Islam, Europe, and Democracy

by Angeliki Ziaka | български | Română | Русский | Српски

A version of this essay was published in Greek at Polymeros kai Polytropos, the blog of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies. A Georgian translation of the Greek text is also available.

When approaching the discourse on “Islam, Europe, and Democracy,” and laying aside apparent understandings and admissions, we are faced with certain observations and questions. A first approach of “Islam, Europe, and Democracy” bears with it a certain consensus. That is, that Islam, as a religious system, with more or less apparent theocratic elements—depending on the countries it dominates and where it is applied, as well as due to its “essentialist” religious and political trajectory in time and sociopolitical process—does not carry with it European values and the imperatives of the West, such as democracy and, consequently, the spirit of Enlightenment. Such values are considered shaped by the European spirit—due to both Christianity and secularism—and produced by the struggles of the French Revolution against religious authority and the tyranny of monarchy. A variety of historical, spiritual, philosophical, and political journeys have yielded a unique heritage for the individual, society, and humanity as well, thereby safeguarding human rights and protecting the individual from the terms and imperatives of a religiously and politically pre-modern communal life. Democracy guarantees that a state functions with elected representatives and that all citizens are equal before the law, irrespective of their sex, color, religious beliefs, and political opinions. Different languages, religions, and cultures are therefore to be respected as equal within the framework of a statutory secular law.

This point gives birth to a multiplicity of questions. Such questions concern not only the national and religious histories of the European states and their different financial status, but also their political past or present.

On the contrary, if one browses the contemporary predominantly Muslim states, he/she will observe oligarchic regimes, censorship and rigid religious structures even regarding the implementation of law—the Islamic law, along with financial inequality and racial difference, uneven capitalist penetration, as well as a wide diversity in the Middle and Near East countries. Furthermore, one will notice the divergences and differences between the large Muslim populations of Asia and those of Islam’s original birthplace in Arabia, as well as the Muslim communities in our neighboring Balkans. Scratching off the label of a “single” Islam or the Sunni and Shi‘ite polarity will allow many particular, religious, historical, national, racial, cultural, financial, lingual, and narrative realities to emerge.

The same is true of the Muslims of Europe, who, irrespective of their various origins and historical presence in several European countries, have, in their own way, also contributed to shaping the European cultural heritage, as early as during Averroes’ era[1] and the appearance of Muslims in medieval Sicily, but also through colonialism, when for centuries, in a paradoxical as well as dominant way, the peoples of Arabia, Africa, the lands of India and other areas of the world, involuntarily partook in the European culture alongside the varied presence of Europeans on their lands, and became mediators, yet were also subjected to various networks and exchanges, slave trade included.

This is a second key point to consider. It concerns the question of whether Europe is to be viewed through a—strictly or not—religious lens, that is as exclusively Christian and/or secular, and, respectively, Muslim states as being purely Islamic and, what’s more, as bearers of an “authentic” and “universal” Islam. A brisk trot through the Hellenistic “universe,” the Roman Empire, but also through medieval Western Europe and the Byzantine East, reveals the existence of a multiplicity of religions and syncretisms, in addition to Jewish, later Christian, as well as Muslim populations in Europe. Similarly, the Balkans—under Ottoman dominance for many centuries—are inhabited by Muslim populations with diverse origins and practices that interlard Islamic “orthodoxy” with particular, local characteristics. In addition, the Middle East was and still is, albeit less so, inhabited by a variety of Christian, and only few Jewish populations, since most Jews from Arabia and Iran have moved to the contemporary state of Israel. What’s more, many mainly Hindu, but also Buddhist immigrant populations reside in the Gulf countries nowadays and live alongside the natives, establishing their own businesses, schools, and houses of worship, thereby creating an emerging new social reality. Thus, a second reading of history allows us to peel off both the European and Islamic world’s uniformity and observe that the Old Continent is interrelated with the Middle and Near East as well as North Africa in various ways; and vice versa.

We have come to realize that the Unified Europe project, albeit partly successful, has not abolished the financial and social inequalities between its member states. Europe has not managed to ward off post-colonial policies, violence, and wars, both in its southeast underbelly but also beyond its geographical boundaries, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa. However, it has been able to streamline its citizens’ movement, as well as create an open work market and allow unhampered mobility through open borders; such facilitations are currently challenged by financial austerity measures, security imperatives and an ever-growing bureaucracy. Nowadays, such benefits are further challenged due to the phenomenon of terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism, recruiting young European Muslim fighters—born and raised in European states—into its networks.

In many respects, Europe’s Islam reflects its states’ different colonial histories, but also Europe’s contemporary post-colonial accountability for the destruction of many cradles of civilization, such as in Mesopotamia, Iraq, Syria, and others. Europe’s Muslims, completely different from each other but for their religious origin and its particular connotations, are kept on the margins of European history and are either to conform and get acculturated or become excluded. However, despite such a disproportionate critical approach they are faced with, Europe’s Muslims enjoy many liberties, mainly freedom of religion and expression, in a way still unfathomable in many predominantly-Muslim countries. At the same time, however, they are expected—as are all other European citizens—to respect criticism towards religion. European policies, partly incomplete, have not managed to come up with effective ways of equal social and economic integration for Europe’s Muslims. Most European states are puzzled by the issues of religion and education, which have often been left at the mercy of religious communities; likewise, identity issues have only been approached theoretically.

In Europe there is a significant and ongoing discussion on the issue of teaching religion in public schools. Satisfactory answers, helping students gain broader knowledge of religious matters, and respect religious otherness irrespective of their own religious identity, are probably yet to be found. Such an education should be flexible both concerning the students’ personal religious identity as well as the European ideals of freedom of expression and respect towards religious, cultural and ethnic otherness. Recently, significant steps have been taken to upgrade Islamic education in the public schools of the European Union member states. Such a development, however positive, remains inscribed within a “safe” bipolar division of students, on the one hand due to respect towards different religious communities, on the other due to a lack of shared approaches and instruction regarding religious matters in public schools, but also in public space in general. I believe that nowadays it is crucial for European states to offer a dynamic religious education within the framework of democracy and respect towards each student’s identity. Such an education means that the instructors are continuously retrained, and consists of courses that are non-static, but get constantly retooled, enhanced and readjusted according to the various, and rapidly changing needs of the society and the individuals as well.

[1] “Arab Muslim philosophers like Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina have become part of the European canon of philosophy, known under their Latinized names of, respectively, Averroes and Avicenna. Averroes, who applied the philosophical thinking of Aristotle to theological questions, was a major source of inspiration to Thomas Aquinas who referred to him merely as ‘the Philosopher’. Being an admirer of Averroes was also the reason for being expelled from more religiously orthodox European universities – not because Averroes was a Muslim, which was not generally known, but because his Aristotelian ideas were considered too radical at the time” Maurits Berger, A Brief History of Islam in Europe, p. 105.

This paper was presented at the e-Lectures of Volos Academy for Theological Studies (May 2021) and published in Giornale di Filosofia (July 2021):

Angeliki Ziaka is Associate Professor on the Study of Religion, School of Theology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.