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.