THE BLOG
01/08/2015 06:24 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Why Right Now Is a Crucial Time for Islam in Europe

REMY GABALDA via Getty Images

The sense of absolute horror at the terrible tragedy that took place in Paris has not yet abated. The enormity of what happened -- an attack on the foundations of the idea and practice of a free press -- is unprecedented. France grieves and so should all right-thinking people who value democracy and human rights. We commiserate with the families who have suffered such tragic loss.

The president of France, Francois Hollande and his political rival and former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared together in a show of unity to condemn what had happened in the strongest words. They faithfully reflected the defiance, anger and shock that the nation felt. World leaders from President Obama to the prime minister of the U.K. rallied around in a show of solidarity with France, vowing to stand by it.

Both Hollande and Sarkozy cast the attacks in Paris in terms of the Huntingtonian thesis of the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. Hollande condemned the "exceptional barbarism" and Sarkozy declared this to be a "barbaric" attack on civilization itself. It was "a war on civilization," said Sarkozy. Implicit in such statements was Huntington's idea of the clash.

"It was now a matter of life and death to understand the European Muslims. . . the question on people's minds was how to convert Jihadi John to Malleable Mustafa and Jihad Jane to Loyal Leila."

It was precisely to look at what is happening in Europe in the context of Islam that I, along with my research team, conducted fieldwork across Europe, which concluded this week. We were in France a fortnight ago.

During fieldwork for the research project called "Journey into Europe," we visited about 50 towns and cities and 50 mosques, interviewed over 30 imams, across the length and breadth of Europe. We talked to students and professors, taxi drivers and shopkeepers, presidents and prime ministers, archbishops and chief rabbis.

The relevance -- indeed urgency -- of our project to study the Muslims of Europe was underlined as we traveled last summer. Geopolitical developments in the Middle East -- and elsewhere -- were linking European Muslims directly to world events. The media were reporting that several thousand European Muslims were involved with the battles raging in Syria and Iraq. Of these, the British government claimed some 400 were from Britain.

In mid-August, when James Foley, the American journalist, was brutally beheaded by a man who spoke with a British accent and wore a mask, the media frenzy to uncover his identity was the focus of the news. American air strikes began and there was talk of greater military involvement in the Middle East. In some senses, it appeared that it was déjà vu. But this was a substantially changed situation with new players. The theater of conflict was no longer Afghanistan, and the Taliban were no longer the protagonists. The media were now talking of European Muslims being the threat, a Trojan horse. The media discussed "Jihadi John" as they had earlier talked of "Jihad Jane."

It was now a matter of life and death to understand the European Muslims. From the prime minister of Britain down to ordinary journalists, the question on people's minds was how to convert Jihadi John to Malleable Mustafa and Jihad Jane to Loyal Leila.

The problem was that this question could not be answered without some knowledge of the Muslim community -- its definition of its own identity, its leadership patterns, its religious and political players, the role of the imams, the position of mothers and women in the family in influencing the young men, and relations with government and the broader public. While few people had the answers, these were precisely the questions which needed to be addressed.

That is why our study assumed a greater topicality than had been intended when it was designed. It is an up-to-date study of the Muslim community in Europe in the context of its impact on the world. Because the study is based on fieldwork conducted in the community, it is as authentic as possible, and because it aims to present a holistic picture of the Muslim community throughout the continent, it is able to juxtapose the whole range and diversity of Muslims, from Edinburgh in the north of Great Britain down south to Melilla, a Spanish possession in North Africa, from Cordoba in the west to Xanthi in the east in Greece near the border with Turkey.

Muslims fall into three broad categories in the context of Europe today: they are indigenous or native (like the majority of Bosnians); immigrants (many of them come to the country that colonized their land so feel they have a right to be there as a fact of historical reciprocity -- North Africans, especially Algerians, to France, South Asians to Britain; although exceptions include Germany as it invited "guest workers" mainly from Turkey a country that it did not colonize); and converts (especially the young seeking answers to their spiritual problems).

I suggest we examine these different categories of Muslims in Europe in three distinct phases of its history: Muslims have been in Europe since 711, which can be taken as the start of the first phase of the Muslim presence in Europe. It was a time in certain places and for certain periods of what the Spanish call La Convivencia -- The Co-Existence . This phase ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the last independent Muslim kingdom, and the eventual expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from the Iberian Peninsula.

The second phase of Muslims in Europe starts around the 15th century and lasts until the 20th century and is formed by the clashes between European Christian forces and Ottoman armies. Ideas of Islam as alien and predatory are settled in European minds as a result of this phase.

The third phase starts when European countries colonize Muslim lands in the 19th and 20th centuries and immigrants arrive in Europe to work and find better lives from the second half of the 20th century onwards. A second and third generation of Muslims is now coming of age in Europe. There are many issues around these generations that create debate, controversy, anger and even hatred in the majority population. Issues of "terror"(such as the attacks in Paris), Sharia and the hijab are broadly associated with Islam in the popular imagination.

Here are some preliminary conclusions:

  1. What happened in France was shocking and tragic, but not entirely surprising. While we were in the country there were at least three incidents of Muslims committing acts of violence. Most Muslims live in ghetto-like and impoverished "rough" areas. There were entire areas in Marseille, a city in which about 30 percent of the population is Muslim, which seemed to be "no-go" areas. Gangs involving Muslims sold drugs freely. Violence therefore emanating from communities like this is not surprising.
  2. The relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims across Europe also feeds into the sense of Muslims feeling under siege today. Over 17,000 Germans marched in Dresden against Islam and three mosques were attacked in rapid succession in Sweden. Muslims were being depicted as "non-Europeans" and "barbarians" who had no place in a "civilized" Europe.
  3. Muslims throughout the continent were touched by a sense of uncertainty. While there was a significant counter push -- for example, the historic Cologne Cathedral darkened its lights against the protests in Dresden -- it did little to calm the sense of anxiety.
  4. We noted a clear-cut double failure: Muslim leadership and organizations have dramatically failed because murderers such as those in Paris are coming out of the Muslim community. Without strengthening the Muslim leadership and community, these tragic incidents will continue. For example, there is no central mosque in Marseille. There is thus no focal point for social organization and action. Muslim leaders should be underlining the fact that the community lives in a different social and cultural context from the ones that they originally inhabited in Algeria or Pakistan; that Muslims everywhere would be unhappy with perceived insults to their faith and their prophet but that the way to protest is not through violence.
  5. Local European administrations have also failed. Otherwise, such attacks would not be happening with such frequency. Effective strategies need to be worked out in close coordination with the Muslim community in order to check violence in the future. Violence will not be controlled unless both Muslim and non-Muslim leaders work together. The sense we had was of haphazard initiatives in one place and the excessive use of force in another.
  6. We often forget in the United States how close Europe is to Africa and Asia. The continents actually meet; both in the west, with Spain and Morocco, and in the east with Turkey and Greece. This means that borders are "porous." Some 150,000 immigrants landed in Italy in 2014. Some 1,300 were rescued from the sea while we were on the island. As long as there is political chaos in North and Central Africa and the Middle East, people will flee their homes to find shelter abroad and Europe will remain a destination. A long-term policy to deal with refugees needs to be worked out as soon as possible or local resources will be overwhelmed very soon.
  7. Considering the various incidents happening at the same time across Europe, it is not difficult to conclude that the issue of Muslims in Europe will pose a huge challenge to society, including the question of law and order, in the coming time. Dealing with it is a matter of top priority.
  8. The president of France and the imam of the main mosque in Paris both rightly condemned the murderers, saying they would go to hell, etc. The problem is the assumption that these actions are religiously motivated. Muslims may have been using religious rhetoric, but these attacks are a consequence of the sociological environment of their lives in Europe today. Therefore, the response needs to be to prevent effectively such incidents in the future rather than getting involved in futile theological discussions. Besides, the strategy and policy to deal with the minority community needs to be set in an all European context.
  9. It is a troubled time in Europe, and it will require wisdom, courage and compassion in both Muslim and non-Muslim leaders. Fortunately, there are men and women of extraordinary vision who we were privileged to meet -- from Bent Melchior, the former chief rabbi of Denmark, to Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, to Mustafa Ceric, the former grand mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their messages of interfaith and intercultural cooperation, dialogue, and understanding, they reflected the Jewish notion of tikkun ulam -- to heal a fractured world. We should heed them.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington D.C., and was the former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the U.K. and Ireland. His latest book and film project is Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Empire.

Watch the video below for more on his research in Marseille.