The Risks and Challenges of Europeanizing Islam

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Very often, it happens that we can each look at the same phenomenon but see different things. This is especially true when we look at the levels of distress and discontent relating to the presence of Muslims on European soil. Some of us would ascribe the tensions caused by this presence to a weak commitment to and embracing of European values by the Muslim community, and who generally tend to advance the argument that Islam is not compatible with Western values of democracy and freedom. Others would argue that the problem lies in social exclusion, economic inequality, marginalisation of migrants of Muslim origin, and demonization of Islam. Accordingly, they 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 in order to face the challenges of living together and to avoid the seemingly unavoidable cultural 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 attahrir and al-Ahbash are only a limited number from a long list of Islam representatives. To these shades and grades we must add a silent majority, one which doesn’t identify with any trend, movement, creed, or doctrine. This instance of diversity hints at the European challenge of finding representative bodies of Islam.

Out of a host of possible approaches to the issue of how Europe should relate to Islam, three equally defensible trends emerge. The first trend consists of propounding the idea of fruitful dialogue and collaboration with the countries of origin of Muslim immigrants to meet the challenges of living together. The second one wagers on Muslims’ capability to interact 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 other choice but to accept European terms, to accommodate to European values and 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 European citizenship and to assert the specificity of their understanding of religion.

Independently from the different parties vying for 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 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 become more involved in European social and intellectual debates, become more and more concerned with the prospect of living together, and become more and more alert to the changing nature of the relationship between believing and belonging. Likewise, it could awaken European awareness into a serious promotion of upward social and economic mobility among citizens of Islamic faith.

The second perspective presented by Euro-Islam hints at the possibility of Islam adapting itself to Europe, in the same way it has adapted 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 colours, such as 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 to how Imam al-Shafi’i’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 preferred denomination to 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 enlightenment, democracy and human rights could protect Europe against Islamic religious obscurantism. From their perspective, the source of religious extremism must be the outside world. So, willingly or unknowingly, they contribute to entrenching the 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: 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, one which expects Muslims to unquestionably abide by the rules of an allegedly modern, enlightened continent, unreservedly adheres to its basic values and philosophical tenets, and unconditionally subscribes to its vision of the world—is Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat, 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 Muslim background have the feeling 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 still remain of the same opinion, 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 propitious 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 with their bodies, 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 behaviour 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, with the spirit of 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 mediatised potential erosion of European values due to difficult assimilation of immigrants from Islamic background. Isn’t it a paradox that Europeans and Americans show more reluctance to open up to a globalized culture than less affluent and powerful 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 have precipitated the demise of political Islam. They have 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 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 renouncing on both the 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 époque, are indisputably consequential.

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