Nation book review

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Journey into Europe:
Islam, Immigration, and Identity

Prominent intellectual Akbar Ahmed (The Thistle and the Drone), Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, turns his eyes to Europe in this sweeping ethnographic exploration of Islam and its multiple narratives across the continent. The central thread woven throughout is the question of “primordial identity” (an imagined ethnic essence and tribal memory) in the modern world.

Akbar Ahmed

Through interviews, surveys of history, and reflections on his own experience, Ahmed argues that communities in Europe-whether they primarily identify as Muslim or European-need to turn away from these primordial identities and instead seek mutual flourishing through a “pluralist identity.”
As a model, he examines Andalusian, Balkan, and Sicilian communities and identities that are defined by the coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Ahmed is perhaps a bit utopian, and the language of the book can be simplistic when it frames Islam and Europe as opposing and separate entities. Nonetheless, this highly instructive work deserves careful and critical attention as people across the world wrestle with how to balance community with difference in an age of reinvigorated tribalism. The book narrates an unprecedented, richly detailed, and clear-eyed exploration of Islam in Europe and the place of Islam in European history and civilization. Daily headlines tell of escalating tensions surrounding Muslims in Europe: the refugee crisis, repeated episodes of terrorism, and cultural differences over language and female dress have helped shape a growing rift between the communities, while the parallel rise of right-wing, nationalist political parties throughout the continent, often espousing anti-Muslim rhetoric, has shaken the foundation of the European Union to its very core.

Title of the book

Akbar Ahmed, widely acknowledged as a leading scholar of contemporary Islam, and a team of researchers have traveled across Europe over the last several years and interviewed Muslims and non-Muslims from all walks of life. They spoke with some of Europe’s most prominent figures, including presidents and prime ministers, archbishops, chief rabbis, grand muftis, heads of right-wing parties, and every-day Europeans from a variety of backgrounds. Their findings reveal both of the misunderstandings and the opportunities for Europe and its Muslims to improve their mutual relationship. Along with an analysis of what has gone wrong and why, this urgent, unprecedented study, the fourth in a quartet of studies examining relations between the West and the Muslim world, features recommendations for promoting integration and pluralism in the twenty-first century. Kirkus describes the book a dense but rewarding anthropological account of European reactions to Islam and Muslim immigrant communities, and vice versa. In Germany, reports the newsmagazine Bild, 110,000 jobs rely on the döner kebab-a Turkish version of the gyro, that is-alone. That the food has been so widely accepted does not automatically translate into easy acceptance of other Islamic artifacts, though, to say nothing of people. As Ahmed (Chair, Islamic Studies/American Univ.; The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, 2013, etc.) argues, this speaks to the enduring strength of tribal separatism. The term “tribalism” has long been reserved for so-called primitive societies, but “the classical attributes of tribes are present in modern European societies, however heavily they are buried or disguised, in cultural norms, language, rhetoric, symbolism, and assumptions of who ‘we’ are.” When such tribes meet with Islamic ones with their own assumptions of ethnic identity, then trouble is bound to ensue, as it certainly has, with many manifestations. One, for instance, is the refusal of Turkish players on Hungarian soccer teams to sing the national anthem-and no wonder, given that “the anthem depicts the ‘wild Turks’ as an excrescence, a ‘barbarian nation.’ ” It’s easy to see how a Hungarian nationalist might react to such a response. Ahmed ventures that given the experiences of Eastern European societies with predatory neighbors-i.e., Germany and Russia-such expressions of “primordial tribal identity” are not unexpected. The author examines differing ideas of nationhood among the European powers, such as the marked distinction between French and British ideas of imperial management and citizenship. More pointedly, he considers how Muslim immigrants with “a tribal background,” confronting prejudice and discrimination, might develop primordial responses of their own to the insult on their honor-responses that include being ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations, especially by way of “kinship and neighborhood links, as in areas like Molenbeek in Brussels.”
(Brookings Institution, $34.99 (550p) ISBN 978-0-8157-2758-3)