February Issue 2015
And Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet?
By Akbar Ahmed | News & Politics | Published 8 years ago
Many commentators assume Islamophobia grew as a result of 9/11, but some of us were already grappling with this notion years earlier. In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of being the Muslim commissioner on the Runnymede Trust in London for the study of anti-Semitism with other distinguished figures such as Lord Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, and Senior Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger. I learned a great deal about prejudice against the Jews and realised how much of it was familiar territory for a Muslim. They too faced, for example, negative stereotypes, especially in the media. I believed strongly that such consistent stereotypes could encourage violence against the minority, especially one as vulnerable as the Muslims. As a member of the commission, I actively advocated another such commission to examine prejudice and hatred against Muslims. When the commission was formed — the first of its kind — I was asked to join it as commissioner. The Commission produced an influential report called Islamophobia: A Challenge for us All (1997). The report popularised the term Islamophobia to mean hatred or fear of things Islamic. Since then the concept has been widely used to describe prejudice against Muslims, especially with regard to the increasing immigration to Europe from the Muslim world.
Yet, after 9/11, it is widely recognised that Islamophobia grew exponentially and the gap that already existed between Muslims and non-Muslims grew wider. Recent events have contributed to this growing fear and mistrust of the Muslims, both in the Muslim and non-Muslim world. In August 2014 in Syria, for example, when James Foley, the American journalist, was brutally beheaded by a masked man with a British accent, there was media frenzy and negative focus on the Muslims of Europe as a whole. In some senses, it appeared that it was dÃ©jÃ vu. But this was a substantially changed situation with new players. The media was now talking of European Muslims as a whole being the threat — a Trojan horse. The media discussed ‘Jihadi John’; earlier they had talked of ‘Jihadi Jane.’ The media was reporting that several thousand European Muslims were involved in the battles raging in Syria and Iraq. Of these, the British government claimed some 400 were from Britain. From the Prime Minister of Britain down to ordinary journalists and scholars, many were asking how to turn ‘Jihadi John’ into ‘Malleable Mustafa’ and ‘Jihadi Jane’ into ‘Loyal Leila.’
Now, after the tragic attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Islamophobia is like a raging fire across Europe. There are numerous reports of attacks on mosques, on Muslims, and the police picking up Muslim suspects for alleged links to terrorism. In the media, we are seeing evidence of the same misunderstanding and mistrust surrounding Islam and Muslims.
The problem was that these major issues could not be addressed without some 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 in influencing the young men, and the community’s relations with government and the broader public. While few people had the answers, these were precisely the questions which needed to be addressed.
In order to combat this misunderstanding and provide answers to many questions being asked in the media and elsewhere, I had embarked on an ambitious project to examine relations between the West and the Muslim world after 9/11. This has resulted in a quartet of studies, published by the Brookings Institution Press, and includes: Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalisation (2007); Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010); The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013); and my current project, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire. This quartet of books has relied upon extensive fieldwork in the Muslim world, the United States, and Europe with a team of young Muslim and non-Muslim scholars in order to understand the reality of the experience and views of Muslims. We interviewed thousands of people overall — from presidents, prime ministers, archbishops, grand muftis and chief rabbis to professors, taxi drivers and unemployed illegal immigrants. We examined the perceptions, and often misperceptions, many people had about the ‘Other’ and what they saw as the major challenges towards promoting better relations between these two civilisations. Only through this ‘on the ground’ research can we truly understand how to effectively create harmony for Muslims in western society and positively engage with states and societies across the Muslim world.
The relevance and urgency of this current project studying the Muslims of Europe has been underlined by the recent tragic events in Europe. It is an up-to-date study of the Muslim community in Europe in the context of its impact on the world, the impact of the history on today, and the contemporary challenges facing Europe and its Muslim population. Because the study is based on fieldwork conducted in the community, it is as authentic as possible and because it aims to present a holistic picture of the Muslim community throughout the continent, it is able to juxtapose the whole range and diversity of Muslims, from the north of Great Britain down to Greece on the borders with Turkey. It is precisely this diversity of the community and the method that has been employed to study it that is reflected in the findings of Journey into Europe and allows us to draw broad conclusions suggesting certain principles of social organisation and action.
The Muslims of Europe today, as we discovered in our fieldwork, fall into three broad sociological categories: indigenous or native (like the majority of Bosnians); immigrants (many coming to the land of their former colonial masters — North Africans to France, South Asians to Britain; Germany is the exception as it invited ‘guest workers’ mainly from Turkey, a country that it did not colonise); and converts (especially the young seeking answers to their spiritual dilemmas).
From a historical perspective, the interaction between Europe and the world of Islam falls into three distinct phases: Muslims have been in Europe since 711, beginning with their entrance into Spain. They ruled for hundreds of years in a period known as the Golden Age of Andalusia where Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to live together and create a prosperous, innovative society that produced art, architecture and scholarship. This time is described by the Spanish word la convivencia or co-existence. A similar kind of society, though under Christian rulers, can be found in Sicily under Norman rule. This phase ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last independent Muslim kingdom, and the eventual expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from the Iberian Peninsula.
The second phase starts around the 15th century in southeastern Europe with the clashes between European Christians and the Ottoman Empire, where the Ottomans ruled until the 20th century. Ideas of Islam as alien and predatory were established in European minds as a result of this phase, which too often overshadows the first phase.
The third phase starts when European countries colonise Muslim lands in the 19th and 20th centuries and immigrants arrive in Europe to work and find better lives from the second half of the 20th century onwards.
The second and third generation of Muslims is now coming of age in Europe, yet finding themselves lost between two different cultures — that of their parents or grandparents and that of their European country of birth. They are not quite accepted by either, and this alienation, combined with the lack of effective leadership in the community, creates an identity crisis for the youth. The growing and widespread sense of Islamophobia discussed above only antagonises and further drives these vulnerable generations away from the mainstream. There are many issues around them that create debate, controversy, anger and even hatred in the majority population. Issues of ‘terror’ (such as the savage beheading of Foley), Sharia and the hijab are broadly associated with Islam. There is a general perception that Muslim leadership has not been up to the job and the community is adrift. This raises several conceptual questions that we set out to explore.
We could not 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. Muslims are here to stay. They cannot be wished away. Yet there is disturbing evidence in certain places of a failure to understand and therefore effectively resolve the problems of the Muslim community.
While interfaith initiatives need to be encouraged, in themselves they do not have the capacity to effect great change in respect to the position 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. Governments need to promote education through conferences, supporting scholarship, and other concrete measures to foster understanding between communities. They need to make efforts to find positive ways for the Muslim communities to feel they are valued citizens through ensuring educational and employment opportunities. It is vital to create an effective process of mutual understanding and dialogue. With dialogue comes knowledge and understanding of each other.
However, more than political measures are required to create a cohesive society. The dignity of the Muslim populations must be restored. The increasingly open attacks against the Muslim population, their religion, and their culture push them further and further away from non-Muslims and feed anger which too often encourages violence. The earlier Runnymede report on anti-Semitism has something important to teach us: the enactment of laws which protect a minority from attacks on its faith and community is the first crucial step in tackling religious hatred. The Muslim community too needs to be similarly protected.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How Americaâ€™s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam.