Saturday, 4 June 2016

Talk : Muslims in Europe – Opportunities and Challenges

Prof Akbar Ahmed (Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland) recently gave a talk at the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with Karimia Institute, entitled "Muslims in Europe – Opportunities and Challenges". In this talk, Prof Ahmed described the “quartet” of research projects he and his team had undertaken after 9/11 to examine the relationship between Islam and the West and offered some messages for minority and majority communities in the UK.

Project 1 : Asia
The first project visited Asia and found that the what disturbed Muslims most about the West was not its foreign policies but instead the way “the west humiliates Islam and distorts Islam”. They also found that people largely quoted Muhammed (PBUH) as their role model.

Prof Ahmed brought this information back to the US and told government that if it wanted to win hearts and minds these were some pointers on how to act.

Himalayas from Bangladesh

Project 2 : America
This project was undertaken some two years later and visited around US 75 cities and 100 mosques. Prof Ahmed pointed out that the US Muslim community was much less monolithic than that in the UK, and had a large proportion of African-American Muslims who were proud Muslims as well as being proud Americans.

A constant comment from the non-Muslims in the US was say that they did not really know who Muslims were, or much about them. They asked why Muslims preferred violence and would often ask Prof Ahmed “You are the first Muslim we have seen are they all like you? You seem very reasonable”

Wheat harvest in Idaho

Project 3 : Tribal Communities
Third study looked at 40 tribal communities from Morocco to the Balkans and beyond. Noting that there was very often a great deal of tension between the centre of the country and the tribal communities on its periphery. Prof Ahmed took the example of Waziristan, where the vast majority of drone strikes had taken place, and pointed out that central government as well as the west had been “hammering” these communities for a long time, with the result that young men there had seen nothing but war their whole lives. Whereas what was really needed was the investment in schools and water projects to bring these areas up to the same standards of infrastructure as the rest of the country.

Farmland in Morocco

Project 4 : Europe
Some 40 cities were visited in this study, from Edinburgh, to Medilla (the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast) to Xanthi, on the Greek-Turkish border. Prof Ahmed described how there had been three distinct phases of European interaction with Islam.

Wheat field near Essex

Europe Phase 1 : The Andalusian phase
Prof Ahmed described how the 8th century was a period in the “Golden Age” of Islam, where the library at Cordoba was the largest in Europe, with 600,000 books and when Muslim society held great regard for “ilm” (knowledge). This was also the time of scholars such as Averroes, who Thomas Aquinas and others simply called “The Commentator”.

Averroes, leaning on a laptop

Later, in Sicily, buildings such as the Palentine Chapel were built using a combination of Byzantine and Arab styles, with copious Arabic calligraphy [see this analysis by Prof Jeremy Johns]. Rulers such as Roger II of Sicily had Muslim bodyguards [and hired many Muslims and Greeks skilled in administration]. This era came to an end in 1492, with the reconquering of Spain by Christian forces which was followed by a period where the Church tried to create a more monolithic society (inquisition etc).

Palentine Chapel, Sicily

Europe Phase 2 – The Ottoman Empire.
Prof Ahmed stated that the Ottomans, blocked in the east by the Safavid [Persian] empire, began expanding westwards in to Eastern Europe and that this was often a cruel relationship and is what is in the minds of many eastern Europeans. Europe begins to look at Ottomans and says this is Islam – predatory, violent, coming here and as a conquering power.

The Prof then mentioned how the situation was more complex than this, with Polish Muslim Tartars being part of the Polish cavalry that arrived to protect Vienna in 1683.

Ottoman army outside Vienna

Europe Phase 3 : Colonisation and Immigration
Prof Ahmed suggested that there was a direct link from colonisation to immigration. Taking the examples of Britain in India and France in Algeria, Prof Ahmed suggested that the UK intended to mould Indian society whereas the French were focussed purely on suppression.

As evidence for this, the Prof mentioned the Macaulay Minute on Education in India which advocated funding a very western education system for the elites in India, with the long term goal of transforming the culture and worldview of the country.

In 1857 there was a violent Rebellion in India, which was put down equally harshly by the British. Prof Ahmed describes how the Muslim communities in India were asking themselves questions about their place in the sub-continent, especially as their Moghul empire was gone, their Emperor was in prison in Rangoon and their elites were no longer elite. Two main reactions emerged:

One was the emergence of the Deobandi movement, who felt that Islam was under threat and joined the mutineers.

The other was a movement by people like Syed Ahmed Khan who believed that Muslim society would not progress without the acquisition of western education and science and who sided with the British [although Khan also wrote a pamphlet blaming the British for causing the violence]. This movement resulted in colleges such as the Aligarh Muslim University, which aimed to provide students with a western technical education, combining faith with the ability to live in a pluralistic society.

Part of Aligarh University

Prof Ahmed’s message to the Muslim community in the UK was to consider the reality of living as Muslim Europeans – that they need to be much louder and clearer in rejecting any form of violence, with no “buts”. And this has to be done by the leaders, because the majority population is not convinced that Muslims are condemning violence enough.

The Prof added that Muslims need to stop living in cocoons; they need to bring something to the table; to learn about local cultures; to build on links of Muslim historical figures.

And Muslims needed to understand that the majority population have rights too, because of their history in the land.

Prof Ahmed’s message to the host community was that Europe needs to challenge, unequivocally, acts of racism. The continent does not have to look far back to see the warnings of what happens when racism is allowed unchecked. Furthermore, Prof Ahmed can see in his own country of Pakistan how the targeting of one minority can grow if not challenged into the targeting of another minority , then another.

Prof Ahmed added that the problem of the hostile media was something that needed to be resolved by the majority community, suggesting that constantly projecting a minority community in a negative light encourages violence and prejudice.

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Positive Muslim Stories
Some ideas for finding common ground with wider society

Image sources
Bangladesh, Idaho, Morocco, Essex, Averroes, Palatine, Vienna, Alagarh

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