For the first part of this semester, we focused on case studies of poverty and how it can be addressed, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. The rest of this semester, our class will be switching gears to focus on our second main topic: Islam in Europe.
First, it is important to give a brief introduction to Islam and its main beliefs and tenets. Islam shares a common background with both Christianity and Judaism, and even recognize Abraham and Jesus as prophets. However, Muhammed is the prophet whose guidance led to Islam. Muhammed lived during the early part of the 7th century AD, and is viewed as the “last prophet” in a long line of prophets. Many of the religious traditions practiced by Muslims were first written or created by Muhammed.
Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a monotheistic religion believing that there is only one all-powerful and all-seeing god. Additionally, Muslims believe in a unity of all creation, preaching and practicing respect for the life of all peoples and creatures. Muslims also believe in a “distributive social justice,” or the circulation of resources, such as money or time, to help the less fortunate and give others a hand up. Traditions and customs are another very important tenant to Islam, such as the requirement to pray 5 times daily or fasting during daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan.
In recent years, the number of Muslims living in western countries has risen considerably, causing some cultural and religious clashes as Muslims attempt to integrate into their western communities. Prejudice exists against Muslims that can be traced all the way back to the Crusades of the 11th – 13th centuries, when Christians in Europe sent armies to secure Jerusalem, slaughtering Jews and Muslims along the way.
Justin Vaisse, the author of a short essay Muslims in Europe, states that there are four myths that help to perpetuate prejudice against Muslims in Europe. First and second is that being Muslim is a fixed identity that trumps all others, and that Muslims in Europe form a distinct and cohesive group of their own. There are many Muslims native to Europe that take pride in their nation as well as in their religious and cultural identities, and not every Muslim believes or behaves in the same way as another; just like in Christianity, there are different “schools of thought” or denominations that believe slightly different things.
The third and fourth myths are that Muslims are alien to “native” European culture, and that they are demographically gaining on “natives” in Europe. There are many Muslims who are citizens of a European country and have been for many generations; Muslims have lived in Europe for many hundreds of years. For example, Muslims coexisted with people of other religions in Spain for over 800 years, but were driven out during the Reconquista of the 13th century. Additionally, these myths lead us to believe, first, that Muslims can never be considered “natives” in Europe, even when their families have lived there for generations. Secondly, it ignores the many Muslims that interact with and integrate into “native” communities.
As Muslims and Europeans continue to struggle to understand and accept each other, it is important for both sides to make a distinction between the religious and political dimensions of Islam, a topic that Shireen T. Hunter discusses in the book Islam, Europe’s Second Religion. In looking at religious distinctions, one must think of the guidelines – the things one must do – in order to pray/worship/practice Islam. However, in looking at political distinctions, one must only consider what one must not do. In fact, Islam encourages its followers to take “everything that is good and does not contradict their universal principles,” which is why Islam has integrated into so many different societies and cultures throughout history.
However, there are still challenges that different aspects of western, European life bring to Muslim communities. Hunter states that education is one specific aspect that presents a challenge to Muslim communities, as schools are teaching their students less and less to think critically, ask questions, and discuss difficult topics respectfully. The author argues that because of this, students are less sure of who they are and what they believe, which makes it more difficult for them to accept and understand others.
Hunter also lists social rifts as an issue for Muslim communities in Europe. Muslims see discrimination in employment and often experience higher levels of poverty and unemployment. This can lead to a vicious cycle of receiving less education and making less money over a lifetime.
In the face of these challenges, Ramadan, the month-long fast during daylight hours that is observed by Muslims annually, encourages Muslims to specifically focus on being involved in the community, donating time and money, and gaining knowledge. In this way, Ramadan encourages Muslims to specifically focus on some of the issues they are facing in Europe and to hopefully improve the relationship between European Muslims and other Europeans.