By Akbar Ahmed
July 21, 2018
In the midst of a noisy, angry and even violent election in Pakistan what lessons, if any, can we learn from my latest study, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity?
The following are some recommendations:
Acquire knowledge and think for yourself. The first step for both Muslims and non-Muslims is to acquire knowledge about each other and be encouraged to think for themselves when considering items in the media, as we live in a world of fake news and false information. This suggestion follows the almost universal advice given to us in the field: to use our own common sense. As Lord Rowan Williams told us in Cambridge: “We in Europe and elsewhere simply need to educate ourselves about what Islam really is. And we need to listen very hard to the average Muslim neighbour. Not the extremist voice, but to the real variety that you’ll hear outside any mosque on Friday. To listen to the experience of those who are unobtrusively but faithfully living ordinary Muslim lives fully within our society. Listen to them.”
But thinking requires a critical and objective approach. Muslims need to appreciate positive and constructive criticism and not dismiss it as Islamophobia. Muslims need to be more self-reflective and prepared to answer hard questions about their community. Many Muslims today appear indifferent to the larger local culture and need to work harder and with sensitivity to become part of society.
Education leaders across the continent need to introduce a comparative religions curriculum in schools. Islam faces a challenge-many do not know anything about Islam, as they are not taught the subject at school but, nonetheless, encounter incorrect and distorted versions of Islam in the media. Students need to learn early on how to identify and counter negative and distorted portrayals of the faith community. There are positive signs. Germany’s funding of five centres and sixteen chairs of Islamic studies at universities around the nation in the past decade is a step in the right direction.
Understand the discussion of identity. The question of identity is now front and center in Europe, thanks in large part to the far-right leaders who make it a plank of their politics, and it needs to be discussed openly and vigorously. While the far-right focuses on Islam as a threat to Europe, the social and political crisis in Europe is not a result of the presence of Muslims but is rooted in the historical and unresolved debate about European identity and what it means to be a European. Whichever perspective Europeans may have about their identity, whether it tends to be inclusive or exclusive, the reality is that the presence of Islam has acted as a catalyst to provoke the discussion.
Focus on youth. We found on our travels that there were many cases where the administration had little idea about the community and even less about young people and their problems. This left many young immigrants, who had very limited education and few prospects for employment, feeling aggrieved and even hopeless. That is why governments need to urgently create the conditions in which Muslims have equal access to education and employment as the rest of society. The young must be encouraged to divert their energy and imagination to special projects involving, for example, education, filmmaking, and social activity. They must be encouraged to develop pride. European governments can fund such programs through mosques and community organisations. But governments must reach out to the right leaders in the community, and they will not know who to reach out to unless they understand and learn about the community in the first place.
We need to move beyond traditional interfaith dialogue and more broadly involve leaders, scholars and other commentators who would act as genuine bridge builders between different cultures and religions
Support Muslim women. Women seeking entrepreneurial and cultural opportunities need to be supported by European governments. We saw a noteworthy example in Bradford, England in May 2016 when we presented our film, Journey into Europe, at the Bradford Literature Festival. The Bradford on display was different from the media image of a gritty, angry, “city of Islamic fundamentalists.” The literature festival had been conceived and organised by two British-Pakistani women-Irna Qureshi and Syima Aslam-and supported by women like Baroness Warsi and fully endorsed by the British administration.Those seeking role models and future trends will be amply rewarded by looking here.
Facilitate the training of imams. We found that many imams across Europe were unfamiliar with their cultural environment, and a large number of them had a shaky grasp of the local language or did not speak it at all. This was particularly true of the large numbers of Turkish imams in Germany, who are sent by the Turkish government for fixed periods of time and therefore have little incentive to learn about local culture. There is much that local governments can do to provide the imams and the Muslim community with language and cultural instruction. The mosque we visited in Penzberg, Germany, which provides German language lessons with funding from the German government, is a good example of the right approach.
Understand the interconnected nature of society and promote community relations with government and law enforcement. Too often we discovered in the field that there is a lack of understanding of how different parts of society are interconnected and therefore there is a lack of coordination that is necessary to check, for example, the repeated acts of terrorism that emanate from the community. Edward Kessler of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, which promotes interfaith dialogue, explained the crucial role that the government can play: “If you can understand their faith and their identity as Muslims, for example, you’re only better able to build up a relationship in the future.”
Understand the nature of the media. Almost everyone we spoke to during our fieldwork said that media is playing a central role in promoting a negative image of Islam, which feeds into the general widespread Islamophobia and encourages violence against Muslims. The media need to be more responsible in informing the public correctly and with accuracy.
Recognise the importance of interfaith dialogue. Considering the potential for bridge building among religious leaders, it is vital that interfaith and intercultural exercises are held frequently and publicly. The more people see leaders of different religions, arms linked, in dialogue with the purpose of fostering knowledge, understanding, and coexistence, or are able to read their works on the subject, the greater the chances that the Muslim community enters normal relations with larger society. Such interactions will also provide a direction for those confused younger members of the community who in the absence of mature and compassionate leadership may be inclined to get their religious instructions from imams who have a narrow and exclusivist view of the world.
But we need to move beyond traditional interfaith dialogue and more broadly involve leaders, scholars and other commentators who would act as genuine bridge builders between different cultures and religions.
Those who doubt it would do well to contemplate the actions of Pope Francis, washing the feet of immigrants, and Angela Merkel, opening her arms to welcome a million refugees to Germany, actions that embody the courage, compassion and humility of the best of European humanism.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity