Being Muslim in Europe: The specters of immigration, identity and Islam



By Amina Yaqin

In a European climate of growing Islamophobia, provocations by politicians such as the Dutch Geert Wilders seeking to reignite the cartoon controversy and Boris Johnson’s incendiary comments describing Muslim women as letterboxes and bank robbers reflect a popular appeal to right wing extremism.

In Britain, the Labour party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn can’t shake off the specter of a troubled history with anti-semitism and its associations with the hard left. In this charged atmosphere, Professor Akbar Ahmed’s new book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire is a timely intervention. With original ethnographies traversing Europe from Germany to Serbia, Professor Ahmed analyses the rise of the Far Right in Europe and the clash of civilizations debate juxtaposing the rise of a predator identity alongside a pluralist identity of interfaith relations and the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus. He underlines the need for cultural dialogue from the banlieus of France to the Palatine chapel in Sicily. A strong believer in the power of bridge building Professor Ahmed’s study builds on his commanding body of work on Islam including scholarly books and the high-profile television series Living Islam on the BBC. Journey into Europe is part of a trilogy that began with Journey into America and The Thistle and the Drone and is accompanied by two major documentary films.

Professor Ahmed weaves a skillful and readable narrative that is informed by anthropological research, his own experience as a diplomat, and his love of reading across disciplines. Before analyzing Muslim selves, he first presents us with a complex picture of European identifications ranging from primordial, tribal and pluralist identities that have historically shaped the continent. His methodology is largely reliant on participant interviews, ethnographies and his expertise as a scholar of Islam. The power of his narrative lies in the narration of interactions with other faiths and Muslim identifications that range from the convert, the refugee, and the migrant. He boldly asks some of the most pressing questions of terrorism, radicalization and intolerance in Europe today.

It is telling that the first country that Professor Ahmed draws on to make his case for tribal identities in Europe is Germany. Using the spectacle of sport and the football World Cup, he examines why the Turkish-German players don’t feel at home with the German national anthem. From Germany to East Europe he traces the hostility toward Turkish guest workers, Muslim refugees and migrants, mapping territorial links and historic shifts in attitudes toward the Ottoman empire and its tribal attachments as a problem. Contrasting the theories of Max Weber and Ibn Khaldun, who are centuries apart, he locates the asabiyyah ‘social cohesion’ model that is rooted in shared blood. He sees the clash of tribal identities as one of the reasons that keeps tribal groups apart rather than religion. Interrogating tribal identity in Europe, Professor Ahmed argues that the Europeans they met who were ‘sure and smug about the centrality of their primordial tribal identity’ are in direct conflict with immigrants. For him the solution to this crisis lies in cultural dialogue and conversation with a renewed emphasis on state multiculturalism that looks closely at the assimilationist and integrationist models and the emergence of the Far Right. He refers to the complexity of a German identification that ranges from the liberal Goethe, Herder and Nietzsche to the extremity of Hitler’s concentration camps to a universalist identity emphasizing the presence of a primordial tribal identity that prevails.

Having set up the European dialectic of identities in the first part of the book, Professor Ahmed gives center stage to the story of Islam in Europe in the second part. These are the compelling narratives of immigrants, indigenous Europeans and Muslim converts who are on the margins of European society. In the third and final part of the book, he turns to the heart of Europe’s suspicion and mistrust of Muslims beginning with a discussion of Judaism, the holocaust and the up and down relationship between Muslims and Jews. He argues that two perspectives prevail, the liberal Sephardim and the conservative Ashkenazi. The latter has dominated perceptions and ‘the older history of cooperation and coexistence has gotten short shrift’. His observation that [i]n Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and Islamophobia grows unchecked’ is chilling. Professor Ahmed argues that to challenge this hatred it is necessary to have ‘frequent and public dialogue’ as well as ‘reading and learning about each other’ to develop empathy. The chapter that particularly caught my eye and that comes after the Jewish Muslim question is on ‘Terrorism, Immigrants, ISIS and Islamophobia: a perfect storm’. Charting three case studies from Bradford England, Mellila, Spain and Brussels in Belgium, the story of the Far Right is brought full circle here as Professor Ahmed interrogates their exploitation of two ‘interconnected issues, Islam and refugees’ as a threat to the purity of Europe. Representing the voices of Jim Dowson, the founder of Britain First, Soren Esperson, the deputy chairman of the Dansk Folkeparti, Michael Sturzenberger, ‘the face of the Munich branch of Pegida’, he gives us a close-up of what he calls predator identities contrasting them with the heart wrenching story of the African asylum seeker Ahmedu Jalo in Sicily. He doesn’t spare the Muslims who support terrorism either. Amongst these he identifies the Rif Berbers as tribalists and the Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood as a modernist who left Britain to join ISIS in Syria. For me, this is the core of the book that examines the breakdown of trust between young Muslim groups in Europe and puts it alongside the rise of the Far Right. Professor Ahmed puts forward the solution to this crisis as one that can be met through integration and the normalization of Muslims into European society through interfaith initiatives. Here there is also the potential to include considerations of shifting multiculturalism, citizenship and minority identity narratives in Europe that can add further impact to the message of the book as it reaches its crescendo.

The book is a satisfying read, it is a labor of love and a collaborative effort with a team of researchers, each of whom, brings a unique perspective to the story, be it through gender, race or class analyses. Professor Ahmed offers wise counsel to those in positions of power and policy making. Most importantly, the book identifies two problems that confront community cohesion in European societies, Muslim radicalization and the Far Right. In his analysis and findings, he disentangles the complexities of faith, culture and nationalism unpicking popular stereotyping of the Muslim other. As I read the last lines of the book, I was struck by the sincerity of an interfaith leader who is committed to the plight of refugees and Muslim integration in Europe. His philosophic attachment to Al-Andalus and the la convivencia model is reminiscent of another Muslim thinker and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal who immortalized the mosque of Cordoba and its ethos for Urdu readers through his poem ‘Masjid-e Qurtaba’. Professor Ahmed has long been an admirer of Iqbal’s work and Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s secular thinking. The book builds on those earlier connections and the lines from Iqbal’s poem resonate its peace building message, ‘Oh Mosque of Cordoba, your existence is from love – love completely unending in which there is no past’.


Amina Yaqin is co-author of Framing Muslims: stereotyping and representation after 9/11. She is Senior lecturer at SOAS, University of London

Courtesy: Pakistan Links