By Ali Imran
An eastern scholar’s study of Muslims in the West
Europe is home to around 50 million Muslims. But, has it culturally been a homeland to the minority community in the post-9/11 world, where sweeping generalisations and insouciant policies fuel a string of new societal, political and intellectual challenges?
Similarly, are the Muslims, who have benefited from the European economic opportunity and creative freedom, integrating into the mainstream systems, and rising to the occasion in terms of an intellectual discourse towards a multicultural peaceful coexistence?
How will the rise of ISIS militancy, which has drawn thousands of Europeans into Syria and Iraq, and the new US-led NATO fight against militants in yet another Muslim country sharpen perceptions on both sides? And what are the best ways to promote better understanding and relations between different religions and communities in today’s Europe?
These are some of the thoughts that underpin the quest of a forthcoming book by Dr Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at Washington’s American University.
“Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire” and a documentary on the same subject — to be out next year — will be distinctive in two respects.
First, the work departs from the traditional mode of armchair theorising or research based on books and other writings already available to readers. Instead, Ahmed’s team of researchers undertakes fieldwork during extensive travels in Europe in the spirit of a genuine anthropological enquiry, and in the footsteps of historian Ibn Khaldun, whose amazing breadth and depth of knowledge flowed from both academic learning and direct interaction with diverse cultures.
Secondly, the work marks an exploration of the contemporary western society by an eastern scholar of Islam, Dr Ahmed, who as a Pakistani intellectual has closely observed Muslim and western societies, as well as some defining challenges his country of origin has been grappling with since the start of the century.
In fact, the thematic relevance of the study heightened during Ahmed and his research team’s visit, as the media reported that several thousand European Muslims, including hundreds from Britain, had joined the battles raging in Syria and Iraq.
“When American journalist James Foley was brutally beheaded by a man who spoke with a British accent and wore a mask, the media frenzy to uncover his identity was the focus of the news — the media were now talking of European Muslims being the threat in jihadi terms,” explains Dr Ahmed.
At the same time, the research assesses that local Muslim voices generally were either far fewer than expectations or were simply absent in the discussions in various European countries.
That missing link, if plugged, could help greatly in putting the lingering challenges, reasons behind the uprisings in the Middle East as well as their repercussions into an enlightened perspective, Ahmed, the author of acclaimed book Living Islam and stage play Noor, says.
The initial findings of the ongoing research present a mixed picture – a lack of coordinated efforts towards building inter-faith understanding and manifest examples of European desire to bridge the gaps for evolving a new chapter of La Convivencia, that represented a unique historical flowering of arts, architecture, literature and political inclusiveness in Muslim Spain, particularly in Andalusia, from 711 to 1492.
The study discovers three broad categories of Muslims living in Europe today: indigenous or natives like the majority of Bosnians; economic immigrants and their children, who feel they have a right to be there as a fact of historical reciprocity following periods of colonisation in North Africans and South Asia; and converts, especially young people seeking answers to their spiritual problems.
According to Ahmed and his researchers, while historically, battles between European powers and the Ottoman Empire beginning in the 15th century and colonial western rule over Muslim countries provoked perceptions, today it is the post-9/11 Afghan and Iraq wars, controversies surrounding them, exploitation of the unemployed youth by militant organisations like al-Qaeda and ISIS, their ramifications for local societies and the lopsided narrative in parts of the western media that raise questions and tensions between communities.
Consequently, the second and third generations of Muslims, coming of age in Europe in the current circumstance, face questions of identity crisis. Frequently used expressions like “Islamists, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic terrorists” on the one hand, and “Islamophobia, xenophobia and racial discrimination” on the other, vitiate the socio-political discourse and overall climate.
Journey into Europe took Ahmed and his researchers including Zeenat Ahmed, Harrison Akins, Dr Amineh Hoti, Frankie Martin and two interns Mina and Ibrahim, to 33 places including Andalusia, Spain, the Balkans, Greece, Germany and the United Kingdom, with the aim to spotlight on various phases in Muslim interaction with European societies.
“We selected certain cities specifically in order to help us understand each phase of Muslim engagement and presence in the historical order – Cordoba and Granada, Sarajevo, Mostar, Thessaloniki and Xanthi Bradford in the UK and Berlin and Munich in Germany,” says Dr Ahmed.
Travels and intensive interviews in Muslim communities revealed a series of interesting facts and outlooks. For instance, Bradford is a homogenous community where immigrants of Azad Kashmir origin dominate the city with the mayor also hailing from the community. Miki near Xanthi, on the Turkish border, has the entire population that is ethnically Turk from the Ottoman times and Bosnia, where indigenous Europeans have been Muslims for a long time.
“The Bosnians impressed me and my team with their scholarship, gentility and compassion – in spite of being the victims of genocide they showed little appetite for wanting revenge. Instead they talked of justice,” Dr Ahmed notes.
Using printed questionnaires the researchers interviewed Muslims from different ethnic, sectarian and national backgrounds. In addition, the team interviewed imams of mosques, rabbis and priests – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — and the leadership of other religious communities such as the Hindus.
The interviewees also included academics, taxi drivers, students, policymakers like the President of Melilla, the former President and Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Dr Haris Silajdzic, First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, German Ambassadors Dr Heinrich Kreft, the Ambassador for Dialogue Among Civilisations with the German Foreign Ministry, Dr Tilo Klinner, German Embassy, Pakistan, and Dr Michael Koch, Special Representative of the Federal Government for Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Director General of Casa Arabe in Spain Ambassador Eduardo Lopez Busquets.
The author also shared some of the conclusions. “We cannot escape the conclusion at the end of the project that Europe faces a huge challenge in dealing with its Muslim citizens with fairness, compassion and wisdom. There is disturbing evidence in certain places of a failure to understand and therefore effectively resolve the problems of the Muslim community.”
At the same time, there are glimpses of La Convivencia (successful co-existence of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Muslim Spain). The links between Europe and the Muslim world need to be highlighted in the media and in schools. For instance, Goethe, whose work was inspired by the Persian Sufi poet Hafiz, and Allama Iqbal, whose greatness has been acknowledged in the UK, Germany, Spain, Bosnia and other places with several roads, monuments named after him and bearing his name, act as a bridge between Europe and the Muslim world.
“Europe has therefore much to teach us in a positive way. The challenge is to educate people about that side of the European history and culture. A determined and vigorous approach is needed from governments. The present approach is not working. Intelligently designed and culturally sensitive programs are within the purview of government. So are jobs and high-profile appointment, which act as symbols.
A recent hopeful example has been Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s appointment of a politician with a Pakistani background, Humza Yousaf, as his external affairs minister, representing an inclusive approach to immigrants. But, still, Ahmed argues there is a need for approaching the larger segments of population with a message of common and mutual understanding.
“While interfaith initiatives need to be encouraged, in themselves they do not have the capacity to effect great change in respect to the state of the minority in a community or how it is perceived by the majority. Too often well-educated religious leaders talk to each other and the conversation remains at their level, making little impact on the larger community. The other community at home and at work remains a mystery.”
This piece first appeared in Pakistan Today on September 27, 2014