Competing Visions of Islam Will Shape Europe in the 21st Century

Akbar Ahmed’s new book deals with how migration is reshaping the continent, and whether leaders can cope.

The minaret of a mosquein Creteil near Paris, France
The minaret of a mosque in Creteil near Paris, France Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
Akbar Ahmed was born a subject of the British Raj. He devoted his career to building a modern Pakistani state, accepting some of his government’s most dangerous jobs, including political commissioner in the tribal agency of Waziristan. He rose to represent Pakistan as its high commissioner in the United Kingdom. Since retiring from government, he has taught at American University in Washington, D.C., where he has written books and produced documentaries about Islam’s place in the modern world. His newest book, Journey into Europe, is the culmination of years of study of the Muslim migration northward, which has accelerated dramatically since the Syrian Civil War. Ahmed and I have debated the impact of this migration for years. We continued the conversation recently over a long written exchange.

David Frum: You are promoting a new book, about Islam in Europe. As so often in your intellectual career, you perceive potential harmony where others see mostly conflict. Terrorism in the name of Islam has claimed many lives in Europe over the past two decades—and the reaction to mass migration from the Islamic world is shaking the politics of the continent.

Meanwhile much of the Muslim world seems to be turning away from the liberal values that have defined Europe since 1945. You see this especially in Turkey, once a candidate for entry into the European Union, now an increasingly authoritarian and religiously chauvinist state. Why are you so hopeful?

Akbar Ahmed: There have been too many deaths due to Muslim acts of terrorism—though more like hundreds rather than thousands—and undoubtedly Islam is now a highly debated “hot” issue in Europe today. As a social scientist who rests his analysis on field research and facts, I am concerned about the potential for violence and conflict in the future. But as a humanist with faith in the pluralist legacy that exists in Europe, I have hope that with wisdom, compassion, and courage, the leaders of Europe will be able to guide the continent through this difficult time.

Frum: Let’s begin with the first part of your analysis, within Europe. Speaking to the new Bundestag on March 21, Chancellor Merkel drew a distinction between the places of Islam and Christianity within Germany: “It is beyond question that our country was historically formed by Christianity and Judaism. But it’s also the case that with 4.5 million Muslims living with us, their religion, Islam, has also become a part of Germany.” That comment, I should add, drew some protest from some members of the Bundestag—but even on its face, it underscores that the politician who welcomed more Muslims into Europe than any other in history, almost 1.5 million people over the past three years, still sees Islam as a new and uncertain graft upon the European trunk. Your Journey Into Europe seeks to reassure her. But if even Angela Merkel is unsure, isn’t this a truly overwhelmingly difficult project?

Ahmed: There was a time when Muslim scientists, astronomers, surgeons, and mathematicians were at the cutting edge of their disciplines. Muslims were then seen as representing a powerful, sophisticated, and rich world civilization. Today, ironically, Muslims are seen as destitute refugees escaping mad and bloodthirsty Muslim rulers. In this guise it is understandable that Europeans will not see Islam as part of European civilization. Therefore they would be put at ease if they appreciated their own history, when Muslims were very much part of European culture and history, and impacted the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. While many people talk of a “Judeo-Christian” Europe, the fact is that it is the Judeo, Christian, and Islamic religions, i.e. the Abrahamic faiths, that came together, while engaging with Greek philosophy, to create and nourish what we now know as European civilization. Chancellor Merkel’s welcoming of some million migrants was an act of compassion for which many, including me, have applauded her. It is the kind of gesture that perhaps only one other person in Europe can match—Pope Francis washing the feet of the migrants and welcoming them to Europe.


1 reply

  1. And then there is the Ahmadiyya Muslim version of Islam: love for All and Hatred for None.

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