January 12, 2010

Review of "Muslims of Europe: the 'Other' Europeans

Muslims of Europe

By  Deepa A

Indian Freelance Writer


Image

Book cover

Title: Muslims of Europe: The 'other' Europeans
Author: H. A. Hellyer
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press (1 Oct 2009)
Language: English

Early on in his book Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans, author H.A. Hellyer introduced us to the typical image of Muslims in Europe. The Muslim is always the non-European — someone from the Indian Subcontinent in the UK, the Turks in Germany, or the North African Arabs in France. This image is contradictory to the robust suggestion made in the title of Hellyer's book, which is that there is no reason to view Muslims and Europeans as distinct entities.

Hellyer's assertion comes at a time when there is much debate about Islam's place in Europe. Unfortunately, the standard of this debate has seldom risen to the level at which the subject is addressed by Hellyer (a fellow of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick and an expert in multiculturalism).

These days, not only tabloid editors but also writers contributing to venerable institutions such as the New York Times Magazine have difficulty discussing the Muslim community without resorting to alarmism. Such is the fear of "Islamization," based on which a majority of a European country's population can vote to ban the construction of minarets (as Switzerland did recently in a referendum) or a president can condemn the wearing of burka (as French president Nicolas Sarkozy did in June 2009). These actions are not seen as violating the freedom of religion but rather as steps necessary to prevent Islam from "conquering" Europe's streets.

"Clash of Civilizations"

As Hellyer writes, any discussion on Islam and the West today inevitably centers on conflict, or on the "clash of civilizations." He also establishes that even historically the European identity was defined as that opposed to Islam. This has become even more pronounced in the post-9/11 world, wherein it has become acceptable in the West to consider the Muslim community as the dangerous "other."

Islam's presence in Europe, however, is not recent. "The existence of Muslim communities in Europe dates back to the seventh century, not long after the emergence of the faith itself," writes Hellyer. While Andalusia is held up as the primary instance of a Muslim component in European history, it is by no means the only one: The southern territories of Spain and Portugal were predominantly Muslim before they were Catholic; in Eastern Europe, whole ethnic groups embraced Islam; the Ottoman administration in Southeastern Europe, Hellyer writes, is the "final pre-modern chapter of European Muslim history." Hellyer quotes scholars who have written about the positive effects Islam had on European civilization, extending to not only philosophy and science but also literature and cuisine, among others.

Such discussions, however, clearly have no place in the agenda of far-right parties such as the British National Party, whose very existence is centered on attacking immigrants in general and Muslims in particular. Hellyer mentions the likes of the Northern League in Italy, which managed to convert the subject of immigration into a "fight against terrorism," a popular, narrow prism through which Islam is seen and understood in the West today.

Hellyer asks if the "obsession with the 'Other' is no more than an excuse for avoiding the real question: who are 'We'?" He writes that the concept of European identity has been challenged over the past 50 years with no easy answer having presented itself as yet. "As history teaches, it is far easier to concentrate on an external 'Other', imagined or not, instead of dealing with internal problems; but the problems remain, nonetheless," he writes.

The Question of Identity

It is no surprise then that any discussion on multiculturalism in Europe today tends to center on Muslim integration into the European Union. Hellyer argues that it is impractical to regard religiously inspired identities as unsuitable for inclusion in a plural society. "Individuals are not made up only of certain types of identities; they have several identities, co-existing on different levels. Any identity that might affect the cohesion of the community must be considered," he writes.

At the same time, Hellyer does not shy away from emphasizing that multiculturalism is not the sole responsibility of the majority communities. "Not only should the majority recognize the rights of the minority, but the minority should also consider the duties it owes the majority," he writes. He explains that social disorder is likely unless diversity and difference are respected.

Hellyer uses Muslims in the UK as a case study to illustrate many of the points he makes in the course of the book. This is particularly instructive, as it helps the reader understand the challenges faced not only by the Muslim community in Europe but also by a Western nation in adapting to a community that insists on a primarily spiritual identity.

Hellyer notes that though Islam has a long lineage in Britain, the Muslim community does not compare favorably with other demographic religious minorities in the UK in political, economic, social, and educational terms. "Islamophobia" has been cited as one of the greatest challenges to the Muslim community in the UK and as also a lack of organized representation. Nevertheless, Hellyer writes that the British Muslim community is keen to be integrated into British society, but as Muslims.



Role of Civil Society

Hellyer's book argues that it is up to European Muslims to define themselves and the way they should deal with societal realities. This will, however, be an ongoing enterprise, for what is or what is not a Briton or German has not yet been defined, Hellyer writes. His suggestion is that Muslim communities might find it far less problematic to engage with civil society than to engage with the "state," with which they might have objections over foreign policy.

Hellyer states that legislation to promote social cohesion is unlikely to be effective. Similarly, progressive laws or policies cannot be viewed as successes. Civil society, he says, is the primary domain through which change can take place. He cites the example of a rally of anti-Muslim activists from around Europe that was to be held in Cologne, Germany, in September 2008. It was effectively called off after more than 5,000 Cologne residents took part in a counterrally. "No amount of legislation is as effective as civil society responding in that manner," Hellyer writes. It is difficult to disagree.

Muslims of Europe: The 'Other' Europeans is one of the few books in recent times that managed to offer a clear-eyed account of European Muslims. The author discusses the subject without pandering to the alarmist viewpoints of some. At the same time, he stresses that minorities cannot abuse citizenship to perpetrate the estrangement of their own groups. In a world where tabloid headlines fume about Muslims almost on a daily basis, Hellyer's book provides a welcome and accurate account of the history and prospects of European Muslims.


Deepa A is a freelance journalist currently based in London. She can be reached via artculture@iolteam.com


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