Journey into Europe
By Wardella W. Doschek
Akbar Ahmed's latest film, Journey into Europe, is a tour de force examination of relations between Europe and the Muslim world. We travel with Ambassador Ahmed and his team of anthropology students not only through much of Europe, but also through time. The film begins with the Golden Age of Islam in Andalusian Spain and Sicily, continues through the period dominated by the Ottoman Empire, and ends with the "clash of civilizations" in present-day Europe.
Who better to guide us on this journey and help us make sense of it than Akbar Ahmed? A distinguished anthropologist by profession, Ambassador Ahmed is also a statesman both in the US and in his native Pakistan. At one point in his career he served as Ambassador from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. Presently he is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington, DC. A former Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, the BBC has described him as "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam." He is the author of almost 30 volumes, including books, poetry and plays. Clearly this is a scholar who knows what he is talking about, and he shares his wisdom with us.
The film is divided into three parts. It explores questions about whether Islam and Western civilization are compatible and whether Islam has contributed anything to Western culture and civilization. Numerous interviews are conducted with a wide range of individuals from many different walks of life--religious leaders, government leaders, scholars, writers, musicians as well as individuals whose lives have been drastically altered because of Islamophobia.
The first part of the film considers Andalusian Spain and Sicily, which were under Muslim rule from the early eighth century to the late 15th century. Ahmed and his team travel to Cordoba and Palermo to investigate. It was during this period of history that the seeds were sown for Muslim influence in Europe. Without the Golden Age of Islam in North Africa during the time of the Middle Ages in Europe, all the works of the Greeks and Romans would have been destroyed. Instead they were translated into Arabic by Muslim scholars and later introduced into Europe via Muslim Spain and Sicily.
Life in Andalusian Spain during La Convivencia was idyllic in many respects. Muslims, Jews and Christians all worked together. The centuries of Muslim rule were relatively peaceful, so much progress could be made. Women were regarded as equals to men in Cordoba at a time when the rest of Europe was questioning whether women had souls. Women and men were both educated in medicine, science, music, etc. The library contained 400,000 volumes. This way of life was in great contrast to the rest of Europe which was suffering through the Middle Ages during this time period. All of this was to change, however, when the Muslims were driven out of Spain in 1492. It was interesting to hear one of the many people interviewed in the film say that Spanish history books begin with the year 1492. But many influences from the period of Muslim rule remain in modern Spain and Sicily
In the second portion of the film Ahmed and his team travel to the Balkans, specifically Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the culture was dominated by the Ottoman Empire for many years. Muslims living in the Balkans are some of the oldest Europeans. Yet an atrocious genocide was committed against these people in the last part of the 20th century. Several thousand men and boys were slaughtered as the United Nations and the world looked on and did nothing. At one particularly poignant moment in the film, Ahmed assures a woman who has lost numerous family members to "ethnic cleansing" that she is not alone and that people all over the world, not only Muslims, understand what happened and have sympathy and compassion.
Muslims living in Greece were also under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Indigenous Muslim communities have existed in the northern part of Greece for many centuries. Muslim communities in the southern part of Greece are of more recent origin. In both cases, however, many Greeks consider their Muslim neighbors to be immigrants and believe that Greece should only be for the Greeks. It is difficult for Muslims not to be wanted in what has been their own country for many, many generations.
The final portion of the film deals with the results of colonization and immigration. In general, immigrants from North Africa, parts of which had been colonized by France, tended to go to France. People from South Asia, once colonized by the British, headed for England. Immigrants to Germany came mainly from Turkey as part of a guest worker program.
Ahmed and his team travel to many locations throughout Europe to investigate the results of this immigration. They spend time in France, England, Germany and also Denmark because of the problems following the publication of offensive cartoons in that country. In general, they find that too many second or third generation children of these immigrants have lost their sense of identity. The European countries value assimilation, so any deviation, such as wearing a headscarf, is seen as suspicious. In too many cases Muslims are marginalized in their European communities. They are not seen as equally civilized as other Europeans even though they may have been born in Europe. There is too much racism, discrimination, and reduced opportunities. In some cases this may lead young people to heed the siren call of such groups as ISIS.
Obviously this is a situation that cries out for change. It is the responsibility of the Muslim community to be more interactive with the culture of the European countries they are living in. And it is the responsibility of the European countries to be more accepting of differences and provide better opportunities for their Muslim populations. In both cases education about and interaction with "the other" are needed. Europeans must rediscover their long historic connection to Islam and rediscover the passion for knowledge and pluralism that once defined Andalusia. If these challenges are successfully met, Europe will be a beacon for the civilized world.
Journey into Europe is an especially important film because it points the way to a world in which relations between all Europeans, Muslim and non-Muslim, can be improved. Before a bad situation can be rectified, it must first be identified. Journey into Europe defines the problems very clearly. It also educates, and, with its many voices, it presents hope for the coming years. This is a moving, very important, and even great film. Kudos to Ambassador Ahmed and his team!
(Wardella W. Doschek is Board Member (Secretary) of the Muslim Women's Association of Washington, DC. She is also the author of Straight and Sensible, My Journey to the Straight Path of Islam )