Speech of his Excellency Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the Center for Dialogues
Allow me at the outset to thank the Center for Dialogues, Islamic World—U.S.—The West of New York University, and Dr. Mustapha Tlili in particular for inviting me to speak at this prestigious university on a timely topic of great importance to the Muslim World and to the West as well.
The history of mankind is a continued uninterrupted process of mutual giving and borrowing from one another and a process of cultural cross—breeding. Since the dawn of history, men have, over millennia, related and exchanged views about coping with life, the means of survival, production, trade, state formation, technology, cultural and religious issues. Boundaries among different cultures are usually blurred and difficult to trace. In Europe; this intercultural communication has been so intense and frequent over the past two millennia that no one can categorize for sure who was an intruder to the Continent and who was genuinely indigenous.
It is in such a complex context that we see the relation between Islam and Europe. Fortunately, we see these relations stand out as a glaring example of a constructive centuries—old process of give and take among cultures and civilizations. It could, safely, be said that interaction between Islamic civilization and that of the West is “historically” unique and unprecedented, given its scope, depth and duration. The geographic proximity, the openness of spirits, the intertwined relations and the meeting of common interests played a central role in forging these relationships.
Since its very inception, Islam was at the doors of Europe. Merely twelve years after the death of the prophet Muhammad, Muslims were in Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan and elsewhere, including parts of the Byzantine Empire. Less than eighty years later, Muslims were in Spain. Twelve years later, they were in the southern parts of France, and in almost all the islands of the Mediterranean Sea from Cyprus to Sicily to Majorca to Rhodes to Malta and others. Vast territories in Eastern and Southern Europe came under Islamic rule for over 500 years, ending only at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The presence of Muslims in Spain lasted almost eight centuries. Their presence there marked the history of Europe and played a glorious role in disseminating science and knowledge, as well as the lofty values of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It to suffice to say that Islamic civilization has contributed to the advent of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe. This contribution speaks volumes.
Hardly had Islamic rule faded in Spain and Western Europe when the lantern of Islam started to shine in Eastern Europe under the Ottomans. Cordoba’s role was replaced by Sarajevo which was the most liberal and tolerant city in Europe, according to Prince Charles of Wales, in a speech delivered at the Oxford Centre on Islamic Culture in 1991. This was possible because Islam tapped on the rich resources of diversity which earned it instant acceptance by the indigenous populations.
After this preliminary introduction, I will go deeper into my ideas about European identity and Islam, and end with my thinking with regards to the notion of Islam and the West: “Shared Identity”.
When Europe was closed upon itself, the notion of a “European Identity” had never been raised as a political, cultural or academic issue of any importance. This notion gained prominence as a subject of debate among politicians, scholars, as well as among the public in a broader sense, when a considerable number of Muslim immigrants — mainly from North Africa and Sub—Saharan African countries — started to pour into Europe, to help in the construction of the continent which was devastated by the ravages of two world wars.
Before that, the debate in Europe used to be polarized by the dominant ideologies which suppressed the scattered ethnic European entities and silenced their national aspirations to a great extent. This situation was manifest mainly in Southern and Eastern Europe as well as in the region of the Caucasus and beyond, stretching into the Central Asian States.
As a direct result of the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 90s, a new European Era dawned, characterized by a wind of liberal change which allowed the awakening and the emergence of micro—nationalistic identities that managed to escape and set themselves free from the dominance of the ideological affiliations of the past era.
This development had an immediate effect on the course of international relations. It unleashed micro—ethnical nationalist movements based on distinguishable ethnic, cultural and religious considerations, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. This turbulent situation which unfolded in the Balkans and the Caucasus took place as Western Europe was engaged in a bigger and parallel effort seeking to build a new mega regional European scheme with unified identity and culture, and based on practical efforts and policies within a framework called the European Union. This scheme of creating an all encompassing European identity was meant to serve as a remedy to the dangerous trend of micro—ethnic and nationalistic fervors at the peripheries of Europe.
This major endeavor led to the need to define Europe. It is at this juncture that the situation of indigenous Muslim populations within the confines of Europe was to be evoked. It was understood that an expanded European Union to the East, would have in its folds millions of indigenous Muslims, mainly in the Balkan region, in addition to the existing tens of millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe.
It is in this perspective that the old phenomenon of the so—called “Eastern Question” of the 19th Century was revisited. In discussing this issue, some European intellectuals went to the extent of considering the case of the “Europeanness” of the Muslim population whose roots in Europe go back to the nineteenth century and who are the second or third generation of Muslim immigrants settled in Europe. For the proponents of this argument, the “Europeanness” of Bosnians, Albanians, Kosovars, the Muslims of Romania and Bulgaria as well as all other indigenous European Muslims was to be put into doubt (you might have noticed, I am avoiding the name of Turkey, in order not to complicate the debate). We can also add to that the case of the indigenous Turkish people who are now Greek citizens in Western Thrace and Rhodes.
This issue of belonging leads us to question of whether the old immigrants should always be considered as belonging to the countries from which they had migrated, or to the host country where they immigrated to. Does the preservation of their original cultures raise any doubts about their belonging to the European continent?
After the tragic events of 9/11, academic and scholarly discussion on the “Europeanness” of European Muslims led to a new heated discussion with immediate and dramatic bearings at the level of state and society, as well as on European inter—communal relations. It also has a strong impact on the perception of the masses and the media, as well as on the conduct of the relation between the States of the Western World and those of the Muslim World.
At this juncture, we should take a moment to reflect. The Muslims of Europe, do they actually belong to another peculiar world? For them is Europe a host or home? Is Europe a Christian entity or does it have an Islamic component? Are Islam, Muslims and their cultures — intruders, outsiders and newcomers for Europe? What is the reality with respect to the cultural heritage, the present realities on the ground, geographical borders and demographic elements in Europe?
Let me elaborate my questions a little bit further. Would Europe accept to be a continent for Muslims as well?
Do Muslims constitute a significant demographic, intellectual and cultural component of the Continent? And as a Continent and a geographic entity, does Europe belong partly to the Muslim world? In other words, does Europe have a Muslim identity as well, besides its distinctive Christian identity, and the additional identity that Europe has come to assert, after World War II, as belonging to a civilization based on Judeo—Christian traditions? So can we say that Europe is a Christian—Muslim Continent or not?
Given that Islam today is the second—largest faith in Europe, embraced by so many Europeans, and given that our present—day civilization is not without strong Muslim roots, whether in the realm of science, philosophy, or the humanities, would it not be appropriate to qualify this civilization as “Muslim—Christian”? Would it not be right to admit that Islam and Muslims constitute one of the key components of this Continent? And therefore, would affirming these facts be considered as asking too much?
I do realize that my theory may be difficult to accept for understandable reasons, but if this is indeed the real historic truth and the actual fact, do we not owe it to ourselves to raise such questions and seek appropriate answers for them?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Due to close geographical proximity, and the resemblances and commonalities of our two cultures, we have a common past history and as these two factors will not disappear in the foreseeable future, then this indicates that by the nature of things, we are destined to have a common future, and a common destiny as well. Looking back, in hindsight, to evaluate our past common history and to see if it was a history of conflicts, disputes or wars only, the answer will be no.
Despite minor and limited conflicts occurring from time to time, as happens always between two immediate neighbors, we see that for most of the time, the relations between the Muslim World and Europe were characterized by interactive relations with long periods of understanding, of give and take, of commerce and trade, of exchange of information and all other attributes of human endeavor. In this framework, I would like to say that Europe has never been an exclusive Christian continent. The European civilization has never been exclusively Christian or Jewish.
When one carries out an objective and scientific analyses of the history of Europe and its civilization before the Second World War, one will come to the conclusion that Europe was also an Islamic Continent because Islam was a principal and integral part of its civilization. There are indicators to prove this fact, and the two eminent speakers who preceded me have elucidated this fact very well.
Starting from this premise, we can safely say that Europe and the Muslim world shared a common existence around the Mediterranean Sea basin with their territories overlapping in many parts of Eastern Europe, the Black Sea region and the Eurasian States. Besides geography, the Islamic World shared with Europe two major cultural components: their spiritual and moral legacies which hail from the Abrahamic traditions, while their scientific, philosophical and intellectual references, among other things, are derived from the Greek civilization.
Today’s globalized world, and the age of intertwined interests induces the two sides to have greater understanding, interaction and cooperation in many fields.
Europe stands in dire need for a safe and steady supply of energy, considered today as the mover of the economy. A secure and long—lasting supply of this commodity can be found mainly in the Muslim world, especially when we consider the fluctuation in supplies coming from the Russian Federation to Europe, particularly in the aftermath of the recent developments of hostilities in Georgia.
The Muslim world is the store of a fabulous investment source. Its reserves of energy are abundant and are expected to be so for decades to come. Due to the scarcity of sources elsewhere, oil prices are bound to rise, and the Muslim world’s financial resources will also rise, which means that Muslim investment capacities will grow and increase.
The Muslim world, with its almost 1.78 billion souls, will be the largest consumer market in the world, and the natural outlet for European products in the face of the pervasive flood of Chinese and Indian commodities. Apart from secured energy supplies, investment capability and a huge market, another factor will prove to be of strategic and vital importance to cement the relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds.
It is the factor of human resources, labor and workforce. In this context, it is an established and inescapable fact that Europe’s population is growing older by the year for social and cultural considerations. Maintaining Europe’s comfortable standard of living by keeping its economic fundamentals at the same level of today, necessitates a strong and skilful workforce to generate the revenues needed to pay for the retirement of the aging European population as well as to keep the aging European economic machinery rolling. It is estimated that besides the tens of millions of Muslim immigrants working in Europe today, the Old Continent will be inviting more than twenty million foreign workers in the next thirty years; most of them will come from the neighboring countries of the Muslim world.
This influx of the workforce will, in the long run, create new realities on the ground conducive to strengthening the common interests on both sides and enhancing their shared bonds of cooperation. We believe that the socio—economic reality awaiting Europe and the Muslim world will, by the nature of things, bring the two sides closer together, reduce the cultural sensibilities which fuel Islamophobic sentiments, and nurture the building blocks for a shared destiny vital to mutually beneficial survival.
To reach this goal, a great and onerous effort should be undertaken with the aim of raising the awareness of non—Muslim Europeans to this reality, and to try and reduce the deep—seated prejudices that blur their psyche as a result of centuries of demonizing Islam. The prime disseminators of these prejudices include Western school textbooks, the Western media, and to a lesser and more subtle degree, a section of biased western scholars. This effort also needs to address the plight of Muslim immigrants to the West, who are made victims of campaigns of demonization and discrimination on basis of their religion and culture.
In my continuous dealings with various Western institutions and regional organizations, I have always raised the issue of Islamophobia and exhorted their collaboration in putting an end to the many manifestations of its injustices and its infringements upon their human rights. I have always called for a historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity as was the case between Christianity and Judaism in the course of the last century. Some of my proposals to tackle the problem of Islamophobia would be for the West to undertake the following initiatives:
When these measures are duly acknowledged and implemented most of the incidents of animosity and friction could be settled, and Europe with all its integrated Muslim populations will be able to live in a peace, prosperous and shared Europe.
This speech was originally published on the web site of the Organization of the Islamic Conference >Back to the top.
Lecture by Dr. Tarek Masoud
New York University’s Silver Center — Jurow Hall
March 14, 2013
Co–sponsored with the Foreign Policy Association and the World Affairs Councils of America
University of Manouba, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities
February 21 — 22, 2013