New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 5 Aug 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Islam’s return to Europe: Assimilation or confrontation

Strangers in the Land

By Fouad Ajami

August 2, 2009


A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El Último Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.

More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid, killing more than 200 people and wounding some 1,500, in the deadliest terror attack in Europe since World War II. This was not quite a Muslim reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, but a circle was closed, and Islam was, once again, a matter of Western Europe.

In his “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe,” Christopher Caldwell, a meticulous journalist who writes for The New York Times Magazine and other publications, gives this subject it’s most sustained and thoughtful treatment to date. The question of Islam in Europe has occasioned calls of alarm about “Eurabia,” as well as works of evasion and apology by those who insist Islam is making its peace with European norms. Caldwell’s account is subtle, but quite honest and forthright in its reading of this history. “Islam is a magnificent religion that has also been, at times over the centuries, a glorious and generous culture. But, all cant to the contrary, it is in no sense Europe’s religion and it is in no sense Europe’s culture,” he writes.

It hadn’t taken long for Islam to make its new claim on Europe. Caldwell’s numbers give away the problem: “In the middle of the 20th century,” he tells us, “there were virtually no Muslims in Western Europe.” Now there are more than 15 million, including 5 million in France, 4 million in Germany and 2 million in Britain.

The native populations in Western Europe hadn’t voted to have the Turks and the Moroccans in Amsterdam, the Kurds in Sweden, the Arabs in London and the Pakistanis and Indians in Bradford and West Yorkshire. The post-World War II economic boom, and labour shortages, brought the immigrants, and they put down roots in their surroundings. In time, labour immigration “gave way to refugee immigration and to immigration aimed at reunifying (and forming) families. . . . Admitting immigrants changed from an economic program to a moral duty.”

A fault line opened in European society. On one side were those keen to keep their world whole and theirs; on the other was elite opinion, insisting on the inevitability and legitimacy of the new immigration. For their part, the new arrivals, timid at first, grew expansive in the claims they made. This was odd: they had fled the fire, and the failure, of their ancestral lands, but they brought the fire with them. Political Islam had risen on its home turf in the Middle East and North Africa, in South Asia, but a young generation in Europe gave its allegiance to the new Islamist radicalism. Emancipated women had shed the veil in Egypt and Turkey and Iran in the 1920s; there are Muslim women now asserting their right to wear the burqa in Paris.

The European welfare state tempted and aided the new Islamism. Two-thirds of the French imams are on welfare. It was hard for Europeans, Caldwell writes, to know whether these bold immigrants were desperate wards or determined invaders, keen on imposing their will on societies given to moral relativism and tolerance. In Caldwell’s apt summation, the flood of migration brought with it “militants, freeloaders and opportunists.”

The militants took the liberties of Europe as a sign of moral and political abdication. They included “activists” now dreaming of imposing the Shariah on Denmark and Britain. There were also warriors of the faith, in storefront mosques in Amsterdam and London, openly sympathizing with the enemies of the West. And there were second-generation immigrants who owed no allegiance to the societies of Europe.

A study by Britain’s House of Commons of the July 7, 2005, bombings against London’s Underground caught the hostility of the new Islamism to the idea of assimilation, to the principle of nationality itself. Three of the four bombers were second-generation British citizens born in West Yorkshire. The fourth, who was born in Jamaica and brought to England as an infant, was a convert to Islam. Mohammad Sidique Khan, age 30, was the oldest of the group. He “appeared to others,” the report notes, “as a role model to young people.” Shehzad Tanweer, age 22, was said to have led a “balanced life.” He owned a red Mercedes, and enjoyed fashionable hairstyles and designer clothing. The evening before the bombings, he had played cricket in a local park.

Years earlier, the legendary theorist of the Islamists, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, had written of the primacy of Islam: we may carry their nationalities, he observed, but we belong to our religion. The assailants from West Yorkshire, and the radical Muslims from Denmark who, after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Muhammad in 2005, travelled through Islamic lands agitating against the country that had given them home and asylum, were witnesses to the truth of Qutb’s dictum.

“The guest is sacred, but he may not tarry,” Hans Magnus Enzensberger writes in a set of remarks that Caldwell cites with approval. Many of Europe’s “guests” have overstayed their welcome. They live on the seam: the old world of Islam is irretrievable and can no longer contain their lives; the new world of modernity is not fully theirs. They agitate against the secular civilization of the West, but they are drawn to its glamour and its success.

In the way of exiles, once on safe ground they tell stories about the old lands. The telling speaks of Damascus as bathed with light, and the sea by Tunis and Algiers and Agadir as a piece of singular beauty. In its original habitat, there could be an honest reckoning with Islam. Men and women could wrestle with the limits it places on them; they would weigh, in that timeless manner, the balance between fidelity to the faith and the yearning for freedom. But it isn’t easy in Amsterdam or Stockholm. There, the faith is identity, and the faith is complete and sharpened like a weapon.

It wasn’t always so. Little more than four decades ago, when I left Lebanon for the United States, I, and others like me, accepted the rupture in our lives. I knew there would be no imams and no mosques awaiting me in the New World. I was not travelling in quest of all that. I was in my late teens; I accepted the “differentness” of the new country. News of Lebanon rarely reached me, air travel was infrequent and costly, and I lost years of my family’s life. I needed no tales of the old country.

Nowadays, air travel is commonplace, satellite television channels from Dubai and Qatar reach the immigrants in their new countries, preachers and prayer leaders are on the move, carrying a portable version of the faith. We are to celebrate this new movement of peoples, even as it strips nations of what is unique to them. It goes by the name of globalization. It makes those who oppose it seem like nativists at odds with the new order of things.

It is a tribute to Caldwell that he has not oversold this story, that he does not see the Muslim immigrants conquering the old continent and running away with it. There is poignancy enough in what he tells us. It is neither wholly pretty, nor banal, this new tale of Islam in the West.


Fouad Ajami teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift.”

Source: New York Times