Muslims and Islam are still Europe’s “Other”

Both Islam and Europe are continuously changing and evolving. This change need not necessarily lead to hostility or closed borders. Rather than discrimination, a new kind of partnership may emerge.

Professor Iftikhar Malik, who visited the Faculty of Theology’s Master’s Degree Programme in Religion, Conflict and Dialogue in February, has published several books on the history of Islam and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States. He has also appeared in the media as an expert on issues related to Islam and Muslims.

Professor Malik says that Europeans have been interested in Islam and Muslims for a long time.

“This interest was reinforced with the Muslim presence in Spain and Sicily and received major impetus during the Crusades. Muslims and Europeans also interacted extensively with each other in areas such as trade between the Vikings and West Asians,” he points out.

Later, Ottoman control of the Balkans and the Russian expansion westward and southward added new dimensions which gained enduring and even more complex facets with the consolidation of European colonialism around the world.

The influx of refugees into Europe has multiplied interest in Islam and Muslims

Professor Malik admits that attitudes towards Islam and Muslims have changed in Europe as a result of the escalation of the refugee crisis.

“The post-Salman Rushdie polarities, as seen in the cases of cartoons and reactions in Paris, have fuelled anti-Muslim and anti-immigration strands,” he says, adding:

“The atrocious acts of militant groups, including ISIS and Boko Haram, have also inflamed the Islamophobia stoked by some ultra-right forces.”

However, he stresses that we must bear two interrelated facts in mind:

“Firstly, many Europeans, given their own histories of emigration, empathise with refugees from war-torn regions. Secondly, they are worried about xenophobes dominating the political and nationalist agendas, much at the expense of plural and civic prerogatives.”

Muslims must not be seen as Europe’s “enemy from within”.

Academic research on Islam and the growing need for information

Professor Malik believes that we should broaden our academic purview by making Muslims equal partners and not mere subjects or objects of research.

“Open debate in the spirit of academic freedom must be encouraged in schools and universities over and above suspicion and patronisation,” he stresses.

He notes that the “ethnic industry” within academia must promote immersion in languages, religious practices, doctrinal realities and gender-related initiatives so that the resultant studies avoid being repetitive, superficial and less rigorous.

“A more historical and sociological approach within a comparative context would be immensely helpful. For instance, how do Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Buddhist and other such small groups handle issues of integration, multi-culturalism and even assimilation? In addition, we must be receptive to and even more involved in understanding the role of knowledge capital of the women from these communities,” Professor Malik says.

Recognition of the University of Helsinki’s research on Islam

According to Professor Malik, the research work conducted at the University of Helsinki’s faculties of Theology, Arts and Social Sciences places Finland in a rather enviable position which Europe’s other higher education institutes can surely emulate by cultivating similar teaching programmes.

“Ground-breaking research and education on the relationships between religions have already proved socially significant. They are not a mere academic luxury,” Professor Malik notes.