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.
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