Writing any type of survey book on Islam in Europe is not a task for the faint of heart. Islam’s long-term presence in Europe, combined with its myriad expressions and trajectories across the continent in modern history, makes such a project a daunting one. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, takes up this challenge and produces a masterpiece in Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Institution Press, 2018). The book is a magisterial examination of Islam’s place in Europe’s historical, cultural, and political landscape.
The book is the last of a four-volume series from Ahmed devised and written after the September 11 attacks to address the relationship between Islam and the West. Of the four, this is the only one specifically devoted to Islam in Europe. Ahmed’s methodological approach can best be described as anthropological, though he readily acknowledges the book does not reflect “standard textbook anthropology” (34). Ahmed weaves participant observation, ethnographic descriptions, case studies, and personal interviews into a larger narrative amply informed by historical research.
Journey into Europe is both descriptive and prescriptive. What Ahmed describes is a continent at a crossroads as it struggles to determine how, or whether, Islam factors into its own identity formation. Ahmed illuminates this struggle by arguing Europe is best characterized by three competing identities. The first is its primordial identity, a type of tribalism in which Europeans come to value their own unique culture and traditions. The second is its predator identity, an aggressive, exclusivist, and even militaristic form of expression that defines what it means to be European in narrow religious, ethnic, or racial terms. The third is its pluralist identity. This identity moves away from tribe and blood by drawing on the shared history of diverse peoples in Europe. Ahmed uses the Spanish term la convivencia to capture this strand of European identity and lifts up Jewish, Muslim, and Christian co-existence and cooperation in historic Andalusia as an example of this pluralist model.
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