Much of the Islamic world is resource rich, has been under Western domination for most of its modern history, and is struggling to come to terms with a seemingly unjust international system and issues of national identities and nationalism, ethnicity, tribalism, feudalism, social change, political reform and modernisation. This struggle is taking place simultaneously on two fronts — at home and abroad — causing domestic disorder and global tensions.
In most societies, populations living under a Western-oriented but illiberal ruling elite have been seeking justice and self-fulfilment through different, but confused, ways — through democracy, Islam and nationalism. But their struggle has collided with America’s post 9/11 wars, enabling the extremists to hijack the agenda.
Two controversial wars and an ill-defined ‘war on terrorism’ that portrayed the enemy in such abstract terms, and the conflict as a war of ideas, ended up magnifying the enemy and enlarging the scope and meaning of the conflict, making it look like a war against Islam. This sharpened tensions between Islam and the West, boosting the agenda and popularity of extremists both at home and abroad. At home, the political and economic failure of leadership in Islamic societies has ceded ground to the better organised and motivated extremists; abroad, especially in Europe, immigrant communities are falling back on extremists not only as defenders of a faith under siege, but also for protection against injustices, discrimination and intolerance.
The fourth part of a quartet on relations between the West and Muslims post-9/11 focuses on Europe’s interaction with the Muslim world
The Islamic world has many outstanding scholars but arguably no one has studied these issues more comprehensively and done more to explain Islam to the West than Akbar Ahmed. Other scholars have spoken, too, but the breadth and scope of the avenues of expression Ahmed has utilised, such as books, articles, television appearances, lectures across academic institutions and think-tanks and inter faith dialogues, clearly stands out.
His latest book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity, is the fourth in a quartet of studies on relations between the West and the Muslim world after 9/11, done from four different perspectives. The first, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalisation, examines how people in the Muslim world view the West and what occurred in their societies after 9/11. The second, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, is concerned with how people in the United States see Muslims and the place of Islam in American identity. The third volume, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, deals with the perspective of tribal peoples from lands where the US-led war on terror has been conducted.
Journey into Europe, which was also the title of a documentary produced and narrated by Ahmed and based on interviews included in the book, focuses on Europe’s interaction with Islam and how Europeans viewed Islam and Muslims in historical and contemporary terms. The study, based on extensive fieldwork, particularly explores the complex questions of Islam, immigration and identity. Ahmed, with the help of a group of young scholars, spoke with some of Europe’s most influential figures, including presidents and prime ministers, archbishops, chief rabbis, grand muftis, heads of right-wing parties and average Europeans from all walks of life.
The book reveals a fascinating story of Islam’s place in European history and civilisation that is more interwoven and indistinguishable than generally thought, and identifies the misperceptions and the opportunities for Europe and its Muslim communities to normalise their relationship.
Ahmed brings to his work the intellectual rigour of an academic, the insightful understanding of international relations expected of an accomplished diplomat and expert knowledge of modern media. His analysis is thus done from a wide range of perspectives and disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, political science and history, and the art of communications. That makes him exceptionally qualified to delve into contemporary Muslim societies and discover the underlying causes of tensions that threaten their own stability as well as of their relations with the West.
Much of Europe, according to the book, can be understood through the lens of tribal identity on the basis of blood, lineage and territory that strongly impacts how Europeans view relations with one another and with outside communities. Ahmed terms this as a primordial identity. But there is a pluralistic core of Convivencia (coexistence among different faiths) embodied by the Golden Age of Andalusia, that also lies at the heart of Europe.
In contemporary Europe, primordial identity prevails as there is the refugee crisis, incessant acts of terrorism and cultural clash with Muslim communities. Europe has responded through the rise of right-wing, nationalist political parties. This has widened the rift between the majority population and Muslim communities, enlarging the debate where many Europeans have come to see Islam as a threat to their civilisation.
As the West looks upon Islam as a problem, many Muslims are retaliating by looking at it as a solution. While Muslims struggle to find a place in Europe in the face of increasing intolerance, hate and discrimination, marginalised youth have turned to terrorism. Neither the state nor the communities or religious leaders are taking responsibility to address the root causes of what has happened.
Along with an analysis of what has gone wrong and why, the study features recommendations for promoting integration. Ahmed argues that Islamic communities in Europe need to turn away from primordial identities and instead seek mutual flourishing through a “pluralist identity.”
As for the Europeans, he recommends that to move forward, they must acknowledge the central role Muslims played in shaping European civilisation in many areas such as art, science, architecture, music, food, philosophy and scholarship, and apply to present-day Europe the lessons of Convivencia.
Unprecedented in scope and breadth of enquiry and meticulously detailed, this exploration of Islam in Europe, and the place of Islam in European history and civilisation, is a major contribution to existing scholarship on the subject. Commenting on the book, Noam Chomsky says that in studying the West, Ahmed has reversed the familiar paradigm of the West studying Islam.
The only point of disagreement I have is regarding the recommendation that the Europeans adopt Convivencia. I find it too utopian. It will not work in this media-driven world and era of mass politics where opinion moves faster than knowledge through social media and the internet, and governments have come to live at the level of public opinion. Modern democracy is holding leaderships hostage to electoral politics.
In order to come to power, politicians are marketing issues aggressively with the help of partisan media and special interests. Serious discussion of serious issues has suffered on the one hand because of the distortion, polarisation and politicisation of issues, and on the other by their trivialisation by the entertainment industry that dominates the news channels. In this environment, when truth is hard to find, how can you make an informed choice?
Democracy may have to reinvent itself to produce strong leaderships that can take hard decisions in the larger interest of the society. Only such leaderships may be in a position to adopt Ahmed’s recommendations about coexistence, but we are a long way off from that point in history.
The reviewer is a former ambassador and adjunct faculty at Georgetown University and Maxwell School of Syracuse University
Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity By By Akbar Ahmed, Brookings Institution, Press, US
ISBN: 978-0815727583 , 592pp. Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018