Finding balance between Islam and the West

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“The current dynamic agitating Europe is Islam,” argues Ambassador Akbar Ahmed in his much-awaited new book, Journey Into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity.

“The long-drawn-out wars between Catholics and Protestants, the struggle against the Ottomans, the large-scale migrations to America, the world wars, and the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union are no longer center-stage. On philosophic, political, and cultural levels, Islam is central to the discussion about Europe,” notes Ahmed in the opening pages of perhaps the most important book of his illustrious career, dedicated to studying Islam and its engagement with the modern world.

“Islam affects a wide range of people, from young Muslims unsure of what to make of their faith and its place in Europe to the leaders of the Far Right who project their political philosophy and strategy as a war against it.”

A former civil servant who served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the UK and Ireland, Ahmed is perhaps the most influential living authority on contemporary Muslim societies. Especially when it comes to making sense of their complex encounters with the powerful Western civilization.

For nearly three decades, Ahmed has spoken about Islam to the world with authority and in a language and idiom that it understands.

As the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, and as a public intellectual and author of a dozen award-winning books, he has forever negotiated the competing worldviews of Islam and the West, trying to find a balance and common ground.

Throughout the defining decades that saw the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the 2003 Iraq invasion and a new era of strife and tensions, Ahmed has consistently advocated dialogue and peaceful co-existence between the two great civilizations.

His books such as Living Islam: From Samarkand to Stornoway (1993); Islam, Globalization and Postmodernity (1994); Islam Under Siege (2003) and the recent one, The Thistle and the Drone (2013) are easily among the most referenced ones on the subject, inspiring a whole new genre of books.

I got initiated into Ahmed’s fascinating world thanks to Living Islam, which was based on a popular BBC television series that he presented. He has been coming up with a new book on the subject almost every other year, faster than you could read them. None of them has been more important and timely than Journey Into Europe of course.

It’s the labor of love of an extraordinary project, which began at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. It took the author and team of researchers on an unusual journey across the length and breadth of Europe.

Coming at a time when Europe has been flooded by millions of refugees from across the Middle East, it not just attempts to understand the West’s fears of a third “Islamic invasion,” it suggests a way out and the path to a shared future.

By engaging the continent’s leaders, scholars and intellectuals as well as Muslim communities, it builds the case that Islam has been an integral part of Europe for nearly 14 centuries and has contributed to its progress in more ways than one can fathom.

That Islam and the West can and must co-exist in peace and work together to create a better world. After all, the followers of the two Abrahamic faiths constitute nearly half of the global population.

This is not plain idealism. Ahmed dips into his profound knowledge of history to cite the shining example of Muslim (Moorish) Spain and the golden age of great Andalusian civilization when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and thrived together.

“The Spanish had a phrase for that period of history — La Convivencia, or peaceful co-existence. At its height, Andalusia produced a magnificent Muslim civilization — religious tolerance, poetry, music, learned scientists and scholars like Averroës, great libraries (the Cordoba library alone had 400,000 books), public baths, and splendid architecture (like the Alhambra and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba). These great achievements were the result of collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews. It was a time when a Muslim ruler had a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic archbishop as his foreign minister.

“The civilization of Muslim Spain was the embodiment of the Islamic compulsion to seek ilm, or knowledge. Andalusia produced many firsts. Through Spain, Europe received models for universities (Oxford and Cambridge are examples), philosophy and literature, and the study of medicine originating from the work of Avicenna and Abulcasis.”

Andalusia was the exact opposite of Europe at that time — a dark, savage land of bigotry and hatred, as Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal put it.

The story of European encounter with Islam does not begin and end in Spain though. It has continued in other ways, with the Muslim conquest of Constantinople or Istanbul, the seat of the Byzantine-Roman empires and Christianity until the 15th century and through the Ottoman rule over much of eastern Europe, including over Greece, the cradle of Western civilization.

The third wave of Muslim arrivals in Europe is of course of more recent origin. The 20th century saw the arrival of millions of immigrants from West and South Asia as cheap labor for the post war Europe.

The past few years have of course seen a new kind of unwanted guests pour into Europe from across the region das political and economic refugees. Many of them happen to be the direct or indirect victims of Western wars or exploitative policies in the countries still reeling from long decades of colonialism.

Most of them have been forced out of their homes and countries because of conflicts and poverty inflicted on them. They risked their lives to reach the safety and security of the West and lost many of their loved ones along the way. Remember Aylan Kurdi?

Given a choice, none of them would leave their homes and lands of their ancestors. Yet these desperate men, women and children are seen as a “clear and present danger” to Western societies. False flags are raised over terrorism and cultural invasion amid the talk of “clash of civilizations,” prophesied by the likes of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

There must be another way — La Convivencia way, the way of ‘peaceful coexistence’ as they discovered in Spain. This is the only way to avoid a needless conflict. This is the only way forward — and not just for Europe.

As our world contracts and borders become irrelevant, the movement of people in search of a better life and opportunities is but natural. Instead of fighting this natural progression, the West and Muslim societies should come to terms with it and find a way forward.

Besides, if these ‘unwanted ones’ crave the stability and security of the West, the aging continent needs the new blood and energy of young migrants

This is a must-read book and not just for those interested in Islam-West relations. Published by Brookings Institution Press, Journey Into Europe is available on Amazon.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award-winning journalist and former newspaper editor. Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com


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