One of the most important questions posed on the intellectual scene is one related to the ties between Europe and Islam as a religion and Muslims as followers of that religion. This is a relationship that dates back to centuries. Yes, they may not all have been calm and peaceful, but they, in one way or another, witnessed a form of cooperation and coexistence.
At this we ask, will recent terrorist attacks, which are a sign of growing radicalism, act as an obstacle to coexistence or will the Europe of enlightenment and tolerance be able to overcome this hurdle in recognition of the relationship that dates back to over a thousand years?
Associate professor of media studies and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University, Deepa Kumar argued in her book, “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” that for over a century and a half, the West has looked towards the East in general, the Ottomans in specific, as being inferior to it. The West believed that eastern cultures were only capable of producing oppressive societies. The most accurate perception of Islam in the West occurred during the age of Enlightenment. During the Romantic age, Islam was viewed as something exotic.
Kumar refuted the claim that the West and East were in a constant state of conflict. In fact, she noted that the history of the West and the history of the East were closely connected.
The critical and fundamental question that should be asked is: “Did the West always have a negative and distorted image of Islam and Muslims?”
Not at all at first. The distortion started to emerge during colonial times and with efforts to “demonize Islam and Muslims.”
In examining the terrorist attacks that have taken place over the past two decades, we are concerned in whether Islamophobia was an obstacle that hindered communication between West and East, which could have prevented these crimes.
Perhaps French political journalist Edwy Plenel can offer the best answer to this question in his book “For the Muslims.” He said that Islam is being manipulated to produce an internal enemy to create a state of panic among the most important figures of the European public, especially in France. He noted that France has started to adopt violent stances against immigration, which in many media, has become synonymous with Islam, extremism, terrorism, cultural invasion and other terms from the xenophobic dictionary.
Plenel pointed out to a pre-ISIS 2013 human rights report that clearly showed violent anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Muslim blocs. If we compare the current sentiment in Europe to the one preceding World War II, we can say that Muslims today have become the scapegoat, similar to how Jews used to be, revealed the report.
This sentiment led to debates over barring religious symbols, such as the veil, from universities and institutions of higher education in Europe. Islamophobia has been used as an excuse to protect “secularism” and politicize issues of immigration and terrorism.
Logically, the Europeans should have kept these two issues apart because they have nothing to do with each other as some sides are trying to say through distorting facts and questioning whether Islam allows cultural diversity. How is this possible while some figures still cast doubts against Muslims and their ties with Europe?
The “father” of Orientalism, Bernard Lewis, has for a long time, been a planter of doubt. Despite being naturalized as an American citizen, he never forgot his European roots, therefore presenting the image of a racist Europe that is intolerant of Islam and Muslims. This image, which was evident in his 2010 book, “Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East”, was present even before the emergence of ISIS and it preceded the recent terrorist attacks.
Lewis spoke of the intolerant European minority, which has grown in numbers in recent years. This minority believes that the developments in Europe today are part of a second wave of attacks by Muslims, which is summed up by terrorism and immigration.
The author said that terrorism is being used in service of the religion. He stated that Islam recommends it as a fact of life and that Muslims believe that the world is divided into one of peace, which is ruled by Islamic Sharia law, and another that is ruled by war. Lewis also spoke of Europe losing its demographic identity due to the flow of immigrants. He went so far as to warn of the “Islamization” of the Christian continent as a result of the influx of Muslims.
An in-depth analysis of Lewis’ views leads us to an unexpected place, a fertile ground where radical Muslims and their European allies meet.
He explained that radical Muslims have an appeal to leftist anti-Americans in Europe, who see them as a substitute to the Soviets. They appeal to the anti-semitic right as a substitute to Nazis. These views have managed to garner support, often by the same people. Some figures in Europe clearly believe that grudges trump loyalties.
In Germany, the majority of Muslims are of Turkish origin. They tend to compare themselves to Jews, saying that they have succeeded them as the victims of German racism and oppression. Lewis referred to a meeting that was held in Berlin to address the situation of the new Muslim minorities in Europe. He remarked that one of the attendees wondered: “For 2,000 years the Germans were unable to accept 400,000 Jews, so what hope is there for them to accept two million Turks?”
Of course, Lewis has to add fuel to the fire, noting that Muslim Turks are playing on German guilt to advance their own agenda.
Within the lines of searching for the future of Europe and its Muslims, we find that there are some figures who are promoting the idea of “Islamicizing” the continent.
Radical French Jewish journalist Eric Zemmour, author of “Le Suicide Francais”, called for expelling Muslims from France. He said that it was shameful to compare the position of Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the position of Muslims in France today. He claimed in an article in France’s Le Figaro newspaper in October 2014, that the Jews back then were rich and contributed to the economy. Muslims today spark fear due to their large numbers and Islamic terrorism and extremism. In addition, he remarked that the majority of violence against Jews in France is usually committed by Muslims.
In the same vein, French journalist Benoit Rayski, who is specialized in attacking Islam, wrote an article called: “It is our duty to be Islamophobic.” He constantly seeks to justify Islamophobia by promoting stories of the crimes committed against Christians in Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan, as well as highlighting ISIS’ execution of western hostages.
The question that should be asked at this point is whether Europe can reconcile with Muslims. The answer is not clear yet, especially in wake of recent terrorist attacks.
We are perhaps on the doorstep of a new phase of relations between Europe and Islam and Muslims. In sum, we can say that the direct relationship between Europe and Muslims took place over three different phases or eras. During each phase, the Muslim that Europe met was different. In the first phase, the Arabs played a prominent role. The Ottoman Turks were prominent in the next phase and the Mongols in the third.
Some observers believe that we have reached the fourth phase of European-Muslim ties.
The best way to conclude the above statements is to refer once again to Plenel, whose views on Islam have not been distorted by terrorist attacks in France. He believes that attributing the entire beliefs and culture of a certain peoples to the actions of the few paves the way for dark days.
The torchbearers of enlightenment in Europe now have the task of correcting the misconception in the continent, where Islam as a religion that rejects modernity is being presented as the norm. This is only adding fuel to the clash between Muslims and the radical right in Europe, paving the way for more deadly fundamentalism.