Will Europe’s Muslims Ever Be Accepted as Europeans?

The author of a new study on Islam in Europe on the challenge of European tribalism and what European Muslims can learn from Jews.

People pray near a mosque after it was destroyed by a fire in Berlin on March 11.
People pray near a mosque after it was destroyed by a fire in Berlin on March 11.
Inke Kappeler/Reuters

From 2013–17, Akbar Ahmed led a group on a “listening tour” of Europe, aimed at discovering exactly what was going wrong in the relationship between the continent’s Muslims and the larger societies they inhabit. During the course of his research, the situation worsened, with the rise of right-wing demagoguery, the refugee crisis, and increasing concerns about jihadi terrorism. The book that resulted from his tour, Journey Into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity, uncovers the economic and social discrimination faced by Muslims, which are sparked in part by European nations insecure in their own identities and exacerbated by the extremism of certain immigrant communities.

I recently spoke by phone with Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University, and a former Pakistani diplomat. His latest book is a follow-up to 2011’s Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam, which took a similar look at the United States. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how 9/11 changed the perception of Muslims living in the West, the different ways in which Americans and Europeans perceive their own identities, and how to apply the lessons of Jewish history to Muslim integration.

Isaac Chotiner: What made you want to write a book about Islam and Europe, specifically?

Akbar Ahmed: When I proposed this project, people asked exactly what you’re asking. They said, “Look, it’s all happened here, 9/11, the war on terrorists. Europe’s kind of an appendage, if you like, of American policy.” No. Europe has a very complicated, sophisticated, and an even inspiring story to tell us, in terms of relations between Europe and the Muslim world.

I’ve known Europeans. I was actually born when the king of England ruled my part of the world, that’s India-Pakistan so you know. We have had those things, those literatures, those scholarships, and my hunch was right, because when I actually went off to the field with my young American students, and now assistants, we discovered that the links with Europe are very deep, which go back to the eighth century, literally 711 and onward in Spain, and then go over the next 1,000 years, and into the Enlightenment, the Renaissance. Everywhere, Muslims are involved. Sometimes they’re contributing. Sometimes there are clashes, but they’re there.

What are the differences between how Europe, broadly speaking, and America are integrating Muslims?

Straightaway, you have one huge difference. Muslims coming to America were very different from Muslims coming to Europe. Immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia to America, coming after the ’60s and ’70s, are largely middle-class, educated. They are very often doctors. Even today you’d have, I don’t know, what, 20,000 Pakistani doctors in the United States. They come in, and they become part of the American dream. Muslim immigrants coming to Europe, at the same time, are coming in a very different capacity. They are coming as subjects of the former colonies, so the Muslims coming from North Africa are coming to France. The Muslims from South Asia are coming to England, because that’s the old relationship. The Muslims from Turkey are coming to Germany, as “guest workers.” Again, a different category. Guest status is very different, because they’re there for a short time. They are there on a contract, and they are expected to make some money, send some money home, and then go back home.

The problem arises when, one generation later, they stay on, and their kids are going to school. They’re born in European countries, and they have citizenship, and they began to feel they’re not really being accepted as citizens.

And so you think this was different than what we see in America?

America is not a colonial power, doesn’t have any imperial hang-ups, and until 9/11, there was no problem in America. Until 9/11, Muslims lived here, they were as comfortable as any other group, they were doing well, they were being integrated, and so on. 9/11 did something to both communities. And so here there’s a similarity. It created a new identity. After 9/11, Muslim became a category. You couldn’t be a professor, or a scholar, or a multimillionaire, but here, you’re a Muslim, because of your name. In Europe, you could have been a clerk, [but] in France, you were Algerian. In Britain, you were Pakistani. After 9/11, the category in which all Muslims were cloned was that of Muslim.

OK, but even if you see a similarity developing between European and American responses to Muslims after 9/11, it seems like what you are saying in your book is that the rise of Muslim immigration called into question the way white Europeans saw their identity and led to an uncertainty about it in a way that it didn’t in the United States.

Europeans are very sure of their identity. They were very sure of the identity that they had inherited, and their legacy, and their traditions, and they did not want these Muslims. In this case, they were not all Muslims, but Muslims, Africans, Middle East people coming from outside, just storming into their country and upsetting that identity.

Let’s take Germany. The Germans are proud of their language, whether you’re East German, West German. They have a very highly sophisticated language and culture, of which they’re rightly proud. They have a sense of soil and blood. It’s not, by the way, something that pops up in the 1930s. It is there for the last so many centuries. It’s captured by all these German writers and philosophers of the 17th, and 18th, and 19th centuries, before there’s a Germany, so there’s already a sense of Germanness, a German identity.

I’ve given you language, culture, soil, and blood. I will be clear here, [blood] doesn’t mean that [if] I come there, I get citizenship, I speak German, I love German culture as well, and I’m accepted. At the most profound level, I will never be accepted, because I am not of the blood. Tribal societies have a charter, a lineage. Everyone knows who’s who on that charter. When outsiders come, and they settle in at the particular tribal area, they can be affiliated, but they are never actually part of the tribe, because they don’t have the lineage. They’re not descended from the ancestry.

People are now looking at these immigrant communities, even if they’ve been here three generations, under a microscope. They’re saying, “Why do they do this? Why do they still have beards? Why do the women wear a hijab? Why don’t they assimilate into our identity?”

How does this differ from the American conception of identity, in your mind?

The problem here is, Isaac, what is identity? On my American tour, when we went around, my team and I, the American students, asked what American identity was. I challenge you just do this over lunch, and you’ll see how interesting this question is, because people will have very different answers. If you talked to an average liberal white American, they would say Plymouth and the Mayflower, and the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers. We talked to an African American, and he’d very often cite Malcolm X, who said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us.” You talk to Latinos and Mexicans, they’ll say to you, “This is our land. We lived here, and the Americans have come in.” Suddenly, you’re saying, “Wait a minute. The dominant narrative that I thought was settled is not that settled.”

If you talk to a German, he knows that his identity goes back 2,000 years. It’s not that simple, because over the 2,000 years, you had Germany breaking up, and uniting, and you had the wars, and you had Catholicism, and then Protestantism, and then you had the defeat in the last two wars, and so on, so there has been a change. It’s not that pure tribalism, but it’s recognizable, as I told you. When a nation has a recognizable tribalism, you best deal with it in respecting that.

Don’t forget that this is immediately followed by anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is now already rearing its very ugly head, and it’s throughout Europe, and it’s right behind Islamophobia. Why? Because when tribalism is rampant, it then sees one, two, three victims down the road, and that’s what you’re seeing. The Roma example, another minority I think we overlooked, the Roma are being treated disgracefully.

If 9/11 was a hinge moment, do you think Merkel’s decision to accept so many refugees was as well? This is a country that, as you say, had recognizable tribalism?

It was something that exacerbated a movement that was already in full slope. You can see this from all the incidents leading up to that moment. That moment is as interesting for the character of Merkel as for the actions she took, because if you recall, take your mind back to the incident just before that decision of hers, when the Palestinian girl cried in front of her and said, “I don’t want to be deported.” Merkel looked stone-faced and said, “I’m sorry. Those are the rules. You have to leave.”

From there, suddenly you had this incredible decision, which, to my mind, I’m talking personally, can only be matched by someone like Pope Francis in its magnanimity, and its generosity, and its compassion. It’s like the kind of almost religious embracing of the other. I’ll feed you, and I’ll look after you, and you may share my home. It’s very, very religious, almost.

But the movement was already in place [during my research]. If you look up the timeline, you get all of the AFD and all these right-wing parties already picking up steam, already being active in the field, and making a dent. I mean, they weren’t in full flow as they are now, but the momentum had started.

How much of the responsibility for integrating do you put on Muslim communities themselves?

It’s a very valid question. I asked the same question of one of the legendary chief rabbis of Europe, called Bent Melchior [former chief rabbi of Denmark]. I asked him for an interview for the book, and he invited me to his flat up on the fourth floor. I spent a couple of hours with him. He said, when I asked him, here’s what you tell [Muslim communities]: “Look. Let me tell you. Compared to the Jewish community, because you know, there’s some parallels, they’re not exact parallels, but some parallels. We were here much earlier. We’ve been here in Denmark for several hundred years. You people have just come here, just settling down, and you’re finding a problem,” because the Danish tribe, again, he said, “Tribes, they’re very closed. They’re like a tribe. It will not be easy.”

No. 1, he said, “When we arrived in Denmark, 200 or 300 years ago, the first thing we did was create a school. That school wasn’t to teach Jews about Judaism. That school was to teach them about Danish culture, language, literature.” That struck me, because our guys do the opposite. Our guys will open up a school, and then they’ll have the imams, and they’ll have Islamic teaching, and Quran, which is fine. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but equally, they should be learning about local culture. That’s not happening, No. 1.

No. 2, he said that there is a Jewish community, and we have our rights. But there’s also a majority, and they have rights. The majority has its rights, and you can’t simply say, “Well, we want our rights,” and ignore the majority.

The third item he said was, “If one Jew, one of us did something wrong, we know there’s a fraud case, a criminal case, a sex assault, or something happened, the entire community would be blamed, so the people would say, ‘You see? All Jews are like this.’ ” He said, “This is what is happening to you.”

You outline both a lot of the ways that Muslims are being discriminated against in Europe, and some of the extremism we see in European Muslim communities. Is there a danger in looking at the latter as a result of the former, rather than as its own phenomenon?

The response is to be divided into European Muslims, who are living in Europe, who have made Europe their home, and those living in Muslim-majority countries. The fight there is very different, and the fight there must be fought and won. In Europe, it’s much different than what’s happening in the Muslim world, but it can be fought and can be won if, if, if the European administration, the scholars, the commentators understand what’s going on. They’re not fully understanding.

This was the disappointing part of my study, that I found that they weren’t fully getting it, because they were still seeing these Muslims as somehow representative of the millions in the Muslim world, and ISIS, and all those horrible things happening there, and linking them up with them, and therefore creating a cancer in their own society, because they have to deal with these Muslims.

There may be, I don’t know, 40 or 50 million Muslims, and they continue to multiply. What will happen in the future? That society will have a lot of people, who then, actually, become fifth columnists. In order to prevent that, they have to integrate them, like the Jewish community.