Netherlands: Studying European Islam

Netherlands: Studying European Islam

On January 1st, 2009, the Free University (Vrije Universiteit, VU) named  Thijl Sunier to the first 'Islam in Europa' professor.  The interest of this professorship: following a dynamic religions which is developing in a European context.

"Islam in Europe is now in a transition phase.  It changes from a brought along religion to an integrated one.  Therefore it's necessary to study and research the dynamics and changes in Islam, such as it experiences in Europe.  When I began my Phd twenty years ago, a colleague named Nico Landman wrote a fantastic work about what at that time was organized Islam in the Netherlands.  That book was published in 1992.  If you read it and compare it to now, then you see how Islam is unbelievably changing and renewing. Therefore a continuous study is necessary."

Sunier thinks that sadly, when people speak of Islam,they only speak of radicalization: Radicalization is sometimes a religious, and often a political choice, and has nothing to do with lack of integration.  On the contrary, radicalized youth often grew up in society.  A good example is the youth who blew up the metro stations in London. They didn't come from far away countries, but rather grew up in Manchester and Birmingham.

But according to Sunier it's also a misconception to think that radicalization of young Muslim is a sort of expression of frustration against the way in which they're set apart in society.  We can disagree with them, and if we deal with them, we can arrest them.  There is naturally anger, but to make them into crazies and frustrated people is unwise, because these people have no psychiatric problems, but a certain political view, however much you don't agree with it.

The third misconception is to think that if you're born and raised in Europe, then you're automatically an enlightened man.  "You see that in very many analyses about radicalization: 'We are good, we're blameless'.  'They did everything'.  That is a short-sighted way of thinking that is also historically incorrect: it's saying 'this society is in principal good and here and there you have bad spots on the apples that you must cut away, than the problem is solved'. That is not so, and I therefore also don't want to look at radicalization in this way."

The integration debate in the Netherlands and Europe is nervous and hasty.  The result is that too many people are excluded beforehand by society because they don't fulfill the demands.  People forget, according to Sunier, that the migration of Muslims to this continent is very recent: "We're talking about 35 years.  That is really just one generation, that we're talking about.  We think that everything must happen quickly and if something doesn't happen fast, then it's a big problem."

Sunier doesn't deny that there are now certainly big problems in society: "But if you want to get a good picture, than you should look at the wider context."

The concept that Islam came to Europe recently and suddenly, just on the arrival of the immigrants, is according to Sunier one of the biggest misconceptions: "It's already centuries like that.  In the south-east of Europe for example, Islam exists already for hundreds of years.  And also the Ottoman Empire was partially a European empire and there were very intensive diplomatic and trade relations.  After that, the colonization of the Islamic countries in Africa and Asia by the European big powers such as England, France and the Netherlands, made Islam into part of the history of Europe.  Whoever claims that Europe has nothing to do with Islam, has then also totally no historical insight and cannot understand the development of Europe."

The Islam in Europe professor think that, for example, Geert Wilders should go into the history of Europe.  "You don't need to wait fifty years.  You can also now already say that Europe has a Judeo-Christian-Islamic history.  The three religions have all three been influential on the way in which our current society came about and was constructed.  The tendency to put up big walls around Europe, goes right past the fact that the history of Europe is so dynamic exactly due to miscellaneous influences from outside.  [ed: this also ignores the fact that throughout history, Europe rejected anybody who was different]

Is the Islam a backwards religions?  To this question Sunier responds with: "No, than Christianity is also a backwards religion.  Why should you set Islam apart?  The position, for example, that Christianity did and Islam didn't go through Reformation or Enlightenment is a strange generalization that is completely not based on historical reality.

But also on the level of individual Muslims there are big differences.  In the first place, not all Muslims think the same.  Some understand the Koran literally and see it as a prescription or manual for how you should behave.  But it is not so simple.  It is a text that must be interpreted.  What in Islamic theology is much more important than in Christianity is namely "Ijtihad": the discussion and interpretation of the sources.  It can bring about differences of interpretation but it also offers room for development and therefore influences how Islam is shaped in Europe.

I'll give an example: here in the university there's a student association for Muslim which organizes a halal get-together.  Many people ask: 'how can that be?'  I say that it can, because Muslims shape it themselves.   And there are also numerous Muslims in Netherlands who want it in this way."

Sunier think that European Muslims can play an important role in the reinterpretation of Islam.  That will truly not go too fast.  "There are indeed enough people who say: 'we don't want change'.  And there are imams who say: 'wherever you are in the world, Islam is the same Islam'.  But there are more and more who do see that Islam will get a European form.  Change will happen."

"Should there be discussions with radical Muslims?" we ask in the end: "Yes, certainly!" he says.  "Look, I don't have to agree with them.  But I think it's dangerous to exclude people from the discussion in advance.   This direction is going very badly in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe.  I think it's important that we continue talking.  With whomever.  It is wrong to exclude a certain group.  That's a disastrous way that in the end does more harm than good."

Source: Wereld Journalisten (Dutch)

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