Despite being 'Othered', Islam belongs in Europe

Despite being 'Othered', Islam belongs in Europe
Comment: Islam has had a long and rich history in Europe, but peddling it as an imported and dangerous entity creates a harmful "us versus them" attitude says Usaid Saddiqui
6 min read
13 May, 2016
Islam and Muslims remain a punching bag for European politicians and governments [Getty]

According to a shocking poll released earlier this month, 60 percent of Germans believe that Islam does not belong in Germany. In the same poll, only 22 percent of the population agreed that Islam has a place, a 15 percent drop from last year in January, when 37 percent of those surveyed believed that to be the case.

Members of the far right party AfD were the most fervent in their anti-Islam views with 90 percent believing Islam did not belong in Germany. Only members of the Green Party viewed Islam more favourably with 42 percent for and 37 percent against.

Contrary to popular belief, Islam has had a long and well-established history on the European continent. Yet throughout history, this has not stopped anti-Muslim groups and governments from sowing the fear of Islam as an imported entity into the minds of European societies, in order to pursue their own agendas.

Muslim rule in Europe

The presence of Muslims in Europe for over 1,000 years has been extensively documented. Numerous scholars have argued that Islam has not only existed in Europe, but that it played an integral part of Europe's rise out of the medieval era.

"Islam had played a significant role in Europe since its advent in Spain and the Mediterranean in the eight century" wrote the late Sir Jack Goody, - a former Cambridge professor - in his book called "Islam in Europe".

According to Goody, "Islam has been of great importance not only to but in Europe itself… in terms of its political, military and religious presence as well as for what it has contributed to technology, architecture, classical scholarship, mathematics…"

Recently, the election of Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, as Mayor of London has captured headlines around the world. Many have praised his victory as the first Muslim mayor of a major European city. While the triumphant mood surrounding Khan's victory may be warranted, his election is not a rarity in Europe.

In response to Khan's victory, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole points out numerous cities in Europe where Muslims have occupied positions of power. From Cordoba in Spain, one of the most populous cities in the 900s, to Sicily in modern day Italy, Muslim governors and mayors have been commonplace.

Collaboration between the three monotheistic religions was also the norm. This is not to suggest that persecution of minorities did not occur under Muslim rule. In any society where a majority-minority dynamic exists, minorities are bound to face challenges. Nevertheless, instances of cooperation between monotheistic faiths in European history are numerous.

With its history cemented in fomenting European civilisation, Islam and Muslims remain a punching bag for European politicians and governments.

Andalucia, in Southwest Spain or Andalusia as it is known in Arabic, is a seminal example of tolerance during Muslim rule. American University professor Akbar Ahmad says "Andalusia produced a magnificent Muslim civilisation - religious tolerance, poetry, music, learned scientists and scholars like Averroes… These great achievements were the result of collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews - indeed the work of the great Jewish Rabbi Maimonides was written in the Arabic language."

"It was a time when a Muslim ruler had a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic archbishop as his foreign minister. The Spanish had a phrase for that period of history - La Convivencia, or co-existence" he adds.

'Othering' Islam

With its history cemented in fomenting European civilisation, Islam and Muslims remain a punching bag for European politicians and governments.

Columbia professor Joseph Massad in his book "Islam in Liberalism" argues that Islam in the Western liberal tradition has for centuries been presented as a monolithic entity, one that is inherently anti-democratic and despotic, with its historical and geographical diversity stripped away to create an enemy to project Western failures onto the 'other'.

In what has become a hallmark of the western projection of superiority vis-à-vis the Muslim world, Massad writes that there is a strong desire to draw attention to the 'plight' of Muslim women, who are considered less free than European and Western women, in order to caricature Muslim men as barbaric, and Islam as an inherently misogynistic faith.

According to Massad, "European and Euro-American" powers have resorted to saving "Muslim women from the religions, cultures and traditions under whose yoke they live, and from their misogynistic Muslim captors". The Cologne episode in Germany this past New Year, where 1,000 women were reportedly attacked and sexually assaulted - allegedly by mostly refugee men of Arab and North African descent - sheds new light on Massad's comments.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the compatibility of Muslims and Islam with European values was once again scrutinised, with many throwing into question Germany's migration policy, while simultaneously chastising Muslim men as suspicious and violence prone figures, from whom Europeans, especially women, had to be protected.

Scapegoating Arab or Muslim men as the exclusive importers of rape culture in Europe is to ignore that such a culture does already exist in countries such as France or Germany

A Polish magazine ran a feature last February depicting a white blonde woman on its cover being clasped by brown men, presumably all migrants, with the title "Islamic Rape of Europe". Such obscene depictions serve only to be reductive, while obscuring the fact that sexual assault in Germany or in any society has its roots in patriarchal behaviours, not scripture.

"If there was an attack on an asylum center by a self-declared defender of the Christian West, we wouldn't even think of examining Christian beliefs as a possible motive" said Aiman Mazyek a member of the General Assembly of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

Writing in Al-Jazeera America, New York based writer Natasha Lennard and Lukas Hermsmeier wrote of the Cologne attacks that "we should be suspicious of any people keen to point out the links between Islam and misogyny if they are not equally concerned with the prevailing violent misogynies in the cultural West".

The authors rightly point out that in scapegoating Arab or Muslim men as the exclusive importers of rape culture in Europe is to claim that such a culture does not already exist in countries such as France or Germany.

Future of Islam in Europe

Though depressing, these anti-Muslim trends are reversible. People in both the political and civil spheres of European life are fighting to correct the mischaracterisation of Muslims. In response to far right rallies of anti-Muslim groups like Pegida, counter rallies attracting thousands have demanded an end to racism and bigotry.

The Paris attacks, and the bombings in Brussels must be understood largely as a symptom of geopolitics rather than a faith based problem

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last year that Islam belonged in Europe, while attending a rally against fascist elements in German society. Merkel was echoing former German president Christian Wulff, who in 2010 said something similar – and recently asserted that "whoever says I do not want any Muslim in Europe, he or she also cannot campaign for the rights of Christians in other parts of the world".

Most importantly, the Paris attacks, and the bombings in Brussels must be understood largely as a symptom of geopolitics rather than a faith based problem. Portraying the West pitted against the "violent" Muslims, the war on terror is readily sold as a clash of civilisations, a sensationalist overture for political and monetary gain, while purposely providing no political, economic and social context explaining why wars are fought or waged in the first place.

The sooner this "us versus them" predisposition is done away with - and the myth that Islam is foreign to Europe dissipates from European consciousness - the better. It will give people less reason to fear and more basis for coming together.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.