Europe Then and Now

How Islam Was Perceived in Europe When I Was a Student


As I traveled with my team over the last few years throughout Europe conducting a study of the Muslims of the continent, I was struck by how prominent Islam has become as a focus of so many of the current global debates about religion, politics, security and terrorism. The discussions and controversies about Islam derive from the impact of that religion on Western societies directly or indirectly or by acts of omission or commission. Thus the absolute urgency of focusing on global warming, issues of poverty and religious conflict are pushed aside to discuss Islamic terrorism, Islamic radicalism and Islamic extremism — all now broadly associated with the religion itself however much Muslims protest that “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Take the impact of Islamic actions on Western societies, for example, as the year 2015 ended. There were massacres conducted by Muslims in Paris and San Bernardino in California, and even on New Year’s Eve, Muslims were accused of assaulting large numbers of women in Cologne, Germany, and other European cities. In the meantime, the debate about the position of Islam in Europe is fueled by the large numbers — over a million — of refugees who had arrived. The majority of these destitute and desperate refugees are from Muslim lands in the Middle East. But, right-wing parties, increasingly supported by mainstream groups, argue that among these refugees lurk those who would commit violence against Europeans. Muslims are too frequently giving them ammunition by their actions. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had emerged as a guardian angel of the refugees, lost patience after hearing of the disgraceful assaults in Cologne.

Terrorism and refugees have become fused in the public mind and the fear of the former has trumped the need to show compassion to the latter. As a direct result of this equation, right-wing politicians and parties have gained popularity in Europe and the U.S. The presidential campaigns in the U.S. have been marked by some of the most aggressive and obnoxious attacks on Islam. Many candidates are vying with each other to say the most outrageous things about Islam. In this race, Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate, who has spoken openly of closing mosques, interning the Muslim community, and even totally banning their entry into the country, has won hands down. The effect is that Islamophobia, which once resided at the extremes of the political and social spectrum, is now an institutionalized fact of life.

In European minds, the current perception of Islam has revived the subconscious fears and hatred of earlier Muslim invasions. Europeans, particularly in Eastern Europe, frequently refer to the Ottoman Turks, who once ruled here, and see the wave upon wave of refugees as another invasion. They even call the refugees, most of them from Syria, modern-day “Turks.” Deep atavistic and religious prejudices are awakening and being freely expressed. Heads of state and governments in Europe and leading political figures in the U.S. openly have declared that they would not allow Muslim refugees into their countries; one American presidential candidate called them “rabid dogs,” another said even orphans under 5 were suspect and to be banned. In purporting to resist one kind of potential threat, these leaders are compromising on perhaps one of the strongest features of Western liberal democracies, that of humanism.

It is now a matter of life and death to understand European Muslims. A broad consensus has already seemed to form that perhaps there is a problem with Islam itself. Political leaders misreading what is happening in their countries have struck poses and used words directly inspired by Winston Churchill, as if they too are facing the military might of Nazi hordes. French President Francois Hollande and former President Nicolas Sarkozy declared grandly that this is a war of “civilization” against “barbarians.” It is “us” against “them.” Few have any doubts as to who is in which category. Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K. repeated the same message. They are resuscitating Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis, that there is an ongoing long-term civilizational war between the West and Islam, just when it appeared that it had begun to wane in influence briefly as U.S. President Barack Obama was elected. Islamophobia is now steadily and widely in evidence with attacks being frequently reported on mosques, women in hijab and men with “Middle Eastern” appearance.

These developments forced me to reflect on the continent I had come to in the 1960s as a Pakistani student, and I cannot help but think of the dramatic changes in the perception and position of Muslims in the West. Muslim students today, irrespective of ethnic, national and political backgrounds, tend to be seen as a monolith. Incidents of violence involving Muslims in one part of the world immediately affect Muslims elsewhere through the instantaneous means of global media.

I am struck by how different Europe was in my student days. Looking through some old and fading pictures, of no particular significance to anyone except me as a reminder of happier times, I am able to make some comparisons of Muslim life then and now. I see the contrast in the pictorial evidence from those days. I present four of my photographs, picked almost at random and taken in different locations in Europe. Looking at them, I think to myself how different most Europeans would find the appearance and looks of a Pakistani student today. The media stereotype makes us believe that a Muslim student would have a beard, a skull cap and wear a loose shirt and baggy trousers while planning to blow things up in his quest for the mythical 72 virgins waiting for him in heaven.

The first photograph is taken in Greece at a port as my English fellow students and I prepared to visit one of the Greek islands. It was my first visit to Greece, and I was already in love with Greek culture introduced to me through literature — from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses to Byron’s The Isles of Greece. In my meager travel bag, I had Lawrence Durrell’s novels from The Alexandria Quartet. The novels, which explored the theme of love, were set just prior to and during World War II in Alexandria, Egypt, and presented different perspectives on the same events as seen by different characters. I devoured the novels with my friends that summer on a Greek island, a feat made sweet by the knowledge that Lawrence and his younger brother Gerald, also a famous author, lived on and were inspired by those very islands. The references of Durrell to big scientific names and use of difficult words only confirmed to us, if to no one else, that we were ready for adult themes and esoteric literature that at the same time was erotic.

My trip to Greece was part of a dare when I impulsively accepted a challenge to hitchhike with a group of English friends from my university in Birmingham to Athens on a limited budget. For me, barely 20 years old, it was an adventure, as I had not done anything like this before. It was still possible then to hitchhike long distances before the dangers of doing so were graphically illustrated in so many popular films like Duel (1971) and The Hitcher (1986) in which there were good chances that you would end up being chopped into little bits by some psychopathic killer.

It was a hard few weeks on the road — we slept rough, ate little more than baguettes and cheese, and depended heavily on the hospitality of strangers — but it gave me insights into European society. Shortly after this photograph was taken, my Greek friend from the university came to see me at the youth hostel where I was staying with my English university friends and asked me to step outside. He was visibly angry with me. He reminded me of my social background and asked what my parents would say if they saw me living in these conditions like these “dirty” English. After weeks on the road, we did look scruffy and run-down, but his choice of adjective interested me. He was reflecting a historic suspicion and dislike of the English that some Europeans harbored; in that part of Europe, both the Turks and Greeks, who dislike each other to this day, blamed the English for their national woes. He ignored my explanations of having accepted the challenge of hitchhiking and winning the bet as a badge of honor. He insisted on taking me home and his family, especially his mother and sisters, showed me Greek hospitality at its best. I must confess that I had missed warm home-cooked meals and especially clean clothes to wear and clean sheets to sleep in, and I was profoundly grateful to my hosts.

My experience in the 1960s could not have differed more from the situation facing Pakistanis or others seeking refuge in Greece today. On recent visits to Greece in connection with my study on Islam in Europe, “Journey Into Europe,” I met and saw the plight of refugees and immigrants. They live in fear of their lives as newly formed far-right groups like the Golden Dawn party terrorize them. Some said that they had been physically beaten while bystanders looked on. The worst, they complained, were the police who saw them all as illegal and therefore a legitimate target for physical abuse. They were derisively called “Paki,” whatever their nationalities, as a racial slur. The word ironically derives from “pure” and is a term of pride for Pakistanis. As a term of derision, it did not exist in my time.

The problem of the refugees is but one crisis among many facing Greece today. High unemployment figures, the economic crisis and political uncertainty lay heavy on the land. In spite of this, however, there are heroic stories of ordinary Greek landlords giving shelter to the desperate refugees and Coast Guard officials saving their lives on the Greek islands. The sense of Greek hospitality and humanism that I experienced as a student does survive.

The second picture is taken alongside the famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen when a Muslim student could pose with the famous symbol of the city without fear of being accused of wanting to destroy it. I point to this picture to show that I was like other students visiting famous local iconic figures and places. Today, unfortunately, Muslims — however much they may condemn the actions — are associated in the media with blowing up antiquities in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The beautiful mermaid has been defaced and even “beheaded” by different anarchists and student pranksters, but no Muslim group has launched a campaign demanding that her modesty needs to be protected and she be clothed in a niqab.

The third picture is in Cambridge with the iconic King’s College in the background. I was at Selwyn College and had to cross King’s to get to town. My Pakistani friends and I would often run into Ian Stephens, the famous former editor of The Statesman in India and author of several books on Pakistan, as we crossed the college. I can still hear his loud greeting as he spotted us and can picture his blue eyes and ruddy face lighting up — “Pakistanis! My day is made!”

While Pakistani students can take pride in the fact that their community has contributed significantly to their host country — there are over a dozen members in the Houses of Commons and Lords, mainstream television presenters and even a former cricket captain with Pakistani backgrounds — there is no denying that the very word “Paki” is used as racial abuse. The irony is that it is now widely used even for those not of Pakistani origin, such as people from India or the Middle East.

Finally, the fourth picture is taken in the English public school Sherborne in Dorset. Sherborne has produced some famous names like actor Jeremy Irons and mathematician Alan Turing, who was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie The Imitation Game (2014). The school provided the background for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), with Peter O’Toole in the lead role.

In this photograph, I am standing alongside a group of my senior A-level students, who were not much younger than me. The boys are smartly turned out with ties, jackets and hats called boaters. I was sent to the school to teach English for a term as part of my diploma in Education at Cambridge University. My arrival in the small town was unusual enough to merit a small mention in the local newspaper pointing out the curious fact that a Pakistani would be teaching English at Sherborne. As part of my examination, I had to do a “practical” — an external examiner would sit in my class at the end of term and observe my teaching and interactions with the students. To their credit, the boys, who held my fate in their hands, behaved impeccably. I was aware of how easily they could have jeopardized my degree. The examiner’s report mentioned how well the boys had responded to my class and noted their enthusiasm. In the end, I was awarded a “distinction” by the university both in my written and practical examinations.

When these photographs were taken, Europe was beginning to become conscious of being an economic and political entity. The highways and hotels that would link different points of the continent were just being constructed. In certain parts, like the southern areas of Spain and Italy, there were few blacktop roads and those that existed were narrow and in disrepair while railway services were erratic. It was the time of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Pakistan was firmly in the camp of the former. Pakistan was a key ally with vast geopolitical span as its borders touched Iran at one end and Burma at the other. Pakistani President Ayub Khan had received an unprecedented welcome in the United States with U.S. President John F. Kennedy hosting his guest in the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Harvard and World Bank economists spoke of Pakistan as being at the “take-off” stage of economic development. South Korean economists came to Pakistan to study its methods.

When people discovered I was from Pakistan, they were mildly curious about it as many thought it was part of India, but I did not experience any overt hostility because of Islam. Most important, there was no overt hostility to Islam in the West. The media barely recognized the existence of the religion and certainly did not equate it with terrorism.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we are in the midst of a clash of civilizations, but for those who believe that a Huntingtonian Clash of Civilizations is inherent in the relationship between Islam and the West, let us pause and consider the conundrum of some of the greatest Europeans and their fascination with Islam. Starting from Cervantes in Spain to Napoleon in France to Goethe in Germany and George Bernard Shaw in Great Britain, these Europeans had expressed a strange allure for Islam. As for the U.S., Donald Trump would gain in his understanding of Muslims by reading what Benjamin Franklin thought of Islam and hearing the stirring words of praise President Kennedy had for President Khan and Pakistan at the State dinner at Mount Vernon. The very fact that some of the most outstanding Western figures thought along these lines is sufficient to throw a spanner into the clash of civilizations theory.

Let us take heart from these historic examples — aided by the student memories of one who owes so much of his education to the West — and build bridges to aim for a more peaceful and harmonious world, which has a place for all peoples irrespective of religion and race.

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  • About the autor
    Akbar Ahmed

    Professor Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, D.C., has just completed the film Journey into Europe, and is working on an accompanying book with the same title (Brookings Press, forthcoming).

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    • Brad H

      It has changed from my university experience with Muslim students. In school, we all got together Jew, Muslim etc to debate these issues over coffee. My Muslim friends were from the middle class. They benefited from living in a western country. I think some of today’s radicalized Muslims do not fit into their new country and are searching for their place in the world.

    • Val Cocora

      islam is like a cake next to a pile of manure: one can pick in the blanket whatever one chooses.
      professor ahmed seems to have chosen the cake, a choice lubricated by education, travel, thus a wide opening of his mind’s horizon.
      but this is no guarantee of a muslim choosing the cake on grounds of education and open mind alone.
      muslims such as aafia siddique, also pakistani and, from what i read, a women with a thirst for knowledge, proves that the education lubricant is, in and of itself, not enough to put off personal convictions, when push comes to shove to make a decision.
      there seems to be an inherent predatory and expansionist element in islam as a faith, element which rears its head unexpectedly in muslims of all walks of life, from the uneducated rapefugees of cologne of late, to muslims attending, or having graduated prestigious western universities.
      blaming europe for her hardening of stance towards muslims is unfair: just as muslims wouldn’t want their countries permanently occupied by british, french or german people, the reverse is equally true.
      last but not least, if we are to take heart from historic examples, this hardening would only get harder. personally, i am surprised that professor ahmed, as pakistani, has conveniently forgotten how what is now pakistan came to be muslim: by conquering and forced conversions which destroyed the moral fibre of his ancestors.
      it is reassuring however that a call for peace comes from, in this case, a muslim who managed to surpass the innate backwardness of his faith, and elevate himself above the darker calls of his holy book.
      after all, the word love is not mentioned in the quran even once.