Nonfiction: Can Islamic and European Civilizations Coexist?


Ahmed also documents how Muslim communities end up reinforcing negative stereotypes. Refugees bring with them sectarian and ethnic rivalries that make little sense in Europe. Ahmed’s own team of researchers was chased away from a mosque in Bradford, England, by a group of aggressive teenagers. What happened there “captures the current predicament of contemporary European Muslim society: angry and noisy young Muslims, unresolved issues concerning immigration, frequent violence and terrorism, often inspired by ISIS, the rise of the far right and its dangerous rhetoric of religious hatred and rampant Islamophobia.”

Ahmed spends little time analyzing the role of economics in promulgating these xenophobic sentiments. Nor does he compare Muslims’ fates with the predicament of other migrants — Polish workers in England were, after all, a major target of Brexiteers — or the situation of Christians in the Middle East. His study is more ethnographic than political. We learn from the experiences of living, breathing people. Ahmed also reminds us of the considerable philosophical, scientific and cultural gifts that Muslims gave Europe throughout the ages.

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The book’s most interesting observations don’t concern Muslims, though, but the white Europeans who are struggling to reconcile the presence of these perceived outsiders with their idea of who they themselves are. Ahmed brilliantly illustrates how deeply rooted European tribal identities take hold during periods of rapid change and uncertainty, and how central these exclusionary concepts can be, particularly for Nordic and Germanic societies.

The tribal Germanic idea of Heimat, or homeland, for instance, represented a bulwark against the ills of modernity before the Nazis notoriously used it as a pretext for ethnic cleansing. Ahmed talks about Heimat in the same breath as the “hygge” fad — a Nordic idea of warm, fuzzy togetherness that doubles as an advertisement for hot toddies and winter socks. Ahmed notes that the two concepts are rooted in a primordial tribal impulse to wall off familiar locals from (presumably prickly) outsiders. The popularity of these ideas in times of widespread social and political insecurity makes sense: They are a source of pride, and a throwback to simpler times. In Ahmed’s sober, scholarly analysis of primordial European customs, Westerners are so used to reading about unruly Arab tribes that they forget Christian Europeans are descended from societies with similar structures, values and morals.

Ahmed frames tribal identity — whether Norwegian or Bedouin — as a political conundrum: “how to remain strong in your own identity without transgressing onto that of others.” Too much can lead to predatory chauvinism; too little can bring about a loss of self, a “dangerous vacuum where … identity should have been.” This point is fundamental to his analysis. Rather than diagnosing tensions between Muslims and white Europeans as an innate clash of cultures, Ahmed blames a loosening of identities — religious, national, tribal and cultural — on all sides that’s further exacerbated by globalization.

His solution borrows from the past. He hopes Europeans can form new, hybrid identities that broaden the criteria for who belongs. Europe happens to have a homegrown example of this philosophy in medieval Andalusia, when people of multiple faiths in parts of modern-day Portugal and Spain enjoyed convivencia, a state of relative pluralism, peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. “The answer to the violence and tensions between religions in Europe today and the sense of alienation and confusion in Muslim youth is to revive and strengthen the Andalusian model as an alternative to that of a monolithic tribal society,” Ahmed writes.

At the same time, Ahmed makes efforts not to succumb to what he calls “Andalusian syndrome,” or “a nostalgia felt too deep for words about a beloved civilization in the past that haunts the imagination” (afflicted parties include everyone from Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia to the Marxist theorist Tariq Ali). This period was hardly utopian, and Ahmed characterizes popular accounts of it — in the works of Salman Rushdie, notably — as excessively rosy. Ahmed also concedes that the old version of Andalusia is “dated, impractical and has little legitimacy” today. But his yearning for a better way, and his conviction that a “New Andalusia” can exist, carries the reader through some 500 pages.

Modern manifestations of convivencia are admittedly rare, but there are some bright spots. When accounting for why many Muslims have found a happy home in Scotland, Ahmed borrows a touching idea from the Scottish nationalist politician Alex Salmond: that “tartan tribalism” is a kind of mosaic identity, “flexible enough to accept immigrants with different religious and racial backgrounds.” This flexibility, his research team found, is what brings unity to diverse societies. Regions with a greater understanding of their own mixed-up, multiethnic past — parts of Sicily, Portugal, even postwar Bosnia — are more inclined toward pluralism than the parts of Europe where people define themselves through blood or soil.

The fundamental message of “Journey Into Europe” is that throughout history, Islamic and European civilizations have often been not just compatible, but complementary. It’s crucial to acknowledge their shared past to reject today’s resurgent tribalism. The stakes, as Ahmed puts it, are “Andalusia or dystopia.”

Intellectually, his conclusion is hard to argue with. But since 9/11, popular perceptions of Islam in the West have been informed by emotion, not facts or reason. That makes it difficult to envision how this book will change anyone’s mind. The mere suggestion that Europe was once better off under Muslim rule would be enough to end a conversation not just with conservatives but with many liberals, too. The collective change of heart needed to achieve convivencia today would require — in Ahmed’s own assessment — “a strong moral leadership reflecting both wisdom and compassion while transcending religious, cultural and national boundaries.” That, too, seems further away than ever.

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