15/11/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Place Of Islam In Europe: New Documentary Calls For Conversation, Listening

A 120-minute film by Muslim scholar and former diplomat Akbar Ahmed, Journey Into Europe, seeks to explore several layers of 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.

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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 more than 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 contributions of a rich past

The debates of the present have to be rooted in the past. In parts of Europe, the past of the Islamic civilisation has been glorious, but often forgotten. In the film, Jose Antonio Nieto, the present mayor of Cordoba, remembers the richness of Andalusia in Southern Spain.

"A student in Germany relates her headscarf with isolation. 'I am just like a thing in the corner of the room,' she says."

"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 400,000 manuscripts, and the period was known for some of the famous scholars and inventors like Ibn Rushd, Ibn Firnas and Maimonides.

The footprints of this Islamic civilisation 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 Palatine 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 UK, says the contributions of the Islamic civilisation have been critical during the times Europe and the West were going through the " dark ages". "From the 9 and 10th centuries onwards, the Muslims translated Greek and Roman books. Through that translation mathematics, medicine, understanding of food and health came to the West," he adds. Bashir Maan, the first Muslim elected official in the UK, describes this as a full circle of civilisation. "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.

The challenges: Fear of the "Other"

A student in Germany relates her headscarf with isolation. "I am just like a thing in the corner of the room," she says; hijab-wearing Spanish women provoke derogatory graffiti like "Modos go back"; a mosque construction in Cologne is disrupted by frequent protests; a Danish Muslim is refused a job interview for "being an outsider". In Paris, two brothers, French nationals of Algerian descent, storm the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shoot down 11 people. Two days later, another French Muslim of Senegalese descent attacks a Jewish grocery shop, takes 11 people hostage and kills three. Varied incidents that speak of equally varied challenges confronting Muslims in Europe -- the challenge of isolation, of growing extremism and of the "fear of the other."

"Bashir Maan, the first Muslim elected official in the UK, [says] 'Europe learned everything from Muslims, and now it is the other way round.'"

Samia Hathroub, a French lawyer and social activist, says in France the growing extremism seems to follow a certain path. "Most of the youth come from dislocated immigrant families, some of them begin as drug dealers, go to jails, where they end up being radicalised." The isolation of the Muslim community adds to the problem. "It is like these young children are abandoned by the mother, in this case France. They get frustrated and find an ideology that comes back to destroy the mother that didn't fully love them," says Hathroub.

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." IIn Britain, being British is not the same as being English. In Denmark, immigrant Danes are not seen as true Danes. The immigrant histories have failed to find space in school textbooks and consequently in national identities.

In Europe, if there are concerns about radicalisation 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 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.

The path ahead

So what is the future of the Muslim world in the European context? Will it be a growing conflict or a deepening integration? There are concerns and there are complexities in this relationship. Amidst all this, there are signs of normality.

"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."

For instance in sports, where over 45 Muslim players are a part of the football Premier League, including top rankers like Edin Dzeko from Bosnia, Samir Nasir, a French Moroccan Muslim, Yaya Toure and French-born Demba Ba with his roots in Senegal. "When Demba 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 relationship," says Aqeel Ahmed of the BBC. There are attempts to foster integration in architecture. Like 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, Kashif Ahmed, a young leader 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 realise you are not close to your neighbour, 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 neighbour, 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 is Europe is fossilised 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 the discovery of the rich past of coexistence, in dialogue and listening hard. The path ahead is to explore common identities.

Post-Script: 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 will prevail.

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