New Visions for European Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
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Visiting Old Europe, i.e. Western Europe today, it is difficult to deny that the long-dreaded "clash of civilizations" between Muslims and non-Muslims -- at least on the battlefield of mass psychology -- has begun. London, with its large multiethnic population, seems to have become the capital of continental polarization. On both sides, rumor and tendencies toward panic abound.
Demagoguery and exaggerated rhetoric monopolize discourse. Great religious traditions have been transformed in the popular mind into mere ideological conspiracies. As I argued on the disheartening "cartoon jihad" controversy (and here), the mainstream media appear intent on conspiring with radical Islamists to portray the whole of the ummah or global Islamic community -- more than a billion people -- as empty-headed fools.
In the latter text I wrote, "reporters and commentators have established the claim that Islam strictly forbids artistic depiction of Muhammad, other prophets, and living beings in general, and that in publishing cartoons of the prophet the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten deeply offended all Muslims. Journalists have foisted this nonsense on the Western public by recycling the apologetics for radical Islam offered by Western academics enjoying the patronage of obscurantist, oil-rich Arabs. In reality, portrayal of Muhammad is not universally banned in Islam."
A marginal stratum of illiterate Muslim extremists, controlled by the Wahhabi sect, have obliged those who deprecate the faith of Islam, by acting precisely like empty-headed fools. The large Muslim diaspora communities of Britain and France are now viewed by non-Muslims as boiling cauldrons of rage. In the first and worst case, radical clerics from Pakistan, who dominate the British mosques, have escaped public accountability and responsibility. The British prefer to shiver in fear of Arab preachers with no credibility than to examine the infiltration of local Islam by British Asian Islamists. The Pakistani jihadists continue their incitement across the island.
I have immense doubt that, at this moment, necessary voices of calm and restraint will proliferate on either side in Old Europe. I now believe that all hopes for conciliation between European Muslims and non-Muslims must come from New Europe. Western Europeans are, I fear, spiritually exhausted; and they express their "Christian" loyalties only as a means of declaring they are not Muslims. They are afraid of Muslims, but mainly because they are insecure about their own religious legacies.
The peoples of New Europe -- Poles, Hungarians, Slovenes, Romanians, and even some other citizens of former Yugoslavia -- survived Communism thanks to their spiritual commitments, often to traditional Catholicism. They are stronger in their Christian belief and are in a better position to view Islam without fear. With these thoughts in mind, as executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, I went to Slovenia and Croatia in February for university and think-tank conferences on European Islam and the "Balkan Muslim model."
For most Americans and West Europeans, the term "Balkan model" is problematical, insofar as the Balkans are seen as a territory of bloody division. But the phrase has assumed a new meaning in the Islamic context. Bosnian Islam has demonstrated, through its survival of a brutal war, that it possesses a real commitment to moderation, civic and multi-religious unity, the renunciation of violence, and the advancement of a genuinely European _expression of the faith of Muhammad.
At a university seminar in Slovenia, an important aspect of the current European crisis came under discussion: Britain is not the only major European country in which the Islamic clerical class or ulema are entirely foreign. Indeed, the majority of Western European Muslim clerics were born or trained in countries away from Europe: the aforementioned Pakistanis in Britain, along with North Africans in France, and Turks and Kurds in Germany. As the Pakistanis are typically indoctrinated in jihadism, the North Africans are frequently aggrieved veterans of the second Algerian war, which pitted a state-socialist government against religious believers, and in which the Wahhabis viciously intervened. In the smaller countries such as Denmark, radical Arab preachers also occupy the religious leadership.
Numerous studies and commentaries on these problems are based on the presumption that the "immigrant Islam" of the first and second generations will become the dominant form of European Islam, and remain so for a considerable time, until a process of assimilation has succeeded. Yet Islam cannot become European without a Muslim leadership of European origin. There is no reason the European states cannot demand that Muslim religious officials be trained in Europe, following an academic curriculum that will emphasize European responsibilities. Such a curriculum is now standard at the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Sarajevo, which trains imams and muftis (religious judges) serving Bosnian Muslims. With a modest budget and official international backing, the Bosnians could establish a central European Islamic university for the certification of European clerics.
At the conclusion of the cycle of meetings I attended, on February 24, the chief Muslim scholar of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Mustafa Ceric, came to the Croatian metropolis of Zagreb to present a Declaration of European Muslims. That Ceric had come from the Bosnian capital to that of Catholic Croatia to publicly read the declaration was symbolic -- the Muslim leader came to Christian Europe to appeal for understanding rather than staying home in what many observers have grown to see rather bitterly as a kind of reservation for an unknown and, to most, uninteresting indigenous tribe.
Bosnians are not alone in this condition. A recent document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), titled "Local Electronic Media in Kosovo" contemptuously referred to Kosovar Albanians as "cargo cultists," i.e. as undeveloped South Pacific islanders who believe high-tech resources and assets should rain from the sky for their use.
And yet, the Melanesians who believe in cargo cults also produce beautiful works of religious art, and the poor Balkan Muslims, who suffered an attempted genocide not long ago, have produced in Ceric's Declaration an extremely pure and spiritual alternative for the guidance of European Muslims.
In Zagreb, Ceric criticized those who speak of "Christian Europe" firstly for ignoring the continent's Jewish history. His text never refers to jihad, unbelievers, or war between the worlds of Islam and the West. Nor does it cite controversial hadith or oral sayings of Muhammad. Rather, Ceric quotes from the philosopher John Rawls, basing his conception of Islam's future on "the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association."
Ceric affirms that "European Muslims love freedom for others as they love it for themselves and appreciate citizenship and human rights in multicultural societies... European Muslims would like to raise their children in peace and security with other religious communities in Europe on the basis of 'Ethics of Sharing'... Islam teaches Muslims that Jews and Christians are People of the Book and so all Jews, Christians, and Muslims should learn how to share their common spiritual roots and their common future hopes without prejudice." He praises Europe as "proud of its road from Slavery to Freedom, from Mythology to Science, from Might to Right and from Raison d'Etat to the Legitimacy of State as well as Europe's commitment to the basic values of Human Rights and Democracy."
Ceric defines Europe as "the house of contract" -- a place where differing religions have equal rights and protections. But Ceric calls European Muslims to "realize that freedom is not a gift given by anyone. Muslim freedom in Europe must be earned... Muslims who live in Europe should be more concerned now about their responsibilities than about their freedoms because by assuming their responsibility in European economic, political and cultural life, Muslims who live in Europe will earn their right to freedom... Muslims who live in Europe should present Islam to the western audience as a universal Weltanschauung, and not as a tribal, ethnic, or national culture."
Some elements of Ceric's Declaration may come under the fire of misunderstanding. The Bosnian cleric calls for recognition of Islam by European governments as one of the established religions, and for an opening to voluntary Islamic law in family matters. Bosnian Islam has followed the highly rational and adaptable Hanafi form of Islamic law, which is mainly concerned with purely spiritual matters and has accepted parity with Western secular law in numerous countries.
Instead of a clash of civilizations, a dialogue across borderlands could take place, with the historic eastern Mediterranean frontier of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina serving as the point of mediation. Ceric's Declaration embodies an authentic, European Islam greatly influenced by Sufi spirituality. Since its circulation by the Center for Islamic Pluralism, the text has chiefly attracted support from foreign Muslims, including Turkish and Indonesian intellectuals, because most American Muslims -- even moderates -- are caught up in the noise surrounding the "cartoon jihad" and other media frenzies. But the intelligent actor in history is capable of predicting, rather than of merely reacting, to events. Will Ceric's offer of a solution to the problem of European Islam be considered before much more time is wasted?