Conversation with Mohammed Hashas

Conversation conducted by: Harun Karčić

European Islam is possible theologically for two main reasons; first, there are scholars or intellectuals, as well as imams who lead mosques and their local communities, who think that a European Islam is possible; it is not that different from saying “Arab Islam,” “Balkan Islam,” “Asian Islam,” “Russian Islam,” “Islam Latino,” etc. It means there is a cultural adaptation, and more importantly, a political-theology adaptation to the context. Of course these are concepts, but what is important is daily life, or what is political, and this is the second point, i.e.  whether this European Islam works, whether it is there, whether it is felt and lived by Muslims, and seen by non-Muslims.

European Islam
Book Launch discussion of The Idea of European Islam (2019), at King Abdulaziz Foundation, Casablanca, Morocco

Mohammed Hashas holds a PhD in Political Theory from LUISS University in Rome, with a distinguished dissertation on “The Idea of European Islam: Voices of Perpetual Modernity” (2013).  He also holds an MA in European Studies from LUISS, with a grant from the the European Union DG for Education and Culture (2010), and an MA in Literary-Cultural Studies from Mohamed I University in Oujda, Morocco (2008). Hashas was a research fellow at Babylon Center for the Study of the Multicultural Society in Tilburg, the Netherlands (July-October 2010), and at the Center for European Islamic Thought at the University of Copenhagen (Sept 2011 – July 2012). He has taken part in the organization of conferences and seminars, and contributed papers and communications in Morocco, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Cape Verde Republic, Mexico, and India. Hashas is publishing his papers with the Journal of Muslims of Europe, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, and the Journal of Studia Islamica, besides contributions to edited books. He also contributes opinion articles to web magazines and newspapers in Arabic and English. His academic concerns are the emerging European Islamic thought, Arab-Islamic political thought, and the ongoing socio-political and cultural transformations of the Arab societies. 

Despite existing suspicions on the integration of Muslims in Europe over the past two decades, you strongly argue that a European Islam is both theologically and politically a possibility. Why do you argue so and why do you opt to use the term European Islam instead of Islam in Europe?

Well, a European Islam is possible theologically for two main reasons; first, there are scholars or intellectuals, as well as imams who lead mosques and their local communities, who think that a European Islam is possible; it is not that different from saying “Arab Islam,” “Balkan Islam,” “Asian Islam,” “Russian Islam,” “Islam Latino,” etc. It means there is a cultural adaptation, and more importantly, a political-theology adaptation to the context. Of course these are concepts, but what is important is daily life, or what is political, and this is the second point, i.e.  whether this European Islam works, whether it is there, whether it is felt and lived by Muslims, and seen by non-Muslims. Do non-Muslims or observers, be that whatever, see that some European Muslims think and act Islam differently from some Arab or Asia Muslims in the Arab world and Asia or not? If they fail to see differences, then it is their problem as observers.  In my work, I have observed how some Muslims think and act, have read them, and critically synthesized their thought, and put it in a more systematic line of thought and argumentation, and reached “European Islam.” Again, this European Islam is as plural as any Balkan Islam, or Asian Islam, or Arab Islam. You find highly observant Muslims who are secular, i.e. they believe religion is a private matter, that can have an expression in the public sphere, but the state is secular; or, you find Muslims who are very liberal; they practice some of the pillars of religion, like fasting Ramadan, but hardly observe daily prayers, or at least hardly observe them always; they believe, maybe strongly believe, but are choosy or selective with some rituals. Others, on the other hand, practice fully, but do feel that non-Muslims are fully free in their views, and respect their moral or religious views, and do not seek to convert them. All these are Muslims of Europe; those who are aware of it, and raise the voice of reform and adaptation to Europe are European Muslims; they understand what liberal Europe means, and endorse its values, not necessarily all its values, but a lot of its values, especially political values, which matter here. Those Muslims who live an Islam as if they were in Morocco, or Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, and still think it should be so, they live an Islam in Europe and not a European Islam; they don’t seek to understand Europe. They have to be respected for such a view; their Islam is still European, since it is practiced and lived in Europe, and this same Europe guarantees this right and form of practice. My work has observed this variety of Islamic practices in Europe, and chose to focalize one version of it, European Islam, that which is used as a term by some Muslim academics and public intellectuals or imams who see a need to move from Islam in Europe to European Islam, an Islam immersed into European culture, philosophy, and politics.

In your work, you have selected four prominent European Muslim intellectuals. What makes their visions of a European Islam so specific and worth further studying?

As I said earlier, it is their call for a “European Islam” that has attracted my attention as an academic observer. I wanted to study what they mean, and whether what they have in mind is similar, the same thing or not, and what methodologies they have used to defend their call. I have found out that they have different views of it, each reached differently. My role as a political theologist, and scholar-student of political theory made me focalize how they theologize politics and politicize theology. It is an important moment in the history of ideas in what I, and others, refer to as “European Islamic thought.” Their views have to be studied, to know how society thinks, especially society seen through Muslim eyes that grew up in Europe. European Islam is not about adjusting to Europe just because there is a pressure, modern pressure, on Islam and Muslim. There is something else there, and needs to be examined. There is a critique of Europe, modernity, and Islamic classical thought. This is what European Islam is about. My work has not been a work to push for its adoption by policy-makers or religious authorities; they could do that if they find it useful, and I would be happy to see that my work has been useful. Still, my aim has been to study a phenomenon, which I tried to synthecize and organize in the form of an idea, a philosophical-theological-political idea.

Over the past three decades, a significant amount of literature on Islam and Muslims in Europe has developed, but mostly from the perspectives of political science, international relations, security and anthropology. Why has the theological perspective remained uncharted?

The study of European Islam from a theological perspective is due to three major reasons. First, as I indicate in the book, which you also mentioned, the prevalence of more direct political weight on the study of Islam and Muslims, thus the dominance of political science, mostly security approach, for the fear there is of political Islam, jihadism, and violence. And political scientists are not scholars of religion or scholars of theology. It is beyond their reach, not part of their discipline or training, to produce a theological-philosophical study. The most fit to initiate a more objective study were the sociologists and anthropologists, and their literature now on Islam and Muslims in Europe is the most important, from a scholarly perspective. They reflect the dynamics of Muslims in Europe, their diversity, and their agency. They also show how state stake-holders impact these dynamics as well.

A negative Orientalist attitude still lives among some scholars as well, i.e. it externalize Islam from the Abrahamic tradition, and politically from the European-Western cultural sphere, while we know that Islam and the so-called West are bound together historically.

Second, also as I introduce in the book, the belief of some schools-tendencies of the study of Islam and Muslims in Europe that Muslims do not think theologically, do not engage with Europe and modernity and their tradition intellectually, or that they cannot be European Muslims, because they can be only either European or Muslims; if they Europeanize they are no longer Muslim. There is a negation of Muslim agency here.

Third, Muslims theological, or at least intellectual,productions on Islam in Europe and European Islam hardly existed, and only started to appear in the 1990s, mostly with international independent names like Tariq Ramadan, or institutional names like Taha Jaber al-Alwani (d. 2016) and Yussuf al-Qaradawi, and few others afterwards. So, the theological, and more precisely political theology, literature of Muslim voices that speak from within the faith, was scarce, and still is so, though few male and female imams in Europe now do publish some essays or texts that express their islamicity in their European context, thus express a European Muslim perspective, irrespective of the level of its conservatism or liberality. Even assuming there were such texts, it would not necessarily mean that there could have been theological critical studies about them, as I did in my book, because the political context and the public sphere might not have been accommodative of such intellectual endeavors. A number of factors makes certain studies more needed than ever. And the readiness or not of the mindset that either produces or receives them has to be taken into account here.

Moreover, not all scholars of Islamic studies could frame an adequate approach to European Islam; a lot of them are either immersed in classical Islamic theology, and do not consider modern Islamic theological advances true to the tradition, since they are “polluted” by modernity, or simply they cannot bridge the gap intellectually between the past and the present; they fail to make classical concepts talk to the present. This is so also because they are not familiar with two branches of scholarship: contemporary Islamic thought in general, and Euro-American modern, and importantly contemporary, political thought.This failure makes them unable to understand what European Islam is about theologically, and unable to use the more fitting concepts to make links and build a framework of analysis. My book has navigated between these disciplines, and I hope it did well, or at least I hope it has opened a path for more thought and study.

Most European Muslims today are descendants of 20th century migrants who have settled in Europe in search of better living conditions. In addition to that, there are indigenous Muslims inhabiting the Balkans. To what extent can their intellectual debates and scholarly contributions be an asset in studying the idea of European Islam?

There is no doubt about that. Balkan Islam may be the closest to European Islam for comparisons. Balkan Islam is a version of an enlarged European Islam; it can remind scholars and non-scholars that Islam has always been in Europe, and that historically one can distinguish between medieval European Islam, and early/pre modern European Islam, and contemporary European Islam; the latter focalizes Western Europe that has special relations with religion in general, and Islam in particular, and also has a different political system, secular-liberal.

Looking at Europe from a wider perspective, there is a plethora of Islamic religious authorities. Who actually speaks for Muslims in the secular-liberal societies of Western Europe and is there such a thing as “European Islamic thought”?

European Islamic thought is a thinking process over Islam and Europe for the present and future; it is evolving; sometimes it does not call itself “Islamic” because it has chosen to be “universal” or “cosmopolitan”; it opts for “overcoming religion,” and that is an important phase in contemporary “Islamic” thought, or thought produced in the “islamicate” East and West.

As to the first part of the question, i.e. who actually speaks for Muslims in secular-liberal societies of Western Europe, it is a daunting question. There is no single authority that speaks for them, nor is there a single authority that can claim the legitimacy of doing so. Muslims are diverse, and so are their religious authorities. While there appears a need, a vital need, to have one religious authority, that holds risks at the same time! It is always better to have multiple voices than one, isn’t it? The same applies to religious bodies that wish to speak for millions of Muslims who speak different languages, belong to different legal traditions of sharia, and different legal traditions of the nation states they live in. National state authorities, sending countries, national and international Islamic movements, individual scholars and intellectuals, etc., they all wish to influence the Muslim communities, let alone the “Internet” and its multiple portals and voices. What I see in the foreseeable future, gradually, is an adaptation and integration into the national mosaic the Muslim community finds itself in, e.g. in France, Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, etc. Despite all the current political problems, the far future will speak of this current phase of the “Muslim question” as a historical episode that is gone. This is not optimism, but realism. And realism holds a lot of surprises and moments of tension, which are already there, and may intensify, radically intensify – but hopefully not! Religious salafism and populist and right wing salafisms are not a good mix at all! Europe needs to listen to its sage citizens, scholars and religious leaders of all faiths and moral beliefs, for a better and safe Europe.