Akbar 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 Europe-Islam, 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 different 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 is 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 even Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki.
While he also refers to critical assessments and arguments that Andalusia was more of a myth, Ahmed remains convinced that a return to the ideals of Convivencia would turn the arc of history towards peace and justice.
To explore the present challenges of Muslims in Europe, Ahmed classifies them into three categories—immigrants, converts and indigenous Muslims. Peppered with personal stories, the book offers the flavours of their successes and struggles. Like the story of a Pakistani immigrant who came to England in 1952 with just 10 pounds and now owns over 2,500 acres of land; a Sufi imam in Dublin who recites Rumi and sings praises of “Sheikh Patrick”; or of a theatre producer and stage director in Denmark who fought to become the first person with a Middle Eastern (West Asian) background to be admitted to the elitist National Theatre School.
In another remarkable story of immigrants which shows that Europe’s heart is in the right place, a Pakistani journalist recounts that in the 1970s he had moved to Denmark, away from his family back in Pakistan. Unable to establish contact with him for years, his mother wrote a letter to the Queen of Denmark, requesting her to find her estranged son. The Queen personally intervened and sent a note to the local police to find him, with instructions for him to get in touch with his mother.
Among the immigrants from colonial countries, Ahmed places the subjects of British imperialism as being a in far better position, politically and socially, than those of French colonies, given that both nations had different approaches to colonisation.
In countries such as Germany, Denmark and Belgium, Muslim immigrants came as guest workers, with “preference for brawn over brains”. They came from countries that had little or no association with the hosts, resulting in their isolation.
In the category of indigenous Muslims in Europe, Ahmed explains the Bosnians, the Turks of Greece and Bulgaria and lesser known and “desperate Muslim communities” such as the Tartars, Roma and the Cham, who he describes as “the dark abysm of Europe”. The converts, who take great pride in national identity as well as their religious one, are aptly described as “the living bridge between Islam and Europe”.
From being stereotyped as radicals and terrorists to being invisible, the Muslims in Europe have been in the thick of rising Islamaphobia and far-right politics. The community, however, also faces challenges within. From his interviews with imams and scholars, Ahmed filters a few challenges for the community: these include “lack of direction”, an increasing number of “Google imams”, and factionalism, all of which together have failed to set a path for the young. He views the tribal identities of the Muslim immigrants as the key driver towards terrorism, where their code of honour and revenge fester resentment against the West. His argument on tribal identities contributing to extremism and violent reactions is in continuation of the earlier thesis of The Thistle and The Drone, where he argues that the root cause of terrorism is the breakdown of tribal structures and a feeling of revenge when “honor is threatened”.
A popular Polish magazine called wSiect featured a naked white woman draped in the European Union flag, around which were three dark arms trying to rip apart the flag.
The image, with the headline “Islamic Rape of Europe”, accompanied a cover article on the clash of two civilisations. Ahmed says there is a “cosmic depression” that Muslims in Europe find themselves in, and it is evident in the dehumanisation of refugees, the rise of far-right groups such as the Islamophobic Pegida and Alternative for Germany, and declarations like that of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in March 2016, who said “Islam has no place in Slovakia”.
The fact that Islam’s extensive contributions to European civilisation have been omitted from history, museums and even the media, and that Moors and Turks are portrayed as “barbarians”, has made matters worse.
Ahmed’s journey reflects the grim realities in modern-day Europe. It looks into the challenges to understand what is adding to the friction, deepening divides and feeding into the distrust between Muslims and the West.
The book does not sound euphoric about the present-day coexistence and faults the popular European narrative of “submission or resistance”. It does, however, offer hope from the past in the idea of “La Convivencia”, which could pave the way for the future.
Ahmed emphasises consistent conscious efforts to bridge the divide rather than just singular acts of European humanism and the need to admit that immigrants are a reality that will not go away.
For the Muslim community, he suggests a look within, acceptance of constructive criticism and the need to shun indifference to the larger local culture.
Journey into Europe ends its journey at the crossroads of Europe, where one path leads to unbridled European predator identity and the other towards engagement and fulfillment of the values of modern liberal democracy.
Pawan Bali is a journalist and conflict resolution professional based in Washington, D.C.