Is­lam and Europe

Ak­bar Ahmed’s book looks at the chal­lenges fac­ing the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in mod­ern-day Europe while em­pha­sis­ing that im­mi­grants are a re­al­ity that will not go away.

FrontLine - - BOOKS IN REVIEW - BY PAWAN BALI

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KBAR Ahmed’s jour­ney to ex­plore Is­lam across Europe be­gan in a crowded park­ing garage in Athens in 2013 that was serv­ing as a makeshift mosque 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 him­self.

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 re­la­tion­ship of Is­lam and the West. Over the next five years, he and his team would dive deep into his­tory, com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture and con­tem­po­rary in­ter­views and travel across 50 cities to present a fine-grained anal­y­sis of the con­flict be­tween and co­ex­is­tence of Is­lam and Europe.

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

Con­tin­u­ing the schol­ar­ship, the book un­der re­view ex­plores a range of is­sues from pri­mor­dial iden­ti­ties to plu­ral­ist ones, the lega­cies of colo­nial­ism to the chal­lenges of im­mi­gra­tion, and the strengths of as­sim­i­la­tion of com­mu­ni­ties to the dark cor­ners of iso­la­tion.

One of the in­ter­vie­wees in the book, a Scot­tish min­is­ter in Ed­in­burgh, com­pares the study to a “tar­tan cloth”, which weaves dif- fer­ent threads into a pat­tern. The book is a tar­tan pro­ject that weaves dif­fer­ent strands of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Is­lam and Europe into an aca­demic and so­ciopo­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion.

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

Ahmed ar­gues that this pri­mor­dial iden­tity ex­tends its in­flu­ence to the Aus­tri­ans, the Scan­di­na­vians, the Dutch and across Europe. It is de­fined by sev­eral codes such as Volk, Heimat, Aryan or Jan­telo­van in Den­mark—all con­cepts hinged on the idea of blood, land and be­long­ing to the soil. In 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 iden­ti­fied with a “vi­o­lent re­li­gion that once dom­i­nated parts of Europe”.

As grim a sce­nario it may seem at present, the story of Europe and Is­lam has not al­ways been one of chal­lenges. Ahmed finds ex­am­ples of plu­ral­ism in the past. He out­lines the glory of the An­dalu­sian pe­riod, from 711 to 1492, when Mus­lims ruled the Ibe­rian Penin­sula and em­pha­sised ar­chi­tec­tural gran­deur, the ethos of Ilm and the co­ex­is­tence of re­li­gions—a pe­riod also re­ferred to as “La Con­viven­cia”.

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 Tariq Ali to the sec­u­lar hu­man­ist writer Sal­man Rushdie to is

Jour­ney into EuropeIs­lam, Im­mi­gra­tion, and Iden­tityBy Ak­bar Ahmed Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion Press, 2018Pages: 592Price: $34.99

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