Hatidza Mehmedovic walks through a sea of white tombstones and raises her hands in prayer. This is her pilgrimage—her own Mecca, she says. Mehmedovic recounts the dead—her husband, eldest son Azmir, younger son Almir, her two brothers and over 50 other family members—all killed in one single night. Twenty years later, this is what remains—the silent, symmetrical tombstones, and the haunting memories of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
Mehmedovic’s story is one of the stoic moments in the documentary Journey into Europe that underline the need to understand the complex relationship of the Muslim world in Europe. The 120-minute film by Muslim scholar and former diplomat, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, seeks to explore several layers of this Muslim–European identity. The film digs out the rich past of Islam in Europe, it unveils the challenges of the present, and in some heart-warming moments, it offers glimpses of hope that humanity will prevail.
The debates of the present have to be rooted in the past. In parts of Europe, the past of Islamic civilization has been glorious, but often forgotten. In the film, Jose Antonio Nieto, the mayor of Cordoba, remembers the richness of Andalusia in Southern Spain. “During the 10th century, under the Muslim rule in Andalusia, Cordoba was one of the greatest cities in the world. In Cordoba, we owe our character, our culture to the Muslims,” he says.
During the rule of the Caliphate, Cordoba’s main library boasted of over 4,00,000 manuscripts, and the period was known for some of the famous scholars and inventors like Ibn Rushd, Ibu Firnes and Maimonides.
The footprints of this Islamic civilization are scattered across Spain and Sicily—in architecture, culture and daily habits: in food, like the couscous sold on the streets of Palermo in Sicily; in the Sicilian dialect which is peppered with Arabic words; in music and dance, where the “ole” in flamenco is derived from the expressions of “Allah.” In Palermo, the Monreale Cathedral and the Palentine chapel are standing examples of this mélange of influences. Its structures have been inspired by Latin and Roman elements and Arabic arches.
Nasser David Khalili, founder and director of Maimonides Foundation in the UK, says the contributions of Islamic civilization have been critical during the times Europe and the West were going through the “dark ages.” “From the 9th and 10th century onwards, the Muslims translated Greek and Roman books. Through that translation, mathematics, medicine and understanding of food and health came to the West,” he says. Bashir Mann, the first Muslim elected official in the UK, describes this as a full circle of civilization. “Europe learned everything from Muslims, and now it is the other way round. The people from Muslim countries come to Europe to learn the same thing they taught them,” he adds.
Samia Hathroub, a lawyer and French social activist, says extremism is growing in France. “Most of the youth come from dislocated immigrant families; some of them begin as drug dealers, and go to jails, where they end up being radicalized.” The isolation of the Muslim community adds to the problem.
The rise of extremism reflects poorly on Muslim leaders in Europe who have failed their younger generation, but also on the state’s ineffectual integration policies. The colonial empires and the immigrants from the countries they ruled have failed to find a common identity to hold on to. France makes a clear distinction between “originally French and French from immigrant background.” In Britain, being British is not being English. In Denmark, the immigrants are not seen as true Danes. Immigrant histories have failed to find space in school textbooks and, consequently, in national identities.
In Europe, if there are concerns about radicalization of young Muslims, there is also a surge in the right-wing sentiment. Marine Le Pen’s far-right anti-immigrant party is fast gaining popularity in France. Britain’s answer to the Tea Party, the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP), swept the local council polls in 2014, with its anti-immigration sloganeering. A far-right group, Britain First, has launched a fight to “take the country back.” Britain First volunteers patrol Muslim-dominated areas with heavily-armed military vehicles, distribute Bibles at mosques and organize frequent anti-mosque protests. Jim Dowson, its founder, says the future of Britain would be “war” between the Islamic world and the originally British.
Europe’s growing Islamophobia is also reflected in the rounds of discussions on EuroArabia—an assumption that countries like France would be Islamic Republics in 39 years. Jean-Luc Marret at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris dismisses it. “Europe will not collapse under the weight of Muslims. Islam can provide many things to Europe but Europe can provide many positive things to Islam. Like in France, we are producing a new form of Islam connected to Western moderation and innovation and this could be the ‘new Andalusia’,” he says.
Amidst all this, there are signs of normality. For instance, take sports, where over 45 Muslim players are a part of the Premier League, including top rankers like Edin Dzeko from Bosnia, Samir Nasir, a French Moroccan Muslim, Yaya Toure and Dema Ba from Africa. “When Dema Ba, a Chelsea player, scores a goal, he prostrates and prays. The football fans go crazy and celebrate. This normality is how we will build relationships,” says Aqeel Ahmed of the BBC.
There are attempts to foster integration in architecture as in the Penzberg Mosque in Germany whose contemporary cubic structures hold prayer meetings and German language classes at the same time. The imams here are dressed in suits and offer regular tours of the mosque for non-Muslims.
In political circles, young Muslims across Europe are making new beginnings. Cemile Giousuf, a German Muslim of Turkish descent, became the first Muslim member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. In Denmark, a young leader, Kashif Ahmed of Pakistani descent, founded the National Party of Denmark to strengthen the immigrant voice. Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, a Muslim MP in the UK, says, “Muslims have to fundamentally abide by the laws of the Quran, but beyond that, we have to abide by the law of the country which we have chosen to call home.”
The signs of integration are heartening, but not enough. There is still rising Islamophobia. There is isolation. There is fear. Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, says Islamophobia only reflects the fear and the panic. “When you realize you are not close to your neighbur, you can either panic, and project all sorts of terrible things on to them or you sit with them and listen. We need to listen very hard to an average Muslim neighbor, not an extremist voice, but those who are unobtrusive and faithfully living their ordinary lives,” he says.
The onus of dialogue is also on the Muslims. The Muslim community needs to get across the values of Islam and how it fits in the religious landscape of European countries. Kristiane Backer, a former MTV presenter in Denmark and a Muslim, says Islam in Europe is fossilized and it is up to the young people to take it forward. “They need to study the religion through contemporary and classic sources and educate the society and their own parents,” says Backer.
So the path ahead is in educating your own and “the other.” It lies in discovery of the rich past of coexistence, in dialogue and in listening hard. The path ahead is to explore common identities.
PS: At the Cambridge Mosque in London, a young man identifies himself as Pedro and passes around his photograph with Pope Francis. Like a prized possession, he circulates the picture and the message associated with it. “I have been sent by the Pope and he has asked me that every time you see a Muslim, give him a hug. Tell him, it is from the Pope.” Pedro then turns towards Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed for an embrace. On this uplifting note, the documentary Journey into Europe concludes. A Christian man hugs a Muslim, inside a mosque, carrying a message from the highest Church—a lasting image offering hope that at the end of it all, humanity would prevail.