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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 11:18 GMT 12:18 UK
Letter: Bridging Muslim-European identity
Farish Noor
Farish Noor says being a Muslim is not his job
The Malaysian academic Dr Farish A Noor lives and works in Berlin, where he finds his identity comes under close scrutiny.

Increasingly, he finds himself thrust forward into the limelight as a spokesman for Muslims living in Europe.

I am, so to speak, in Bart's eye at the moment.

Bart is my friend from Holland and he - along with his mate Thys - are here in Berlin to do a television documentary about Muslims living and working in Europe.

I happen to be one of the usual suspects they are interested in.

They are filming me right now in fact.

I have to say that the whole experience is somewhat new and disconcerting for me.

As a political scientist who has done a lot of fieldwork, I'm more used to poking my nose into other people's affairs than the other way round.

This time it's me who happens to be the object of study and I hope that Bart and Thys can keep an objective distance from their topic - or at least make sure my nose doesn't look too big on TV.

Hostile political climate

However, rude though it may seem to some, poking one's nose into other people's business is precisely what we need to do more these days, in a manner of speaking.

Rather than being welcomed as a cultural bridge-builder, I'm the one who ends up being put under the microscope and treated with suspicion
With the world's political temperature on the rise and conflicts breaking out all over the globe, what seems painfully obvious is the fact that we know - much less understand - each other so little.

That my friends have decided to make a documentary about four Muslim academics and activists in Europe today is also significant.

After all, they could have chosen to make a series of documentaries about people of other faiths as well.

However, their choice of Islam and Muslims is hardly an accident.

In the wake of 11 September and the so-called "War On Terror" that is being waged all over the world, Muslims have come into close, though not soft, focus all over.

The reality of this hostile political climate is brought home to me every time I board an aeroplane and fly off somewhere to research or lecture about Islam and inter-religious dialogue.

Lack of understanding

Rather than being welcomed as a cultural bridge-builder, I'm the one who ends up being put under the microscope and treated with suspicion.

I still recall my experience during a trip to the United States a couple of years ago when I was asked by the immigration officer why my passport had visas to countries like Indonesia, Pakistan and Lebanon.

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens)
The British singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, was refused entry to the US last month
He didn't seem convinced when I told him that I had gone to such places to do research work.

In fact so uptight was he when I insisted to be let through to catch the connecting flight that he said to me:

"You see this badge on my uniform? That means I have the right to put you on the next plane and kick you out of my country."

The immigration officer then asked me why I had come to the land of the free.

My reply was: "I'm here at the invitation of your government to talk about the necessity of cross-cultural dialogue and how to address prejudiced stereotypes of the Other."

The man went quiet for some reason and I managed to get back my passport without any bite marks.

Fear breeds fear

But suspicions remain and it would be wrong to say that they are one-sided.

The sad truth is that fear breeds even more fear, and the same goes for contempt and prejudice.

While Muslims in the West may feel that they are being unjustly persecuted and alienated, it is also true to say that prejudice and discrimination is often mirrored by the victims themselves.

How many times have I walked into bookshops selling ostensibly "Islamic" books that are filled to the brim with bile and venom against everything Western?

In my virtual engagement with Islamist groups who live and work on the internet I have come across enough inflammatory material against Jews and Christians to convince me that some Muslims are far from innocent when it comes to the charge of racism and bigotry.

It is odd that Europeans still have a problem when dealing with Muslims and that Muslims still cannot fully come to terms with Europe.

After all, Islam happens to be the oldest civilisational neighbour to the West and vice-versa.

If, after a period of 15 centuries, we are still forced to ask the question of what the other wants, then surely there has to be something seriously wrong with all of us.

It would be wrong to say that Europe and the Muslim world have developed independently of each other.

'Cross-cultural borrowing'

From the coffee we drink to all that horrible algebra your teacher taught you at school, practically everything that is consumed, read, worn and said in both cultures are the result of centuries of cross-cultural borrowing - long before the days of copyright laws.

But it is also true that cross-cultural contact is not always peaceful.

Woman in veil
Suspicion and mistrust pervade relations between Islam and the West
The Crusades is a case in point, though we often forget the fact that despite the religious overtones of that long period of conflict, the primary reasons for it were power and the struggle for riches.

Only a fool would seriously believe that the Crusades were fought in the name of religion, for there was certainly nothing Christian about them.

As the author Peter Shaffer once wrote: "Tell me, what cause remains noble once you start hacking off limbs in its name?"

One of the biggest obstacles we face when trying to build bridges between communities is the burden of history, which has a nasty tendency of popping out of the woodwork when you least expect it.

When US President George W Bush committed the fateful error of describing the "war on terror" as a "crusade", it was a diplomatic blunder of the highest order.

Although the error was hurriedly admitted and the White House did apologise, the damage was done.

Instantly hundreds of websites all over the Muslim world flashed the headline: "Islam in danger!"

Burden of history

From then on, it is left to bridge-builders like me to pick up the pieces and get the channels of dialogue open again.

Frankly, it's a tiring job. Thanks, George.

Apart from having to tread wearily on the smouldering embers of history, we also need to deal with the painful realities of the present.

Dialogue may not always succeed, but we need to keep trying anyway. That's the only way we will ever learn from each other's faults and strengths
Anwar Ibrahim
In some European countries the level of fear and hysteria about Muslims has reached fever-pitch levels.

While living in Holland, for instance, I was shocked by how an otherwise liberal and tolerant society, populated by some of the most level-headed people I have encountered, could at the same time demonstrate an almost pathological fear of Muslims.

When the headlines of tabloids talk about the "Muslim problem", it sends a chill down my spine.

After all, I live and work in Germany, where not too long ago such language was denounced as racist and fascistic.

I found it hard to reconcile the otherwise tolerant and multicultural nature of Dutch society with this new xenophobic discourse, as I walked down from the Bob Marley Museum to the New World Ganja Emporium.

Are you free to do anything here, except be a Muslim?

European-Muslim identity

So back to Bart and Thys who are filming me.

The subject of their documentary is how it feels to be a Muslim living and working in Europe these days.

The central question is this: Can there be such a thing as a European Muslim, and if so, what would such a person be like?

Now this happens to be a question that many Muslims in Europe are asking themselves right now, and a week ago I posed the same question to the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim, who is in Germany at the moment undergoing medical treatment after his imprisonment in Malaysia for the past six years.
Man praying
Millions of Muslims now live in Western countries

Among all the Muslim leaders in the world today, Anwar remains a prominent figure who is noted for his role in cultural dialogue and exchange and his long period of incarceration has given him ample time to think deeply about such issues.

He was aware of the difficulties that bridge-builders face today, and the obstacles to a meaningful relationship between the West and Islam.

When asked about the need for dialogue, this is what he had to say:

"Dialogue may not always succeed, but we need to keep trying anyway.

"That's the only way we will ever learn from each other's faults and strengths, and that's the only way we can solve the problems of the world today together.

"We need to remember that dialogue has always been part of Muslim culture and the values we cherish."

'Clash of civilisations'

The need for dialogue is even more evident for Muslims living in Europe today, many of whom feel alienated, marginalised and unjustly persecuted thanks to the hysteria whipped up in the wake of 11 September.

But for this internal dialogue within Europe to take off, it would require Europeans to come to terms with the Muslims in their midst and to recognise that the other has always been part of European identity in the first place.

We worry about our mortgages, telephone bills, our children's education and the dripping tap in the bathroom upstairs
Evidence of this can be seen all around: from the Orientalist design of Berlin's grand old synagogue to traces of the Orient in the arts, food, culture, even languages of Europe.

Of course there have been some attempts at dialogue - conferences are held in European capitals and people like me are roped in as "representatives" of the Muslim community.

Politicians come to speak and cut ribbons, books are launched and we all pat each other on the back afterwards.

But hold on. I have never considered myself the representative of any community, save perhaps the human race as a whole.

I am a believing and practising Muslim, but my religiosity is not expressed through symbols or slogans.

Even my pathetic beard has nothing to do with Islam.

If anything, it's a fashion statement that went badly wrong along the way.


Europeans should realise that the Muslims living among them are no different from themselves - we didn't come all the way from Mars.

In fact, we're downright ordinary, you know.

We worry about our mortgages, telephone bills, our children's education and the dripping tap in the bathroom upstairs.

Danish Muslims
Denmark has tried to include its Muslim community in the war against terror
Muslims in turn should make sure that they do not fall into the ghetto mentality that sets them apart from the rest of European society.

While prejudice and racism remain the biggest problems faced by Muslims in Europe today - most of whom come from migrant families - they should remember that the solution to the problem of discrimination lies in taking an active part in social life and struggling for universal human rights with other groups as well.

The tendency for some Muslims, particularly the younger ones, to retreat into their self-created ghettos in order to insulate and protect themselves is a dangerous step that will eventually lead to their further marginalisation.

I walked down that path myself, and I realised soon after that the asylum I sought turned into a prison of sorts, as some of my peers began to demand that I demonstrate my commitment to Islam on their terms.

But like I said, being a Muslim is not my job.


I don't wear my religion on my sleeve.

I am a Muslim by choice, but don't expect me to perform any "exotic" Muslim practices for you.

What you see is what you get - an overworked academic with a nicotine addiction problem.

I don't claim to have all the answers, though Bart and Thys keep pressing me for them.

But the path I have chosen, as a Muslim who happens to be living and working in Europe, is this.

Rather than flee to a false asylum and cutting off from a society that was previously unknown to me, I have chosen instead to enter that social space and be part of it.

By teaching, speaking in public, joining non-governmental organisations and unions, I have fought for my space and my share of rights, in order to claim my place in a multicultural society whose doors I wish to keep open.

Playing the role of a bridge-builder is not easy, but in the face of the realities of today we have little choice.

And having said that, I would now like to excuse myself in order to exercise my right to smoke!

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World and has studied the phenomenon of Islamist political movements in south-east Asia.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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