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Europe at crossroads: Andalusia or Dystopia?

Akbar Ahmed (fourth from left) and the Journey Into Europe team with Grand Mufti of Bosnia Mustafa Cerić (fourth from right) in Sarajevo.

BOOK REVIEW: Journey Into Europe: Exploring Islam, Immigration and Identity  in Europe.

By Pawan Bali

Dr Akbar Ahmed’s journey to explore Islam across Europe began in a crowded parking garage in Athens in 2013. This makeshift dank mosque was hosting over 400 members of the Muslim community for a congregation.  Athens had a sizeable Muslim population of several hundred thousands, but not a single proper mosque. As sweat and desperation filled the air that afternoon, Ahmed addressed the gathering, and made a note to self.  The need to understand Islam in Europe was monumental.  Europe, “the turbulent and mighty continent,” was once again on the edge of turbulence.

In that musty air, Ahmed picked up the signs of the precarious relation of Islam in the West. Over the next five years, he and his team would dive deep into history, comparative literature, contemporary interviews and travel across 50 cities to present a fine-grained analysis of the conflict and coexistence of Islam in Europe.

Journey Into Europe- Islam, Immigration and Identity, is the last in a quartet of Ahmed’s books on relations of Islam and the West. His earlier works include Journey into Islam- The Crisis of Globalization (2007), Journey into America- the challenge of Islam (2010) and Thistle and the Drone-How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013). 

READ: Akbar Ahmed examines experiences of Muslims in ‘Journey into Europe’ (March 22, 2015)

Continuing the scholarship, Journey into Europe explores range of issues from primordial identities to pluralist ones, the legacies of colonialism to challenges of   immigration, the strengths of assimilation of communities to dark corners of isolation.

One of the interviewees in the book, a Scottish minister in Edinburg, compares the study to a “tartan cloth”, which weaves different threads into a pattern. Journey into Europe is a tartan project that weaves different strands of Islam’s relation in Europe into an academic and sociopolitical contribution.

Primordial and Pluralist Identities

Journey into Europe is rooted in anthropology, but it also flows like a tale of a curious traveler. The writer gets many of his insights from observations and friendly chatter.   For instance, conversations with cab drivers in Berlin, political commentators and artists in Munich, all of which reflect the superlatives associated with German identity. These conversations support his anthropological analysis of strong German primordial identity, where everything German is considered best.

Ahmed argues this primordial identity extends its influence to the Austrians, the Scandinavians, the Dutch and across Europe.  It is defined by several codes like Volk, Heimat, Aryan or Jantelovan in Denmark- all concepts hinged on the idea of blood, land and belonging to the soil. In the times of political and economic stress, these concepts tend to assume predatory forms against minorities or “outsiders”.

Ahmed makes this primordial identity central to his understanding of Europe’s attitude towards immigrants and multiculturalism, especially when it comes to “Muslims who do not belong to the Volk”. Muslims are also are identified with a “violent religion that once dominated parts of Europe”, aggravating the friction between Islam and the West.

As grim a scenario it may seem at present, the story of Europe and Islam has not always been of challenges.  Even as modern day stories of co-existence are not as powering in the book, Ahmed finds examples of pluralism in the past.  He outlines the glory of the Andalusia period, from 711 to 1492, where Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula and emphasized architecture grandeur, ethos of Ilm and coexistence of religions- a period also referred to as la convivencia.

In the same spirit, the Christian rulers in Sicily, who conquered the region in late 11 century promoted pluralism, knowledge and allowed Islamic influences to coexist.

The nostalgia of Andalusia, the bitter sense of wonder at what was achieved and the scale of what was lost, still inflicts many- from Pakistani Marxist activist Tarik Ali, to secular humanist writer Salman Rushdie to even Saudia Arabia’s Prince Turki.  Ahmed describes it as the Andalusian syndrome.

While he also refers to critical assessments and arguments that Andalusia was more of a myth, Ahmed remains convinced that return to the ideals of convivencia would turn the arc of history towards peace and justice.

Immigrants, Converts and Indigenous Muslims

To explore the present challenges of Muslims in Europe, Ahmed classifies them into three categories- immigrants, converts and indigenous Muslims.  Peppered with personal stories, Journey into Europe offers the flavors of their successes and struggles.

Like the story of a Pakistani immigrant, who came to England in 1952 with bare ten pounds, now owns over 2,500 acres of land; a Sufi Imam in Dublin who recites Rumi and sings praise of  “Sheikh Patrick”; or of a theatre producer and stage director in Denmark who fought to become the first person from Middle Eastern background to be admitted to elitist National Theatre School.

In another remarkable story of immigrants that reflects Europe’s heart is in place, a Pakistani journalist recounts that in 1970s he had moved to Denmark, away from his family back in Pakistan. Unable to establish contact with him for years, his mother wrote a letter to the Queen of Denmark, requesting her to find the estranged son. The Queen personally intervened and sent a note to the local police to find him, with instructions for him to get in touch with his mother.

Amongst the immigrants from colonial countries, Ahmed places the subjects of British imperialism in far better place, politically and socially, than those of French colonies, given that both nations different approaches to colonization.

In non-colonial countries like Germany, Denmark and Belgium, the Muslim immigrants came as guest workers, with “preference for brawn over brains”. They came from countries that had little or no association with the hosts, finding them in a more isolated spot.

In the category of indigenous Muslims in Europe, Ahmed explains the Bosnians, the Turks of Greece and Bulgaria and lesser known and “desperate Muslim communities”, like the Tartars. Roma and the Cham, who he describes as the “the dark abysm of Europe.”

There are also compelling narratives of Muslim converts, like a German MTV anchor or the Spanish converts in Granada or the Iman who preaches in Danish- many of them turned to Islam for the spiritual connect. The converts, who take strong pride in national identity as well as their religious one, are aptly described as “the living bridge between slam and Europe.”

Challenges within Muslim Communities

From being stereotyped as radicals and terrorists, to being invisible, the Muslims in Europe have been in the thick of rising Islamaphobia and far right politics.  The community, however, faces challenges within. There is lack of leadership, and growing divide.

From his interviews with imams and scholars, Ahmed filters a few challenges for the community, which include “ lack of direction”, increasing number of “ Google imams,” and factionalism, all of which together have failed to set a path for the young.  He views tribal identities of the Muslim immigrants as the key driver towards terrorism, where their code of honor and revenge fester resentment against the West.  His argument on tribal identities contributing to extremism and violent reactions is in continuation to the earlier thesis of Thistle and Drone, where he argues that root cause of terrorism is breakdown of tribal structures, and a feeling of revenge, when “ honor is threatened”.

Reconciling Past with Modernity

A popular Polish magazine wSiect, featured a naked white woman, draped in European Union flag, and around it were three dark arms, trying to rip apart the flag.  The image, with headline “Islamic Rape of Europe”, accompanied a cover article on the clash of two civilizations.   Ahmed says there is a current “ cosmic depression” that the Muslims in Europe find themselves in, and it is evident in the dehumanization of refugees, rise of far right groups like Islamophobic Pegida and Alternative for Germany and declarations like of Slovakian Prime Minister that “ Islam has no place in Slovakia”.  The fact that Islam’s extensive contributions to European civilization have been omitted from history, museums and even media, and Moors and Turks are portrayed as “barbarians”, has not helped much.

Ahmed’s journey reflects grim realities in modern day Europe. It looks into the challenges to understand what is adding to friction, deepening divides and feeding into distrust between Muslims and the West.

Journey into Europe doesn’t sound euphoric about the present day coexistence and faults the popular European narrative of “ submission or resistance.” It does, however, offer hope in the past of la convivencia, which could set the way for the future.

Ahmed emphasizes consistent conscious efforts to bridge the divide rather than just singular acts of European humanism and the need to admit that immigrants are a reality that will not go away.

For the Muslim community, he suggests a look within, acceptance of constructive criticism and need to shun indifference to the larger local culture.

Journey into Europe ends it journey at the crossroads of Europe, where one path leads to unbridled European predator identity, and the other towards engagement and fulfillment of the values of modern liberal democracy.

At this crossroads, Europe has to take a call. It is either Andalusia or dystopia?

(Pawan Bali is a journalist and a conflict resolution professional based in Washington DC. Her website is www.pawanbali.org.)


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