Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When Europe Loved Islam | Foreign Policy

Before the continent started banning hijab, European aristocrats used to change their names to Abdullah and Muhammad, and going to the local mosque was the latest trend.

from the outside, with its high minarets and bulbous Mughal-style dome, the Wilmersdorf mosque, located on Brienner Street in southwest Berlin, looks much the same as it did when it was built in the 1920s. But the institution, just like the city around it, has changed.

Today, the mosque is a quiet place. It mainly serves as an information center: School children sometimes visit on field trips; it hosts interfaith brunches. A small community of Muslims regularly show up for Friday prayer. It’s all a far cry from the days when the Wilmersdorf mosque was the lively center of a spiritual countercultural movement in the Weimar Republic.

The Ahmadiyya missionaries from British India’s Punjab region who built the mosque attracted a varied crowd in 1920s Berlin, hosting lectures that tapped into the philosophical questions of the day. Topics included the growing gap between life and doctrine; the future of Europe; and the future of humanity as a whole. Germans of all ages, wrestling with their profound disillusionment in Christian civilization in the wake of World War I and seeking a religious alternative that was modern and rational, as well as spiritual, attended these lectures, and many of them ultimately converted to Islam.

It’s an odd scene to imagine in today’s Germany, where the right-wing Alternative for Germany party has called for a ban on burqas and minarets, and more than half of Germans say they view Islam as a threat. But in the interwar period, Berlin boasted a thriving Muslim intelligentsia comprising not only immigrants and students from South Asia and the Middle East but German converts from all walks of life. Islam, at the time, represented a countercultural, even exotic, form of spirituality for forward-thinking leftists: Think Buddhism, in 1970s California.

Germans were no exception in displaying this kind of openness and even fascination with Islam. The early 20th century saw the emergence of the first Muslim communities and institutions in Western Europe and, with them, came converts in Britain and the Netherlands, as well. It’s a virtually forgotten period of history — but one of particular relevance today, as the relationship between Islam and Europe is increasingly marked by wariness and at times outright hostility.

Even the more nuanced discussions about Islam in Europe — those that take into account the structural factors that have marginalized the continent’s Muslim populations — still, for the most part, treat the presence of the religion as a new and thorny phenomenon, something foreign to European cultural and political life as we know it. But a look back at the early 20th century — primarily the period after the first wave of Muslim immigration to Europe in the wake of World War I — shows that not so long ago Western Europe and Islam had a very different relationship, one characterized by curiosity on the part of citizens and almost a sort of favoritism on the part of governments. At the same time that European citizens were experimenting with an exotic eastern religion, European governments were providing special treatment for Muslim citizens and catering to them in ways that might at first glance seem surprising: The secular French government spent lavishly on ostentatious mosques, while Germany sought to demonstrate its superior treatment of Muslims, when compared to France and Britain. Examining this past serves as a reminder that not only is this not a new encounter, but the relationship between Western Europe and Islam was not always what it is today and may not always look this way in the future. 

The history of Muslims and Islam in Western Europe is both older and more entangled than many think, and acknowledging this helps us imagine a future in which Muslims can be seen as an integral and equal part of European public life, rather than timeless or threatening outsiders. - Read More

When Europe Loved Islam | Foreign Policy


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