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An explanation of European racism

Journey into Europe. Islam, Immigration, and Identity
Forfatter: Akbar Ahmed
Forlag: Brookings Institution Press (USA)
Islamist tries to understand the background of Muslim conditions in Europe, but the explanation in his analysis is limited.


The story starts worrying and on the grain: Akbar Ahmed – Islamic scholar and former High Commissioner of Pakistan in the UK – is in a parking garage in Athens in 2013 along with a Muslim faith community. Greece is sinking into gravel economically, politically, socially. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in record time, and hundreds more thousands are on the way.

In this despairing context, Akbar Ahmed speculates on how to deliver a sermon that can deliver hope without sounding false – all the while becoming increasingly claustrophobic by the sweaty, dark basement that serves as the gathering place of the faith community.

Seek context

A real mosque, according to Ahmed, is not available to Muslims in Greece, despite the fact that several in the basement assembly have been in the country most of their lives, and despite Europe being home to Muslims for many centuries. Several members of the faith community can also report threats and violence from neo-Nazis, living in constant fear.

“I could feel my own uneasiness over the anger and desperation that permeated the congregation and suggested a lurking threat. These men had nothing to lose […]. This was, I felt, Europe's ticking bomb. "

Once upon a time, Northern Europeans traveled out and told Asians how they hung together and how they ended up in that suppedas. ”

Instead of moving on from this finding and researching it ticking bombs anatomy – and the current conditions that produced it – begin Journey into Europe get into a kind of cultural-historical / idea-historical review of especially «Germanic» thought about concepts such as Volk og Home.

According to Ahmed, Germanic societies such as Germany and the Nordic countries – yes, Europe in general – rest on tribal identities. These can be more or less exclusionary, sometimes even inclusive and in some cases decidedly life-threatening. He calls this last form "predator tribal identity" and it is chauvinistic, aggressive and militaristic. It is hard to disagree that Europe and its history are characterized by chauvinism and militarism, but exactly what this tribal identity concept actually covers and why it is particularly applicable to explaining anti-Muslim racism is more difficult to realize.

Myrdalism strikes back

Based on the English language, primarily American secondary literature, Ahmed mixes concepts such as das Volk, people hampered, people sjæl og folk high schools together in a large bulb. Same with concepts like Home, hometown og hometown – and you understand that there is a direct line from blood and land to folk and local history museums.

Once upon a time, the Northern European – such as the Swedish Social Democrat Gunnar Myrdal – reached out and told the Asians how they hung together and how they ended up in that suppedas; now the asian comes and tells (northern) europeans what their "tribal identity" is made of and what consequences it can have. They came, they traveled around (first class), they saw, they understood.

It's the Gunnarmyrdal megalomania that strikesback, and as such really a good joke. But as the explanatory power of the analysis leaks out of the book, the smile stiffens. After all, it's not actually fun. It is – as Ahmed himself suggests in the book's opening scene – a matter of life and death. There are limits to how much humiliation humans can endure before they perish. And as you know, quite a few do it with a bang. The vast majority do so in silence. Therefore, Ahmed's ticking-bomb metaphor is inherently both misleading and problematic.

Class blindness

Ahmed's commitment to a framework of analysis built around the concept of tribal identity is probably related to the fact that he is not interested in – or able to see – the structure of the class society and the role it plays for the racist Muslims in Europe. .

Absolutely absurd is it when Ahmed explains the difference between Muslim terms and opportunities to "belong" in England and Scotland, respectively, with the fact that tribal identity in Scotland is simply more inclusive. He does not consider one in the context of the fact that one place is the heart of the empire while the other is a colonized and exploited region. He does not consider what differences and similarities there might be between how Muslim migrants have come to England and Scotland respectively, what they are doing there and how – based on these parameters – they either differ from or resemble their local counterparts and neighbours.

In addition to Ahmed's fleeting reference to the German Gastarbeiter program in the 1960s and 1970s, a glimpse of work and finances shines through in its complete absence. This is also because Ahmed and his research team talk first and foremost with others from the academic, political and economic elite, and then a lot of taxi drivers – who have the honor, it is understood, to transport the research team around the cities they visit.

Not textbook anthropology

The book's research method describes Ahmed as "not standard textbook anthropology", however, using "the anthropological method" on which he lists participant observation, "fine-grained" ethnology, questionnaires, case studies and cross-cultural comparisons. Perhaps, with the exception of (imaginative) "cross-cultural comparisons," however, one does not see much of these methods in the book. It would have been more honest if Ahmed had held that it was not exactly textbook anthropology being unfolded.

In the third and final part, Ahmed proposes "how Europe can create a new identity"

Ahmed also presents the "research group" who has traveled with him around Europe, by their names, not their merits (except that one of them is his "former student and faithful assistant"). This seems both rather rude – especially considering how much we hear about his own merits along the way – and leaves the reader with no insight into what has made the "assistants" particularly suited to analyze the conditions the book deals with.

Something about Andalusia

Journey into Europe is made up of three parts, with three chapters in each. Following the introduction of the tribal identity framework, based on readings of secondary literature on European (cultural) history in the first part, the second part presents the so-called fieldwork. This must be said to be a fine word for something that most of all appears to be an intellectual tourist journey. That part of the book is then also illustrated with pictures in which the author and the research team pose in front of religious sites or together with important persons – a rare occasion even with "ordinary people". But always taken out of context: "Here we stand / sit with it and it."

In the third and final part, Ahmed proposes "how Europe can create a new identity" that fits the 21st century: It is something to be inspired by Andalusia, where Muslims, Jews and Christians once coexisted peacefully. Since Ahmed cannot see the class community and the interweaving of racism with this – even after being in a parking garage with Muslim workers in Athens – his path to a better future becomes as airy as his analysis of present and history.

Also read: The scary sound of religion

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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