By Ejaz Rahim
As far back as 1996, the distinguished scholar W. Montgomery Watt described Dr Akbar Ahmed as ‘a contemporary spokesman for Islam’. That epithet remains apt even now but, based on the sum total of his writings and work, he is widely respected today as an anthropologist, teacher, researcher, scholar in comparative religion, a committed public intellectual promoting interfaith harmony and a leading authority on contemporary Islam.
Dr Akbar Ahmed’s new book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity is a monumental work by all standards of scholarship. Its appearance in January 2018 completes the quartet envisioned by him in the wake of 9/11’s cataclysm that shook both the field of religion and the arena of global politics. The earlier three tomes – Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Civilisation (2007), Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013) – constituted an exploration of relations between the West and Islam from the perspectives of the world’s most powerful state; weaker Muslim societies generally struggling against increasing odds; and specifically of tribal Muslim entities feeling beleaguered and threatened internally and externally. JIE not only explores the European encounter with Islam to complete the picture but attains added significance inasmuch as the threads of methodology, concepts, themes and lessons of the other three studies are brought together in this paradigm-creating enterprise. In my view Dr Ahmed’s quartet will be ranked as a landmark in the literature of relations between the West and the Islamic world.
A notable feature of this book is its accessibility for the ordinary reader. Reading this book, one is struck by its reader-friendly approach, its organic structure and the architectonics of a research process incorporating interdisciplinary literature survey, case studies, site visits, face-to-face interviews and heart-to-heart interactions with individuals and groups holding divergent viewpoints.
As for the reader-friendly character of the book, Dr. Ahmed makes an important statement that explains its striking ambience: ‘JIE is part autobiography, part anthropology, part travelogue’. One is reminded of Professor O.K. Bouwsma of Nebraska University who emphasises the much-needed epistemological complementarity between ‘the world of the philosopher’ and ‘the world of the traveller’. While the philosopher ‘stays at home’, the traveller ‘goes far away’, in the spirit of Eliot’s Prufrock:
O do not ask, ‘what is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.
Dr Ahmed’s book aims to bring together the conceptual and the physical in an organic frame of knowledge and experience. My personal impression in reading the book is like experiencing a flow of narrative that combines the ‘external’ exploration mode found in Homer’s Odyssey and the exposure from ‘inside’ a la James Joyce’s Ulysses. The lesson one gleans from this approach is that for a fuller view of reality, it is important to embrace both dimensions, the ‘inner’ as well as the ‘outer’.
Dr Ahmed avowedly goes beyond the standard text book approach to anthropological studies found in the work of his illustrious predecessors like Malinovsky, Fortes, Evans Pritchard, Leach et al. His focus indeed is on ‘the ongoing and unfinished business of life itself’. For him anthropology is as much about the observed past and the empirical present as about the potential complexion and configuration of future human society. Significantly, he sees a similarity between this anthropological approach and poetry. He believes in crossing the conventional boundaries of the discipline for a fuller and more kinetic perspective. ‘Boundaries’, he declares ‘merely attempt to freeze and halt a process that can be neither frozen nor stopped’. This approach not only adds another dimension to his work but also enables common citizens, the non-specialist readers to accompany the scholar on the book’s intellectual journey. It also helps its readers to relate both the journey and its underlying framework to their own lives.
The intellectual framework of this study, it must be stressed, is one of enormous relevance to every citizen of the planet, whether in the East or the West. In the words of the author, it is ‘ a conceptual framework to discover a paradigm as a method for the future that would allow Europe’s different people and cultures to understand one another in order to live together in harmony’. Such an undertaking has special relevance for a continent that stands between the American hemisphere and the East. Again, Islam being ‘the great dynamic agitating Europe’ today, her mindset will be critical for the future of humanism and pluralism in our badly fractured world. For those therefore who wish for a dispassionate analysis of the future ramifications of this dynamic, Dr Ahmed’s book is a must read.
As for the structure of the book, it is divided into three parts. Part I describes two interpretations of European identity; Part II, three types of Muslim societies – the indigenous, the immigrant and the converts; and Part III delves into the issue of Islamophobia in Europe and underscores the imperative of Convivencia or Coexistence.
I wish to identify here some vantage points in the JIE that were a source of learning for me personally as one travelled through the book. The narrative begins with an encounter with a dispirited group of Muslim immigrants in a shabby basement mosque in Athens who find it strange that Dr Ahmed and his team should be so well received by high functionaries of the Church of Greece and leading Greek scholars. One also hears accusatory echoes among Europeans of ‘the third invasion of Europe’ by today’s immigrants like the Arab and Ottoman invasions of the past. Later in the book, a second version of ‘this third invasion’ against European civilisation will be found following on the heels of Nazism and Fascism. In the background of this tension and ambivalence, we are introduced to Ibn Khuldun’s description of tribal Arab groups centred on Asabiya or ethnic group consciousness, and the account of Tacitus (1st century AD) describing Germanic tribesmen who ultimately brought down Rome and formed Visigothic dynasties in Europe. Dr Ahmed sees this primordial element found in Germanic tribes as a part of the ‘deep structure’ of European society which takes two forms in Europe’s history – the basic primordial tribal identity and its morphing into a predatory form.
Dr Ahmed sees the primordial German tribal consciousness prevailing even over religion in various periods of Europe’s history. He cites the defiance against Rome by the Germanic Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire (13th Century AD). The Protestant revolt against the Church of Rome in the 16th Century is also mentioned in support of this view.
The primordial element has deeply influenced Europe’s intellectual and cultural leadership over the centuries. It is fascinating to follow the trail recounted in this book from the German poet-philosopher Herder’s (1744-1803) Volk philosophy based on ‘Blut unt Boden’ (Blood and Soil); Fichte’s ‘Address to the German Nation’ (1916) which describes Volk as ‘the Original People’; the Grimm Brothers’ emotional appeal to notions of race and blood; Schlengel’s concept of ‘Aryan People’; Heidegger’s ‘Heimat’ or Homeland, where alone in his view, authentic existence is possible; and a general tilt towards glorified Germanic consciousness in her philosophy and literature. Hegel’s remark ‘is Judea the Teuton’s Fatherland?’ mirrors this frame of mind. The book sees the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s Final Solution as a logical outcome of this thought process which permeates Europe’s culture, philosophy and literature. Indeed the predatory form of primordial tribal identity that Europe witnessed has been constantly at work in her treatment of Jews and other minorities. The ominous words of Otto Thiepack, Justice Minister in the Third Reich, are recalled: ‘We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies’.
Dr Ahmed’s book does not shy away from recounting unpleasant facts like Holocaust’s savagery against five million Jews, and another five million belonging to other minorities. We learn that between 1941-1945, 12,500 Camps with six Extermination Centres modelled on the notorious Dachau Camp were set up. The book also reminds us about earlier versions of the Final Solution practised in Europe’s history. Thus the 7th Century Visigoth rulers of Toledo (Spain) had officially proclaimed that ‘The King will tolerate no one in the Kingdom who is not a Catholic’. The exclusionary policy echoes again in Catholic Spain after Granada’s fall in 1492 and reflected by the Inquisition and the mass expulsions of the Jews and Muslims. The book identifies a trail of ethnic violence from the Rhineland massacres of 11th Century to the 13th Century killings in Bavaria and Austria; the 17th Century Pogroms occurring in Eastern Europe; and the recurrent deportation of Jews from the 13th to the 15th centuries from England, France, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Switzerland. It is important to understand the deeper context of this phenomenon recurring in Europe. This is one face of Europe that the book attempts to capture.
But this, according to Dr Ahmed’s study, does not convey the whole truth about Europe. While the author is fearless in exposing the dark side of the equation, he is eminently fair in highlighting Europe’s record of pluralism and universalism. He calls it the ‘other Europe’ which has provided outstanding examples of coexistence and religious tolerance. Dr. Ahmed’s work in highlighting such instances is a high point of his scholarship.
The period of La Convivencia in Spain which extended for 800 years is held out as an example of enlightened rationalism and religious harmony in Europe. The author believes that the Andalusian example is ‘an alternative to the monolithic tribal society model’. The book also provides credible examples of Christian-led Andalusia-like models. Dr Ahmed is at pains to celebrate Europe’s outstanding heroes practising pluralism. King Alfonso VI of Lyon and Castille, for example, took pride in being called ‘Emperor of Three Religions’ and instituted liberal and enlightened policies after conquering Toledo in 1085 AD. Likewise King Alfonso X who conquered Cordoba in 1236 AD promoted ‘Convivencia and Ilm’ as twin pillars of his rule. Again Roger III of Sicily in the 12th Century was a tolerant ruler who maintained excellent relations with the Fatimids of Egypt. One of the most persuasive examples of pluralism in practice is provided by Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire. One is amazed to learn of this European Emperor officially celebrating the Holy Prophet’s Hegira. Among the monarch’s memorable achievements were the patronship he gave to Averoes’ translation of Aristotle’s works and despatching the same to the universities of Naples, Paris and Padua with a letter which said: ‘One should accept as truth only that which is proved by the force of reason and nature.’ By the Treaty of Jaffa (1229 AD) he made a historic agreement with Egypt’s ruler which guaranteed access to Jerusalem’s holy sites to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike – a feat which later statesmen have failed to achieve in the succeeding centuries.
Dr Akbar Ahmed goes on to describe this ‘Other Europe’ in terms of her literature and learning, her intellectual and cultural heritage. He documents this view by referring to Shakespeare, Goethe, Da Vinci and Cervantes. Goethe’s universal humanism in particular is highlighted and conveyed in the following verse of Schiller: ‘Forget O Germans your hope of becoming a Nation …. Educate yourself instead to be human beings.’ Goethe’s East Western Divan is a unique bridge of understanding between East and West. The author discusses Wagner’s Percival and Mozart’s Abduction from Seraglio (1702) pointing out their devotion to universal values. Wagner’s vision is reflected in the hope that ‘one day Christians and Muslims will be brothers’ expressed in his opera The Saracen Woman. Likewise the following quote from Mozart’s work is worth recalling: ‘It is a greater pleasure to repay with good deeds an injustice suffered rather than punish evil with evil’. (Abduction from Seraglio).
In the backdrop of historical knowledge and personal wisdom found in the author’s quiver, his journey into contemporary Europe assumes great significance. For one, it provides a snapshot of Muslim presence in Europe today ranging from five million Muslims in France, mainly immigrants, to substantial indigenous Muslim populations like Bosnians, Pamuks, Turks, Albanians, Tartars, the Roma and the Chams. The presence and historical role of Tartars in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Finland, but especially in Poland and Crimea, makes for a fascinating reading. Likewise the ups and downs faced by Bosnians vis-a-vis Kosovo and Serbia, sheds light on the existential threats still lurking in the Balkans. The presence of the Roma people spread out in Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia, Greece and Macedonia, is a reminder of the complex ethnic challenges in Europe of today. The fate of the Chams in Greece also raises many concerns.
This book provides a view of the mindset of the majority populations in different parts of Europe and the responses and reactions of the migrant, indigenous and convert Muslims of Europe. Every site visit recounted brings out region-specific challenges. Every community or individual encounter throws up open or hidden tensions and passions. However two interviews recorded by the author remain etched in my mind. Both are memorable in terms of the message emanating from them. The first relates to a meeting with Dr. Haris Sailaidzi, Prime Minister of Bosnia, who referred to the query raised by Bernard Lewis about Muslims (‘What went wrong?’) and proffered a profound reply: ‘Muslims must turn to themselves’. The other memorable comment is ascribed to the Reverend Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabi of UK: ‘In Heaven, there is Truth. On earth there are truths. God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by our faiths.’ This thought constitutes the very bible of pluralism and universality in our times.
Europe too needs to turn to herself to respond to the inter-racial and inter-religious challenges she faces. Lapsing into primordial tribalism in response to Muslim presence is not an option. Europe will have to choose between the possibility of a primordial response morphing into unending ethnic conflict and social instability as already reflected in the ideologies of the Far Right. This is going to be an acid test for Europe’s current leadership. Indeed Europe needs to examine the roots of her own modernity to forge a credible answer.
Dr Akbar Ahmed’s view of the underlying challenge is clear-headed and forthright. ‘Europe’ he says ‘needs a synthesis between the thesis of tribalism and ethnicity and the antithesis of the Andalusian model that is genuinely pluralistic and universal’. He goes on to say: ‘We suggest how Europe can forge a new identity out of its two main traditions – exclusionary tribal and Andalusian, to create a synthesis for the Europe of the 21st Century. The vision of a New Andalusia could be a beacon of moral and intellectual leadership to the world’.
Before concluding I wish to briefly comment on two other related aspects of this book. In my view it is a significant addition to the contemporary literature on leadership and the role and responsibility of a public intellectual in our times.
Leadership today involves an existential choice between exclusionism and universalism, between ethnic appeasement and pluralistic values, and between populist expediency and democratic ethics. This book captures the current leadership challenge with great clarity and provides a basic framework for exercising choice.
On the related issue of a public intellectual’s role today, it may be profitable to mention the great 20th Century debate between two Italian scholars, Croce and Gramsci on the subject. Dr Ahmed clearly chooses to go beyond a role that merely ‘interprets’ the world; it is equally important to work for ‘change’ and reform the world. A public intellectual today is obligated not only to address the intellect but also the hearts and minds of the people.
For any reader of this book, it will be easy to understand the part played by its author in proactively promoting harmony and goodwill among the great religions of the world. His commitment to interfaith harmony is both consistent and inspiring.
Judging from the reviews appearing on the book, one can see that it has received plaudits from all quarters, including Jews, Christians and Muslims. In fact the reformist message of the book is relevant not only for Europe but equally for the Muslim world. Both West and East need to imbibe the lessons of this book regarding inclusive democracy, sustainable peace and steady progress. The pages of this book hold out a candle of hope against the gathering storms we see around us. Bertrand Russell’s parting thought in his Autobiography appears to be very relevant here: ‘Maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work…. To preserve hope in our world makes calls on our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair, it is frequently the energy that is lacking.’
In sum, Dr Akbar Ahmed’s book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity is a mine of information on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations over centuries in Europe; it is also a treasury of wisdom accruing from an analytical approach to history and society; it is indeed an inspiring document that aims to pierce through our thick walls of prejudice and iron curtains of race and blood. Like any great book it transmits knowledge, imparts wisdom and serves as a source of inspiration.
Ejaz Rahim, one of the leading public intellectuals of Pakistan, is a prominent poet and author. He has served in such prominent posts as chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Cabinet Secretary for the Government of Pakistan.