Between Europe and the Middle East:

Episodic Geopolitics or Transformative Encounter





A lecture to be delivered




Joseph A. Camilleri


School of Social Sciences

La Trobe University, Melbourne





As part of lecture series


Sponsored by


Fondazione Laboratorio Mediterraneo, Napoli



21 April 2005







Not for circulation or quotation

without author’s permission

Between Europe and the Middle East: Episodic Geopolitics or Transformative Encounter



Europe’s relationship with the Middle East has been one of the pivots of human history for the best part of two millennia. That relationship is as pivotal today and, one hastens to add, as perplexing as it has ever been. Numerous factors render the task of analysis inordinately difficult, but none more so than the elusiveness of the very notions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Middle East’. What do these two entities encompass or connote? How are they to be understood – and how do they understand themselves – geographically, culturally, politically? Why is the very act of juxtaposing them so intellectually contentious and emotionally charged? To address these questions is to begin to make sense of the complex relationship as it presently stands and might unfold in the future.

The Middle East, or the Orient as eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe tended to call it, is often used as a codeword to refer to that part of the world which gave birth to Islam. In the European mind at least, the Middle East, though it has a geographical expression (primarily the eastern Mediterranean), is defined largely in terms of its Islamic core. However, Islam, building on the cultural and political practices and traditions of the pre-existing Semitic/Iranian civilisations, would soon overspill the boundaries of its birthplace and embark on one of the most extraordinary journeys, eventually encompassing not only the Middle East (narrowly defined), but much of Africa and Asia and substantial parts of Europe. Any discussion of Europe’s relations with the Middle East must therefore concern itself with both the narrower and wider region, with its physical but also political and religious profile. The Middle East, in other words, is shorthand for a large and diverse civilisation, which though initially centred on Arab and Persian intellectual and cultural life, eventually penetrated almost every corner of the globe (map).

While Europeans may not easily admit it, Europe is just as difficult to demarcate, let alone define or characterise. Europe to this day remains a complex cultural and political mosaic which conjures up multiple conceptions and identities that vary greatly with time, space and cultural setting. In terms of ethos and logic Medieval Europe is strikingly different from Renaissance or Enlightenment Europe, not to speak of industrial or modern Europe. But if its history has proved remarkably elastic so have its geography and its religious impulse. Is Europe located exclusively in Europe, or is it to be found also in North America and Australasia? Is contemporary Europe essentially Christian or secular or some hybrid of the two? Even its Christianity still bears the imprint of the deep schisms that separated Catholicism first from Orthodoxy and subsequently from Protestantism. Churchill’s well known depiction of Russia seems especially apposite when applied to Europe: A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

There is, then, no easy shortcut to delineating the two entities and their complex and still unfolding relationship. We are dealing here with finely interwoven religious, philosophical, artistic, social and political strands that cut across simplistic categories and that have over the centuries produced a bewildering patchwork of co-operative and conflictual encounters. Though the religious frameworks of Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East share (with the Judaic tradition) a common monotheistic conviction and a commitment to Abrahamic prophecy, significant differences exist with respect to religious expectations and practices, and most importantly conceptions of the transcendent. The religious structure of Islam is unique in its simplicity, its essential cult plain and unadorned to the point of austerity. But, as one of the leading historians in the field has so aptly put it, ‘this is a simplicity not of naïve “primitiveness” . . . but of single-minded sophistication which integrates all the diversity of experience’ (Hodgson 1994, 134).  Here ‘blinding elemental immediacy’ coexists with depth of inward cultivation, creative urbanity and scriptural splendour in ways which the Occident has often overlooked and rarely understood.

This, then, is the Mediterranean’s supreme challenge and unavoidable destiny. By virtue of geography and history, the Mediterranean Sea and the lands that surround it have been at the heart of the interactive processes connecting ‘Europe and the Middle East’, the Occident and the Orient. This is not to say, that the interaction has always led to mutual enlightenment, peace or prosperity. Enough misunderstanding, mistrust and suspicion persist, enough blood has been spilled for us to know otherwise. The fact remains, however, that the competition between these two civilisations – for territory, spheres of influence, legitimacy and divine favour – has largely centred on the Mediterranean basin, extending through the Balkans and the Black Sea region. It is in and around the Mediterranean that both sides have celebrated their greatest victories and experienced their most bitter defeats. The Mediterranean is the ‘frontier’ that divides the two civilisations (Gaidu 2003, 16-17), but it is also the bridge that connects them, and the melting pot that can transform them. The question is whether present-day Europe is willing and able to take up the challenge, and whether the Mediterranean can serve less as frontier and more as bridge and melting pot. The choice is between the preference for caution, predictability and control that has coloured Europe’s recent past and the present need for imagination, adaptability and engagement. Informed policy choices inevitably rest on a painful revisiting of history (most of it well known but insufficiently internalised), which I propose to do as a prelude to discussing our current predicament. 


Islam’s Remarkable Legacy

In this brief historical sketch my purpose is to highlight three conclusions, now widely shared by western scholars: a) the need to situate Islam within global historical context; b) the brilliance of Islamic civilisation; c) the enormous debt which Europe owes to it.  All three constitute a valuable antidote to past and present misconceptions of Islam and to media hype which seeks to portray the Middle East as the ‘crescent of crisis’ and the hotbed of Arab or Islamic terrorism (Burke, III 1998, 501).

Overview: Following the death of the prophet, Islam was responsible for creating within the short space of a few centuries a world civilisation in which people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and political traditions participated, and an environment conducive to intellectual and cultural achievements of extraordinary range and depth. For some eight hundred years Arabic would remain the major intellectual and scientific language of the world.

Golden Age: During this period (from about 750 to 950) the Muslim empire encompassed much of present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain and parts of Turkey. Muslim scholars, scientists, craftsmen and traders engaged in an unprecedented cross-fertilisation of once isolated intellectual traditions. The Irano-Semitic lettered traditions, which ‘seemed almost ready to be submerged by successive waves of Hellenization and even of Indicization’, were by late Sasanian times ‘asserting full autonomy’ (Hodgson 1994, 129). Indeed, the Irano-Semitic heritage could now rival and even surpass that of the Indo-Mediterranean and Sanskritic zones. Jerusalem, captured by the Arabs in 637, would become a place where representatives of the three religions would live and worship in peaceful co-existence for the best part of four centuries.

Islamic Spain: While not discounting Sicily’s notable contribution, it was Spain that would provide Islam with its most dramatic encounter with Europe. In the wake of the eighth-century occupation of Spain several cities were razed to the ground, but most cities, having yielded without resistance, were spared pillage and the murder of civilians. In architecture, music, poetry and the other arts the Arabs established in the upper layers of al-Andalus (as southern Spain came to be known) a high standard of taste and with it the materials, techniques and skills that would produce a uniquely gracious style of life (Watt 1972, 23-26). By the tenth century Cordoba, with a population of some 500,000, was a city of 700 mosques, some 60,000 palaces, 900 public baths, and 70 libraries employing a large staff of researchers, illuminators and bookbinders. Al-Andalus would also excel in the fields of mathematics, astronomy medicine, botany, geography, history and not least philosophy, producing such scholars as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Bajjah, and Ibn Rush (Averroes). The latter, widely regarded as the foremost Islamic philosopher, greatly contributed to the rebirth of Aristotelian philosophy and the development of Catholic scholasticism (Watt 1972, 69-71). Averroes and the other leading Arab thinkers of the period may be said to have planted the seeds of the European Renaissance.

Ottoman Empire:  Over a period of three hundred years beginning in the early fourteenth century the Ottomans established military control over much of Europe. Having eliminated the Byzantine empire, they subjugated most of the Balkan peninsula, and ‘put Austrian emperors, Polish kings, Russian tsars and Roman popes on the defensive’ (Gaiduk 2003, 43). The capture of Constantinople was an important victory, allowing the Turks to take charge of the trade between the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Control of the imperial city, seat of the ecumenical patriarchate, also strengthened the connection between the Ottoman state and the Orthodox Church. Ottoman rule, which spanned from the 12th to the 20th century and had at different stages stretched from Gibraltar to the Balkans and up to the gates of Vienna, encompassing Yemen and much of the North African coast and Persian Gulf, constituted the last and greatest of the Muslim empires (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 43). It was only in 1920 that the empire finally collapsed, stripped of its Arab provinces, with its territories occupied by British, French, Italian and Greek armies.

Islam’s influence on the Occident: As Hodgson has observed, occidentals borrowed diverse cultural practices and conceptions from Islamdom, and ‘this absorption was of far-reaching importance to the growth of their culture’ (Hodgson 1994, 164). It would be historically accurate to conclude that for the best part of six centuries contact with Islam (understood both as a challenging presence and a source of ideas) played a critical role in the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, whereas Islam derived relatively little from its contact with Europe, at least at the beginning of this period (Gibb 1955). Until the seventeenth century Islam was the carrier of the most expansive civilisation in the Afro-Eurasian hemisphere, offering for many peoples a norm of international sophistication and, with periodic interruptions, a flexible political framework and a useful network of commercial interaction. At its peak, in the 16th and well into the 17th century, the Muslim world still radiated enormous cultural creativity, especially in the Fertile Crescent and the Iranian highlands, but with important contributions by the Mogul and Ottoman empires.

Two preliminary conclusions emerge from this cursory sketch. First, Islam, building on an extensive Irano-Semitic heritage (with a significant Hellenic component), gave birth to a cosmopolitan high culture which spread its influence from the Latin West to China and developed one of the most sophisticated and certainly the most universal-minded exploration of human consciousness and its place in the world. Parallelling the geographical expansion of Islam, this cultural and intellectual opening up, reflected as much in religious as in artistic, philosophical and astronomical endeavour, ushered in the growth of citied life into a great many frontier areas where only parochial and tribal identities had previously prevailed. In this complex process, perhaps the greatest Islamic achievement was to forge a new synthesis that was planetary in scope, that assigned to the human person potentialities in every sphere of activity, and that in a very real sense prefigured the advance of a globalising world (Hodgson 1994, 118-121). Secondly, Muslims see themselves as the proud inheritors of a remarkable legacy of cultural, intellectual, scientific, technological, political and military accomplishment that spanned the best part of a millennium. They are also acutely aware that the corollary of Muslim decline has been modern Europe’s ascendancy, and with it the imposition of its colonial and imperial power over the Muslim world.


Contact, Confrontation and Coexistence

Enough has been said to indicate the extent of Europe’s intellectual and humanist debt to Islam. To put it simply, but not inaccurately, the two major intellectual movements of medieval Europe, scholasticism and humanism, ‘carry the signatures of classical Islam’. The parallelism is clearly evident:

…in the institutions of learning, in the organization of knowledge, in the humanistic studies, in the cult of the book, in the cult of eloquence, in the methodology of instruction… in the relationship between humanism and law … the cult of fame and glory, in the practice of ridicule and wit, in individualism generally…(Makdisi 1990, 348).

These were not just parallel developments. To a considerable extent, the European movement was greatly indebted to its Islamic counterpart. It applied but also extended Islamic practice in higher learning, especially with respect to the doctorate, the curriculum and the guilds. European humanism, as it developed in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, could not but be influenced by the extensive lines of communication that brought Islam into contact with Spain, Sicily, Italy and Provence. The routes of trade and commerce, the routes of pilgrimage, the crusades, and the international organisations of the Templars and the Hospitallers were also significant channels of influence

The complex processes of interaction at work during the medieval period were, of course, marked by considerable hostility. By the end of the Umayyad caliphate the civilisational fault-line between Christian Europe and Islam had already emerged as a powerful current in European thought. The European campaign to recover lost territories in Spain and the despatch, on papal authority, of the crusading armies to the Holy Land were immensely influential symbolically, if not militarily. Even today these events continue to grip the imagination of both sides, each interpreting them retroactively as the illegitimate use of force and, in the case of the Levant, as the unjustifiable capture of sacred soil. In the case of Spain, the military eviction of Muslim rule was a particular bitter pill to swallow because large Muslim societies were now forced to live under Christian rule, and, though coexistence proved possible for more than a century, by 1601 Spanish Muslims were presented with a stark choice: conversion to Christianity, departure from Spain or death. According to one assessment: ‘The notable religious tolerance toward Christians and Jews under Muslim rule in Spain had given way to the uncompromising zealotry of the Spanish inquisition’ (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 31).  The prolonged era of conflict with the Ottoman Empire and the fear as late as the 17th century that the Turks might storm the gates of Vienna fuelled the Muslim-
Christian cleavage, as did the succession of Muslim raids and periodic occupation of territories along the northern Mediterranean coast. A seaborne confrontation persisted in the Western Mediterranean long after the conflict with Ottoman power had largely declined.

The experiences of the battlefield and geopolitical intrigue mirrored and reinforced powerful intellectual currents. Though fascinated with the ideas of the great Islamic philosophers and greatly indebted to Islamic scholarship and inventiveness in law, mathematics, astronomy and medicine, European thinkers were increasingly drawn to a negative view of Islam. Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Dante began to attack Arab philosophy and Islamic theology (Akhavi 2003 551). Aquinas rejected Ibn Rushd’s contention that reason and revelation were two potentially contradictory sources of truth. In The Divine Comedy Dante, though aware of Europe’s considerable debt to Arab philosophy, largely neglects the role of Islam and places the Prophet Muhammad in hell among the sowers of discord. Four key propositions characterise medieval Europe’s assessment of Islam: a) Islamic faith is falsehood and a perversion of the truth; b) it is a religion of violence and the sword; c) it is a religion that celebrates the delights of the flesh; d) Muhammad is, by virtue of his failure to recognise the divinity of Jesus, the great blasphemer, the Antichrist (Watt 1972, 73; Gaiduk 2003, 100-101). In the centuries that followed, the animus against Islam would remain a consistent undertone in European thought: Pascal, Voltaire, Diderot, Gibbon, Renan, Sir William Muir (British Orientalist), H. G. Wells (A Short History of the World, 1922).

Notwithstanding these deeply felt fears and insecurities, one cannot overlook the common heritage and civilisation around the Mediterranean that linked southern Europe, North Africa and the Levant (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 15). Nor should one forget that that the Ottoman Empire functioned over many centuries as an integral part of the European state system, with various European powers often siding with it against rival powers, notably France against the Hapsburgs and Britain against Russia. Extensive co-operative arrangements had developed in:

Trade: Arab conquests did not interrupt commercial relations between Europe and Islam. Trade was centred on the Italian cities of Naples, Amalfi, Sorrento, Gaeta, and Venice, and the ports of Provence. The crusades, too, far from putting a brake on commercial relations, encouraged European merchants to develop a system of colonies in the Levant ports, which continued to trade well Muslim forces had reconquered them. Indeed, European merchants went much farther afield, establishing lucrative trade links with Persia, the Crimea and the Caspian borderlands.

Diplomacy: Christian and Muslim rulers might periodically fight, but in periods of peace diplomatic missions established the ground rules for extensive political relations and even alliances. Diplomatic exchanges between Frankish kings and the Caliph of Baghdad were mirrored by extensive links between Islamic Spain and Constantinople. From the 16th century onward, Muslim rulers in the Ottoman Empire, Iran and Morocco would regularly send envoys to their European counterparts.

Culture: Nor was cultural interaction any less vigorous. Apart from the diffuse mutual influences in architecture, art, craftsmanship, literature, dress and cuisine, Arab concepts and techniques in mathematics, physics and astronomy had considerable impact in Europe. Often, cultural contacts were so subtle yet so extensive that it became difficult to trace the precise line of influence. However, as already indicated Arab translations of Greek texts as well as Arab commentaries were critical to the development of European thought, although, it is true, that European scholars added to and revised the body of received knowledge to meet their specific circumstances (Gaiduk 2003, 143-164).

Contrary to Pirenne’s thesis, the Mediterranean continued to provide an extensive network of relations that cut across the religious divide and spanned virtually every sphere of human activity. Indeed, far from inflicting a crippling loss of unity on the Mediterranean, it is arguable that Islamic preponderance had served as a powerful catalyst for enhanced commerce and an increasingly complex flow of people, images, ideas and techniques (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 15).


Europe’s Ascendancy

In history it is always dangerous to date watersheds with any degree of precision, for the simple reason that watersheds are themselves the end result of the confluence of multiple currents, each of which has its own distinctive trajectory. So it is with the transition that saw the rise of Europe and the corresponding decline of Islam. Many have argued that the military defeat inflicted by the Habsburg and Polish forces on the Ottoman army of Kara Mustafa in 1683 was a decisive moment in the European turnaround. European ascendancy cannot, however, be measured solely or even primarily by victories on the battlefield. Europe’s dominance, which would eventually permeate every sphere of human endeavour, must be placed in a much larger historical and social context.

It is not my purpose here to describe, let alone explain, the complex sequence of events that saw Europe recover from a period of prolonged stagnation in the 14th century, when the combined impact of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War left economy and society in utter devastation. But the 16th century would usher in a series of developments that would in due course bring about ‘an unstoppable process of economic development and technological innovation’ (Kennedy 1987, 16-17). The growth of centralised monarchies in Spain, England and France, the resulting dynamic of economic and military competition, the ensuing stimulation of commerce and rapid growth of market relations, and the parallel expansion of the available body of knowledge unleashed by the Renaissance were just some of the leading influences that would culminate in the transformation of the European social and political order and eventually unleash the Industrial Revolution. By the 17th century, the emerging ‘pattern of investment (of time and funds) in multiple, interdependent large scale technical specializations’ and the ensuing technicalisation of institutions would give shape and content to occidental society as a whole (Hodgson 1994, 124).

Not surprisingly, this unprecedented conjuncture of socio-economic and technological trends, which made European world dominance a fait accompli by the end of the 18th century, was also reflected in the steady decline of the Ottoman Empire. By 1800 35 per cent of the world’s land surface was already under European control, a proportion that would steadily rise through the 19th century and peak at about 84 per cent on the eve of the First World War (Kennedy 1987, 150). Military victories no doubt played a part in the European onslaught, but the work of soldiers was complemented and reinforced by that of merchants, financiers, educators, scientists and missionaries. Of the Afro-Asian civilisations that were to be subjected to the European onslaught, the most seriously affected was the Muslim world.  Islamic positions right across North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and the Indian Ocean coastal areas of Africa all came under sustained attack. The blows were delivered primarily by Western European powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal), but Russia would also play a key role, advancing deep into Ottoman and Persian territory, crushing popular resistance in the Caucasus, and gaining control over virtually the whole of Central Asia. Competition for spheres of influence among the European powers might for a time slow down or even obscure Ottoman decline, but by the middle of the 19th century the trend was irreversible. Ottoman rulers sought to stem the decline by introducing a number of military reforms, but their weakness was not exclusively or even primarily military. Measures were also introduced to modernise aspects of Ottoman government and education by drawing on the European model, but to no avail (Gaiduk 2003, 133-137).

By the mid-1920s most of the Muslim world was directly or indirectly under European control, whether through formal annexation, establishment of protectorates, or spheres of influence enabling European traders, planters, miners and manufacturers to organise and take full advantage of available human and material resources. In the case of the Tsarist empire the approach was one of single-minded Russification and suppression of all demands for national self-determination. The October Revolution of 1917 changed but little in this respect, except that Russification now also meant extreme secularisation (aimed, it is true, at all religious not just Muslim organisations), including the closure of mosques and religious schools, a ban on all public displays of religious sentiment, and a vehement campaign of anti-religious propaganda. What was once a mighty civilisation that set the norms of intellectual, scientific, artistic, social and political life across a vast expanse of territories and peoples had been subjected and deeply humiliated by Europeans whose priorities and preferences were alien to Islamic traditions and practice.


Contemporary Drama           

This all too brief survey of the relatively recent past has done no more than synthesise some of the more perceptive historical accounts now available to us. Its purpose has been to ground the present in a more holistic historical context which alone can illuminate the relationship between Europe and the Middle East, thereby giving perspective to current trends and future possibilities. The European ascendancy is still with us, though its raison d’Ltre and modus operandi have lost a good deal of their former vigour and self-confidence. Colonies and protectorates have largely disappeared and spheres of influence have diminished in geographical scope and political potency. Yet, Western dominance continues to prey on the Muslim imagination. Here the linguistic slide from ‘European’ to ‘Western’ is highly instructive for it reminds us that Europe, though it remains at the origin of the Western project, has over the last hundred years, and especially since World War II, ceded leadership of the project to the United States. In the Muslim mind, however, this distinction is not always sharply drawn, and this for two reasons. First, most of Western Europe and the United States remain closely tied by virtue of their military alliance, their common prosperity, and the powerful political levers which they jointly bring to bear on regional and global governance. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, both Europe and the United States are seen as sharing the same dominant Orientalist mindset, the same discourse of power which seeks to interpret human history as a succession of stages culminating in the triumph of Western reason. The West is thus perceived as the self-proclaimed repository of the intellectual and cultural resources that constitute modernity, which in turn are thought to explain the West’s success, not to say superiority over other civilisations. From an Islamic vantage point – a view widely shared in the non-Western world – the Orientalist temptation is not so much the belief in progress as the conviction that Western modernity is the summit and ultimate measure of all progress.

The cultural and geopolitical roots of Orientalism remain deep-seated yet still only dimly perceived in mainstream occidental discourse. On the other hand, for the Muslim intellectual, indeed for Muslims generally, Orientalism is experienced not as some esoteric theoretical construct but as painful everyday political and cultural reality. We may refer to it as the experiential dimension of Islamic discontent. The grievances against the West are as numerous as they are deeply felt. One useful list refers to eight recurring themes: domination and intervention (e.g. as experienced by Iran at the hands of Britain and Russia), partitioning of Muslim states (e.g. Palestine, Sudan), indifference to the sufferings of Muslim communities (e.g. Palestine, Bosnia, Kahmir); support for Israel, support for authoritarian regimes (e.g. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates), promotion of cultural corruption (fisad) among Muslims, double standards in the pursuit of human rights policies and UN security Council condemnations, dissemination of anti-Muslim stereotypes in the Western media (Halliday 2002, 43). Among the more specific sources of Islamic lament are the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel, the despatch of US marines to Lebanon in 1958, western support for Israel in the 1967 six-day war and again in the in the October 1973 ar, US air strikes against Libya in 1985, massive US military deployments in Saudi Arabia in 1990-1991, the 1st Gulf War, US military intervention in Somalia in 1993, economic sanctions and air strikes against Iraq through the 1990s, and the 2nd Gulf War. In all of this, nothing has proved more vexatious or unacceptable to Islamdom generally and to the Arab world in particular than the consistent bias shown towards Israel not only in the protracted conflict since 1948 but in the very decision to create a new state widely interpreted as tantamount to establishing a ‘lasting foothold amidst another civilization and culture that has been displaced’ (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 40).

The European-Islamic divide is, however, more complex than this preliminary listing of grievances would suggest. The psychologically and culturally more perplexing dimension of Islamic discontent is the challenge of ‘modernity’. Is it not modernity that separates, indeed creates and legitimises, the gap between Western ascendancy and Islamic humiliation? Is it not the case that Europe’s rise to power is attributable to its ‘modernisation’ and that Islam’s corresponding decline derives from its failure to modernise? Formulated in this fashion, the explanation appears clear and compelling. Yet, on closer inspection, it begs more questions than it answers. If the task confronting Islam were merely that of aping European achievements in science, technology, economy and politics, then the problem should have been resolved by now, or at least be well on the way to resolution. In reality, Islam’s (and the Middle East’s) predicament raises more difficult and troubling questions. Three merit particular attention. Is modernisation the necessary and sufficient condition of the Arab/Muslim world’s search for dignity, security and prosperity? Is the West prepared to see, let alone assist, the modernisation of the Muslim world, if such modernisation were to result in a substantial shift in the global balance of power and wealth? Is modernisation another name for Westernisation, in which case is it consistent with Islam’s self-understanding and conception of the world?

These are the very questions that underlie the profound ferment that has gripped the Muslim world for over a century and has yet to run its full course. How Europe understands and responds to this ferment will be one of the critical factors shaping the construction of the new Europe, its relationship with the Middle East, and the emerging normative and institutional framework of international relations. Islam’s attempts to adapt to its radically altered circumstances date back to the late 19th century. Islamic modernism, to which Jama al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), Mohammed Abdu (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) made distinctive and enduring contributions, sought to apply the lessons drawn from Islam’s experience of Western technological superiority and colonial domination. Modernist intellectuals generally advocated a process of internal reform designed to purge Islam of the elements that had weakened it and endow it with those elements of modernity that might strengthen it. However, a good deal of ambiguity, not to say sharp disagreement, emerged as to which were the elements to be preserved, jettisoned or acquired.   All proposals, regardless of the specific mix advocated, raised troublesome questions of feasibility, internal coherence, and consistency with the foundational core of the Islamic faith.

Here, it is worth pausing to reflect for a moment on the path chosen by Turkey following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk’s secular project made Turkey the first Islamic nation to adopt Western practices in all spheres of activity: Islam was disestablished, the clerical class was abolished and its property seized, religious schools were closed, and Sharia was replaced by European law codes. With hindsight, however, this would prove a dead end, at least so far as the Muslim world as a whole was concerned. Eighty years after the event, Turkey is still struggling to define its identity, establish its credentials as a full-fledged democratic society, or develop a thriving, technologically sophisticated economy. More importantly, it has offered no lasting answer to the question of how precisely Islam and modernity can be reconciled, or what Islam’s contribution to the modern world might be. In destroying the Caliphate, the spiritual head of the Sunni world, Ataturk dealt a crippling blow to the authority and subsequent development of Islam, but little or nothing to resolve the controversies that have become central to Muslim intellectual and political life. 

In the decades that followed, the debate about the Muslim tradition – its past and its future – would gather momentum. Modernity became a subject of intense contention. Even those who denounced Ataturk’s secularist approach and chose instead to breathe new life into the Islamic tradition would be sharply divided in their diagnosis of the ailment and especially in their prescription of remedies. The problem posed by modernity for Islam, as indeed for every major religious tradition, is how to distinguish modernity’s positive and negative attributes. To place the flowering of science and technology, political freedom and economic prosperity into the positive basket may at first sight seem commonsensical and innocuous enough. After all, Islam has a rich tradition of its own of scientific, technological and commercial endeavour. But modernity comes with a great deal more baggage. As the Iranian intellectual, Abdolkharim Soroush, has put it:

. . . Muslims still have great difficulties in dealing with the legacy of modernity, which many of us feel is alien to our culture and values. For at the heart of the project of modernity lies a healthy epistemological scepticism that leads to the demystification of everything, of all that we once held dear and inviolable (Noor 2003).

Some have argued that the language and practice of rights are problematic from an Islamic point of view. It is, however, at least arguable that Islam has a deep sense of the dignity of the human person, and of the rights and responsibilities which are implicitly, even explicitly, contained in such a concept. Far more troublesome for Islam is the notion of secularism and its political, ethical and religious implications.

To be more specific, secularism raises the highly sensitive question of the relationship between the religious and political realms. Central, in fact, to Islamic debates is the past and prospective role of the State. Muslims, it is true, may be divided between the ‘modernisers’ who see the need to adapt to new ideas and trends and the ‘fundamentalists’ who insist that the only way forward is a return to authentic Islam as presented by the Prophet and a rejection of all accretions and innovations that are alien to Divine revelation. But these debates become politically significant and acquire international resonance precisely because of their far-reaching implications for the State. The centrality of the State emerges in relation to three crucial questions: a) what kind of State is consistent with the demands of Islamic faith, particularly in the case of Muslim societies (i.e. societies which have large Muslim majorities); b) what is the appropriate relationship between the State and Muslim minorities; c) what is the appropriate relationship between Muslim states and the West generally, and in particular between the Muslim world and imperial western states. Violence, which is a corollary of each of these questions, may itself be framed in the form of a question: in what circumstances may violence be pursued to correct an inappropriate relationship or set of relationships? In western analyses there is often a temptation to equate fundamentalism with violence, but the necessity of such a nexus is grounded in neither logic nor practice. Recourse to violence is advocated and practised only by a minute fraction of Muslims, although the objectives and vision that animate the recourse to violence may be shared by much larger numbers, and, interestingly enough, both vision and objectives may cut across the conventional modernist/fundamentalist divide.

It is worth noting therefore that not all radical Islamist movements have made the recourse to violence the centre piece of their strategy, and only a few have placed it at the heart of their philosophy. Saudi Arabian Wahabbism, for example, has pressed heard for Islamization at home, and extended a good deal of financial support to Islamic movements abroad. But violence has been used primarily to stifle internal Muslim dissent rather than in support of some kind of international military jihad (Abou El Fadl 2002, 38). On the other hand, it is true that during the 1980s and 1990s dozens of madrassas (religious schools) in Afghanistan and Pakistan became training camps for a new kind of international jihad which explicity justified the use of force against infidels intent on preserving or acquiring control of Muslim lands. Even here, however, one encounters a great many philosophical and strategic differences. The Taliban, for example, applied their religious beliefs in ways that were inherently anti-intellectual and showed little understanding of some of the most basic tenets of the Islamic tradition. By the same token, violence has been used as a strategic or tactical weapon by such groups as the Hizb’allah (Party of God) in Lebanon and Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) in Palestine in pursuit of clearly stated political, as opposed to purely religious goals, which in both cases has meant an on-going struggle against the policies of the State of Israel (Best et al. 2003, 42-443)

It is not so much the question of violence as the role of the State which is at the centre of Islamic debates. Indeed, a fascinating feature of the recent resurgence of political Islam is the retreat of nationalism. The Muslim world generally, and the Arab Middle East in particular, would seem, at least for the time being, far removed from the nationalist aspirations of Nasser’s Egypt. The Islamic revolution in Iran (1978-79) is but the most dramatic manifestation of a powerful trend that has yet to run its course, namely the retreat of ‘secular nationalism’, which, we must not forget, remains an essential ingredient of European modernity. The Iranian revolution itself, like so many other religio-political developments in the Muslim world, is a complex blend of the traditional and the modern, the religious and the temporal, the national and the transnational (Arjomand 1988). While deeply rooted in Iran’s history and traditions, the Islamic revolution has nevertheless had remarkable resonance in many parts of the Muslim world, precisely because internal Iranian debates, not just those between clerical hardliners and reformers, speak to the circumstances and preoccupations of Muslims the world over. A supranational or transnational mode of thinking has always been central to Islamic cosmology, which is why notions of nationhood have had to be more firmly incorporated into an Islamic frame of reference. It is not surprising, then, to see widely divergent strands of Islamic thought and practice, often loosely referred to as ‘Islamism’ or ‘political Islam’, all wrestling in different ways and to different degrees with the same conundrum, which is how to create a new synthesis out of Islam and the nation-state (Juergensmeyer 1993).

The intellectual and political struggle, as yet unresolved, between competing Muslim responses to the challenge of modernity places the spotlight on the state not just in a normative or futuristic sense (how should the state ideally function and relate to Islam?) but in a highly practical and immediate sense (how does the state presently function and relate to Islam?).The role of the authoritarian state in Arab and other Muslim countries has itself become the subject of Islamic contention, especially as ruling elites have come to see regime survival as dependent on the co-option of the Islamic clergy. As a consequence, the state has managed, by virtue of its control of the private religious endowments (awqaf), to transform Islamic jurists (fuqaha) into a salaried religious establishment. The marginalisation of the jurist class, once seen as the guardians of the Islamic tradition, has in turn deprived Islam of a key institution which performed the ‘dual function of representing the interests of the state to the laity and the interests of the laity to the state’ (Abou El Fadl 2002, 36). The net effect has been to weaken the clergy’s legitimacy and to compound the dilemma confronting Islam as it seeks to regain political relevance and cultural meaning in a contemporary setting.

These and other developments have combined to raise the intensity of Islamic debates, in which  religious scholars and intellectuals, political activists and professionals of all kinds are now involved on an unprecedented scale. Mass education and mass communication, in particular the use of satellite technology, the web and the humble videotape, are no doubt important contributing influences. As one writer puts it, ‘in changing the style and scale of possible discourse, they reconfigure the nature of religious thought and action, create new forms of public space, and encourage debate over meaning (Eickelman 1999, 32). Aljazeera with its extensive news reporting and live treatment of such sensitive issues as the role of women in Islam, human rights, Palestine, Iraq, and governance in an Islamic context, is itself indicative of the larger trend. A distinct but closely related factor is Islam’s geographical spread, which means that Islamic debates are surfacing not merely in the Arab heartland of the Middle East, but in the suburbs of Paris and London, the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, and throughout the immense crescent that stretches from Morocco around North Africa through Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Indonesian archipelago. The debates are intense as they are increasingly interconnected. Put simply, we are witnessing a multifaceted, though still inchoate, Islamic resurgence whose far-reaching implications, not least for Europe, are just beginning to emerge.


Roadblocks in the Path of a Transformative Encounter

Europe and its leaders, though they may not fully comprehend the significance of the events that are rapidly unfolding, and whether they like it or not, are central figures in this historical process. Islam’s response to the challenge of modernity will in good measure shape Europe’s relationship with the Middle East, and the Muslim world more generally. This is not say that Europe has it in its power to determine the choices that Muslims will make, nor indeed should it attempt to do so. On the other hand, it does have the capacity, and one hopes the will, to create conditions that are more conducive to informed and rational choices, and to outcomes predicated more on co-existence and co-operation than confrontation. In the course of the next few decades decisions taken by European states, the European Union, other regional institutions and the diverse groups that make up European civil society will either facilitate or seriously impede the prospect of a long overdue, mutually beneficial and transformative encounter.

European choices and capacities will range over a great many arenas, but four are especially deserving of attention: a) making a definitive break with the Orientalist mindset of the past; b) clearing the backlog of unresolved geopolitical tensions and misunderstandings; c) developing a programmatic approach to regional and international governance that accepts cultural plurality as its foundation tone, even if should bring Europe into sharp disagreement with the unilateralist inclinations of the imperial power; and d) developing a new social compact that accepts Muslims in Europe as European citizens fully engaged in the task of European construction. These are not, it is worth remembering, four distinct arenas, each with its own separate logic and modus operandi; they are four mutually constitutive sites that call for well integrated policies and a common commitment to the insights and methodologies of civilisational dialogue. For reasons of space, we content ourselves with a few brief observations on each of these arenas.

Of all the tasks ahead perhaps none is more pressing than the far-reaching reassessment of the ‘Orientalist’ conception of the world. Here, we are primarily concerned with the contribution of intellectuals, educators and opinion leaders more generally. Europe’s relations with the Middle East and the wider Muslim world cannot be premised on ‘a storehouse of oriental stereotypes and exotica’ (Akbar Ahmed 1992, 182). The tendency of much European thought to understate the extraordinary accomplishments of Islamic civilisation and to overstate its moral or intellectual deficiencies must be rectified. More importantly, the Occident must come to understand that it cannot read the ‘Oriental’ other purely or even primarily in terms of norms and benchmarks which tautologically affirm its own self-confessed superiority. The problems of the ‘Orient’, many of which in fact bear the European footprint, cannot be resolved by the singular or unilinear application of European models and experiences. Nor for that matter can the Occident afford to grapple with its multiple anxieties and insecurities by projecting them on to the “Oriental’ other (Anouar Majid 2000, 67), to the ‘crescent of crisis’ in the Middle East, or to ‘Islamic terrorim’ (Marranci 2004). Concomitantly, the European discourse that glorifies technical prowess as the key to power and human achievement must become conscious of the deeply frustrating marginalisation to which such glorification condemns non-Westerners and Muslims in particular. If so much of Muslim scholarship is one of protest, it is precisely because of an overwhelming need to break through the impasse of imposed inferiority. Europe cannot afford to press Islam to opt for Western-style modernity at the very moment that western voices are increasingly drawing attention to modernity’s spiritual, ethical, aesthetic and ecological deficit.

Indispensable though it may be, the psychological repositioning of the European mind will either lose momentum or be seen as cosmetic unless it is firmly grounded in geopolitical practice. The unresolved issues are numerous; they pertain to the legacy of decolonisation, the disparities of wealth and power between First and Third worlds, the politics and economics of oil, western interventionism and the ‘war on terror’. Central here is the transatlantic relationship. Europe will have to assess with care and lucidity its attitude to and role in the imperial project on which the United States appears to have embarked. Events since the end of the Cold War have pointed to a sustained attempt by successive US administrations to assert unchallenged hegemony in the Middle East. Unflinching support for the State of Israel, the First Gulf War, continuing hostility to Iran, and more recently the military intervention in Afghanistan and illegal invasion of Iraq indicate a concerted attempt to contain any Islamic force likely to endanger US strategic and oil interests in the Middle East and its environs. The unipolar temptation is, however, proving costly and counterproductive. The ostentatious flexing of muscle should not be confused with the capacity to produce intended consequences and prevent unintended ones.

Most of continental Europe has wisely sought to question the direction of imperial policy. The parting of the ways over Iraq may be an important sign of things to come. That questioning may need to intensify in the years ahead in the interests not just of Europe, but of the entire relationship between Occident and Orient, between Europe and Islam. The US declared ‘war on terror’ has in any case weakened America’s claim to hegemonic leadership. Three year into the war, US policy-makers are still unable to offer intellectually or politically compelling answers to three critical questions: Who is to wage this war? Against whom? With what purpose in mind? The ‘coalition of the willing’ is proving to be smaller, less cohesive and supportive than had been expected – among both electorates and governments. An alternative approach that favours the international rule of law, respects cultural plurality, and seriously examines the possibilities of regional and global multilateralism is more likely to remove tensions and misunderstandings and deprive terrorist strategies of the fertile soil on which to thrive.

There are, of course, additional geopolitical concerns in Europe’s own backyard. The relationship with Turkey, a source of longstanding ambivalence, will need to be cultivated in ways likely to raise the prospects for humane governance in that country, without, however, allowing Turkey’s bid to join the European Union to become embroiled in a new bifurcation of European culture and geopolitics. If Turkey is to be integrated into the European system, it must be because it can contribute to the construction of a new Europe and not because it offers a useful strategic counterweight to some undisclosed but readily imaginable threat. Similarly, the defence relationships which Western Europe is beginning to forge, inspired partly by the perfectly understandable wish not to place all its security eggs in the NATO basked and partly by the desire to cultivate a special sphere of influence in the Mediterranean region, must not form a new buffer against a hypothesised ‘Islamic threat’. The development of European surveillance and air defence systems, including the Franco-Spanish-Italian Helios satellite project, could easily be interpreted in the Muslim regions of the Mediterranean as a vehicle for renewed intervention by the former colonial powers (Fuller and Lesser 1995, 63). A possible reaction might be for such countries as Iran, Egypt and Syria to acquire longer range missiles and for missile capabilities to spread to other parts of North Africa. Unless carefully monitored, defence arrangements could absent-mindedly occasion the progressive militarization of the Mediterranean

Another noteworthy field of political discourse and action, which connects with the experience of Byzantine rather than Western Europe, could greatly exacerbate an already explosive situation. Reference here is to the concepts articulated by Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and Russians who, in their attempts to resolve age-old security dilemmas, may opt for the relatively soft option of yet again demonising the actual or imaginary Islamic foe. The rise of the Islamic factor in the wake of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union is indicative of an approach to conflicts which may place them, whether by accident or design (or some combination of the two), along a civilisational fault line. Europe, in particular the European Union, will therefore need to approach the so-called threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ along its periphery (in the Balkans, Chechnya, the Caucasus and Central Asia) with much greater strategic clarity and tactical care than has hitherto been the case.

In a sense, the most critical issue may turn out to be not the Middle East (or Islam) and Europe, but the Middle East (or Islam) in Europe. The scale of migration from the Maghreb, Turkey and the Indian sub-continent has placed religion and culture at the heart of current political debates and raised complex questions about the future of the State – not the ‘Muslim’ State, but the ‘European liberal/social democratic’ State. Therein lies the significance of the entire debate about the Islamic veil in France. The trend is impacting not just on those countries that are the primary destinations of Muslim migrants (e.g. Germany, France, UK, Scandinavian countries) but also those that serve as conduits for migration to other centres (Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy). By 2015, Europe’s Muslim population is expected to double. By 2050, it is expected to make up at least 20 per cent of Europe’s population. Even now, Muslims constitute more than 25 per cent of the population of Marseille, 20 per cent of Malm`, 15 per cent of Paris, Brussels and Birmingham, and at least 10 per cent of London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Oslo and Copenhagen (Savage 2004, 29). Mushrooming mosques and their minarets, Islamic cemeteries, markets and boutiques have visibly modified the European architectural landscape.

The inability of many European societies to accept Muslim communities as equal contributors to different spheres of social and political life has produced widespread disaffection, especially among the younger generation, which has thus becomes fertile ground for the recruiting policies of militant Islamic networks and organisations. The collective sense of threat and alienation has generally reinforced Muslim identities in most parts of Europe, with social marginalisation, cultural inequality and racial discrimination, far more than religion or ideology, constituting the main source of Islamic discontent (Gaiduk 2003, 179-183). The problem posed for Europe by a ghettoised but rapidly growing Muslim minority cannot be overstated. The substantial currents of prejudice and stereotypical, not to say distorted, images of Islam, its traditions and practices, represent one of the chief obstacles to more constructive social policies, which governments and political parties generally have approached with notable timidity. This is no doubt one of the underlying considerations which has led the European Union in its recent declarations to call for greater ‘engagement with Mediterranean partners, through more effective economic, security and cultural cooperation in the framework of the Barcelona Process’ and ‘a broader engagement with the Arab World’ (European Union 2003). These are commendable sentiments, but even if they were to be translated into more tangible foreign policy initiatives, they cannot serve as a substitute for practical measures that commit both state and civil society to accepting Muslims as full fledged citizens of the new Europe, with all the rights and responsibilities that an expanded and renewed concept of cosmopolitan citizenship implies.

Europe and the Middle East have a long and rich history of contacts and shared experiences spanning virtually every sphere of human activity. Yet, despite geographical proximity and prolonged cultural and commercial interaction, the relationship has been episodic, with bursts of co-operation regularly alternating with conflict and at times exploding into violence. For Arabs and Muslims generally, the most recent period is associated with European ascendancy, and though colonization and occupation have for the most part come to an end, there is as yet little evidence of a far-reaching reappraisal of the relationship. For many in the Muslim world, the West is still driven by a powerful, almost intuitive tendency to impose its cultural and political categories on the Muslim ‘other’, and to make co-existence and collaboration dependent on the other’s acceptance of those categories. If in the coming decades the Mediterranean is to foster convivial encounters between its diverse societies, cultures and world views, it will be necessary to develop a language that ‘shatters postcolonial somnolence’ and confers to the Arab and the Muslim a ‘fundamental autonomy’ (Anouar Majid 2000, 71).  What is in question is the willingness of the ascendant power to break with the traditions of empire (past and present), to rethink its own dependence on the technicalisation of social life (not least the structure of its energy economy), and to countenance in the construction of the ‘new Europe’ a new ethic of diversity and tolerance. The Muslim world for its part will have to recover from the Qur’anic discourse the powerful, though at times dormant, impulse ‘to know and respect the other’. The first part of the 21st century may well be the historical moment which calls upon all the civilizations bordering the Mediterranean to reignite in mutually transformative ways those spiritual resources and modes of being that can reconcile collective identity and difference with dialogue and common purpose.









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