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European Muslims and the Quest for the Soul of Islam By: Mustafa Akyol
New Europe Review | Tuesday, November 16, 2004


There are about thirteen million Muslims living in Europe, nearly all of them law-abiding citizens. Since September 11, 2001, however, European Muslims have been seen as potential base for a radical, anti-Western ideology founded on a crude misinterpretation of Islam that has nothing to do with true Islamic faith and is rejected by the majority of Muslims worldwide. The contest between these two views of Islam may define the course of the 21st century.

Unlike Muslims in the United States, who belong largely to the middle class, most European Muslims are economically disadvantaged, poorly integrated and tend to cluster in closed communities. They are predominantly post-World War II immigrants, who arrived as manual workers. They migrated from poor countries and were among the poorest even in their native societies. Turkish workers in Germany, for example, came from the least-developed areas of Turkey and they experienced an enormous cultural shock when faced with a highly modernized, secular German society. (They would have experienced a similar shock had they migrated to Istanbul instead of Berlin, Cologne or Hamburg.) When I was in Germany several years ago, I was surprised to learn that some of the immigrants that came there during the late 50's or early 60' are still unable to speak German. This underscores their deep cultural isolation, which is even stronger among many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom, North Africans in France and Spain and Muslims from the Middle East throughout Europe. This cultural and linguistic isolation is further deepened by racial differences.

Many immigrants tend to accept this separation. Older people try to maintain their traditional lifestyles in a foreign land. Many of their children adopt Western ways but even they live with a peculiar sense of double alienation: neither the lands of their fathers nor the new countries of residence seem a true home to them. They are, as the French political scientist Oliver Roy says, "culturally uprooted".

Another reason of this homelessness is that these young European Muslims lack an interpretation of Islam that would be compatible with modern life. Many of them find a middle ground between Islamic traditions and Western lifestyles, but since those attempts do not have a doctrinal basis, they create a sense of guilt in people living in cultural crossroads. This guilt leads some of them to embrace the most radical interpretations — or rather misinterpretations of Islam paddled by itinerant imams from Saudi-funded madrassas. Most of the 9/11 conspirators in Europe were just such born-gain "neo-fundamentalists," to use the term introduced by Oliver Roy.

Roy emphasizes the difference between neo-fundamentalism and what is usually called "traditional" Islam. He points out that neo-fundamentalism (or Jihadism) is based on political slogans, not theological arguments, and defies many established Islamic laws. Traditional Islam, for example, is very outspoken on the need to assure the safety of non-combatants in warfare. Acts of terror against civilians are a clear violation of this principle. Bernard Lewis, one of the most prominent Western experts on Islam, says that the attacks of September 11 have "no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history."

Other scholars have also noted the discrepancy between Jihadism and traditional Islam. Daniel Pipes, one of the foremost experts on the issue, says: "Traditional Islam seeks to teach human beings how to live in accord with God's will; militant Islam aspires to create a new order."

Why the sudden appeal of Islamic neo-fundamentalism to some young Muslims? Three general answers are usually provided. The first one points to the widespread poverty and desolation of the Muslims living in Europe and the Islamic world in general. That claim, however, requires some explanation, because it has also been noted that most radicals and terrorists do not come from among the ignorant poor but from educated and prosperous classes. Daniel Pipes concludes, correctly, "poverty doesn't create terrorists." But he further notes that the plight of the Islamic masses is an important factor in the ideological make-up of militant Islamism. Just as leftist intellectuals, who often came from bourgeois families, fought capitalism in the name of "the proletariat," so well off and educated Islamist militants believe they sacrifice themselves for the sake of the impoverished, oppressed umma, the worldwide Muslim community.

It should be noted that the creators of modern Jihadism - people like Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati or Mawdudi — were very much influenced by Marxism-Leninism. Like the communists, who believe in a global conspiracy of capitalist imperialists aided by native compradors, Jihadists think that the Islamic world's poverty and weakness are the result of a great conspiracy of the West and their local agents. According to this line of thinking, to redeem the Islamic world one needs to strike at "the oppressors" rather than work to raise education levels, productivity or health standards in Muslim societies.

A second source for Islamic radicalism are old and recent political mistakes committed by the West. Bernard Lewis acknowledges that, "[t]here is some justice" to the charge that the United States and the West in general "apply different and lower standards" to Middle Easterners. The most obvious root causes of anti-Western feelings are the English and French colonial past and the American backing of Middle Eastern dictatorships during the Cold War. Perceived American support for the Israeli occupation is another major issue, which will not be resolved unless there is a workable two-state solution.

The third explanation of the origins of Islamic militancy has to do with the cultural gap between traditionalist Islam and the modern world. The pre-modern life style practiced by many Islamist traditionalists - and often seen by them as the essence of their faith - creates a perception of an inherent clash between Islam and modernity. The traditionalists themselves may be free of pro-terrorist sentiments, but Jihadists use this alleged incompatibility to fashion themselves as the vanguard in the Islamic struggle.

The above suggests three important tasks for Muslim leaders and intellectuals in the immediate future:

First, de-legitimize the political ideology of militant Islamism by exposing its departures from true teachings of Islam; refute its underlying conspiracy theories, its quasi-Marxist blueprint and its misuse of traditional Islamic sources.

Second, help the Western powers formulate better policies to overcome centuries of distrust and misunderstanding.

Third, construct a new interpretation of Islam that will help Muslims break free from medieval traditions and develop modern attitudes compatible with the Islamic faith and morality.

Luckily, there exist several Muslims voices trying to accomplish these tasks, especially the third and most important one. Since the 19th century enlightened Muslims have argued that a new reading of Islam is urgently needed. It was often noted, for example, that most tenets of traditionalist Islam do not have a Qur'anic basis. The Qur'an gives very few detailed rules and teaches mostly general ethical principles. The question how those principles should be applied in daily life was answered by Muslim jurists in the early centuries of Islam and their rulings were gradually transformed into unquestioned, sacrosanct laws.

The legal code known as the shariah is mostly the product of this process. A great deal of shariah laws — like killing of apostates, stoning of adulterers, seclusion of women, compulsory prayer, required dress code, punishments for drinking or even possessing alcohol — have simply no basis in the Qur'an. The shariah, according to Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born scholar at the University of Göttingen, is "a post-Qur'anic construction". As soon as we start questioning it, we will see that many requirements of traditionalist Islam that put Muslims in conflict with the modern world can simply be abandoned.

Take for example the much-disputed concept of the division of the world into the "House of Islam" and the "House of War". It was formulated by Muslim jurists in the early centuries of Islam. At that time the world was ruled by empires that imposed their own faith on all subjects. A Muslim could not safely practice and proselytise Islam in foreign lands. Thus, military conquest was seen as a pre-condition to "opening" a country, i.e. giving its inhabitants a chance to know Islam. After the "opening" there would be no forced conversions and non-Muslims would be allowed practice their faith, but the land would be made "safe" for Islam. Similarly, Ottomans justified their conquests on the principle of "ila-yi kelimetullah", spreading the word of God, though they allowed free practice of Christianity and Judaism in conquered territories.

But times have changed. Today we already live in an "open" world and Muslims are free to practice and proselytise their faith throughout the world — especially in Western liberal democracies. Because of that, Tariq Ramadan, one of the most prominent voices on behalf an Islamic reformation, argue that Europe is no longer the "House of War" but the "House of Witness" where Muslims have the duty to propagate their creed by their own good example - by living Islam in the modern world and in peace with other creeds.

Apart from the complex task of reforming our understanding of Islam, there are also other, more practical things that Muslims and Westerners can do together to prevent a "clash of civilizations."

First of all, we should destroy the myth of a monolithic "materialist West". The radical Islamist discourse tends to picture the whole Western civilization as a licentious, selfish, hedonistic world - a new Pompeii waiting to be buried under the ashes. This is a great distortion of the truth. Let us remember that the Judeo-Christian values of the Western civilization and the values of Islam share the same Abrahamic sources. Let us present to Muslim societies "the West of faith and morality," which they would find more appealing than the alleged "aggressive market materialism and intolerant secularism" of the "MacWorld" discussed by Benjamin Barber.

Further, we must help Muslim communities in Europe to better interact and integrate with the societies among which they live. Help them see Europe as a true house of liberty. The French decision to ban Muslim girls' headscarves in public schools certainly does not help. It forces the veiled ones back into their cultural ghetto and instills in them aversion towards the French system.

As Zaki Badawi, the dean of the Muslim College in London suggests, we also need to help moderate Muslim institutions educate moderate imams. Extremism, which is being imported to Europe from the Middle East, can only be defeated by a legitimate Islamic model of tolerance.

For such a tolerant view we need keep in mind the Turkish example. Turkey has an Islamic heritage free of anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism and quite favorable to open society. Said Nursi, probably the most influential 20th century Turkish Muslim thinker, is known for his appeals for an alliance between Islam and Christianity against communism. Nursi's most prominent follower, Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen, leads today a moderate Islamic movement known for its global advocacy of modern education and inter-faith dialogue.

The West should certainly support Turkey's entry into the European Union. This would blur the "civilizational" boundaries and create a model for other Muslim nations. Note that Turkey's efforts to join the EU - and to implement the required democratic reforms - are supported by most Islamic circles in the country and are being spearheaded by the ruling conservative Justice and evelopment Party, whose members are mostly devout Muslims. Help them succeed so that they could be positive example to other Muslim countries.

Let us support inter-faith dialogue that will help both Muslims and Westerners see their common qualities. Joint charity programs and religious studies can be organized. A British Anglican priest, Rev. Donald Reeves, is working to re-build the Bosnian mosque of Farhadija destroyed by Serbian militias in 1993. Symbolic gestures like that can be most effective as a refutation of the "Islam Vs. the West" scenario.

We need also to overcome Islamophobia in the West by explaining that the contemporary problems of the Islamic world stem not from the faith but from the social and historical conditions. Let us present the splendor of the medieval Islamic civilization, help moderate Muslim voices to reach the Western audiences and let them see Muslims other than those burning American flags after their Friday prayers. Most of these goals will require a great deal of effort, but we simply can't afford to fail.

Mustafa Akyol is a political scientist, journalist and a freelance writer living in Istanbul, Turkey. He is also director at the Intercultural Dialogue Platform, based in Istanbul.




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