This already existing frame of reference can be identified as being rooted in the collective conscious and subconscious levels of European and Muslim identities. These identities have been formed out of a common history, where some dimensions have been remembered and cultivated in the long process of nation-building, and others have been forgotten or suppressed. This collective identity, with its various levels of consciousness, reacts – in all its national, regional and local variations – to a variety of factors.

          In this reflection I want to try, first, to present some of the most important of these factors; and to suggest why such superficially isolated factors have provoked such heated debate and fears.

          There are three factors specifically which seem to set the context, built up over the last decade, in which we are now acting. Within Western Europe, we have experienced increasingly vocal Muslim communities whose origins are to be found in the imperial and post-imperial eras. In the areas which were formerly under European direct or indirect rule, Islam has become a potent rallying point for autonomy. The collapse of Soviet power has opened wounds of religion and ethnicity in the east which had been suppressed for several generations.

          Firstly, the population of Muslim communities today accounts for up to ten million people in the western half of Europe. Statistics are notoriously unreliable, especially when dealing with religion, but one can recognize populations of a Muslim cultural background of four million in France, nearly two million in Germany and over one million in Britain, several hundred thousand in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain and from tens of thousands to one hundred thousand in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

          These communities were immigrants and have settled. A large proportion of the immigrant generation came from villages away from the large urban centres. This gave them a set of quite specific characteristics, in which Islam played a role – but often not the Islam of the urban-based literary tradition.

          In addition they bought with them the baggage of their particular regions, notably North Africa, Turkey and the northern Indo-Pak subcontinent. Their children, now leaving school, and entering the employment market in growing numbers, are in varying degrees departing from their parents’ culture and entering into the European.

          Some of them are successfully negotiating both together, rediscovering the essentials of Islam, shorn of the cultural accretions associated with the parental culture, and adapting European cultural expressions to match: they are forming variants of the European Islam of the future. Others are becoming marginalized from their parents’ way of life and are remaining marginal to their new social and economic environment, in extreme cases drifting into petty crime, drugs and cults.

          Secondly, the changes in Eastern Europe have exposed some of the fictions of European civilization. The Cold War order, even though based on the deterrent fear of mutual destruction, lulled Europeans into feeling that a degree of stability had been achieved which would ‘never again’ seduce the continent into the clashes of religion and nation which had so bedeviled its history since the 16th century.

          With the changes, the great threat to the East, the ‘red peril’, had disintegrated. But after the initial sense of relief and triumph, some began to look further or elsewhere. Surely history could not have ended – and so the scenario moved from the triumphalism of Fukayama’s end of history to the apocalypse of Huntington’s clash of civilizations.

          Thirdly, this is all taking place at a time when the continents bordering the Mediterranean are experiencing a revival of I slamic political participation. ‘Islamism’, as the French have usefully translated it, is a major trend today in many Arab countries and in Turkey, observers are quick to see expressions of it in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and among young Muslim groups in Western Europe. It is this perception of a politicised Islam which encourages talk of Islamic fundamentalism as a threat to Europe, the West, and the international order.

          Of course, such a revival has not come about simply out of the blue. Islam has always had a strongly political dimension. This has been mobilised on various occasions in different parts of the Muslim world in response to European colonial rule.

          It is only short memories which have blocked out such previous Islamic revivals in the last century or so. However, the present spread of political Islam is different. It finds its support  and motivation among broad sectors of the population which have recently become urbanised, whose young people are the first generation into higher education, and whose expectations of material progress have been disappointed in the slums of the big cities.

          These are not the old urban middle class,  who over several generations have adopted to concepts and modes of thinking originating in the West, concepts and modes which they have made their own and which are now being denounced as secularist and, in Francophoneregions, as deracine.

          The ideas which appeal to and mobilise the new Islamists are expressed in the Islamic idioms which have been at the core traditional cultures. But the theorists and intellectuals producing these ideas are a new breed. Granted, the Azhar graduates are still  epitomised by someone like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and in Iran the turbaned classes are central though even there they are far from holding a monopoly. But many of the new Islamic thinkers have come through a higher education in the natural and technical sciences – or they are educationalists, often trained in the West at some stage. Educationalists are prominent in  Jordan’s Islamic Action Front. Syed Qutb came through a similar route, and teachers are prominent activists in Turkey’s Welfare Party.

          Using traditional Islamic idiom these people are filling the concepts with new meanings, what a former colleague used to call "the semantic breakthrough", and exploiting the genius of the Arabic language to create new words full of  old associations.

          The hakimiyya, the rule of God, of Maududi and Qutb is but the most prominent. From the same stable has come a radical reinterpretation of jahiliyya, one strong enough to have provided the legitimation for the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in the minds of the extremists. 

          Let us be quite clear what is going on here. In my view, we are actually experiencing that "reformation" of Islam which so many western observers have been calling for since the 19th century.

          And there are some fascinating parallels, at least superficially, with the Protestant Reformation of 16th century Europe. There is no space or time to go into them here, but central is a theological rethinking which is much more closely associated with the Islamist movements than with people whom western observers have found more sympathetic.

          Western observers tend to feel a close kinship with the historical and literary critical approaches to the Islamic textual sources exemplified in previous generations by such  scholars as Ali Abd al-Raziq and Taha Hussein. The so called fundamentalists treat Qur’an and Hadith as if they were completely fresh texts, revealed and recorded this morning without the baggage of 1400 years tradition.

          But isn’t this essentially what Luther did? The text critical tradition only came three centuries after him! The Jeddah-based Saudi sociologist Professor Bagader has recently made the interesting point that it may be the so-called fundamentalists who may be laying the foundations of a pluralist Islam rather than those scholars in the Muslim world who have adopted exclusively western methods.

          The various actors – states, institutions, parties, communities – on both sides of the Mediterranean, and intermingled with each other in Europe’s urban centres, view these developments through different spectacles, because they bring to them different histories.

          This statement may seem simple and obvious, but it has to be recalled that the countries which our Muslim communities came from, were in their majority those which were or had been colonies of the countries of immigration. Therefore part of the history they bring with them is the mirror image of Europe’s historical baggage.

          Equally on the Muslim side of the equation it has to be said that the old secularised urban groups have in various ways adopted the European historical baggage as their own. This intermingling of histories within a common space is taking place at a time when both "orthodoxies" – Muslim and European/ western – are under interrogation and therefore feelings are  insecure. Here is one immediate reason for the heat generated around the relationship between Islam and the West today.

          In fact, the heat is not new, and that may be why the relationship is heated. Both western and eastern Christendom have a centuries-long experience of encounter with the Muslim world across a broad and intensive front. It is the breadth and intensity of this encounter which makes the relationship between Islam and Europe so  distinct and pregnant with potentials both  good and bad: the relationships between Europe and, for example, the Hindu or Buddhist worlds are simply not of the same order.

          Much has been written about the mutual stereotypes and polemics which grew up over the centuries: Islam as a Christian heresy, encouraging wantonness and fatalism, spreading by the sword; the crusading and imperialism of the Christian west, its more recent ungodliness and moral decay.

          Nothing is gained by repeatedly going over that ground. But it is ground which public opinion constantly recalls and is recalled to. Edward Said’s orientalism is matched in the Muslim world by an occidentalism which is less destructive only because it is not currently as close to the centres of economic and cultural power in the world.

          Both ‘isms’ operate on simplistic caricatures of the other: the Muslim world is violently unstable, and Islamist movements are bent on destroying the forces of moderation and common sense, through terrorism if necessary; the West is in the grip of a new crusade whose purpose is to crush Islam and is currently engaged in expunging the Islamic presence from Christian Europe,as in the case of Bosnia.

          Such constant caricatures obscure the enormous variety of views and tendencies on both sides. In fact, it could be argued that the variety is so great that to talk of sides is probably not justified. In the Muslim world little is monolithic. There are varieties of opinion, purpose and personalities within even the most Islamist groups.

          Syed Fadlallah, the spiritual guide of Lebanon’s Hizballah,  is a figure widely respected in Lebanon.  He  has recently published a very positive consideration of Muslim-Christian dialogue. The Muslim Brotherhood represents a wide spectrum of very serious and critical thinking, as do sections of Algeria’s FIS.

          The trouble is that it is very difficult for Europeans to hear what they are saying, let alone to engage with them. For one thing there is the simple difference of language. But much more serious is the fact that this variety and development – this reformation, one might say – is being drowned by the noises of dramatic headlines. 

          In the pressure cooker of everyday events such voices find difficulty in being heard in their own countries. Sympathizers and potential followers are regularly being tempted or forced into polarised positions, a process which is fundamentally assisted by an insistent western repetition of accusations against Islamic extremism – so that even a man like Kamal Abu’l-Magd was recently characterised in a Danish journal as a hard-line Islamist. 

          It works the other way as well. Many in Europe would agree in despairing at the mistakes – even perversity – of some recent European and US policy stances toward certain events relating to the Muslim world.

          Certainly there is a widespread popular sympathy in the Muslim world with the epithet of the Great Satan as applied to the US. But this risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if the great variety of views and interests to be found in Europe and North America is not acknowledged.

          The western press is not monolithically anti-Muslim – in fact without the western media the fate of Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya would have remained virtually unrecorded. The churches are not united in anti-Islamic missionary zeal. The perceived anti-Muslim policies of the former French minister of the interior,  Charles Pasqua,  were often opposed by his counterparts in the French foreign ministry.

          And even the foreign policy establishment in Washington DC includes significant elements sympathetic to Arab and Muslim perspectives. Constantly issuing mutual blanket condemnations plays into the hands of the hard-liners on both sides.

          Such mutual demonisation actually does violence to our own history, a history which is deeply interdependent and which we on the European side need to revisit. 

          This is not merely a question for academic enthusiasts. Having gone to school in both Copenhagen and London during the 1950s and early 1960s, what sticks in my mind, on later reflection, is the extent to which so much of the teaching we were exposed to was centred around the national myths which had developed during the two preceding centuries. This was the case with the teaching of history, of course, but   in geography, language and literature.

          Missing from this were not only the perspectives, in Denmark, of Norway and, in England, of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but also at the wider European level, of the trans-mediterranean. It is only at a very superficial level that our collective European awareness remembers that nine centuries ago we learned a few things from the cultural, economic and political resources of the Muslim world, then reaching up through Spain and southern Italy.

          As Europe, at least Catholic Europe, began to assert its autonomy and to chart its owncourse from the humanist awakening of the 12th century through to the Renaissance it started by learning from Islamic civilisation. Historically, Arabic is as much a European classical language as are Greek and Latin.

          As its self-confidence grew, Europe began to forget its indebtedness to Islamic civilisation, a process strongly encouraged by the very fact that it was Islamic in contrast to its own increasingly strong Christian identification, especially as this grew around and out of the Crusades.

          Drawing a psychological parallel, it could be suggested that Christian Europe suppressed the Islamic-Arabic dimension of its parentage. What has been retained out of the history is the memory of the conflicts. Earlier European generations needed to recall the battles and the victories – just look at the significance that Karl Martel’s defeat of a minor Arab-Berber raiding party at Poitier- Tour in 732 has been accorded – to help reinforce their independence of the tutelage of perceived heretics.

          There are certainly parallels here with much modern Islamic thinking. It is difficult to assess fully the influence of German 19th century philosophers on both Arabic and wider Muslim thought, whether of secular and nationalist tendencies or of more explicitly Islamic trends.

          Much contemporary Islamic thought is of necessity following agendas set by the need to respond to western challenges. Even the structures of ideas of such Islamists  who  totally reject western influence bear the fingerprints of western modes of thought  as has been suggested  by  Syed Qutb. So it is possible to argue that much of the Islamic revival is indebted to western precedents, which due to that very identity also have to be denied and suppressed.

          This combination of a suppressed history and a new post-nationalism experience of a multi-cultural and multi-religious society, forces us to revisit what we, as Europeans, stand for. Are we actually tied into institutional and constitutional stances, or is it really the processes and dynamics of response which constitute our stance?

          Some parts of the political and religious spectra in Europe, including those being presented by some immigrant and religious and ethnic minority groups, appear to have locked themselves into the inflexibility of institutions and systems achieved. For them, history has stopped; we have reached the ultimate – or dead end – of human social order.

          I am reminded of the small brochure I saw some years ago in a Swedish college advertising the centenary celebrations of the great 19th century Danish thinker and liberal politician Grundtvig; he was there described as the person who had finally defined what it meant to be Danish. Grundtvig must have been turning in his grave at such presumption!

          Grundtvig, as also many of his contemporaries around Europe, would have been the first to recognise that the collective identity of a people is a live and lively animal. It does not freeze and imprison.

          The experience of individuals and groups within the overall collectivity is cumulative; it adds on to what has gone before; and it changes it in parts and replaces it in other parts. As individuals and groups depart and others join, so the collectivity changes character. This change shows itself in the street, in shop signs, in the spoken language, in the faces, in food and in the media, and ultimately in education, law and politics.

          The changes take place and are mediated in many ways including conflict – and remember that conflict, properly managed, can be constructive. There is a strong argument for suggesting that the Rushdie affair has, in Britain at least, had a more constructive than negative outcome. The changes are also mediated through dialogue and negotiation. There is little doubt that over the last two decades, Europe has accumulated a growing debt to the small group of people across the continent who have actively encouraged the local and national meeting of Christians and Muslims. 

          If Muslim individuals and organisations today in France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere are not only still willing, but actively seeking to engage with their European environment, it is in large part due to the perseverance of the few who have insisted that dialogue and common exploration is the way forward.

          On the wider political scene, Professor  Samuel Huntington’s thesis has been widely rejected, by academics, serious journalists and diplomats – even though there are always exceptions. But Huntington has ironically done us a favour: his scenario was so frightening that sensible people and institutions on both sides have been mobilised into action to seize back the initiative from the extremists and pessimists. 

          To the small band of Christians and Muslims have been added many others, people and institutions from the mainstream of public life. Willi Claes, NATO’s former general secretary, must often have regretted his unguarded comments about the Islamic enemy given the widespread official condemnations.

          The Swedish Foreign Minister’s initiative in holding a conference on Islam and Europe in Stockholm in June 1995 was expected to be matched by Germany the following November. Foreign ministers in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and France are all active in the same field, each in their own way.

          In fact, conferences and seminars on Islam and the West are almost becoming an industry, in both the public and private sectors.

          Cynics might easily dismiss this as a fad motivated by short-term self-interest. But whatever the motivations, the effects transcend them. They establish networks of personal acquaintance and trust, and they actually respond to and encourage a response from the so-called other side.

          During the last couple of years I have been enormously encouraged by what I have  experienced  in terms of  interest in and commitment to not only Muslim-Christian dialogue butalso bridge-building between Europe and the Muslim, especially the Middle Eastern Muslim world. Certainly this includes long-standing activities such as those sponsored by the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies, as well as less publicised initiatives in specific issues on the part of other Arab states.

          In recent years initiatives have also come from Iran and Turkey towards the Vatican and the World Council of Churches as well as more humble religious and academic institutions – initiatives which I know have been responded to positively.

          But the constructive interest and contacts are not limited to officially approved persons and agencies. There has been extensive interest also from non-governmental and opposition Islamic tendencies. Of course, many such initiatives are narrowly and often manipulatively political. But many are not. And whatever the initial motivations, we must allow for the possibility that changing circumstances and the processes of dialogue and conversation in themselves can change the purpose into a more constructive and long-term one. After all, if founded on many centuries of accumulated negative experience the tension cannot be dissolved merely by a couple of friendly meetings in five-star hotels.

          We know that superficially naive meetings of participants in the Lebanese civil war – militia and religious activists – held on neutral territory while the worst of the fighting was going on, not only contributed to immediate amelioration of the worst excesses of mass hostage taking but also helped lay the foundation of what is today a national committee of reconciliation, as well as helping to identify some of the authors of the Taif agreement which created the circumstances in which such reconciliation could be realistically contemplated.

          I see no reason why such an experience cannot be built on. In fact, individuals and agencies – officially sponsored or otherwise – are seeking to practise similar processes with all the uncertainties and risks involved, both in terms of outcomes and in terms of potential confusion or misunderstanding between governmental, institutional and individual short and long-term interests.

          The very fact that such initiatives are being taken has to be acknowledged and welcomed, and their owners have to be given credit for some degree of realism.

          After a long period of overwhelming outside influence the Muslim world is seeking to rediscover its historical continuity. The Islamist movements represent a desire for autonomy, dignity and self-respect, not a threat to the West.

          It is, I would venture to suggest, in Europe’s long-term interest to welcome this, even when some developments may seem to be adverse to our immediate interests. A Muslim community which is not comfortable in itself is a cause for concern, whether it is in our inner cities or across the Mediterranean.

          In our independent world, European and North American attitudes and actions inevitably have an effect. The well-being and self-respect of the Muslim world is in our owninterest, and it is thus in our own interests to ensure that western policies and discourses acknowledge the Islamic ness of the Muslim world.


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