By Aijaz Zaka Syed
February 9, 2018
“The current dynamic agitating Europe is Islam,” writes Akbar S Ahmed in his new book, ‘Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity’, of which he has kindly sent me an advance copy.
“The long-drawn-out wars between Catholics and Protestants, the struggle against the Ottomans, the steady and large-scale migrations to America, the world wars, and the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union are no longer centre stage. On philosophic, political, and cultural levels, Islam is central to the discussion about Europe,” notes Professor Ahmed in the opening chapter of perhaps the most important book of his illustrious career dedicated to studying Islam and its engagement with the modern world.
“Islam affects a wide range of people, from young Muslims unsure of what to make of their faith and its place in Europe to the leaders of the Far Right who project their political philosophy and strategy as a war against it.”
A former diplomat who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the UK and Ireland, Ahmed is perhaps the most influential living author and scholar of contemporary Muslim societies – especially when it comes to making sense of their complex encounters with the powerful Western civilisation.
For nearly three decades, Ahmed has spoken about Islam and Muslims to the West with authority and confidence and in a language and idiom that it readily understands.
As the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and as a public intellectual and author of nearly a dozen books on the subject, he has deftly negotiated the conflicting worldviews of Islam and the West, forever trying to find a balance and common ground.
Throughout the defining decades that saw the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the 2003 Iraq invasion and a whole new era of terror attacks and tensions between the two sides, Ahmed has consistently advocated dialogue and peaceful coexistence between the two great civilisations and Abrahamic faiths.
His groundbreaking books – such as ‘Living Islam: From Samarkand to Stornoway’ (1993); ‘Islam, Globalization and Post-modernity’ (1994); ‘Islam under Siege’ (2003); and the most recent one, ‘The Thistle and the Drone’ (2013) – are easily among the most referenced ones on the subject of Islam-West relations, inspiring a whole new genre of books.
I got initiated into Professor Ahmed’s fascinating world after reading his book ‘Living Islam’, which was based on a popular BBC series, a quarter century ago as a university student. He has been coming up with a new book on the subject almost every other year, faster than you can keep pace with them. But perhaps none of them as been more important and timely than ‘Journey Into Europe’.
It is the labour of love of an extraordinary four-year long research project, which began at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. It took the author and his dedicated team of students and researchers on an unusual journey across the length and breadth of Europe.
Coming at a time when Europe has been flooded by millions of refugees from across the Middle East and Africa, it not only attempts to understand the West’s fears of a third “Islamic invasion”, but also unravels and deconstructs the historical encounters between Islam and Europe and charts the path to a shared future.
By engaging the continent’s leaders, scholars, public intellectuals as well as scattered Muslim communities, it builds the case that Islam has been an integral part of Europe for nearly 14 centuries and has contributed to its progress in more ways than one can fathom. It suggests that Islam and West can and must coexist in peace and work together to create a better world. After all, the followers of the two Abrahamic faiths constitute nearly half of the global population.
This is not plain idealism and wishful thinking. Ahmed dips into the treasure of his profound knowledge of history to cite the shining example of Muslim (Moorish) Spain, the golden age of the great Andalusian civilisation when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and thrived together.
“The Spanish had a phrase for that period of history – La Convivencia, or peaceful co-existence. At its height, Andalusia produced a magnificent Muslim civilization – religious tolerance, poetry, music, learned scientists and scholars like Averroes, great libraries (the Cordoba library alone had 400,000 books), public baths, and splendid architecture (like the Alhambra and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba). These great achievements were the result of collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was a time when a Muslim ruler had a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic archbishop as his foreign minister.
“The civilization of Muslim Spain was the embodiment of the Islamic compulsion to seek Ilm, or knowledge. Andalusia produced many firsts. Through Spain, Europe received models for universities (Oxford and Cambridge are examples), philosophy and literature, and the study of medicine originating from the work of Avicenna and Abulcasis.”
In short, Andalusia was the exact opposite of Europe at that time – a dark, savage land of bigotry and hatred, as Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal put it.
However, the story of the European encounter with Islam does not begin and end in Spain. It has continued in other ways, with the Muslim conquest of Constantinople or Istanbul, the seat of the Byzantine and Roman empires and Christianity until the 15th century, and through the Ottoman rule over much of Eastern Europe – including Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation.
The third wave of Muslim arrivals in Europe is, of course, of more recent origin. The 20th century saw the arrival of millions of immigrants from North Africa, South Asia and Turkey as cheap labour for post-war Europe.
The past few years have, of course, seen a new wave of unwanted guests pouring into Europe from across the Middle East and Africa as political and economic refugees. Many of them happen to be the direct or indirect victims of Western wars or exploitative policies in the countries that are still reeling from the effects of long decades of colonialism.
Most of them have been forced out of their homes and countries because of conflicts and poverty inflicted on them. They risked their lives to reach the safety and security of the West and lost many of their loved ones along the way. Remember Aylan Kurdi?
Given a choice, none of them would leave their homes and the lands of their ancestors. Yet these desperate men, women and children are seen as a “clear and present danger” to Western societies amid the false flags over terrorism, cultural and religious invasion and the imminent “clash of civilisations”, prophesied by the likes of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.
There must be another way to approach this issue – the La Convivencia way through ‘peaceful coexistence’, as they discovered in Muslim Spain. This is the only way to avoid a needless conflict. This is the only way forward – and not just for Europe.
As our world becomes more and more interconnected and the forces of globalisation make borders irrelevant, the movement of people in search of a better life and opportunities is inevitable. Instead of fighting this natural change, the West and Muslim societies should come to terms with it and find a way forward.
Besides, if these ‘unwanted ones’ desperately crave the stability and economic security that the West represents, the aging continent also needs the new blood and energy of the predominantly young migrants and refugees who may happen to be Muslim.
This is a great, must-read book and is not just for those who are interested in understanding the relationship between Islam and the West. ‘Journey into Europe’ is published by Brookings Institution Press and is expected in stores and on Amazon by the end of February.