Fabulous example of the era of convivencia


By Akbar Ahmed
I was fortunate to be in England during the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I watched on television with millions of others, Prince Charles extend his hand to the bride and take the place of her absent father. It was symbolic of the inclusiveness of British royalty.
It took me back to October 1993 when I was witness to an event of great historic significance: Prince Charles delivering a widely publicized and much-anticipated lecture on the subject of “Islam and the West” at Oxford University. As I took my seat in the front row of the Sheldonian Theatre, I noted the high calibre of the audience: The Aga Khan, the Saudi Ambassador and many other dignitaries. The atmosphere was electric as Islam was already, in the early 1990s, a much debated subject; war had just ended in Iraq and was starting in Bosnia and there were signs of growing Islamophobia. People were curious to know what the future king of the realm made of the subject.
The prince plunged into his thesis: Islam, and this he knew would surprise people, had made great contributions to the West and was part of it. Charles ran through a check-list of subjects in which Muslims had contributed -philosophy, astronomy, medicine, literature. He mentioned the Spanish Muslim philosopher Averroes among others. The ruler of Cordoba, “this great city of cities,” he said, then “by far the most civilized city of Europe,” had hundreds of thousands of books in his libraries when the biggest European libraries could boast of a scant few hundred. Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived, worked, and created in harmony for long periods of time. Charles passionately argued for the unified vision of life which Islam promoted and criticized the materialism and cynicism of our age. He even cited my favourite saying of the Prophet: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”

It was a marvellous exposition of what the Spanish call convivencia or coexistence-that time in history when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in Spain. Charles was doing more than paying tribute to the past; he was reconciling it with modernity. As a member of a small group of informal “advisers” to the prince, I knew first-hand his commitment to this cause. After the lecture the audience rose to give the prince a standing ovation.
I felt we were at a special moment in history. If we were not at the apex of the relationship between Islam and the West, at a time of optimistic possibilities, we were heading in that direction. Charles would go on to give similar lectures elsewhere and even to propose that the monarch, given the multi-religious nature of the nation, adopt the title of “Defender of the Faiths”or “Defender of Faith” rather than “Defender of the Faith.” Demonstrating his penchant for convivencia, Charles wore a special Jewish kippah with the emblem of the Prince of Wales to events involving the Jewish community and was seen in local dress in various Muslim countries.
Before Charles, Princess Diana was already showing signs of being a bridge-builder between faiths. When I was invited to give her a lecture on Islam at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London in September 1990, I was impressed by her intelligent questions, curiosity about Islam, and her desire to help improve relations between the West and Islam. I presented her with my book Discovering Islam and an article I had written on Islam in History Today. The next morning several British papers displayed a glorious color photograph of a radiant Diana holding the book with headlines like “The Student Princess” (Daily Mail) and “I’m not Diana’s guru, says top academic” (Daily Express). What author could resist that kind of support? I was won over. So when it was announced that Diana was to visit Pakistan in 1991 and she invited me to tea at Kensington Palace to ask for advice, I readily consented. In order to win over Pakistanis, I suggested she quote their beloved poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal at the state dinner in Islamabad and gave her several beautiful verses that captured his universal humanism. I also suggested she wear the Pakistani shalwar-kameez. She did both-and the Pakistanis loved her for it. The headlines in the Urdu papers the next morning paid her glowing tributes. A few years later, paparazzi photographed Diana sun-bathing in a bikini on the balcony of her hotel while on a skiing holiday in Austria reading my book Living Islam.
The pendulum was moving as far as it was possible to go in closing the gap between Islam and the West. It was a time when it appeared that western liberal democracy, which embodied the very notion of modernity with its respect for the rule of law and individual rights, had triumphed, causing leading commentators like Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, to declare “the end of history.” The United States had emerged as the sole superpower and the United Kingdom and Western Europe were basking in its economic prosperity and supreme military might. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that countries in the future would follow the route of western liberal democracy. Little could I have guessed that within a decade after Charles’ speech, the pendulum would swing precipitously away from convivencia towards exclusion, hatred, and a renewed nationalism that had no place for Muslims in the West.
Muslims were already sounding the alarm: “The next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is no doubt concerning who’ll be inside them,” noted Shabbir Akhtar in the Guardian in 1989. Kalim Siddiqui warned of “Hitler-style gas chambers for Muslims” and Mohammed Ajeeb, the former lord mayor of Bradford, received a letter stating, “What you deserve is the gas chambers.” Someone in Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia remarks that “the whites finally turned on the blacks and Asians and tried to force us into gas chambers.” While the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 triggered the War on Terror with its focus on Muslims, it was the continuing acts of terror, the economic crisis, high unemployment, the ever increasing gap between rich and poor and finally the arrival of the large numbers ofasylum-seekers, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, that created a real sense of anger, fear and crisis among Europeans and fed the support for the far-right. But anti-Semitism was also evident and German politicians, for example, talked of the “domestic enemy,” of Europe meaning the Jews, and the “external enemy,” meaning the Muslims.
On the last day of 2016, Charles gave a very different message to what he had given before: “We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive to those who adhere to a minority faith. All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s.”
The West and Islam are not two separate entitles. Islam has done much to shape Western civilization and given Europe and the world the fabulous example of the era of convivencia. By rediscovering it, we will hopefully begin to see the pendulum swing away from fear, anger, and hatred towards Muslims and other minorities and towards making “coexistence” a reality.
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)