Clash of Ignorance: East is East

Mirjana Mikic’ Zeitoun
Center for Peace Studies Zagreb


Those of you who were here last year, in the company of all these nice people, will remember that in my essay I talked about Edward W. Said and his dedicated commitment to the affirmation of the East as a place which, like the West, has its peculiarities (both positive and negative), where you can find people like those in the West (good and bad), a different culture – but culture nonetheless, as opposed to primitivism and ignorance. When Huntington published his book, The Clash of Civilizations, it became hugely popular and gained many supporters who have tried to explain a series of negative social and politic events and issues through this clash.

It was then that Said responded with the essay “Clash of Ignorance” where he talked about there not being a clash of civilizations- the conflict doesn’t have its roots in differences, but rather in ignorance, which leads to conflict

The more effort we put into getting to know “the other ones” - the effort should, of course, be reciprocal- the more we will start to value and accept each other, thus building a better world together.

Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity is an essential condition of human society. It is caused and fostered by many factors such as cross-border migration, the claim of national and other minorities to a distinct cultural identity, the cultural effect of globalization and the growing interdependence between all world regions, and the advances of the information and communication media. More and more individuals are living in a multicultural normality (i.e. facing the influences of different cultures in their daily life) and have to manage their own multiple cultural affiliations.

Cultural diversity is not only a fact and a right to be protected, but also an economic, social and political plus which needs to be developed and adequately managed. Protection, promotion and maintenance of cultural diversity are factors of human development and a manifestation of human liberty. They are an essential requirement for sustainable development for the benefit of present and future generations. Cultural diversity is a rich asset for individuals and societies.

On the other hand, increasing cultural diversity brings about new social and political challenges. Cultural diversity often triggers fear and rejection. Negative reactions--from stereotyping, racism, xenophobia and intolerance to discrimination and violence--can threaten peace and the very fabric of local and national communities. International conflicts, the socio-economic vulnerability and marginalization of entire groups, and widespread cultural ignorance --including the lack of knowledge of one's own culture and heritage--provide fertile ground for rejection, social exclusion, extremist reactions and conflict.

The most fundamental challenge, therefore, is that of combining social cohesion and cultural diversity. So far, we discussed this challenge under categories like “multiculturalism” and “assimilation.”
No communication, ignorance and mutual cultural isolation will lead to ever more dangerous degrees of misunderstanding, mutual seclusion, fear, marginalization and even violent conflict.

Question of Muslim citizens in Europe


The first recorded history of Islam in Europe began with the al-Andalus territories in the Iberian peninsula, which included what is now Spain and Portugal, established in 710 A. D. and enduring until 1492; the last Muslims were expelled from Spain by 1614. Sicily and parts of southern Italy were also ruled by Arabs from the 9th to the 11th century.

Al-Andalus, reaching at times up to the north of the Iberian Peninsula, has been estimated to have had a Muslim majority from the 10th century. Sicily and Constantinople were already attacked by Arab Muslims even before the Bulgarians reached the Balkans. During the early Arab siege of Constantinople, the first Muslim community already existed inside Europe's center of Orthodoxy and controlled the biggest city before the Balkan Slavs became orthodox Christian or before the Magyars settled in Hungary. Spain and the southern parts of France were Islamic zed before the first French state was established as a result of the Frankish portions.

The first Italian islands were conquered by Muslims before the Papal state in Rome was created, and a few nations in today's Russian Caucasus became Muslim (as well as a part of the Chazars) before the foundation of the Russian state and prior to the Christianization of any of the Slavic nations.

Later, Arab Muslims temporarily seized the area of land in what is today known as Switzerland while Slavs in Eastern Germany were resisting Christianization. The first Muslims, who were Bogumils (ancestors of the present Bosnians), migrated and settled in the Eastern parts of what is today Romania before the Romanian principalities were established.

In the eastern parts of Europe, the Golden Horde began its conquest of present day Russia and Ukraine in the 13th century, while the Ottoman Empire began its conquest of the European portion of the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century. It completed its conquest in 1453, establishing Islam as a major religion in the region.

Facts and Statistics

Many Muslims in the EU feel excluded from economic, social and cultural life. This is particularly the case in those Member States where a large part of the Muslim population does not have access to citizenship. It is clear that citizenship is critical to ensuring a sense of belonging. Examples are given of how the vulnerability of those without citizenship is sometimes exploited by state officials, employers or landlords. Even when Muslims are citizens of a member state they can still feel a sense of exclusion. They feel that they are perceived as foreigners who are a threat to society and are treated with suspicion. This feeling is stronger among young European-born Muslims than among their parents. The second and third generations are in many ways more integrated then the first; at the same time their expectations are greater and so the consequent exclusion is more keenly felt.

With further immigration, higher relative birth rates and the prospect of EU enlargement to the Balkans and perhaps Turkey, more and more citizens of the EU are going to be Muslim. In some urban neighborhoods of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland, they will make up anywhere between 20 and 90 percent of the population. Most of them will be young; far too many will be poor, ill-educated, underemployed, alienated-- feeling at home neither in the place they live nor in the lands from which their parents came -- and tempted by drugs, crime or political and religious extremism.

The only regions in Europe with Muslim majorities are Kosovo, Turkey and a few Russian Republics in the Northern Caucasus and the Volga region. Islam is also the second largest religion, after Christianity, of Bosnia and Herzegovina but is often considered the largest (relative majority), because it is larger than Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox churches separately. Some other eastern European countries have substantial Muslim minorities (notably Russia, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia) with roots dating back several hundred years. Many western European countries have significant and growing recent Muslim immigrant populations (especially France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden). Islam in East Europe is in recent years witnessing a revival.

Across the continent of Europe, there are a number of very different issues concerning Islam. The Russian Federation has more than 14 million people--at least 10 percent of its rapidly shrinking population--who may plausibly be identified as Muslim, but most Europeans don’t consider them as part of Europe's problem. By contrast, Turkey is a country of nearly 70 million Muslims living in a secular state; Europeans hotly debate whether such a large, mainly Muslim country that has not been considered part of Europe in most traditional cultural, historical and geographical definitions should become a member of the EU. In the Balkans there are centuries-old communities of European Muslims, more than seven million in all, which include one largely-Muslim country, Albania; another entity, Kosovo, which is still a great enigma for the international community (its status of dependence to Serbia caused war and a status of independence could provoke many questions all around Europe: Basks, Spain, Belgium, Great Britain, etc.); and Bosnia, a fragile state with a Muslim plurality; as well as significant minorities in Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro.

These Balkan Muslims are old Europeans and not immigrants to Europe. However, like the Turks, they do form part of the Muslim immigrant minorities in west European countries such as Germany, France and Holland. Within a decade, most Balkan Muslims will probably be citizens of the EU, either because their own states have joined the EU or because they have acquired citizenship in another EU member state. The shameful feebleness of Western Europe's response to Serbian and, to a lesser degree, Croatian persecution of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s has fed into a broader sense of Muslim victimhood in Europe. That western Europeans (and the US) intervened militarily in Kosovo to prevent an attempted genocide of Muslim Albanians by Christian Serbs is less often remembered.

Public policy

When people talk loosely about “Europe's Muslim problem” what they are usually thinking of is the more than 15 million Muslims from families of immigrant origin who now live in western, northern and southern European member states of the EU, as well as in Switzerland and Norway. Counting is complicated by the fact that the French Republic (being in theory blind to color, religion and ethnic origins) does not keep realistic statistics. There are probably somewhere around five million Muslims in France, which is upwards of eight percent of the total population. There are perhaps four million--mainly Turks--in Germany, and nearly one million (more than five percent of the total population) in Holland. Most of them live in cities, generally in particular areas of cities such as the administrative region around Saint-Denis which contains some of the most notorious housing projects on the outskirts of Paris. An estimated one out of every four residents of Marseilles is Muslim.

Ian Buruma, in his book Murder in Amsterdam, cites an official statistic that in 1999 some 45 percent of the population of Amsterdam were of foreign origin--a figure projected to rise to 52 percent by 2015 with the majority of those people being Muslim. Also, Muslim immigrants generally have higher birth rates than the “native” European population. According to one estimate, more than 15 percent of the French population between sixteen and twenty five years old are Muslim. So with further immigration, high relative birth rates and the prospect of EU enlargement to the Balkans and perhaps Turkey, more and more members of the EU are going to be Muslims. In some urban neighborhoods of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Holland, they will make up anywhere between 20 and 90 percent of the population. Most of them will be young, far too many will be poor, ill–educated, underemployed, alienated-feeling at home neither in the place they live nor in the lands from which their parents came-and temped by drugs, crime, or political and religious extremism.

Earlier this year, I visited the famous basilica of Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. I admired the magnificent tombs and funerary monuments of the kings and queens of France, including that of Charles Martel (the hammer) whose victory over the invading Muslims armies near Poitiers in 732 AD is traditionally held to have halted the Islamization of Europe. Stepping out of the basilica, I walked a hundred yards across the Place Victor Hugo to the main commercial street. It was thronged with local shoppers of Arab and African origin, including many women wearing the hijab. I caught myself thinking: “So the Muslims have won the Battle of Poitiers after all! Won it not by force of arms, but by peaceful immigration and fertility.”

Just down the road from the basilica of the kings, I met Abdelaziz E. the son of Berber Moroccan immigrants and an eloquent Muslim political activist. He talked with fluent passion, in perfect French, about the misery of the impoverished housing projects around Paris, which as we spoke were again being wracked with protests and the chronic social discrimination against immigrants and their descendants. “France's so-called ‘republican model’” he said furiously, “means in practice: ‘I speak French, am called Jean-Daniel, and have blue eyes and blond hair.’ If you are called Abdelaziz, have a darker skin, and are Muslim to boot, the French Republic does not practice what it preaches…What égalite is there for us?” he asked. “What liberty? What fraternity?” (Garton Ash, 2006).

The profound alienation of many Muslims--especially the second and third generations of immigrant families: young men and women themselves born in Europe--is one of the most vexing problems facing the continent today. If things continue to go as badly as they are at the moment, this alienation and the way it both feeds and is fed by the resentments of mainly white, Christian or post-Christian Europeans could tear apart the civic fabric of Europe's most established democracies. It has already catalyzed the rise of populist anti-immigrant parties and contributed very directly to terrorist attacks.

Discrimination which exists in different forms and degrees in most European countries, applies equally to non-Muslims of immigrant origin. It is, so to speak, indiscriminate discrimination against people with darker skin and foreign names or accents: plain, old-fashioned racism or xenophobia, rather than the more specific prejudice that is now tagged Islam phobia.

Islam phobia

If we, for want of a better word, the traditional Europeans manage to reverse the current trend and enable people like Abdelaziz and his children to feel at home as new Muslim Europeans, they could be a source of cultural enrichment and economic dynamism, helping to compensate for the downward drag of Europe's rapidly aging population. If we fail, we shall face many more explosions.

There is so much diversity in our countries today: so many people coming from different backgrounds, histories and geographies are now coming together and sharing the same borders. The issue of multiculturalism becomes very important: how do we maintain social harmony amongst such diversity? The most important thing is to focus on the values of reaching out to one another, engaging one another, interacting and arming ourselves with knowledge of different peoples and, through this kind of mutual knowledge, building respect. This will lead to acceptance. Multiculturalism is not just about being in the same neighborhood, you need to knock on the door and enter your neighbor’s house; that is multiculturalism.

Tolerance is good, but it is not enough; we have to take it to the next level and aspire to something higher: acceptance among people.
The impression is not only that we (the west and the Muslim world) don't know each other, but that we don't want to know the other.

When bringing different cultures together it’s very important for the mediators to be recognized as positive personalities by the “other side.” Rania Al-Abdulah, Queen of Jordan, is just that. She is one of the most beautiful queens: a highly educated, intelligent young woman in the right position to advocate women’s rights, as well as the rights of other vulnerable groups, which she does with determination and success. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Corriere della Sera:

What's happened is that… stereotypes [have] become so widely spread amongst people, and we rely on these stereotypes, although they are just a shortcut, and they rob us of [an] accurate perspective of people, because we just use labels--very superficial labels, and as a result of relying on these labels, we kind of shelter ourselves in our own little shell and don't reach out… [So,] it's very important for us to really break down these barriers of mistrust and suspicion. I think what happens is that when you rely on stereotypes you get a sense of mistrust and suspicion between people and, therefore, they don't want to have this interaction and acceptance. I think the solution is for people to really arm themselves with knowledge, but knowledge is not enough; knowledge of the other is not enough. We need to reach out and interact, and come out of your comfort zone. It's very easy for us to really sort of shelter ourselves and create barriers, and not to reach out the other, to the unknown. I think we have to venture and reach out to the unknown. And when we do that, we're going to find out how similar those so –called “others” are to us. At the end of the day I think we are all combined by our humanity, our similarities. We all have the same issues, aspirations, and challenges and we want the same thing for ourselves and our children.

Question of veil

Islam [has been] brought under suspicion over the last few years; people have started to look at the veil as a political issue. The veil is the symbol of piety, of modesty, of devotion to God and sometimes a woman wears the veil because that is what is socially acceptable within her surroundings, but it should never be viewed as something that can be divisive between communities and certainly sometimes I feel that there is so much judgment leveled at women based on what they are wearing. I always say we shouldn't judge women by what is on their heads but by what is in their heads.

It is very dangerous when we start making assumptions about a person based on an outward facade. Labels like Islam and the West only serve to confuse us and fuel the destructive, basic paradigm of “West versus the rest.” A Muslim from sub-Saharan Africa has far more in common with a Christian from the same region than he /she might with a fellow Muslim from Uzbekistan.

Thus, practices such as female genital mutilation become linked inextricably with Islam because of the practice of some Muslim communities. Any Muslim woman who frequently discusses Islam will be asked to condemn the practice. The same is never asked of Christians, despite the fact that Christian tribes in places such as sub-Saharan Africa also engage in the same practice. We are too familiar with Christianity to generalize it in the same way.

Incidents and more

One question that preoccupies Buruma in Murder in Amsterdam, a characteristically vivid and astute combination of essay and reportage, is: “Whatever happened to the tolerant, civilized country that I remember from my childhood?” (He left Holland in 1975.) “What's become of the land of Spinoza and Johan Huizinga, who claim in a 1934 essay that if the Dutch ever became extremist, theirs would be a moderate extremism?” He claims that Van Gogh's murder was “the end of a sweet dream of tolerance and light in the most progressive little enclave of Europe.”

Too many immigrants were allowed in too fast, and they were not sufficiently integrated into Dutch society, linguistically, culturally or socially. The parents were brought to Europe to work as what the Germans call Gastarbeiter, guest workers, but their children are mainly left unemployed. What we really need to understand is:

The experience of the Muslim immigrants and their descendants: the so-called in-between people-- those who feel at home neither in the European countries where they live nor in the countries from which their parents came. They inhabit dish cities, connected to the lands of their parents' birth by satellite dishes bringing in Moroccan or Turkish television channels, by the internet and by mobile phones. Many of them physically go “home” every summer- to Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, or other countries in Europe's near abroad--sometimes for months at a time. In their European homes the second generation often speaks the local language--Dutch, French, English--with their brothers or sisters and their native language. Culturally, they are split personalities.

Europe's problem with its Muslims of immigrant origin, the pathology of the in-between people, would exist even if there were an independent, flourishing Palestinian state, and even if the United States, Britain and other European countries had not invaded Iraq. Establishing a workable Palestinian state and withdrawing Western troops from Iraq would, at the very least, remove two additional sources of grievance.

In the relationship with Islam as a religion, it makes sense to encourage those versions of Islam that are compatible with the fundamentals of a modern, liberal and democratic Europe. That they can be found is the promise of Islamic reformers such as Tariq Ramadan: an inspiration to many young European Muslims. Ramadan insists that Islam, properly interpreted, need not conflict with a democratic Europe: “Nobody can demand that I put away my religious belief!”

The statement comes from Aisha Ahmed, a very young political leader. She is quite tired of Norwegian culture and Norwegians who demand integration at any prize. Therefore she has written down her frustration in a reader's letter to Drammens Tidende. She doesn't want to be integrated if her personal belief is considered a hindrance to becoming “Norwegian.”

Muslims do not want to be punished because some Europeans are still critical and afraid of everything regarding religion and religious people. Because they themselves oppose religious issues doesn’t mean that they can demand others to deny their Muslim identities. Islam is drawn in and portrayed as an effective block in every integration debate. Imams are portrayed as power-hungry and dangerous.

It seems that it's quickly becoming an us vs. them debate – Europeans versus Muslim multiculturalists. Europeans and multi-centralists obviously have different values, but religious outlook shouldn't be a theme in integration debates.
Not partaking in camping, drinking or partying doesn’t make one less European – speaking well, respecting the laws and having a job are quite enough for immigrants to integrate. If integration demands disclaiming religious beliefs and convictions, people might not choose to be integrated.

Good practice example:

Helsinki, Finland: About 650 new teachers will be needed by 2012 to meet the needs of school pupils with immigrant backgrounds. The estimates by a working group at the Ministry of Education are based on projections for the increase in the number of pupils who speak a foreign language at home, as well as on the prospect of large numbers of teachers retiring, and the size of classes. The calculations also assume that immigration will continue to grow at the same rate that it has in recent years. At the end of last year 2.3 percent of the population (122,000 individuals) of Finland were citizens of another country. The number of residents with an immigrant background was greater. There are also to be efforts to encourage immigrant children to continue beyond comprehensive schools into vocational or upper-level secondary schools. Evaluating the need for more teachers was not easy because many different kinds of teachers take part in the education of people with immigrant backgrounds, and the statistics on these are inadequate. There is considerable variation in the teachers' educational backgrounds and the criteria for competency have not always been defined.

The greatest estimated need for teachers is in integration training, in preparatory classes for basic education and in the teaching of the immigrants' mother tongues. The working group notes that the teacher shortage can be alleviated by increasing teachers' training, improving opportunities for those with immigrant backgrounds to become teachers and by increasing possibilities to supplement teaching degrees earned abroad. The working group has not made any separate estimates on how many teachers with immigrant backgrounds would be needed, but the group wants to take measures to improve the possibility of students with immigrant backgrounds in being accepted into teacher training. The training program for classroom teachers at the University of Helsinki has had an immigrant quota for a few years now. The Hämeenlinna Teachers' College also organizes teachers' training for immigrants. The working group also feels that those who are currently teaching pupils with immigrant backgrounds need supplementary training, which should be offered to at least 1,500 people a year. The working group submitted its recommendations to the Minister of Education.

Reason for Fear or Reason for Dialogue

The growth of the Muslim population in Europe--currently some 20 million of the continent’s 450 million citizens and increasing fast--has highlighted the differences between conservative Islamic values and Europe's traditionally secular liberalism.
The demographic shift, assimilation difficulties, and debates over issues such as head scarves and the role of woman in society have occasionally sparked violent clashes. How have Muslims reacted to life in Europe?

Assimilation - Some Muslims born in Europe become secularized and adjust well enough to succeed academically and financially in their countries. Some become Muslim yuppies, join the native-born elite and are held up as success stories for their communities. This group makes up only a small percentage of Muslims in Europe.

Integration - Large numbers of young people live peacefully in their host countries while retaining the cultural and religious traditions of their ancestral homelands. Their parents and families--often first-generation immigrants--still have a strong influence on them. This quiet, relatively anonymous group, while likely the highest percentage of European-born Muslims, attracts little public or media attention.

Rebellion - Some Muslims keep western society at arm's length, refusing to intermarry or mix with Europeans. Living in segregated neighborhoods with the food, culture, music and television of their home countries- “they’re there (in Europe) but not there.” Most of these Muslims are poor and live in crime-prone neighborhoods like the British council estates or the French banlieues. Experts say that some young Muslims grow alienated from both their parents' cultures and the culture of Europe. They seek a sense of community and identity in conservative Islam. A small percentage of these--including, perhaps, the four suspects in the London attacks--eventually embrace terrorism.

We can say that the media has become obsessed with something called Islam, which in their voguish lexicon has acquired only two meanings, both of them unacceptable and impoverishing. On the one hand, Islam represents the threat of a resurgent atavism, which suggests not only the menace of a return to the Middle Ages but the destruction of so-called democratic order in the Western world. On the other hand, Islam is made to stand for a defensive counter response to this first image of Islam as threat; especially when, for geopolitical reasons, good Muslims like the Saudi Arabians or the Afghan Muslim freedom fighters against the Soviet later become quite the opposite. Anything said in defense of Islam is more or less forced into the apologetic form of a plea for Islam's humanism: its contributions to civilization, development and perhaps even to democratic niceness.

Islam has uniformly appeared to Europe and the West in general as a threat. Today, the phenomenon is more in evidence than ever before. On the one hand there has been an enormous media convergence upon what has been called the emergence, return or resurgence of Islam; and on the other hand, because parts of the Islamic world--Palestine, Iran, and Afghanistan among other places--that have been undergoing various unequal processes of historical development, have also seemed to be encroaching upon traditional Western (more particularly American) hegemony.

After all

Even though I took great pains in the book to show that current discussion of the orient or of the Arabs and Islam are fundamentally premised upon a fiction, my book was often interpreted as a defense of real Islam. Whereas what I was trying to show was that any talk about Islam was radically flawed. Not only because an unwarranted assumption was being made that a large ideologically freighted generalization could cover all the rich and diverse particularity of Islamic Life (a very different thing), but also because it would simply be repeating the errors of Orientalism to claim that the correct view of Islam was X or Y or Z (Said).


Ash, T. G. (2006). Islam in Europe. The New York Review of Books.

Buruma, I. (2006). Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.

Ferrari, A. (2007). Interview with Queen Rania. Corriere della Sera.

Huntington, S.P (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs.

Khaldun, I. (1974). The Muquaddimah: An introduction to history.

Kvimaki, T. (Ed.). (2005). Islam, the West, and Violence.

Ramadan, T. (1999). To be a European Muslim: A study of Islamic Sources in the European Context.

Said, E.W. (1979). Orientalism. Vintage.



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