One silver lining of the ongoing travel restrictions is that staying home has let me catch up with some reading. Recently, I read two nonfiction books about Islam in Europe; both had been on my to-do list since their publication in 2018.
The first is British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism by Philip Lewis (an academic who, in his retirement, works on Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue) and Sadek Hamid (an expert on British Muslims and global Islam at the University of Oxford).
Second comes Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity by Akbar Ahmed. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC, the moving force behind the 1998 film Jinnah and former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom.
These are two works of sociology; one from a broadly theological and cultural studies standpoint and the other coming out of a non-Western anthropological perspective. What is impressive about the two works is their cutting edge themes, through which the authors breathe fresh life into their disciplines.
Religion — far from withering away as Karl Marx had predicted — has experienced a revival in 21st century public debate. Researchers have found that many young people — women in particular — are distancing themselves from cultural traditions and family expectations. As Lewis and Hamid note, these young Muslims seek “to disaggregate Islam from religious and cultural norms deemed dysfunctional in Britain.” Some resist their elders’ assumption that they will take spouses from the home country. Others, more positively and assertively, choose for themselves a range of attractive features that they associate variously with Britain, their ancestral home countries and the religion of Islam.
In British Muslims, a rich seam of optimism can be mined from Lewis and Hamid’s identification of positive reformist practices being pioneered by British Muslim women, of Muslims’ inventive use of the English language, and of culture (or what in their final chapter they call ‘Muslim Cool’). They write of “the normalisation of celebrities from a Muslim background”, giving examples of the England cricket player Moeen Ali and Nadiya Hussain, who won 2015’s Great British Bake Off.
If the broad trajectory is of an increasing confidence, it would not be fair to say that the book is excessively sanguine. Lewis and Hamid do not neglect “generation Jihad” in favour of the younger group of Muslims which Shelina Janmohamed has called “generation M” — a cohort of practising Muslims who are fashionable, streetwise and technologically savvy.
Indeed, perhaps the most fascinating chapter is the penultimate one in which the authors survey the changing social networks of extremists. They examine radicals — from Al Qaeda’s Yorkshire-based terrorist Mohammad Sidique Khan of the London bombings, to ISIS’s ‘Beatle’, the Cockney Kuwaiti Mohammed Emwazi (aka Jihadi John). Yet, they do not eschew discussion of far-right radicals. These include the British-Pakistani provocateur Maajid Nawaz, who used to belong to the radical group Hizbut Tahrir and then threw himself equally enthusiastically into the controversial counter-radicalism group Quilliam Foundation. As Lewis and Hamid suggest, Nawaz’s success bolsters many Muslims’ suspicion that, as far as the British mainstream is concerned, “the best Muslim is the ex-Muslim.”
Akbar Ahmed also includes the, by now, almost compulsory chapter, on terror in his compendious, temporally and spatially transcendent book Journey into Europe. He, too, probes the part played by Nawaz and in the British Prevent agenda, with his interviewees noting Nawaz’s ability to do a 180-degree turn and hold contradictory viewpoints with utter certainty and contempt for others’ openness to nuance.
Ahmed’s previous book was The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, about “tribal Islam” and drone warfare in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Journey into Europe can be viewed as a partner to that earlier volume, with the analysis of tribalism being extended into Europe. Via erudite readings of such foundational thinkers as Max Weber and Ibn Khaldun, Ahmed explores how Europeans cling to primordial, exclusionary notions of Volk and Heimat (Germany), hygge and janteloven (Scandinavia), and Englishness and Brexit (UK).
In contrast, he traces the continent’s longstanding pluralist currents, writing a heartening chapter on la covivencia, or coexistence, in Muslim Spain. Al Andalusia, while far from perfect, was, Ahmed shows, a space of tolerance, education and artistic creation. Its denizens could reach a common ground on which to hold convivial conversations despite undeniable differences. As the scholar of Granada, Ibn Khaldun, affirmed, this early society strived for asabiyyah or social cohesion.
As well as a historical perspective, Ahmed brings the ethnographer’s eye for detail and ear for pithy interview quotes. What is interesting about his anthropology is its family-oriented relationality rather than individualistic ambition. Ahmed is accompanied for much of his journey into the heart of Europe’s darkness by his wife Zeenat, their daughter the respected anthropologist Amineh Hoti and grandchildren Anah and Ibrahim Hoti. His team doesn’t set itself above the subjects they study, as did the classic anthropologists. Instead, in their field diaries, they describe with humility performing prayers and experiencing racism.
Ahmed reveals much about Europe’s indigenous Muslims, starting with the Bosnia and Kosovo Wars. He talks to Muslims from Greece and Bulgaria, to Tatars and the Roma people, as well as the little-known Cham Muslims who are Albanian and live in Greece. A compelling chapter on Muslim converts opens with the German MTV star Kristiane Backer (spilling tea about her jilting by Imran Khan). Ahmed shows that the majority of converts are women. He moves on to a sketch of Muhammad Asad, translator of The Message of the Quran, who was born a Jew in Austria-Hungary. Ahmed shares wisdom about anti-Semitism, averring that both Jews and Muslims must be alert to “what European predator identity is capable of when it pursues tribal identity to its logical extreme.”
I learned a lot from these two books. Despite their having been published two years ago in a world unacquainted with the dreaded term ‘Covid-19’, they feel up-to-date and illuminating.
The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 26th, 2020