Optimism as a Moral Duty:
Overcoming Mutual Suspicion in Europe
Mohammed Hashas, Luiss University 24 October 2015

This historical moment of tensions and fears in Europe, and all around the Mediterranean, requires multicultural education and a high level of trust among all peoples, irrespective of their religion, philosophy, or ideology, for the common good. This trust necessitates serious state institutions, groups and communities’ initiatives, and individual homework.

As to “engaged scholars”, their task is to optimistically bring different communities to dialogue, and afterwards to hospitality [read J. Derrida here], beyond mere tolerance discourse. This does not mean to enforce this into scientific/academic work, if that is not part of the work itself, but to do that alongside the “neutrality” or “objectivity” of the profession. Open societies require open minds, and the latter require committed optimism in the future. “Thus, it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world,” writes Karl Popper in Open Society (1994). Even in the darkest situations of human reasoning and rational systematization of human relations, one has to remember the Gramscian cry of “optimism of the will” against “pessimism of the intellect.” This piece reflects on the “clashes of ignorance” that still characterizes the question of Islam and Muslims in Europe, and the “West” in general, and the way to overcome it. It is high time – and how long shall we keep repeating that it is really high time! – ignorance is met with the light of ethical spirits from the concerned, and non-concerned, antagonizing traditions.

What is Wrong: “The Clash of Ignorance”

At the age of ethical malaise, economic crises, and political predicaments only more understanding becomes the solution. Ignorance of the other breeds ignorance of the infinite capacities of the human Self to grasp the diversity of this world, and thus its internal humane richness. The globalized world through the means of communication has made so much information a means of fear for the narrow-minded, be they religious, or not. Radical secularism or narrow-minded liberalism that defends only one version of the good  can be as dangerous as imitative and regressive religion. Europe is boiling with all these versions of worldviews, which makes it insecure with such a richness. States, however powerful, cannot manage easily internal diversity of their societies, especially if a new worldview that is considered alien enters such a space. The alien here is Islam.

Muslims’  presence in Europe dates back to the very beginnings of Islam. Europeans, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have to open books of history to understand that they both can share this Europe. It is not for the first time that they have done so. Conflicts aside, from which we have to learn, there existed centuries of intellectual exchange and political convivenza that is unique in the Mediterranean and human history of at least the three Abrahamic religions, i.e. the experience of Muslim Spain, which the philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo calls “Cordoba Paradigm” that needs to be revived and updated. Islam in Asia is another rich field to look at, past and present. Islam encouraged Arab and the non-Arab Muslims to seek knowledge, and that is why they did not generally have problems with science (and now they do!). Muslims borrowed learnings from the Persians, Indians, and the Greeks. The spirit of inquiry and human prosperity they had contributed to making a world civilization. Michael Hudgson’s great The Venture of Islam (three volumes) intelligently reads Islamic history and its place in human history. We should all re-read it, whenever we feel intellectually weak and intolerant of change!

Europe was tribes and darkness. History moves. Great civilizations wane away, and give space for new ones, and here grows the modern Europe, and the West. Radical shift took place from the fifteen and sixteenth century Europe: Renaissance, religious civil wars, Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrialization, (Colonialism!), High Tech and Globalization, etc. Europe has moved ahead, borrowing, with little political gratitude and mention, from a civilization that existed nearby. The fall of the latter, on the other hand, meant that its historical life-range could no longer accommodate change. Change needs a new spirit, or assabiyya in Ibn Khaldun′s term, and that spirit moved on somewhere else, to the Northern shore of the Mediterranean. When two civilizations are two close geographically, they cannot avoid being also close culturally, though they may deny that, because the building of the Self requires Othering. Orientalism and Occidentalism do just that. Centuries of historical enmities, rivalry, and wars cannot be forgotten easily from collective memories. That is the challenge the wrongly-formed binary of “Islam” and “Europe” encounter today. In-between emerges a third-way, which “European Islam” tries to build.

The current political debate in Europe, and the West in general, about Islam ignores centuries of rich Islamic scholarship. At the heart of classical Islamic worldview were two major values: 1) the formation of an homo moralis, a moral human being, and 2) the defense of public good based on political order or peace; this some call social justice in Islam. Both of these two major values were defended with reference to Allah, or the divine, or the so-called Sharia. It is in this sense that sharia ethics formed a worldview of its own, and by which world-affairs and other-world affairs are not disconnected, because human reason alone cannot grasp the future, the unknown, or the ghayb, i.e. metaphysics. The future is left for future generations to tackle, with inspiration from the divine, as explicated or only hinted at in the Quran and the Prophetic Sunna.

Sharia Ethics: Before Things Went Wrong

Islamic classical scholarship experienced diversity claims legitimacy from the life of the prophet Muhammad. Disagreements among his Companions were obvious, and they took clear shape after his death. Political management of Islamic affairs differed from a Caliph to another, to the extent that after the Four Guided Caliphs, dynasties rose and fell, fought wars, expanded, and also cultivated culture and encouraged it. It was during that period of growth of a civilization that economy, philosophy, theology, literature, and exact sciences, like maths, medicine, astronomy, and architecture flourished. With the growth of Islamic empires worldwide, to touch maybe all existing races, ethnicities, colours, religions and geographies, grew also conflict,  political tension, and more use of religion in politics. This to say that the Islamic civilization, with its diversity, was a human achievement after all, though primarily inspired by the so-considered divine word of God and His Prophet Muhammad. Islamic history was never exactly as first lived by the Prophet. It was always an attempt to stay faithful to it, by opening it to Muslims′ diversity. Because the pre-modern man in general, and not only the Muslim pre-modern man, was substantially an homo moralis, reference to religion was a natural thing. Human beings at the time, and even now in most parts of the world outside Western Europe, did not need to distance themselves from religion because either their mind could not think of something else, or because it did, but chose to keep its reference to religion. That is why even the most rationalist Islamic theological school of the Mu′tazila did not deny God, though it defended the idea that human reason can alone distinguish between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, without reference to revelation.

Theologically, during that formative period of Islamic polity and scholarship, various theological schools developed. For example, the Kharijites, or Secessionists, composed the radical rebels of the time; they were literalists in their interpretations of the Quran, and their protests led to killing the fourth Caliph Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, the husband of his daughter, and the First Imam for the Shi′a. The Murji′a, or the Postponers, avoided taking part in the civil war at the time, and argued that it is God alone during the Day of Judgment that can judge the belief or non-belief of a believer, whatever may be his/her actions.

Legally, Islamic legal theories worked at the age of empires because a big metropolitan city could boast of having judges to solve social affairs disputes by referring to the legal school the disputants belong to. Otherwise said, pluralism of legal schools played a role in finding various ways of solving the same issue, which judges belonging to different schools approached differently. This pluralism is now a source of problem for the modern nation state that is centrist, and Muslims of Europe have to understand that.

This to say that the Islamic worldview often practiced ta′wil, or interpretation, and used the diversity of its  legal canons according to time and space. It is only during the last two centuries of its encounter with the modern worldview that it has found itself unable to update itself consistently, because of not only internal but also external factors (like pejorative-Orientalism, colonialism-post-Enlightenment, Islamophobia, etc.).

European Enlightenment: Before Things Went Wrong

“Enlightenment” – which is also “Eastern” in some ways, seeing that it is Eastern religions that speak of enlightenment or illumination via spiritual elevation and individual liberation, and the classical religions of the current “West” are “Eastern” – is a great idea. But Euro-Enlightenment is now not enough to accommodate religious and philosophical pluralism of Western liberal societies, nor is it able to face global injustices alone. Like the classical rationalists (read also liberal in some ways) of Islamic scholarship, who remained at some points doubtful of other worldviews not shari‘atic, most Euro-Enlightenment rationalists and liberals experienced the same feel; their enlightenment remained shaped by their history and religious influence – and we should not expect them to find answers to all cultures, religions and histories. Each has to do its own homework!

The modern Europeans have their arguments about their suspicion of Islam and Muslims. They mostly refer to the very recent past, especially since the rise of Political Islam in the late 1960s, and various terrorist events committed by Muslims inside and outside Europe to argue that Islam and the West cannot meet. They defend different values, the claim goes, which is not totally wrong. The Muslim that has a good story to tell is depicted as a European integrated citizen, and the violent or terrorist one is labeled Muslim first. Few examples help here.

Freedom of expression, a vital value for a free and democratic society, and a value that is supposed to serve the public good against elitist monopolies, targets a fragile minority that is not present yet in academia and the public shared culture, nor is it present enough in political representation bodies; its social stratum is below average as well, seeing its economic conditions, some of which due to discrimination in employment. In liberal democracies, the Muslim communities find themselves the ridicule of the majority in public media, and this does not offend only observers of the religion or the conservatives, because it puts all in one basket, liberal Muslims, conservatives, extremists, and atheists of Muslim culture as well. Freedom of expression that targets a fragile minority is a threat to the public order, and North Americans understand this better than some Europeans.

As to the other values that Europeans consider exceptionally theirs, and the Muslims-and-Islam are not able to match, like liberty and equality, a historical view can teach modesty here, “epistemological modesty,” to use the terms of the contemporary philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush. When slavery and racial discrimination ruled in the West in the name of religion or racial superiority, blackness was not an issue from religious perspectives in Muslim societies, and slavery was discouraged, though not totally abolished; the treatment of slaves as equals, however, was highly emphasized as an ethical obligation. And while women property rights gained appeal only since the 18th century in Europe, they were established by religion itself in Arabia in the 7th century. As to universal suffrage, it is not a centuries long achievement, but a very recent one, a 20th century achievement in most consolidated democracies. For sexual liberty, it is a post-World War Two achievement as well, post-1968 outburst.  Rights of minorities was practiced since the 7th century in Muslim majority societies, not always perfectly, but the concept and historical proofs are there; the Reconquista of Spain in 1492 ended a model of co-existence in the Mediterranean. The idea here is not to say that Islam or Muslims were liberal since the 7th century – far from it; it is just to say that various achievements that are considered essential for a democratic-liberal society are recent phenomena in the West itself, a process that took centuries of trials and failures, before “success.” What is to retain here is that there are concepts in the tradition that need to be read historically to accommodate the European mindscape. No religion is born democratic or liberal, because all concepts are historical and await updates, modernity itself. Isn′t it “an unfinished project,” in Habermas′ words?

Importantly, cultures and religions differ in their prioritization of what is more valuable, and classical Islamic worldview, as many other pre-modern worldviews, measured development and happiness first with social order and individual  contentment, internal peace and piety, i.e. with morality, and not (only) with material gain. That is why believers of different social strata and level of education still believe and find the ideals of Islam appealing, otherwise, how would we justify the adherence of intelligent scientists, philosophers, and businessmen to religion (Islam included)? It is reductionist to say that religion is for the poor, the not-developed societies, or for the less educated. Euro-modernity cannot reply to all human questions, nor does its economic wealth; its values cannot capture various human aspirations. Euro-modernity has, however, opened a new path for religions, religious people, as well as non-religious people, to rethink of other ways of existence and communal understanding, and this is its achievement – its pitfalls aside.

What is Right: Trust to Overcome Mutual Suspicion

The task now is to overcome this reciprocal rejection and suspicion. The emerging European Islam tries this path. It is not apologetic nor informant, as suspects from both sides may like to define it.

The emerging European Islam is a work in progress on three major levels or axes: 1) world, 2) society, and 3) individual. The levels that concern the non-Muslims are the last two because they are more political, while the first level is a Muslim theological issue par excellence because it concerns believers, first and foremost. However, the three levels intertwine. If metaphysics have no, or very little space, in the modern Europe and the political lives of many Europeans, the Muslims of Europe still give heavy weight to this dimension. Atheist or radically-secular modernity still does not appeal to Muslim believers, whether they are practicing, semi-practicing, or not practicing at all. The appeal of faith among Muslims has many factors, and one of which is the fact that Euro-modernity “rejects” them, refuses to recognize them as citizens and believers, and equally because they also feel that modernity is not their own creation, so they refuse it, though they live within it; they enjoy its political order, social welfare, liberties, aesthetics, and most of its achievements. This is the deadlock, or the predicament, of Muslims in general in their encounter with modernity: the feel that modernity crushes faith, and that it crushes especially their Islamic faith. This feel of alienation and externalization of Islam and Muslims has led to a reactionary attitude, based on resistance and rejection of modernity, and concepts like liberalism, secularism, etc., despite the fact that they enjoy most of modern life. Briefly, the predicament of contemporary Islamic thought is that it has not managed to espouse modern values to its sharia worldview – and no need to say that sharia is not only law; it is the Islamic worldview that is primarily a moral worldview that defends individual and social well-being. A contemporary ethicist philosopher like Taha Abderrahmane says that religion is ethics, and human essence is ethical first. Similarly, Euro-modernity seems resistant to any religious reference because its past with religion was not peaceful and harmonious. Euro-modernity thinks of all religions equally, based on its own past, and has been unable to overcome this predicament.

European Islam is forming a new pluralist theology that updates its pre-modern concepts, and revises its pluralist legal theories to find justifications for the adoption of some core modern values like equality and liberty. Approaches of this kind differ from a scholar to another, but the paradigm that appears to be slowly developing is that one of feeding modern values with a religious reference, and that is an inalienable right to believers, their communities, and to all citizens belonging to different religious, philosophical, or moral trends. Each can bring its own justification to endorse the political culture that is shared.  This version of European Islam is defended especially by those Muslims that recognize that sharia ethics cannot be summarized in Islamic law alone; it is the moral individual and ethical attitude to societal affairs and global issues that stand as the most prominent values of Islam. It is bringing beauty in the tradition back to the forefront. This is part of the broad contemporary reformist Islamic thought. While reformists in the broad Islamic world find it very hard to influence the mainstream conservative mindset ruled by authoritarian regimes or non-functional states, European Islam seems to enjoy the existence of consolidated liberal states, though it finds it difficult to enter its institutions because of the various factors we either referred to or hinted at above.

European Islam faces various barriers, internal and external. Internally, traditional tendencies that are mostly moderate but conservative in their concepts still dominate the scene; movements that originated in Muslim majority societies still influence the perception of Islam in Europe; internal rivalries among movements as well as embassies are still there. Externally, political issues in the broad Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, still impact the Muslims of Europe; Islamophobes and right-wing parties externalize Islam, and Muslims respond by more resistance, including through the means of visible ritualization of Islam, and violent radicalization, as is the case with the young Muslims that have joined the terrorist state of ISIS, namely The Impossible State.

Theologically, European Islam is possible; it just needs a strong political will to accommodate it. All Europeans have to listen to it, be they Muslim or not, for the public good the benefits of which can travel beyond borders (I have tried to develop this issue elsewhere on this site). European policy-makers and scholars have a serious task ahead of them; the fair-minded among them have to join efforts to encounter both European arrogance and religious extremism through education first. Trust starts at home and at school! Religion in modern times will not disappear; it will appear in different forms; it should be considered a public good that deserves protection and support, when need be, by the State, like any other public good – to echo the thesis of the British sociologist Tariq Modood. A believer may get inspiration and discipline from a sermon, from a religious encounter, from the Quran or the Bible, from fasting Ramadan or charity, or from a historical episode that was heavily religious, etc., and this is a public good that goes beyond the private sphere because it contributes to society dynamics. Religion, in its most refined forms, is a great public good that should seriously be re-examined in modern societies, because diabolizing it simply brings horrendous reactionary and alienating consequences. Mahatma Gandhi’s last words in his autobiography The Story of My Experiment with Truth says that those who want to imprison religion just in the private sphere do not know what religion is all about.

Till the step of informed trust is seriously taken by all stakeholders, the “clash of ignorance” continues, to borrow Edward Said′s article-title of 2001. The Lebanese-French renowned writer Amine Maalouf put it nicely in his novel In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (2008, published originally in French in 1998): future generations will [hopefully] look at our writings and laugh, because they will be so pluralist than we are, and our ideas will look weird and “backward” to them! It is high time a new pathway of trust of diversity is seriously built. The wise concluding remarks of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of EU Foreign and Security Affairs, to the Conference of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) on 24 June 2015 in Brussels on “Islam in Europe”, needs real work to make a successful story: “Islam holds a place in our Western societies. Islam belongs in Europe. It holds a place in Europe’s history, in our culture, in our food and – what matters most – in Europe’s present and future. […] Any attempt to divide the peoples of Europe into “us” and “them” brings us in the wrong direction.”