The Risks and Challenges of Europeanizing Islam

The concept of Euro-Islam is laden with different meanings, depending on who uses it. Some young Muslims in Europe might use the term to underline the fact that they are Europeans in order to avoid being tarred with the discourse of integration. Some European politicians might use it to emphasize the need to strip Islam of its outside influences. Euro-Islam can be a platform for negotiations between Europe and its immigrants from an Islamic background. It can also be an appellation that designates a hue of Islamic religiosity similar to Asian Islam, African Islam, Egyptian Islam, or Moroccan Islam. Euro-Islam is, however, a contested concept when it is used to imply a geographical line of division between an enlightened Islam and an obscurantist one. This division enhances the dichotomy of inside and outside on which the clash of civilizations thesis is predicated. The separation between a European Islam of enlightenment and outside versions of an unenlightened Islam is, to say the least, counterproductive.

Very often, it happens that we look at the same phenomenon but see different things. This is especially true when we look at the distress and discontent related to the presence of Muslims on European soil. Some of us would ascribe the tensions caused by this presence to a weak commitment to European values on the part of the Muslim community. Those holding this view generally tend to advance the argument that Islam is not compatible with the western values of democracy and freedom. Others would impute things that go wrong to social exclusion, economic inequality, the marginalization of migrants from Muslim origin, and the demonization of Islam. Those people, accordingly, call for social justice, economic inclusion, and a healthy multicultural environment.

Given the multiplicity of self-proclaimed mouthpieces of Islam, it is difficult for Europe to find dialogue partners to face the challenges of living together and to avoid an eventual collision and clash with Muslims. The actors vying for a definition of Islam in the European context constitute a considerable diversity: Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi, Alawi, Moroccan, Turk, Pakistani, Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Ahbash are only a limited sample of a long list of representatives of Islam. To these shades and grades we must add a silent majority which doesn’t identify with any trend, movement, creed, or doctrine. This diversity hints at the European challenge of finding representative bodies to negotiate “on behalf of” Islam.

Out of a host of possible approaches to the issue of how Europe should relate to Islam emerge three equally defensible trends. The first trend consists in propounding the idea of fruitful dialogue and collaboration with Muslim immigrants’ countries of origin in order to face the challenges of living together. The second wagers that Muslims are capable of interacting positively with the values of liberal world culture. The third trend is an attempt to rally Europeans around the idea of a “European Islam” stripped of outside influences.

A closer look reveals that of the three above-mentioned attitudes and trends, “Euro-Islam” appeals the most to European sensibilities. However, this concept is laden with different meanings, depending on who uses it. It is used with an emphasis on “Euro”, the first part of the hyphenated concept, to suggest that Muslims shouldn’t have any choice but accept European terms, to accommodate to European values and a Eurocentric world vision. It is also used with an emphasis on “Islam”, the second part of the hyphenated concept, to underline the evidence that Muslims are an integral part of Europe’s citizenry and to assert the specificity of their understanding of religion.

Independent from the different parties vying for its definition and interpretation, Euro-Islam bears the seal of an unmistakable will to territorialize Islam, to confine Islamic faith and spirituality to a geographical space. This attempt at reducing Islam to geography leaves us to infer three major perspectives.

Euro-Islam, to begin with, is emerging as a political platform for negotiation between the European continent and its citizens from Muslim migration backgrounds. This perspective offers genuine opportunities to manage Europe’s relationships with Muslims, without thereby infringing upon the theological realm of Islam. No doubt as a political platform Euro-Islam could and should predispose Muslims to get more involved in European social and intellectual debates, more and more concerned with the future of living together, and more and more alert to the changing nature of the relationship between believing and belonging. Likewise, it could awaken European awareness of a serious promotion of upward social and economic mobility among citizens of Islamic faith.

The second perspective proposed by Euro-Islam hints at the possibility of Islam accommodating itself to Europe, in the same way it has accommodated itself to other spaces and geographies. In this case, Euro-Islam does not imply any value judgment, but merely describes a kind of religiosity pervaded by local, specific colors, like when one refers to Asian-Islam, Maghreb-Islam, African-Islam and so on so forth. This equation brings to mind the diversity and multiplicity of Islamic experience, so lauded by Muslim theologians and scholars throughout history. Students of Islamic jurisprudence are inculcated with an official narrative that relates how Imam al-Shafii’s juridical teachings and legacy change according to whether he was in Iraq or in Egypt. This example, and many others of its ilk, would provide a theological corroboration for the concept of Euro-Islam, for the same reason it has legitimized Iraqi Islam or Egyptian Islam. Seen from this perspective, Euro-Islam is interchangeable with Islam in Europe, which is a term preferred by Imams, theologians and Muslim scholars. “The capability of accommodating to different times and spaces is the basic foundation of what Islam is” Muslims scholars will tell you.

For European politicians, scholars and media pundits who represent the third perspective, only an interpretation of Islam anchored in modern European values of the Enlightenment, democracy and human rights could guard Europe against Islamic religious obscurantism. According to their perspective, the source of religious extremism must be the outside world. So willingly or unknowingly, they contribute to entrenching an outside / inside dichotomy, which is a token of civilization in retreat, or on the defensive. In many respects, this antithetical division most resembles the conception of some early Islamic jurists, who, being of the opinion that only a space ruled by Sharia can be considered a genuine abode of peace, proceeded to divide the world into two separate geographies or houses as they are commonly known: The “ House of Islam”–Dar al Islam—and “House of war”–Dar al harb. What the proponents of the third perspective of Euro-Islam and the ancient Islamic jurists have in common is a conception of international relations predicated on geographic divisions along religious lines.

The flip-side of this version of Euro-Islam—which expects Muslims to unquestionably abide by the rules of an allegedly modern, enlightened continent, unreservedly adhere to its basic values and philosophical tenets, and unconditionally subscribe to its vision of the world—is Fiqh al-Aqaliyat, or Islamic minority jurisprudence. This kind of jurisprudence theorizes the suspension or moratorium of Islamic rules and laws, not because of positive interaction with the values of European majority, but as a strategy in the majority-minority game of power. Unless European citizens of a Muslim background feel they can remain true to themselves while accommodating European values, they will never acquire the sense of belonging to Europe. Minority jurisprudence, which is predicated on Euro-Islam’s dichotomy of inside and outside, shows how Muslims remain of the same opinion still while they appear convinced of the majority’s opinion. Neither Euro-Islam, nor any other integration policy, can spiritually cut them off from the outside. Their adherence to European laws and values cannot be complete without the corroboration of their theological references, which cannot be confined to a geographical space.

The question is: how can Europe become a fertile space for the renewal of Islamic discourse? Without such a renewal Europe will continue to look like a big waiting room where Muslims will continue to live bodily while waiting for their souls to arrive from elsewhere. The concept of Euro-Islam can be very productive in this respect, if it is stripped of the inside/outside dichotomy. It is undeniable that Europe in particular and the west in general, set the tone for ethical behavior and dictate the system of values in our times. Like it or not, this part of the world has turned out to be the embodiment of the spirit of our globalized culture. As such, it must represent an inestimable opportunity for Muslims to rethink and renew their own values, not as a minority living in a circumscribed area, but as an entity called to interact with the opening world and the spirit of the time. The insistence on clear-cut geographical boundaries between the realm of Islam in general and European Islam in particular is in line with Samuel Huntington’s exclusive concept of identity.

Some Euro-Islam discourses betray a clear concern about a media-led probable erosion of European values due to difficulties with the assimilation of immigrants of an Islamic background. Isn’t it a paradox that Europeans and Americans show more reluctance to open up to a globalized culture than poor and weak Africans or Asians?

The present historical moment lends itself to a mature reflection on the relationship between Islam and Europe. The Arab Spring and the founding of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) are two phenomena that are precipitating the demise of political Islam. They have both contributed, each in its own way, to demystifying a deeply ingrained belief that religion should be reduced to a state, and Islam to an Islamic state. Today, more than at any other time, we feel a strong predisposition in the Arab world to renounce one of the basic tenets of political Islam, according to which religion is about mandating a political order and a legal system. The implications of this renunciation on both Islamic religious discourse on the relationship between Europe and its citizens of Islamic origin, and on how Muslims everywhere relate to the spirit of our age, will indisputably have important consequences.


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