By Akbar Ahmad
(Editor’s note: Journey into Europe, by Akbar Ahmad, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, explores questions of Islam, immigration, and identity. The following is an excerpt from the book, published earlier this year by Brookings Institution Press.*)
Greece was dying in the summer of 2013, and the drama around the event was as poignant as anything Sophocles has written. I was in Athens to deliver some lectures, but I was witnessing, if press reports were to be believed, what appeared to be the imminent downfall of the cradle of Western civilization and the disturbing inertia toward its plight displayed by the rest of the European family of nations. The pillars of a functioning state were shaking: inflation, unemployment, and the national debt were out of control, and law and order on the verge of collapse. The dying process was confirmed when one day state TV was abruptly and indefinitely suspended as employees could no longer receive their salaries.
The last straw was the steady trickle of desperate refugees arriving from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia swelling the ranks of those impoverished migrants already present. Squeezed by the economic crisis, the traditionally hospitable Greeks vented their frustrations at the unending numbers of refugees and immigrants as they sought aid and refuge; and the greater the economic woes, the greater the popularity of the Far Right parties and the more extreme their rhetoric of hate. Groups like the Golden Dawn, with their swastika-like emblem, were parading about dressed up as faux-Nazis, giving Nazi salutes, and even displaying pictures of Adolf Hitler. Their target this time around was the mainly Muslim refugee and immigrant community. Their message was simple and effective, and it was influencing how people thought about the subject: Muslims were not part of European identity, nor had they contributed anything to Western civilization. In short, Muslims had no right to be in Europe. Clearly, the cherished European ideals of humanism and multiculturalism that allowed for the accommodation and integration of immigrant communities were being challenged.
It was with this foreboding sense of being on the cusp of history that I found myself that hot summer in a crowded basement with members of the Muslim community. It was Friday, and I had been invited by the Muslim leaders of Athens to join the prayers and address the congregation after the formal sermon. Appreciating the downtrodden state of the community, I was determined to make an appearance, as I thought my visit would be a small gesture of support.
‘We are living like dogs here’
As I collected my thoughts to address the congregation, some 400 in number, I was strangely unsettled to contemplate that in Athens, a major European capital that has a Muslim population of several hundred thousand, there was not a single actual mosque. The “mosque” I found myself in was a large, dark, and dank parking garage of a particularly sinister aspect. The low ceiling with ugly aluminum air ducts, the absence of any cooling facilities, and the sickly smell of the sweat and desperation of the worshippers packed tightly into its confined space created a claustrophobic atmosphere. I have never been a fan of underground parking lots, having seen too many scenes in movies of ravening, crazy, blood-thirsty men wielding machetes or chainsaws running amok there. And this was as menacing a basement as any good Hollywood director of a B movie could imagine. My instincts were not wrong. Members of the congregation described incidents in which neo-Nazi thugs had blocked the entrances to similar makeshift mosques in Athens; some had even been firebombed. The community lived in terror, as one young male Egyptian migrant confirmed: “The neo-Nazis placed notices outside of our mosque, threatening to slaughter us like chickens and burn down the mosque if we did not leave the country.” With a shiver of anxiety, he added, “We are living like dogs here.”
The congregants were mostly men from the Middle East and South Asia—Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis. I could see the beads of perspiration on the drawn and unshaven faces looking up at me. Their impoverishment hung over them like a dark cloud. I felt empathy for the immigrants whose only crime was their frantic need to seek refuge abroad for their families and themselves from the chaos and persecution at home. They had undertaken a hazardous journey to Europe in leaky boats and overcrowded vehicles, determined to find safety. The Syrians among them were escaping Bashar al-Assad’s chemical and mustard-gas attacks, the use of cluster bombs, the destruction of their homes, and the real danger of the slaughter of their families. They had come to Europe hoping to salvage their lives. But here, it was a congregation of broken dreams.
My speech that day was one of the most difficult I have delivered in my life. But it was not the stifling heat, the audience, or the venue that made it so; it was the brutal realization of the plight of my community of Muslims—the ummah. Throughout their lives, Muslims evoke the two greatest names of God in Islam—the Compassionate and the Merciful—and dream of a world of peace and justice for which they must strive. Here, as I stood up to speak, I saw little evidence of these noble ideals. I could not help but wonder if the condition of this community was indeed a metaphor for the global ummah.
I felt a mild sense of unease at the free-floating anger and desperation that permeated the community and hinted at menace. These men had nothing to lose, and I could imagine the most desperate among them prepared to lash out in an unpredictable and even murderous manner. Their predicament needed to be handled with urgency, sympathy, and resolute common sense. This, I felt, was Europe’s ticking time bomb.
In my sermon I could not just say that their lives would improve overnight in their present situation or that they would find peace if they were sent home; on the other hand, if I offered them empty words of optimism, they would sense the hollowness of my message. Yet if I did not give them some hope, I would be failing my fellow Muslims by not comforting them. It took all my optimism and faith, therefore, to deliver a message of hope. I asked them to take inspiration from the example of the Prophet of Islam, who had faced enormous challenges throughout his life, including assassination attempts, with patience, compassion, and courage. As for their mosque, I told them that a mosque is defined by the power and beauty of the faith in the hearts of its worshippers, not by the calligraphy and tiles of its building. This basement, I said, is as beautiful a mosque as any in the world.
Afterward we sat on the floor in a corner and the congregants gathered around me. They were bursting to tell their stories. Many told me of their ordeal as refugees and immigrants; they wanted to share the utter misery of their lives with me. Several of them remarked that they felt abandoned by their own communities and that I was, in fact, the first Muslim of any note who had bothered to visit them. They had never even seen an embassy official joining them. The young Pakistani men told us in hushed voices of being chased, kicked, and beaten by mobs while the public looked on or joined in. The police had stood by watching and in fact appeared to collude with the mobs. Some who had been in Greece longer than the more recent migrants spoke with sorrow of what once seemed a pleasant and welcoming land but had recently turned hostile against immigrants, especially Muslims. One of these early migrants, who said he had once belonged to the defense services in Pakistan, confessed that staying in Athens was too dangerous a risk. He was preparing to uproot himself after a successful two decades: his European dream had evaporated. They all noted the hostile role of the media in projecting an image of Muslims that conflated three words—Islam, terrorism, and migrants—and thereby created problems for them.
Muslims not learning lessons
But even here in Europe as destitute refugees who had lost everything, Muslims were not learning lessons. They had brought their sectarian and ethnic rivalries with them. As we sat down to talk, several Arabs said to me earnestly, as you are an Islamic scholar, could you tell us whether as Sunnis we should consider the Shia to be Muslims? If not, asked a Syrian man, were they then liable to be punished by death? They had clearly been wrestling with the question, and it could be understood only in the context of the savagery inflicted on them by Assad in Syria and his Iranian supporters. I replied by asking whether the Shia believed in the Quran and accepted the Sunna and the example of the Prophet. They replied, yes. Then, I said, they are Muslim, and we must respect that fact. In Islam, only God decides who is a good or bad Muslim, I reminded them. They slinked back in apparent acquiescence.
Present were some leaders of the community including Naim Elghandour, an Egyptian businessman and president of the Muslim Association of Greece, and his Greek wife, Anna Stamou, a convert to Islam and the first candidate who wore a hijab to stand for a seat in the European Parliament. We had met at a lecture I gave soon after my arrival in Athens to a high-level interfaith gathering and at a well-attended public talk hosted by the prestigious Onassis Cultural Center. Both events were moderated by the renowned Greek scholar Sotiris Roussos, a fellow alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Later Anna, who is active in the Muslim Association, kindly assisted me in arranging excellent contacts with the local Muslim population of Xanthi in northern Greece near the Bulgarian border.
The Muslim community quickly became aware that I had been warmly received not only by Professor Roussos but in their respective offices by Bishop Gabriel of Diavleia, the chief secretary of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece and the second-highest-ranking member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and George Kalantzis, the Greek government’s secretary general for religious affairs. Roussos called the failure to build the Athens mosque Greece’s “shame.” Bishop Gabriel, a prominent supporter of the mosque idea and of the Muslim community, described his work in the streets feeding migrants and said that he was “obliged to act as a true member of the Church” to see the migrants as people created in the image of God. The American ambassador received me at the U.S. embassy, and the British ambassador invited me to call on him at his residence, where, as an admirer of the Romantic Poets, I was delighted to read a letter by Lord Byron on display at the entrance. The Pakistan ambassador hosted a dinner in my honor. The leaders of the Muslim community were following my progress with a certain amount of pride and satisfaction. My arrival at the mosque thus had the effect of raising morale.
Present with me was Frankie Martin, my former student and a trusty assistant on all my major research projects for more than a decade, who was completing his master’s degree in anthropology at Cambridge University. “Although I’ve worked with Professor Ahmed for many years and visited many mosques around the world, I was shocked and unprepared for what I encountered in Athens,” he observed. “It was so saddening to think of the Syrians, Pakistanis, and others desperate to reach a better and safer life in Europe only to find a reality in Athens where they are stalked and brutalized simply because of who they are.” Harrison Akins, my assistant at the time, had accompanied me from Washington, D.C., and described what he saw: “I couldn’t help but be saddened by the fact that this claustrophobic space was where they went to find any measure of peace and solace from what I can only imagine to be an intolerable situation as immigrants in Athens.” Also present was Ibrahim Khan Hoti, my teenage grandson, who had flown in from Islamabad, Pakistan, and was the advance guard for his mother, Amineh Hoti, who was to meet us later in London. He was astonished: “I was surprised and greatly disappointed to see that in one of the most famous and renowned cities in the world, one that has such a grand history and one that was the birthplace of democracy, a system that, ideally, should represent all walks of life, there was no legal mosque. It is still ironic when you see that Greece was once in the Ottoman Empire.”
The refugees in that basement in Athens were like the first heavy drops of rain that precede the monsoons. The rains came shortly afterward and became a flood as hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Greece hoping to travel north to safety. Their arrival affected the way people saw Islam and their own national leaders. For a short while, Angela Merkel of Germany was elevated to cultural sainthood for her magnanimous response, and Viktor Orbán of Hungary was vilified in the media for his pusillanimous and hostile reception. Reputations were being made and destroyed and saints and villains were being created in the public mind by forces outside the political arena of Europe. Muslims had once again arrived on the continent and were directly affecting its internal balance and structure.
A third invasion
To some Europeans the presence of Muslim immigrants represented a third invasion—after the Arab and Ottoman invasions of centuries past. Yet the contrast between this latest Muslim invasion of Europe and the first one could not be greater. Islam first came to Europe when General Tariq ibn Ziyad, representing the Arab Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, landed in Spain in 711 and battled the Visigoths. His victory would eventually result in one of Europe’s most celebrated civilizations—al-Andalus. There were moments in the turbulent sweep of Iberian history when different societies lived, worked, and prospered together. Muslims were then associated with art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. Their culture promoted libraries, colleges, and baths. They were also known for tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and religions. Their learning, confidence, prosperity, and power stand in stark contrast to the Muslims of Europe today. In another cruel contrast, the Muslims of al-Andalus reflected the glow of a powerful Arab superpower whose territory was larger than even the Roman Empire, whereas today they come from fragmented and violent societies in the throes of genocidal convulsions.
From this uprooted and broken Muslim community in Europe have emerged those who have repeatedly committed sickening acts of violence, killing themselves and others, regardless of religion, age, or gender, with the utmost heartlessness. After our visit to Athens, instances of Muslim terrorism exploded across Europe. Nothing was sacrosanct nor off limits—airports, editorial offices, cafés, nightclubs, sports stadiums, passenger trains, a promenade in a coastal city. The murder of an eighty-five-year-old priest in a church in Normandy by two Muslim teenagers in July 2016 prompted Pope Francis to declare, in an uncharacteristically somber mood, that “the world is at war”—while hastening to add that “it is not a war of religions.” Pope Francis was not succumbing to the idea that the West and Islam were involved in a long-term “clash of civilizations,” as propounded by scholars like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington and publicly invoked and supported by prominent politicians like François Hollande and Manuel Valls.
One thing was abundantly clear: it was a matter of life and death to understand the European Muslims. From the presidents and prime ministers of Europe down to ordinary journalists, the question on people’s minds was how to convert Jihadi John to Malleable Mustafa and Jihadi Jane to Loyal Leila . The problem was that this question could not be answered without proper understanding and knowledge of the Muslim community—its definition of its own identity, its leadership patterns, its religious and political players, the role of the imams, the position of mothers and women in the family, and relations with government and the broader public. While few people had the answers, these were precisely the questions that needed to be addressed.
The current dynamic agitating Europe is Islam; the long-drawn-out wars between Catholics and Protestants, the struggle against the Ottomans, the steady and large-scale migrations to America, the world wars, and the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union are no longer center stage. On philosophic, political, and cultural levels, Islam is central to the discussion about Europe. Islam affects a wide range of people, from young Muslims unsure of what to make of their faith and its place in Europe to the leaders of the Far Right who project their political philosophy and strategy as a war against it.
In that encounter in the gloomy basement in Athens, I witnessed the problems of Europe today. I saw the need to conduct a detailed study of Europe based on fieldwork to look at precisely these issues. I saw the desperate need to discover a paradigm or method for the future that would allow Europe’s different cultures and peoples to understand one another better in order to live together in peace and harmony. To do so, we needed to locate an effective conceptual frame for our study in the context of the social sciences. I thus consulted the scholars who could best guide us.
* A version of this post first appeared on the Brookings website. Published with permission.