Review: Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration and Identity

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Reviewed by Raymond Scupin PhD

Despite disagreement among scholars over how precisely to define ‘populism,’ it remains a prevailing feature of European political dynamics, as evidenced by the rise of the right wing National Rally party under Marine Le Pen in France, the Brexit movement in the UK, the rise of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany, the landslide re-election of the socially conservative “Eurosceptic” Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the merger of the left and right populist parties and the Five Star Movement in Italy, and the policies of Andrzej Duda and his government in Poland, all of which have engendered far right, anti-immigration tendencies throughout the continent.

The fragility of the EU and the steady erosion of the liberal democratic order of Europe is an ominous trend that is shaking the foundations of Western politics. One of the central factors driving these populist movements is the immigration of Muslims from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa into Europe. These Muslim migrants are associated with terrorist incidents in some European countries and elsewhere.

Some Europeans also view Islamic culture and civilization as incompatible with the Christian and the Western liberal democratic ideals of their own society.1 The most recent work by internationally known poet, playwright, filmmaker, and anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, 2 Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity, explores the relationship and friction between Islam and Europe in an in-depth investigation carried out by Ahmed and his assembled team of anthropologists. For several years between 2013 and 2017, the team conducted multi-site ethnographic research in some fifty cities and towns in Europe, interviewing a broad cross-section of people in various socioeconomic strata and age groups, including scholars, students, and religious officials such as chief rabbis, grand muftis, and the former archbishop of Canterbury.

Various presidents, prime ministers, members of Parliament, and other politicians, including members of the Far Rightist parties that demonize Muslims, were also interviewed. The team conducted research in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Italy, countries within which Muslim empires once existed; in Denmark and Germany, countries with deep tribal roots and to which Muslims have been invited as guest workers; in Bosnia Herzegovina and Greece, which claim indigenous Muslim populations; and in Scotland and Ireland, which once constituted part of the former British empire and which are currently revitalizing their nationalist and tribal identities, alongside Britain.

The major theme of Journey into Europe is that Europeans are fundamentally divided regarding the Muslim presence in Europe. Although it appears that a majority of Europeans desire a plural society and accept the Muslim presence, a vocal minority expresses fear and are threatened by Islam.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one investigates the interpretations of European identity based on its history and culture. On the one hand, Europe can be comprehended as a collective of multifarious countries formed on the bases of tribal or primordial identities, languages, blood lineages, and soil. On the other hand, European identity includes the pluralistic history of ‘la Convivencia,’ 3 meaning “the co-existence,” referring to the historical period during which Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted and pursued knowledge, science, and humanistic endeavors together. Ahmed is careful not to romanticize the coexistence that developed in Spain, but he views it as an ideal paradigm for interfaith peace and cooperation. The second part of the book discusses the research findings of the team from the interviews with Muslim migrants, indigenous Muslims in various countries, and converts to Islam.

The team also interviewed many Jews and investigated trends in anti-Semitism and the interrelationship between Jews and Muslims. The second part also discusses the larger questions regarding refugees, terrorism, immigration, identity, multiculturalism, and the emergence of the Far-Right movements. The final part of the book examines and promotes a way forward for twenty first century Europeans, a path to a newly synthesized identity that falls somewhere between the exclusive primordial tribal affinities and the more pluralistic Andalusian model of ‘la Convivencia.’

The conceptual framework of Ahmed’s work was influenced by Max Weber and Ibn Khaldun. Ahmed discusses how both of these sociologists produced grand narratives of evolutionary developments while living in societies going through dramatic social and cultural changes. Weber observed the rationalization of modern bureaucratic society as it developed in a united German state. Ibn Khaldun viewed the disintegration of the tribal societies in Arab north Africa that were held together by clans, lineages, and asabiyyah or social cohesion.

Akbar Ahmed emphasizes how the models promoted by Weber and Ibn Khaldun must both be understood as ideal typologies rather than empirical, grounded realities. As Ahmed notes, Weber was ambivalent about modernity and believed it would lead to bureaucratic iron cages for individuals. Weber also overestimated the benefits of rationality in a bureaucratic state, as policies based purely upon rationality can be unjust, unfair, and inhumane to minorities. (Weber did not live to see how the German bureaucratic state ushered in Nazi fascism and the Holocaust, but his observations were prescient.) Ahmed notes how the conceptual models of Weber and Ibn Khaldun provide insights into the transformations that are occurring today in both the Muslim communities in Europe and among Europeans. Some Europeans are striving to maintain a more cosmopolitan and rational ideal for identity, while others are reverting to older primordial tribal roots of identity. Some Muslims in Europe observe their primordial identity eroding with assimilation and globalization processes, whereas others are busily retribalizing and emphasizing asabiyyah or social cohesion.

In discussing the roots of terrorism, Ahmed divides Muslims in Europe into three different categories. One category consists of immigrants with a tribal background devoted to defending their lineage and religious identities. Another category comprises Muslims who were raised by parents who had a modernist Islamic background. Ahmed describes one young woman in this category who rejected her parent’s beliefs and joined ISIS, motivated by social media and the perceived grievances of Muslims facing injustice throughout the world. The third category is made up of European converts to Islam who were exposed to rigid fundamentalist forms and had a shallow Islamic education.

(This is the abridged edition of a detailed and very comprehensive review by Raymond Scupin PhD who is associated with Lindenwood University, USA. He may be contacted at Rscupin@lindenwood.edu)