Reflections on Euro-Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
Having lived in the nation's capital since the months approaching September 2001, and as founder of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, I have long been frustrated by the poor quality of Washington's discourse on Islam and terrorism. Aside from an occasional White House or Pentagon briefing or rare newspaper, magazine, or blog article, most of what has been expressed in the nation's capital about these topics is predictable, dull, and even demeaning. Think-tank affairs are usually the worst, limited to authors flogging shallow books or theories, with the occasional propaganda party thrown in.
Late last month, Washington had the opportunity to see some authoritative faces and hear some new thoughts on these issues. The weather was sweltering and air conditioning was welcome; but the topic of the day was "Euro-Islam: The Dynamics of Effective Integration," and fresh air was appropriate. A seminar with 15 heavy hitters took place at the Woodrow Wilson Center, cosponsored by the Wilson Center's Southeast Europe Project and three related in-house programs, along with the European Institute and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. It was CIP's first public event.
The agenda began with welcoming remarks from John Sitilides, chairman of the Wilson Center Southeast Europe Project and an experienced hand in Greek-Turkish relations. It continued with a major address by the Ambassador of Slovenia to the U.S., Samuel Zbogar. Why Slovenia? Because the small and stable ex-Yugoslav republic has a useful history as a country on the borderland with Balkan Islam, and Slovenia will assume the presidency of the European Union in 2008. Its political leaders have indicated, as ambassador Zbogar pointed out, that the Slovenes will take the initiative in promoting a sensible dialogue on the future of Islam in Europe. In addition, the conference was intended to show that Islam in Europe includes the indigenous Muslims of the Balkans as well as the immigrant Islam visible in Britain, France, and Germany. (Turkey was mainly left for a later date.)
Ambassador Zbogar was followed by the first panel, on public policy stakes involving Euro-Islam. First up was Professor Jocelyne Cesari, who teaches at Harvard University. She stressed the sociological aspects of the "Muslim problem" in Western Europe: marginalization, prejudice, unemployment. Not much was new, although she was well-informed and articulate.
Prof. Cesari was followed by James Lyon - a.k.a. "the Lion of Belgrade" - who serves as special Balkan adviser to the International Crisis Group (ICG). Lyon is the best mission director ICG, the well-known international analysis service, possesses. He is a tough American who speaks perfect Serbian as well as the related Slav languages in ex-Yugoslavia. He has defied the gangsters in power in Serbia on numerous occasions. He pulled no punches in describing the infiltration into the Sandzhak, a border region between Serbia and newly-independent Montenegro, by Saudi-financed Wahhabi agitators, seeking to radicalize the local Muslims, who are split between those of Bosnian and those of Albanian heritage. Lyon outlined the difficulties facing the Sandzhak Muslims, who are poor and ignored by the world, in turning back the Wahhabi aggressors. But he also left no doubt that Muslims in the Sandzhak do not want to live under a Taliban regime and will confront the Wahhabis to the utmost.
Lyon was followed by one of the real stars of the conference, Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the world's outstanding expert on cultural vandalism within Saudi Arabia -- an ongoing scandal to the world's Muslims. Al-Alawi, who lives in England, used his conference time for a devastating criticism of British government naïveté in dealing with radical Islam within its borders. Al-Alawi exposed the domination of British Muslim life by extremists imported from Pakistan, an issue politically-correct British officials and media simply will not touch. Al-Alawi named names, included that of the obnoxious poseur Joe Hanson, a.k.a. Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim ultraradical until 9/11, who now poses as a peace-oriented Sufi. Hanson is an inveterate puffer; he claims to have advised President George W. Bush on the strength of a single vague comment at a meeting of (questionable) Muslim representatives with the U.S. chief executive. An American citizen, Hanson has been hired by the willfully-blind British government to join a so-called "Radical Middle Roadshow" intended, absurdly, to get "presentable" Muslim radicals to calm "extreme" Muslim radicals on British soil. As if there were a difference, and as if the demagogy of Joe Hanson would be appropriate for such controversies.
In the second panel, on ideological and theological issues in Europe, Professor Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University reviewed the territory mapped out by her academic predecessor, Prof. Cesari, discussing the strains on Muslim and non-Muslim populations in Western Europe. By contrast, Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, one of the most popular and dynamic personalities in the capital, and the first American Jewish ambassador to an Arab country (Morocco), followed her presentation with verbal hammer blows, describing how the jihad terrorists have mastered the internet as a tool for indoctrination and mobilization. You think marginalization and unemployment are major forces in driving Muslims in Western Europe into the arms of Al-Qaida? Try checking out the Wahhabi web. The enemy's soldiers and hardware are inferior to those of the West in battle, but their webmasters have ours beat by a far distance. Jihadist websites are alluring, entertaining, inspiring, and effective. To vulnerable young Muslim minds in Britain or France, they far exceed Al-Jazeerah terror videos as a recruiting tool.
The situation in the Balkans was again taken up by the next speaker, Imam Mirza Mesic of the Zagreb mosque in Croatia, one of the most distinguished Muslim institutions in Europe. Imam Mesic discussed the role of his Islamic Community as a minority among the overwhelmingly Catholic Croats, and read out the recent Declaration on Islam in Europe by the chief Muslim cleric of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Mustafa Ceric (online here, thanks to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). Imam Mesic was also a star of the conference, for his modesty and obvious sincerity. His English was imperfect but the audience understood every word.
Lunch featured an address by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Carpenter, who presented a stirring evocation of the Bush administration's vision for democracy and Islam. But he was also challenged by panelists, who demanded to know when the Bush administration will take a harder line on Wahhabism and its Saudi backers.
The third and last panel of the day, on Islam's future in Europe, began with Daniel Pipes, the prescient but often controversial expert on global Islamic extremism. In an understated but effective tone, Pipes discussed the alternative: Islamization of Europe through demographic pressure and European Christian weakness, or Europeanization of Islam through cultural influence. Pipes finds both possibilities worthy of discussion, but offered no definitive judgment either way.
Pipes was followed by another academic, Professor Sara Silvestri of Cambridge University, who again had recourse to a sociological approach. The last word, I am proud to say, was delivered by Professor Kemal Silay of Indiana University, the outstanding figure in Ottoman and Turkish studies in the West, and President of CIP. Silay closed the discussion on a militant note: Islamic estremists call, among Turks in Germany as well as in Turkey itself, for reversal of the secular history of the Turkish Republic and abolition of the pluralistic nature of Ottoman Islam; that they may introduce a reign of jihad, based on the glorification of martyrdom and bloodshed. Against them there can be no compromise.
All the panels included lively question-and-answer sessions. Audience members -- including a number of Muslim students from universities in the D.C. area -- almost uniformly congratulated the sponsors of the conference for providing straight, factual answers to hard questions, and for making the entire event innovative and vital where Washington is weakest: in content. Conference organizers promise more to come, and soon. A corner may have been turned in Washington, a town usually known for often suffocating repetition of clichés, even on such matters of life, death, and survival.