This suggests that some Muslim migrants at least softly approve of terrorist practices. These beliefs and tendencies show why some cultural conflict exists between Muslims and Europeans.
The recent rise of the Sweden Democrats is an example of the reaction to Islam’s growth. This movement was previously a fringe group with roots in neo-Nazism. Now it takes more moderate positions but reflects a backlash against the growth of Islam by advocating closed borders to non-neighboring countries.
Reflecting a similar sentiment in Germany, a group called the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West” held several rallies. They were especially active in 2014–2016 and reached around 25,000 people at one rally that focused on mourning the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks. Around half of Germans vaguely view Islam as a “threat.”
These anti-migrant ideas can themselves morph into extremism. A self-described ethnocentric terrorist attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 because he saw the Muslim people as “invading” white, Western nations. In 2020, he pled guilty to murdering fifty-one Muslims and attempting to kill forty-nine others. He said that he first planned to make his attack in France.
In the midst of this, there are legitimate concerns about Islamic extremism, especially with radicalized lone-wolf attackers. Terrorism by individual Muslims also harms peaceful Muslims who become unfairly associated with terrorists. It’s a horrible travesty that it only takes one evil person to commit Islamic terrorism and lead to so many tragic deaths.
It is also accurate to say that Islamic terrorism persists in Europe as Muslims migrate, and, in Germany, such terrorism is rising. In one government report from Germany in 2021, nearly seven hundred people are classified as potential perpetrators of terrorism, most of them due to “religious fervor,” and most are Muslim. There are 240 Islamists who are at large and could pose a serious threat. Interestingly, the article later indicates that political extremism is currently the greatest threat. (Far-right extremism is the largest threat, with far-left extremism following close behind.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the rise of sexual assaults and harassment against women by illegal Muslim migrants. As a previous asylum seeker in Europe herself, she advocates for women’s rights and researches to that end. In 2021, she published a book titled Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights that outlines the rise of sexual harassment by young Muslim migrant men, especially illegal ones. One of her purposes in writing is to cut through identity politics to address real issues so that alt-right movements don’t have a monopoly on addressing them.
She writes: “This conspiracy of silence, or at least of understatement, has had predictable beneficiaries: none other than the right-wing populists such as the National Front (now National Rally) in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and all the other parties whose core policy pledge is to restrict immigration, and particularly Muslim immigration.”
In doing this, she exposes these appalling trends to protect peaceful Muslim migrants.
The point remains: some young men from Islamic countries, especially when they enter illegally, have caused a rise in sexual assaults and harassment of women. We draw attention to this to show that the sticky issues in cultural integration does not mean we should ignore clear acts of immorality and evil, nor should we sugarcoat the situation. Each Muslim is an individual person who needs Jesus’ love, and in fact, most Muslims in Europe are law abiding, but some carry maleficent intentions and some clearly carry baggage from misogynistic cultures.
France has one of the tensest relationships with Islam because it claims to be an entirely secular nation while simultaneously holding the highest percentage of Muslims in Europe.
The French hold so strongly to secularism that they frequently outlaw religious symbols in public. This year, some attempted to pass a bill that prevents underage Muslim girls from wearing hijabs (which veil the girls’ hair) to school. In 2010, they banned full-face coverings with eye slits (niqabs) altogether in public places. One report said that in 2019, 44 percent of the French believed Muslims were a threat to their national identity.
The satirical newspaper company Charlie Hebdo, which frequently published offensive cartoons of Muhammed, was viciously attacked. Muslim terrorists killed twelve employees there in 2015.
The November 2015 Paris attacks are another example of terrorism at its worst. Several assaults were carried out simultaneously across Paris to inflict maximum terror. The shootings and bombings killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.
France may remain a hotbed for conflict, but, in recent years, the violence appears to be slowing in the Western world. Ryan Denison writes that since ISIS and other terrorist groups are losing their foothold and becoming crippled, the zeal to violence against Western countries seems to be dying down as they turn inward to focus on tribal infighting.
This will change if power shifts in the Middle East and terrorist groups gain ground. Only time will tell, but it is not a stretch to predict a rise in extremism given the Taliban’s newfound control in Afghanistan.
Will Islam dominate Europe?
The Pew Research survey in 2017 projected a trend of Muslim growth due to birth rates. If these countries continue to admit high numbers of migrants (both refugees and regular migrants) from Muslim-majority countries, it will undoubtedly lead to rising tensions as two opposing cultures clash.
However, evidence shows that the presiding Western culture will reciprocally affect Muslim migrants—especially their second-generation children. Already from the cultural influence, Islam’s birth rates are slowing, and they are losing many more to conversions. They continue to grow, but they will not do so at the same pace.
Shane Bennett, who has spent decades befriending Muslims in several countries and helping Christians figure out how to relate to them, shared in an email his hope that God is orchestrating “a huge harvest of Muslims in Europe” and his strong conviction that, “Muslims are not going to take over Europe. The birth rate equations we see which might indicate such usually don’t take into account the dampening effect Europe has historically had on birthrates. Further, migration will not always be like we’ve seen in the past five years.”
Concern over an increase in terrorism seems justified at some level. However, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are fleeing from war-torn countries ruled by Sharia law and terrorist groups, or they’re escaping impoverished living. They simply want a peaceful existence in a far more secure and prosperous Europe.
The brokenness that unfolds in this story should lead us into prayer.
From the brokenness of the countries that force refugees to seek asylum, to the racist responses against them, to the evil of Islamist terrorists, Christians need to pray in response.
Whatever your political views, God calls us to love the immigrant. It is one of the oft-repeated calls to compassion alongside orphans, widows, and the poor: See Leviticus 19:34; Jeremiah 7:5–7; Zechariah 7:9–10; Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 27:19; Deuteronomy 10:19; and Psalm 146:9 for just a few examples.
The Bible urges us to pray for missionaries and churches in Europe, many of which are dying out. Muslims, broken and needy, many disillusioned by Islam and corruption, are waiting to hear about the goodness of Jesus. One of the most effective ways to minister to immigrants is to help them and show simple love. This is the call for Christians everywhere, no matter their opinions about borders and migration.
Indeed, this is an opportunity for Christians with a heart for Muslims. Missionaries can evangelize in America or Europe openly instead of in secret in strict Islamic countries. What an opportunity!
For believers in Europe, loving migrants and those you disagree with is an absolute must.
Progressives must realize casting one’s opinion behind a political policy is not sufficient; Conservatives must remember the plight of refugees and practice empathy; and both sides must remember that, above all, relationships are paramount.
Jayson Casper, writing for Christianity Today, quotes Hafez, a Muslim man: “When you are weak, you stand by the weak. . . . Jesus also stood with the weak, and in Europe, Muslims are among the weakest.” Islam does not teach that kind of love, but Hafez is right: Jesus does teach that kind of love. Jesus also taught them about the kingdom and drew them to himself, which is what Muslims desperately need.
Western Europe is in desperate need of the gospel as it becomes more and more secularized and as Islam similarly gains ground. Muslims and religious “nones” in Europe are in darkness, in need of the light of the good news of Jesus.
A testimony of hope
One particularly hardline Algerian Muslim shared his testimony with me over the phone.
Though a boxer and previously an aggressive man, Hakim recounted the Spirit’s transforming power that led him not to fight back—even while his father and brothers beat him with a baseball bat and sword. Through a miracle, he was able to escape, bleeding profusely, into the woods to hide. Despite this continual threat from his family, he stayed in Algeria and preached the gospel with great courage.
Eventually, he and his wife were able to migrate to the US. As of now, Hakim actively disciples new believers from Muslim backgrounds in North Africa and France through Zoom. Very recently, one of his brothers who once persecuted him has come to Christ.
This is one beautiful example of Jesus’ love turning this lost man’s heart from violence to peace. From a Muslim in an Algerian ruling class who strictly adhered to Sharia law, to now sharing his faith in France, Hakim’s testimony highlights Jesus’ work in Islam. Terrorist Muslims, the enemies of Christians, need the good news. Let us not forget that Jesus called us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–44).
Jesus loved the unloved.
He loves the alt-right who are caught up in fear-mongering and harassment.
He loves the Muslims who conspire to commit terrorism.
He loves peaceful Muslims and those concerned with immigration.
And he is working to bring the gospel to Europe.
Will you be a part of God’s great work?