Studying Islam and Europe

Studying Islam and Europe

EU governments are increasingly interested in Islamic studies, but Islam in Europe has yet to become a distinct academic discipline.

The past decade has seen Islamic studies take on a new prominence in academic circles. Governments are demanding increasing amounts of research to inform foreign policy towards the Islamic world and to improve relations with domestic Muslim communities. Student interest in Islam also appears to be rising, whether through demand for courses or choice of PhD subjects.

But while individual academics are busy researching and teaching about Islam in the European context, it has not yet become a distinct discipline. Few European studies courses offer it as a substantial option and specialist programmes such as master's degrees are rare.

"Islam in Europe is a topic rather than a discipline," says Sara Silvestri, a specialist who teaches at City University, London. "You have different disciplines tackling this topic and, in the field of international politics, although it is a very important thing, courses on Islam in Europe or political Islam have not been offered by many universities."

Islamic studies departments have also been slow to embrace the European context, preferring the more timeless subjects of philosophy, literature and language. "The discipline of Islamic studies has really remained a closed workshop of people working on Islamic texts and translations, which are very important but are a bit detached from the interpretations of the present [Muslim] leaderships," says Silvestri.

According to Agata Nalborczyk, of the department for European Islam studies at the University of Warsaw, this attitude can sometimes be dramatically narrow-minded. "They say 'Islam is the same everywhere, so why study it in the European context?' When someone has spent his whole life studying old Arabic literary texts, he has no idea about the differences between Islam in European and Arab countries, or Pakistan, these days. It's a problem."

But recognising that Islam in Europe is a subject worthy of study does not necessarily mean that a separate discipline could or should emerge. "It's almost as if we are past the peak of interest in Islam," says Maurits Berger, professor of Islam in the contemporary West at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He argues that academia is developing a broader focus. "The general interest is in religion and the role of religion in society."

City University in London provides a good example of how Islam in Europe can complement a broader programme of study. Silvestri was brought into the university's department of international politics as part of a strategy to recruit specialists in compelling, if non-traditional, contemporary issues that could be taught alongside mainstream international relations subjects. As well as religion, this also encompassed development, transnational networks, global health and finance.


Studying this subject in Poland may give students a different perspective from the one they might find elsewhere, Nalborczyk says. "The study of Islam in Europe is better developed in western Europe than in central Europe, but even people in the West are not always aware that Muslims have been living in Poland for 600 years," she adds.

The interaction of these long-established populations with newer Muslim communities is one of their motivations for studying the subject. "We think that the mostly Arabic majority within the [Muslim] minority will try to change the traditional Islam in Poland. So we have to study it as it is now, before it vanishes."


Source: European Voice (English)

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