Competing Visions of Islam Will Shape Europe in the 21st Century

Frum, The Atlantic, May 2, 2018

Ahmed’s new book deals with how migration is reshaping the continent, and
whether leaders can cope.
minaret of a mosque in Creteil near Paris, France Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
Ahmed was born a subject of the British Raj. He devoted his career to building
a modern Pakistani state, accepting some of his government’s most dangerous
jobs, including political commissioner in the tribal agency of Waziristan. He
rose to represent Pakistan as its high commissioner in the United Kingdom.
Since retiring from government, he has taught at American University in
Washington, D.C., where he has written books and produced documentaries about
Islam’s place in the modern world. His newest book, Journey into Europe, is the
culmination of years of study of the Muslim migration northward, which has
accelerated dramatically since the Syrian Civil War. Ahmed and I have debated
the impact of this migration for years. We continued the conversation recently
over a long written exchange.
: You are promoting a new book, about Islam in Europe. As so often in your
intellectual career, you perceive potential harmony where others see mostly
conflict. Terrorism in the name of Islam has claimed many lives in Europe over
the past two decades—and the reaction to mass migration from the Islamic world
is shaking the politics of the continent.
much of the Muslim world seems to be turning away from the liberal values that
have defined Europe since 1945. You see this especially in Turkey, once a
candidate for entry into the European Union, now an increasingly authoritarian
and religiously chauvinist state. Why are you so hopeful?
There have been too many deaths due to Muslim acts of terrorism—though
more like hundreds rather than thousands—and undoubtedly Islam is now a highly
debated “hot” issue in Europe today. As a social scientist who rests his
analysis on field research and facts, I am concerned about the potential for
violence and conflict in the future. But as a humanist with faith in the
pluralist legacy that exists in Europe, I have hope that with wisdom,
compassion, and courage, the leaders of Europe will be able to guide the
continent through this difficult time.
Let’s begin with the first part of your analysis, within Europe. Speaking to
the new Bundestag on March 21, Chancellor Merkel drew a
between the places of Islam and Christianity within
Germany: “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.” That
comment, I should add, drew some protest from some members of the Bundestag—but
even on its face, it underscores that the politician who welcomed more Muslims
into Europe than any other in history, almost 1.5 million people over the past
three years, still sees Islam as a new and uncertain graft upon the European
trunk. Your Journey Into Europe seeks to reassure her. But if even Angela
Merkel is unsure, isn’t this a truly overwhelmingly difficult project?
There was a time when Muslim scientists, astronomers, surgeons, and
mathematicians were at the cutting edge of their disciplines. Muslims were then
seen as representing a powerful, sophisticated, and rich world civilization.
Today, ironically, Muslims are seen as destitute refugees escaping mad and
bloodthirsty Muslim rulers. In this guise it is understandable that Europeans
will not see Islam as part of European civilization. Therefore they would be
put at ease if they appreciated their own history, when Muslims were very much
part of European culture and history, and impacted the Renaissance, Scientific
Revolution, and Enlightenment. While many people talk of a “Judeo-Christian”
Europe, the fact is that it is the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic religions,
i.e. the Abrahamic faiths, that came together, while engaging with Greek
philosophy, to create and nourish what we now know as European civilization.
Chancellor Merkel’s welcoming of some million migrants was an act of compassion
for which many, including me, have applauded her. It is the kind of gesture
that perhaps only one other person in Europe can match—Pope Francis washing the
feet of the migrants and welcoming them to Europe.
Isn’t the Muslim world even more prone to view the West with hostility rather
than the other way around?
Ahmed: I
see three broad, sometimes overlapping, categories within Islam: literalist
Islam—those Muslims who believe that to be a good Muslim should mean to adhere
to the letter and spirit of Islamic law; the mystics—those who believe in a
warm, inclusive embrace of humanity which reflects the love of the divine for
all creation; and finally the modernists—those who believe in balancing faith
with modernity. Those in this final category believed that modernity, with its
characteristics of democracy and accountability, and Islam were compatible. It
is this category that is under threat directly from the literalists.
Perhaps the conflict is generated by conceptualizing people—who come from
across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia—as
“Muslims” rather than as (for example) descendants of certain ethnicities or
nationalities. Maybe the very project of imagining people from many different
places and cultures—and especially people who may not personally be very
religious at all—as “Muslims” imposes an identity that so many people from
Muslim-majority lands seek to escape?
Ahmed: In
each European country the relationship of the Muslim minority to the host
country is different and depends on the historical relationship with their
country of origin and the circumstances of their arrival. After 9/11 however,
the common factor that defined Muslims in the U.S. and Europe was that they
were seen simply as Muslim—that is, defined by religion and no longer by their
nation of origin, ethnicity, sect, class, or profession. We were told for example
by a German ambassador, when we asked him about German identity and Muslims
living in Germany, that before 9/11 they were called Turks. Now he said, they
are all known as Muslims, whether they are Turks, Kurds, Iranians, or
Pakistanis. The third generation of Muslim immigrants born as citizens in the
U.S. or Europe feels the full backlash of the prejudice against Muslims, and it
is from here that some young men and women are susceptible to the preaching and
allure of the more extreme literalists who argue that there can be no
coexistence between Islam and the West. At the same time we must not overlook
the fact that Muslims are also contributing to Western societies in significant
ways—[as] the mayors of London and Rotterdam, [as] more than a dozen members of
the House of Lords and Commons, [as] members of parliament in places like
Germany and France, [as] major television presenters, and [as] sports heroes in
cricket and football.  
European Muslim communities seem to assimilate at different rates and in
different ways. A Pew survey from 2006 found
that 42 percent of French Muslims defined themselves as “French first, Muslim
second”—the highest such rate in any of the European countries Pew surveyed.
Only 7 percent of British Muslims identified as “British first, Muslim second.”
I’ll personally note—and perhaps you’ve shared this experience—that it’s not
uncommon to meet people of North African Muslim origin at senior levels of the
French security services, something highly uncommon for their counterparts in
the United Kingdom.
The answer to this question is rooted in the colonial encounter—the French saw
Algeria, for example, as an extension of France, and therefore the immigrants
from this part of Africa carried that sense of identity with them to France,
seeing themselves as French with the dominant philosophy of laïcité. Thus their
Muslim identity was colored by laïcité. Whether they are fully accepted as French
is a separate question, and I have explored it in detail in the book. As far as
the British colonies were concerned, in India for example, after the 1857
uprisings that almost toppled British rule on the subcontinent, the British
consciously left religion alone. [This] allowed Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to
maintain their religious identity and even nourish it. Besides, there was a
distinctly different approach to imperialism between the British and the
French—after 1857 the former tended to be more inclusive and promoted schools,
colleges, and participation in the army and civil services, while the French
ruled their African colonies through harsh military force and compelled their
subjects to give up their Islamic identity. Yet it’s also true that many Muslims
in Britain told us we are proud to be British and proud to be Muslim, as
distinct from France, where Muslims constantly expressed their sense of
alienation, anger, and feeling of rejection by French society.
It’s a very striking thing about your body of work that you regard “modernist
Islam” as also a liberal Islam. But isn’t there something also very modernist
about the project of Islamic extremism—which rejects so many established
spiritual and political authorities, empowers just about anyone to set himself
up as a preacher and leader, and promises ordinary people that they can lead
extraordinary lives through redemptive violence? You yourself have often
pointed out how untraditional groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are.
Ahmed: To
understand modernist Islam we need to disentangle the three categories from
each other. Modernist Islam by definition cannot promote violence, because it
is based in democracy and the rule of law. Literalist Islam, which sets out to
be the champion of Islam and draw boundaries around the faith, can sometimes
act as a catalyst for violent groups. These groups may well use modern
technology such as the internet, and therefore are wrongly assumed to be
purveyors of modernist thinking. It is the failure of the modernist category to
provide democracy, accountability, and human and civil rights that creates a
backlash against modernity and gives space for the emergence of the Taliban,
ISIS, and so on. Baghdadi dominated ISIS with a demented brutality just as
Saddam did ruling Iraq—just as the former failed to live up to any ideal of
Islam, the latter failed to represent modernist Islam. In Pakistan today, we
see the irony of militant groups inflicting violence on all sections of society
including school children, law and government offices, and patients in
hospitals in the nation created by [Ali] Jinnah, the quintessential modernist,
lawyer, and constitutionalist.
Frum: As
much as you emphasize the potential for harmony, you conclude Journey into
Europe with nightmare visions of possible conflict. You cite the recent vote in
Switzerland to ban construction of minarets—and glimpse a vision of, in your
phrase, “more dangerous and deadly solutions.” You observe, too, a seeming rise
in pathological behaviors among second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe.
Which vision seems to you more likely to be realized? Is there a gap between
your intellect and your emotions in your anticipations of the future?
After several years of research in the field, my team and I concluded that
Europe stands at the crossroads. If its leaders rediscover its pluralist and
humanist traditions and adapt them to the 21st century, Europe can once again
be a beacon of civilization to the world. If not, then we need to take very
seriously [the rise in extreme rhetoric about] creating concentration camps and
making soap out of the minorities, the nightmare vision of the 1930s, that we
are hearing once again. [Some] Europeans are talking openly about the “external
enemy,” by which they mean Muslims, and the “internal enemy” by which they mean
Jews. We had said “Never Again” after the Holocaust and we must remind
ourselves never to allow those terrible atrocities to be repeated.
Frum: But
wait—the special horror of what happened to the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and
1940s was that the persecution originated in a mad paranoid delusion. As you
yourself show, the friction between a Europe that wishes to preserve its
historic identity—and newcomers who wish to escape their own countries and move
to Europe—is real, not a delusion. You acknowledge atrocities like the Rotherham
sexual “grooming” of underage girls
—and the appeal of ISIS to so
many European Muslims. Your book puts the onus on both sides to change for the
sake of peace. Isn’t the very attempt to borrow Jewish history for other
people’s purposes itself one of the things that causes so many Europeans—even
the most liberal-minded—to mistrust this new claim on their continent?
While both Muslims and Jews are under pressure from the European far right,
there [are] also the Muslim attacks on Jewish museums, schools, and
individuals, for example in France. Fortunately, there are also many examples
we found of harmony between Jews and Muslims, such as the several synagogues
that were tended to by neighborhood mosques. There are also many Muslims and
Jews we met, often young people, who are actively promoting better relations.
Dr. Amineh Hoti, my daughter, who obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology from
Cambridge, was the first director of the first Jewish-Muslim center in Europe
located in Cambridge. In Bosnia, Ambassador Finci, the head of the Jewish
community in Bosnia, told us that anti-Semitism is virtually unknown there. On
this journey, I had the privilege of meeting some of Europe’s greatest and
wisest sages who gave me hope. One of them, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former
Chief Rabbi of the U.K., shared with me the Jewish saying tikkun olam, to heal
a fractured world. I believe this should be a motto for Muslims and
non-Muslims, Europe and the world, in the 21st century.