Competing Visions of Islam Will Shape Europe in the 21st Century

Akbar Ahmed’s new book deals with how migration is reshaping the continent, and whether leaders can cope.

The minaret of a mosquein Creteil near Paris, France
The minaret of a mosque in Creteil near Paris, France (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters)

Akbar Ahmed was born a subject of the British Raj. He devoted his career to building a modern Pakistani state, accepting some of his government’s most dangerous jobs, including political commissioner in the tribal agency of Waziristan. He rose to represent Pakistan as its high commissioner in the United Kingdom. Since retiring from government, he has taught at American University in Washington, D.C., where he has written books and produced documentaries about Islam’s place in the modern world. His newest book, Journey into Europe, is the culmination of years of study of the Muslim migration northward, which has accelerated dramatically since the Syrian Civil War. Ahmed and I have debated the impact of this migration for years. We continued the conversation recently over a long written exchange.

David Frum: You are promoting a new book, about Islam in Europe. As so often in your intellectual career, you perceive potential harmony where others see mostly conflict. Terrorism in the name of Islam has claimed many lives in Europe over the past two decades—and the reaction to mass migration from the Islamic world is shaking the politics of the continent.

Meanwhile much of the Muslim world seems to be turning away from the liberal values that have defined Europe since 1945. You see this especially in Turkey, once a candidate for entry into the European Union, now an increasingly authoritarian and religiously chauvinist state. Why are you so hopeful?

Akbar Ahmed: There have been too many deaths due to Muslim acts of terrorism—though more like hundreds rather than thousands—and undoubtedly Islam is now a highly debated “hot” issue in Europe today. As a social scientist who rests his analysis on field research and facts, I am concerned about the potential for violence and conflict in the future. But as a humanist with faith in the pluralist legacy that exists in Europe, I have hope that with wisdom, compassion, and courage, the leaders of Europe will be able to guide the continent through this difficult time.

Frum: Let’s begin with the first part of your analysis, within Europe. Speaking to the new Bundestag on March 21, Chancellor Merkel drew a distinction between the places of Islam and Christianity within Germany: “It is beyond question that our country was historically formed by Christianity and Judaism. But it’s also the case that with 4.5 million Muslims living with us, their religion, Islam, has also become a part of Germany.” That comment, I should add, drew some protest from some members of the Bundestag—but even on its face, it underscores that the politician who welcomed more Muslims into Europe than any other in history, almost 1.5 million people over the past three years, still sees Islam as a new and uncertain graft upon the European trunk. Your Journey Into Europe seeks to reassure her. But if even Angela Merkel is unsure, isn’t this a truly overwhelmingly difficult project?

Ahmed: There was a time when Muslim scientists, astronomers, surgeons, and mathematicians were at the cutting edge of their disciplines. Muslims were then seen as representing a powerful, sophisticated, and rich world civilization. Today, ironically, Muslims are seen as destitute refugees escaping mad and bloodthirsty Muslim rulers. In this guise it is understandable that Europeans will not see Islam as part of European civilization. Therefore they would be put at ease if they appreciated their own history, when Muslims were very much part of European culture and history, and impacted the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. While many people talk of a “Judeo-Christian” Europe, the fact is that it is the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic religions, i.e. the Abrahamic faiths, that came together, while engaging with Greek philosophy, to create and nourish what we now know as European civilization. Chancellor Merkel’s welcoming of some million migrants was an act of compassion for which many, including me, have applauded her. It is the kind of gesture that perhaps only one other person in Europe can match—Pope Francis washing the feet of the migrants and welcoming them to Europe.

Frum: Isn’t the Muslim world even more prone to view the West with hostility rather than the other way around?

Ahmed: I see three broad, sometimes overlapping, categories within Islam: literalist Islam—those Muslims who believe that to be a good Muslim should mean to adhere to the letter and spirit of Islamic law; the mystics—those who believe in a warm, inclusive embrace of humanity which reflects the love of the divine for all creation; and finally the modernists—those who believe in balancing faith with modernity. Those in this final category believed that modernity, with its characteristics of democracy and accountability, and Islam were compatible. It is this category that is under threat directly from the literalists.

Frum: Perhaps the conflict is generated by conceptualizing people—who come from across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia—as “Muslims” rather than as (for example) descendants of certain ethnicities or nationalities. Maybe the very project of imagining people from many different places and cultures—and especially people who may not personally be very religious at all—as “Muslims” imposes an identity that so many people from Muslim-majority lands seek to escape?

Ahmed: In each European country the relationship of the Muslim minority to the host country is different and depends on the historical relationship with their country of origin and the circumstances of their arrival. After 9/11 however, the common factor that defined Muslims in the U.S. and Europe was that they were seen simply as Muslim—that is, defined by religion and no longer by their nation of origin, ethnicity, sect, class, or profession. We were told for example by a German ambassador, when we asked him about German identity and Muslims living in Germany, that before 9/11 they were called Turks. Now he said, they are all known as Muslims, whether they are Turks, Kurds, Iranians, or Pakistanis. The third generation of Muslim immigrants born as citizens in the U.S. or Europe feels the full backlash of the prejudice against Muslims, and it is from here that some young men and women are susceptible to the preaching and allure of the more extreme literalists who argue that there can be no coexistence between Islam and the West. At the same time we must not overlook the fact that Muslims are also contributing to Western societies in significant ways—[as] the mayors of London and Rotterdam, [as] more than a dozen members of the House of Lords and Commons, [as] members of parliament in places like Germany and France, [as] major television presenters, and [as] sports heroes in cricket and football.

Frum: European Muslim communities seem to assimilate at different rates and in different ways. A Pew survey from 2006 found that 42 percent of French Muslims defined themselves as “French first, Muslim second”—the highest such rate in any of the European countries Pew surveyed. Only 7 percent of British Muslims identified as “British first, Muslim second.” I’ll personally note—and perhaps you’ve shared this experience—that it’s not uncommon to meet people of North African Muslim origin at senior levels of the French security services, something highly uncommon for their counterparts in the United Kingdom.

Ahmed: The answer to this question is rooted in the colonial encounter—the French saw Algeria, for example, as an extension of France, and therefore the immigrants from this part of Africa carried that sense of identity with them to France, seeing themselves as French with the dominant philosophy of laïcité. Thus their Muslim identity was colored by laïcité. Whether they are fully accepted as French is a separate question, and I have explored it in detail in the book. As far as the British colonies were concerned, in India for example, after the 1857 uprisings that almost toppled British rule on the subcontinent, the British consciously left religion alone. [This] allowed Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to maintain their religious identity and even nourish it. Besides, there was a distinctly different approach to imperialism between the British and the French—after 1857 the former tended to be more inclusive and promoted schools, colleges, and participation in the army and civil services, while the French ruled their African colonies through harsh military force and compelled their subjects to give up their Islamic identity. Yet it’s also true that many Muslims in Britain told us we are proud to be British and proud to be Muslim, as distinct from France, where Muslims constantly expressed their sense of alienation, anger, and feeling of rejection by French society.

Frum: It’s a very striking thing about your body of work that you regard “modernist Islam” as also a liberal Islam. But isn’t there something also very modernist about the project of Islamic extremism—which rejects so many established spiritual and political authorities, empowers just about anyone to set himself up as a preacher and leader, and promises ordinary people that they can lead extraordinary lives through redemptive violence? You yourself have often pointed out how untraditional groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS are.

Ahmed: To understand modernist Islam we need to disentangle the three categories from each other. Modernist Islam by definition cannot promote violence, because it is based in democracy and the rule of law. Literalist Islam, which sets out to be the champion of Islam and draw boundaries around the faith, can sometimes act as a catalyst for violent groups. These groups may well use modern technology such as the internet, and therefore are wrongly assumed to be purveyors of modernist thinking. It is the failure of the modernist category to provide democracy, accountability, and human and civil rights that creates a backlash against modernity and gives space for the emergence of the Taliban, ISIS, and so on. Baghdadi dominated ISIS with a demented brutality just as Saddam did ruling Iraq—just as the former failed to live up to any ideal of Islam, the latter failed to represent modernist Islam. In Pakistan today, we see the irony of militant groups inflicting violence on all sections of society including school children, law and government offices, and patients in hospitals in the nation created by [Ali] Jinnah, the quintessential modernist, lawyer, and constitutionalist.

Frum: As much as you emphasize the potential for harmony, you conclude Journey into Europe with nightmare visions of possible conflict. You cite the recent vote in Switzerland to ban construction of minarets—and glimpse a vision of, in your phrase, “more dangerous and deadly solutions.” You observe, too, a seeming rise in pathological behaviors among second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe. Which vision seems to you more likely to be realized? Is there a gap between your intellect and your emotions in your anticipations of the future?

Ahmed: After several years of research in the field, my team and I concluded that Europe stands at the crossroads. If its leaders rediscover its pluralist and humanist traditions and adapt them to the 21st century, Europe can once again be a beacon of civilization to the world. If not, then we need to take very seriously [the rise in extreme rhetoric about] creating concentration camps and making soap out of the minorities, the nightmare vision of the 1930s, that we are hearing once again. [Some] Europeans are talking openly about the “external enemy,” by which they mean Muslims, and the “internal enemy” by which they mean Jews. We had said “Never Again” after the Holocaust and we must remind ourselves never to allow those terrible atrocities to be repeated.

Frum: But wait—the special horror of what happened to the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s was that the persecution originated in a mad paranoid delusion. As you yourself show, the friction between a Europe that wishes to preserve its historic identity—and newcomers who wish to escape their own countries and move to Europe—is real, not a delusion. You acknowledge atrocities like the Rotherham sexual “grooming” of underage girls—and the appeal of ISIS to so many European Muslims. Your book puts the onus on both sides to change for the sake of peace. Isn’t the very attempt to borrow Jewish history for other people’s purposes itself one of the things that causes so many Europeans—even the most liberal-minded—to mistrust this new claim on their continent?

Ahmed: While both Muslims and Jews are under pressure from the European far right, there [are] also the Muslim attacks on Jewish museums, schools, and individuals, for example in France. Fortunately, there are also many examples we found of harmony between Jews and Muslims, such as the several synagogues that were tended to by neighborhood mosques. There are also many Muslims and Jews we met, often young people, who are actively promoting better relations. Dr. Amineh Hoti, my daughter, who obtained a Ph.D. in anthropology from Cambridge, was the first director of the first Jewish-Muslim center in Europe located in Cambridge. In Bosnia, Ambassador Finci, the head of the Jewish community in Bosnia, told us that anti-Semitism is virtually unknown there. On this journey, I had the privilege of meeting some of Europe’s greatest and wisest sages who gave me hope. One of them, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the U.K., shared with me the Jewish saying tikkun olam, to heal a fractured world. I believe this should be a motto for Muslims and non-Muslims, Europe and the world, in the 21st century.