A Dialogue with Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed

Q. Recently you have launched your book Journey into Europe that is based on your four years of visits, observations and interactions with people of all faiths in the West. Please briefly tell us about this whole project that has finally culminated as a book?


Journey into Europe is a film and book research project about Islam in Europe based on extensive fieldwork my team of researchers and I conducted across the continent over a four-year period. We interviewed community leaders, politicians, religious leaders – chief Rabbis, archbishops, grand muftis – and everyday Europeans of all backgrounds. It is the fourth part of my quartet of studies examining relations between the West and the Muslim world after 9/11. The first book in the quartet, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), is based on fieldwork in nine major Muslim countries and examines how people in the Muslim world view the West and what occurred in their societies after 9/11. The second study, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), evaluates how people in the United States see Muslims and the place of Islam in American identity. And the third volume in the quartet, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), is concerned with the perspective of tribal peoples living in the interstices between states where the U.S.-led war on terror has been conducted. The goal of the quartet is to build bridges between different communities through knowledge and scholarship so that we, as one human civilization, can learn to live together in peace.


Q. What is the main thesis of the book which you wanted to test and what are the findings?
My study sets out to explore the place of Islam in Europe from the time the first Muslims landed in Spain early in the eighth century, and, in doing so, aims to challenge and refute the increasingly popular thesis propagated by the Far Right that Islam is neither part of Europe nor has contributed to Western Civilization. Many in both the West and the Muslim world are not aware of the long and rich history of Islam’s presence in Europe which begins in the eighth century. We visited places like Spain, Italy, and the Balkans and found rich periods in history where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived, worked, created, and prospered together. To see Muslims in Europe as a static, unchanging community is historically incorrect.

We have seen the rise of the Islamophobic Far Right, which is now affecting government policy in European countries.  Fortunately, there are still many Europeans who accept Europe’s Muslim communities, wish to coexist with them, and are dedicated towards embracing the Muslim community.   


Q. You have mentioned about wide contributions of the Muslims in the rise of Western Civilization. Please explain in detail which areas have Muslims contributed to significantly and their impact on today’s West? 
We found that Islam has made significant contributions to European history and civilization. Many aspects of European art, science, literature, architecture, and philosophy can be traced back to interactions with Islamic civilization. Islamic scholars, in places like Spain one thousand years ago, are responsible for translating, interpreting, and transmitting the ancient Greek to Europeans, for instance. Staples of everyday life in the West find their roots in Islamic culture. These include the guitar; foods like coffee, oranges, peaches and rice; the cry “Ole!” heard at football games in Europe, which derives from “Allah”; financial terms like tariff, derived from the Arabic tarifah, and check, from sakk; the pointed arches in Gothic Christian churches, which were derived from the pointed arches in mosques; the Dutch tulip, vaccinations against disease; hospitals; the disciplines of alchemy and algebra; the concept of zero; chess; the numeral system; paper; and many facets of the Western university system. In addition, in my book I discuss numerous great European figures who, scholars argue, were influenced by Islam and Islamic culture, including Goethe, Da Vinci, Defoe, Dante, Copernicus, and Descartes. Ibn Firnas experimented with flying, and Averroes in his great studies balanced faith and reason – there are craters named in their honor on the moon. 


Here I must also note that during my travels in Europe, I was amazed at the impact that Allama Iqbal, who studied and lived in Europe, had made. Across the continent, Europeans paid tribute to Iqbal. From his portrait on display at Cambridge University’s Trinity College, to the university lecture room named after him in Sarajevo, I followed the Iqbal trail during my fieldwork. In Cordoba, Spain, there is a street named after Iqbal and his poem about the mosque of Cordoba hangs in the mayor’s office. In Heidelberg, Germany, there is a road named after him, a plaque honoring him by the river, and another in the house where he lived. There is also a monument dedicated to Allama Iqbal in a city park in Munich, Germany.

  • Many in both the West and the Muslim world are not aware of the long and rich history of Islam’s presence in Europe which begins in the eighth century.

 

  • To see Muslims in Europe as a static, unchanging community is historically incorrect.

 

  • Staples of everyday life in the West find their roots in Islamic culture.

 

  • Numerous great European figures who, scholars argue, were influenced by Islam and Islamic culture, including Goethe, Da Vinci, Defoe, Dante, Copernicus, and Descartes. Ibn Firnas experimented with flying, and Averroes in his great studies balanced faith and reason – there are craters named in their honor on the moon. 

 

  • The rhetoric against Islam and Muslims, particularly in Eastern Europe, is reaching dangerous levels.

 

  • Every Muslim must act as an ambassador of his or her faith and build bridges.

 

  • The Muslim community and the administration in European countries must understand this phenomenon of alienation and work together to create an environment where young Muslims feel welcome and accepted in European countries.

 

  • The Muslim immigrants must be treated with humanity and respect. 
  • European policy to deal with this challenge and the situation is not sustainable. 

 

  • We found a great many wise and compassionate Europeans who are resisting the Islamophobes and working to make their vision for a pluralistic society a reality.

 

  • The West is very diverse and there is a range of opinions expressed in media, academia, and politics as to what the policy of Western countries should be. 

 

  • In the past Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in Spain, Italy, the Balkans, and many other places across the Muslim world. 

 

  • In order to effectively address the terrorism and extremism that can emerge from these tribal regions, the relationship between center and periphery must be improved.

 

  • The Quaid imagined Pakistan as one of the greatest nations of the world. Pakistanis must live up to his dreams for the nation. 

 

  • The Quaid-i-Azam’s vision for Pakistan was a nation with unity, faith and discipline, with human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. 

 

  • Democracy and Islam are fully compatible, something which is often disputed in the West.


Q. Are the main questions or allegations by the West towards Islamic civilization that you have referred to in your book a result of lack of understanding, prejudice or so-called Islamophobia?
While the extensive Islamic contributions to Europe, including those named above, are well established in the historical record, many Europeans do not know about or accept them. For these Europeans, Muslims have not contributed anything to Europe and represent an alien and barbaric force seeking to conquer Europe that must be resisted. We have seen the rise of the Islamophobic Far Right, which is now affecting government policy in European countries. Even Muslim citizens of European countries are not seen as sufficiently “European” and there have been many acts of prejudice and discrimination against them. The rhetoric against Islam and Muslims, particularly in Eastern Europe, is reaching dangerous levels, and Far Right politicians have even spoken of concentration camps as a policy towards the Muslim population, thus arguing for Hitler’s treatment of the Jews to be repeated towards Muslims. Islamophobia is thus a very dangerous force in Europe. Fortunately, there are still many Europeans who accept Europe’s Muslim communities, wish to coexist with them, and are dedicated to embracing the Muslim community. 


Given the crisis of Muslims living in non-Muslim societies and the growing Islamophobia – seven mosques were closed and 40 Imams expelled in Austria just recently – I believe every Muslim must act as an ambassador of his or her faith and build bridges. This is simply what, I as a humble professor on campus, have tried to do.


Q. How deep is the identity crisis for Muslims living in the West?
In my book I identified a keen identity crisis of Muslims living in the West, particularly among the young generation. The first generation of those Muslims who came to Europe from the former colonies spoke the language, understood the culture, and worked hard, but they understood they were not there permanently and therefore could not expect the full rights of citizens. The immigrants who went to countries like Germany to work in factories did not speak the language or understand the culture, but similarly knew they were not on the same level as a native Europeans in the social hierarchy. Their children and grandchildren, however, who have citizenship in European countries, speak the languages fluently and are acculturated, still find that they are not treated fairly as any other citizen and demand their rights. They are much less likely to get jobs, for example, than “native” Europeans. The more strongly the local society pushes back against the Muslim community, the stronger the opposition is from within the community, especially among the youth. What can ultimately happen is some young Muslims begin to feel that there is no place for them in Europe, which is precisely what some Muslim extremist groups argue. The Muslim community and the administration in European countries must understand this phenomenon of alienation and work together to create an environment where young Muslims feel welcome and accepted in European countries.


Q. A large number of Muslim immigrants have recently entered into Europe. Their challenges are certainly different than earlier generations of Muslims already settled in Europe. What are their dilemmas and the strategies required to overcome them?  
The migration crisis in Europe, which has been developing over the past six years or so, has challenged European societies to the core. They have had to deal with large numbers of refugees arriving to the continent – more than one million migrants have been accepted by Germany alone. Thousands have died attempting to make the journey. Many of those who make it, meanwhile, end up living as voiceless “illegals” in the margins and shadows of Europe, where they can become the targets of violence and intimidation. The success of Far Right parties in places like Italy puts additional pressure on the migrants, many of whom are desperate people fleeing conflict zones like Syria searching for a better life for themselves and their families. We met many of these migrants in our travels and they repeatedly told us that they just wanted a place where they could live in safety and security and that they sought to contribute to their new societies with the goal of helping their families. Humane, practical, and long-term strategies and policies must be urgently introduced throughout Europe to accommodate the many immigrants who continue to arrive undeterred from across Africa and Asia and who will not stop coming to Europe unless conditions change in their home countries. The Muslim immigrants must be treated with humanity and respect. Today, there is no effective European policy to deal with this challenge and the situation is not sustainable. Europe can and must learn from some extraordinary European figures who have welcomed and attempted to accommodate the migrants like the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, Leoluca Orlando, who told me, “I will never accept that a human being can be illegal. For Sicilians, no man is illegal.” 


Q. Do you see any signs in the West towards deeper understanding of the world of Islam?
We found a great many wise and compassionate Europeans who are resisting the Islamophobes and working to make their vision for a pluralistic society a reality. They included religious leaders like the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Professor Edward Kessler of Cambridge University, and politicians like Mayor Orlando. Europeans like them inspire me and give me hope and confidence that if we can spread knowledge and understanding, it is possible for Muslims to coexist with others in Europe and make a positive impact on both Europe and the Muslim world.  


Q. One of the charges on the West is its pursuit of dual policies. On one hand it promotes liberal values but on the other hand, the West is proponent of realpolitik, biggest arms producing and sales market, neo-colonialism and interference in domestic politics of other countries. How do the Western scholars justify these positions?
The West is very diverse and there is a range of opinions expressed in media, academia, and politics as to what the policy of Western countries should be. The question of what Western political parties and governments should advocate is a subject of fierce internal debate. Depending upon the current context, one view or another may become dominant. It is not a settled issue. The stronger the Far Right parties become, for example, the more likely states will enact policies that reflect those ideological positions.


Q. What are the biggest challenges for the Muslim societies and states and your recommendations to overcome them? 
Muslim societies are grappling with many challenges including corruption, lack of economic development, civil wars and violence, ethnic and religious strife, and poor leadership. To overcome the present day challenges, Muslims all over the world must rediscover the Quranic value of ilm, or knowledge.  It was on the basis of ilm, the second most used word in the Quran after God, that Islamic society achieved its glorious heights in places like Andalusia, Spain. Under Muslim rule, the main library in Cordoba, Spain, had 600,000 books, at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe, in Switzerland, had 800 books. Today the position is reversed, with Harvard University alone recently publishing more research items than the entire Arab world put together. Over 900 Nobel Prizes have been awarded, of which only 12 have been won by Muslims. Education is unfortunately not sufficiently valued in Muslim societies and scholars are frequently treated very poorly.


Q. How to transition the frame of reference from Clash of Civilizations to Peace Among Civilizations? 
This is a question I have been grappling with for decades. I have debated the two giants of the “Clash” theory – Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, the former in one-to-one public events. Lewis and Huntington promoted the idea of the Clash of Civilizations, which after 9/11 became a popular way of seeing the relationship between the West and Muslim world. For commentators adopting this view, the two have been in conflict for centuries and are destined to remain in conflict. The “war on terror” was thus interpreted in this frame. Yet I have found that this simplistic idea can be immediately challenged. First, we see how interactions with Islam shaped European civilization itself in so many ways. We have many examples of times in the past where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in Spain, Italy, the Balkans, and many other places across the Muslim world. There is also the matter of the millions of Muslims living in the West, many of whom have made a considerable impact on their societies such as Muhammad Ali in the United States. The number one poet of America is Rumi, after all. These examples challenge the idea of a deterministic Clash of Civilizations. Instead of idea of Clash of Civilizations we can build bridges between the civilizations and build upon what unites us. This idea has also been promoted by such notable leaders as Pope Francis, President Jimmy Carter, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. It is vitally important that we heed their advice and guidance in this difficult phase of history. I am delighted to record that there are Muslim communities, notably the Bosnians, who are acutely aware of the need to promote the Dialogue of Civilizations in the context of Islamic history.


Q. Shifting focus to Pakistan, as we have won war against terrorism by establishing writ of the state in all parts of the country, but still the challenges of radicalism and violent extremism are not over. What are your observations, analysis and recommendations on this?
In my previous book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, I analysed much of the violence taking place in the Muslim world on the basis of a broken relationship between central governments and tribal societies living on the periphery in often inaccessible areas such as mountains and deserts. I drew upon 40 case studies from Morocco to Indonesia and observed the same pattern. In Pakistan we see the difficult relationship between the central government and regions such as North and South Waziristan, where I served as Political Agent, and Balochistan, where I served as Commissioner. It is precisely in these tribal regions, whether in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, or the Philippines, where the United States, utilizing tools such as the drone, has become involved in its pursuit of terrorists and has exacerbated this broken relationship between center and periphery. These tribal societies are in a state of turmoil and for ordinary people life has become intolerable. In order to effectively address the terrorism and extremism that can emerge from these tribal regions, the relationship between center and periphery must be improved. The central

government should treat the people of the periphery with respect as full citizens of the state and provide them education, justice, and economic opportunities. Foreign powers like the United States should also be sensitive to these center/periphery dynamics and act to improve the broken relationship by helping central governments ameliorate the factors that are driving conflict. Once again I refer to the wisdom of the Quaid and his brilliant diplomatic handling of Pakistan’s tribal societies, including those in Waziristan.


Q. You have done extensive work on the life of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Kindly tell us about his vision of the Pakistani state and society?
The Quaid imagined Pakistan as one of the greatest nations of the world. Pakistanis must live up to his dreams for the nation. The Quaid-i-Azam’s vision for Pakistan was a nation with unity, faith and discipline, with human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights. As a noted lawyer he was also adamant that Pakistan uphold the rule of law for all citizens. The Quaid’s vision can be seen in his first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, on August 11, 1947 when he declared, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” The Quaid based this vision in Islamic history, stating, “Our own history and our Prophet have given the clearest proof that non-Muslims have been treated not only justly and fairly but generously.” Quaid-i-Azam showed that democracy and Islam are fully compatible, something which is often disputed in the West. The Quaid can perhaps best be compared with figures like Thomas Jefferson in the United States. Both men were outstanding lawyers who passionately believed in religious freedom and were the founding fathers of their respective nations. Pakistan is today at a crossroads and it is crucial that we urgently rediscover and implement the Quaid’s vision for our nation. 


Q. Any message for the youth of Muslim world and particularly for Pakistani youth?  
To the youth of Pakistan and the Muslim world, I say the future lies in your hands. Today there are many competing voices claiming to speak for Islam, but remember that it is your faith and you cannot allow anyone else to hijack it. I implore all Muslim youth to research and learn about Islam and the importance of education and scholarship in our faith. It is important not only for the young but for all Muslims to remember the Prophet’s (PBUH) famous saying, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” 
I had conceived and completed my Jinnah Quartet – including the Jinnah feature film – of books and films on the Quaid and my Islam quartet of books and films especially for youth, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Pakistani youth must face the world with confidence and compassion and develop both an inner strength, which rests in ideas of peace, beauty, and spirituality, and an outer calm to remain secure in their identity. They can be inspired by the giants of their tradition – including the Quaid, Allama Iqbal, and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.


E-mail: [email protected]
 

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