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Project took him to 32 cities across the continent.
By Sereen Thahir
WASHINGTON, DC: As an anthropologist, Akbar Ahmed has been mapping cultures and communities, especially in the Islamic world, almost his entire professional life. Over the course of four decades, he has documented Muslim groups as varied as the Pathans of Swat Valley and African American congregations of Harlem.
Now in his latest tour de force, Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair for Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, examines the experiences of Muslims in Europe. The Pakistani academic and former diplomat recently returned from the Old Continent, where he and his team—a group of American and non-American scholars—studied European Muslims and the attitudes and perceptions of Europeans about their Muslim neighbors.
The ethnographic study “Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire” took Ahmed and his team to 32 cities and 40 mosques, where they interviewed imams, grand muftis, ordinary people, scholars, students and national leaders.
The project was launched by Ahmed’s friend Lord Bhiku Parekh, who is of Indian Gujarati origin, at House of Lords, whose religious background symbolized the interfaith nature of the project.
Speaking from his home in the tony Washington suburb of Bethesda, Ahmed shared his preliminary thoughts on the project, which he said was motivated by his desire to explore conditions of Muslims in Europe in light of immigration issues and the latest Middle Eastern conflict in which many Europeans are fighting on the side of ISIL.
The only way to understand the attitudes of the youth was to understand the context of the society in which they emerge from, the professor says. At the same time, through this project, he also wanted to explore the history of the religion on the continent, he says, before quickly pointing out that Islam in Andalucía was the center of world thinking centuries ago, yet the efforts of Muslim scientists and thinkers are often overlooked in history.
“Muslims ruled in Europe for almost 800 years, and that too very successfully,” he says. “With that leadership came advances in education, sciences, and religion. The main library in Cordoba had 400,000 books.”
In a complete reversal, he points out that just one educational institution in the West, Harvard University, now publishes more research than the entire Arab world put together.
It is no coincidence that Muslims are on the defensive across Europe. Whether it is attacks in Great Britain, or laws against wearing the hijab in government spaces in France, Muslims are seen in a negative light in a region that has a vast, but untold, Islamic history, Ahmed says.
Muslims comprise approximately 10 percent of the population of all of Europe. They range from immigrants to converts to indigenous Muslims and are spread all over the continent.
Stating that “being put in a defensive position is not a bad thing,” Ahmed says he sees an opportunity in the present crisis. “The leadership in Europe is slowly emerging, but I don’t believe they are sufficiently cohesive or vocal enough. Muslims must be active in politics. If they organized, they can have a sufficient impact.”
He adds, “Muslims and Muslim countries must continue to put an emphasis on education and scholarly research. Right now we have non-Muslims speaking about Muslims on television; we must be sure that Muslims are out there with their voice.”
Ahmed cites Bosnia as one of the bright spots in Europe.
“I was looking for major Muslim thinkers who see themselves as Muslims and Europeans,” he says. “While there were several in France, the UK, and Germany, it was nothing compared to those in Bosnia. They are coming out of a genocide, where they fought for their survival as Muslims. Yet, they do not speak of revenge but look forward. I spoke with the president and the grand mufti and the conversations were at a high intellectual and Islamic level. By my meetings with these people, I believe Islam is secure in Europe.”
Ahmed, who was part of the elite Pakistani civil service, has an advice for European states: they must try harder to make the immigrants who are citizens feel welcome. “We have many second and third generation Muslims there who feel marginalized by society and can become radicalized,” he says.
Having conducted similar study a few years ago on Muslims of America, Ahmed offers interesting comparisons between Muslims of Europe and the United States.
The Journey into America project, which is available as a book and as a documentary, Ahmed and his team document how Americans look at Muslims and how American Muslims view themselves.
Prefacing that “neither the Muslims in America nor the Muslims in Europe are a monolith,” there are major differences between the two groups. “In Europe, they are differentiated by countries, ethnicities, ideologies, and even migratory patterns,” he points out. “So the old colonial relationships between France and Algeria means the Algerians will go to France. The South Asians will go to England because South Asia was colonized and so on. In America, there’s no such thing because America was not a colonial power.”
The second big difference, in his opinion, is the economic status. “Muslims coming to America were by and large middle class. Not all of them, but they were generally doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs. The Muslims that began to come in the 1960s and 1970s were reasonably well off and adjusted quite well. Of course, there are always some sections of the population that do not adjust. This is distinct in comparison to the Muslims in Europe. There, you see a lot of factory workers coming to England from South Asia. That first generation came to literally earn some money with the goal of sending it back and eventually then going back.”
So who is doing better?
“I think if you were to look at it in the context of history, then certainly the Muslims in America are far more comfortable,” he says. “America does not have a colonial attitude towards Islam. The relationship was very much up to the individual until 9/11. 9/11 has changed everything because after that you have all kinds of debates, controversies, and questions.”
Journey into Europe is the last in the quartet of projects exploring ties between the world of Islam and the West. The first, Journey into Islam, looks at the Muslim world and its diversity and how various Muslim groups view the West. The second, Journey into America, had his team travel through 75 cities across the United States, while the third, The Thistle and the Drone, focused on Islam in 40 tribal societies.
Like the three previous projects, Journey into Europe will also be published as a book by the Brookings Institution early next year. “We also hope to have a documentary about the entire journey with some really spectacular and rare footage,” he says. “Both of these aim to be a contribution to knowledge in the field of anthropology, the methods of which were established by Ibn Khaldun, a famous scholar who was in Spain during the time of Islamic rule. He is also the namesake of my chair position at American University, so I am especially proud of this.” The documentary is scheduled to be released later this summer.
Ahmed says he hopes his work will “allow people to believe that we are all part of one humanity,” which he thinks might not happen in his lifetime.”
Asked about his next project, he says: “My friend, Professor Lawrence Rosen at Princeton recently joked to me, ‘You’re running out of continents now! What’s next, Islam in the Antarctic?’”
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