The documentary Journey into Europe, the basis for a recent book, presents an “Islam which is very benign,” skeptically noted one audience questioner during a January 28, 2016, German embassy preview screening in Washington, DC. A previous review of the film’s sanitized treatment of Europe’s Islamic history thoroughly justified his disbelief, and the film’s latter half focused on modern West European Muslims does nothing to improve the film’s balance.
After successively analyzing Islam’s influence upon Spain, Sicily, and the Balkans, the film’s research project director, American University anthropology professor Akbar Ahmed, turns to modern Western Europe. Here he always presents Muslims as suffering from political and socioeconomic marginalization that leads to “radicalization,” even though studies of jihadists consistently reveal that they do not have deprived backgrounds. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s European director, Samia Hathroubi, states that French-born Muslims turned to terrorism because France was a “mother that didn’t fully love them.”
Meanwhile, Church of England Bradford Bishop Tom Butler states that “Islam is a very civilized and noble faith,” but suggests that British involvement in Afghan and Iraqi military operations has angered Muslims. His fellow Anglican, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, shows more concern over “strange words like ‘Islamist’” that reflect “Islamophobia” than he has in the past while considering sharia arbitration in the United Kingdom. Scottish cabinet member Humza Yousef also decries the “deeply Islamophobic” United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as representative of a “xenophobic tidal wave that’s sweeping across Europe.”
Yet the film never bothers to probe more controversial aspects of its profiled European Muslims, such as Yusuf’s past as a spokesman for the extremist Islamic Relief organization and as a proponent for embargoing Israeli arms purchases. He shares his animosity for Israel with Trinity College (Dublin) professor Ronit Lentin, a supporter of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Likewise, Imam Muhammad Umar al-Qadri of Ireland’s Al Mustafa Islamic Centre has voiced his invective against Israel and support for Hamas, while Salman Farsi manages communications for the extremist East London Mosque.
The film offers no criticism of Muslim politicians such as Bradford, England, Lord Mayor Khadim Hussain. His anti-Semitic social media posts that surfaced right after film production, one of many antisemitism scandals involving Muslim British Labour Party members, prompted his suspension from the Labour Party. Member of Parliament Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh has raised concerns with her use of sharia for matters such as divorce in her private law practice. German parliamentarian Cemile Giousouf has created an uproar by meeting with members of the Turkish Islamist Milli Görüs movement.
Ahmed’s film similarly has no scrutiny of Muslim clerics such as the Macedonian-born imam Benjamin Idriz, who heads a mosque south of Munich. He discusses an ecumenical “peaceful living together in Europe,” but this oft-vaunted Muslim role model for Germany has a controversial past. The film also features former Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric without mentioning his past calls to introduce sharia law into Bosnia’s constitution.
Ahmed’s presentation of Cologne’s futuristic-looking central mosque, built in 2015, gives no hint of the disturbing character of the mosque directors in Germany’s Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB in its Turkish acronym). DITIB members who appear in the film represent an organization closely tied to Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). German authorities have suspected that the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used DITIB mosques to spy upon Erdogan opponents, with the Cologne mosque even hosting a thug squad to attack them.
Contrary to Ahmed’s emphasis in Cologne on European Muslim desires for socioeconomic integration, the outlook of German Muslims remains overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist. DITIB imams appointed and paid by the Diyanet who often do not speak German are no aid to integration. Not surprisingly, German Jewish organizations have cut ties with DITIB over its anti-Semitic statements, and DITIB imams reportedly have prayed for a Turkish victory in its recent offensive into Syria. Young children have also recently marched in military uniforms in a DITIB mosque in honor of a Turkish military memorial day.
Ahmed’s visit to a Munich’s Dar ul Quran Mosque is equally disappointing. Here an imam speaks about dissuading youth from joining the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, but another Dar ul Quran imam previously won praise for similar sentiments before his 2017 arrest in Spain for supporting IS. The imam also ran into German legal troubles after beating and injuring one of his three wives in 2012 just as German authorities began to suspect his true radicalism.
Ahmed’s Denmark mosque visits are no less free from disturbing shadows, such as one at a mosque of the United Kingdom-based Minhaj ul-Quran movement, founded by his fellow Pakistani native, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri. This not-so-moderate author of an often acclaimed yet critically flawed fatwa against terrorism has in the past boasted of his role in creating Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law, with its death penalty. When this history caused controversy during a 2012 Denmark visit, he equivocated about the matter on Danish television.
Islamic infringements of free speech also frame Ahmed’s visit to Copenhagen’s Grand Mosque, an institution built with funds from Qatar and directed by a Danish Muslim organization with close ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. He prefaces the visit by stating that Danish Muslims still have lingering “pain of seeing the offensive cartoons of the Holy Prophet of Islam published in Denmark” in 2005. Inside, an imam ominously asks through an interpreter, “Where does your freedom stop….Where are the things you cannot touch?”
Ahmed leaves undiscussed the similarly troubling past free speech views of the Danish-Pakistani Bashy Quirashy, as well as numerous disturbing views of Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Danish convert to Islam. While he displays to Ahmed his artistic calligraphy of Islamic sayings in the form of Viking longboats, Pedersen has previously noted that he cannot condemn the sharia punishment of stoning for adultery, no matter how horrifying. “If I would condemn stoning, I’d apostatize myself from Islam,” he has pleaded. He has also expressed support for polygamy and founded in 1988 the Independent Scandinavian Relief Agency, an entity that Danish authorities later closed in 2004 for its links to terrorism.
Ahmed’s profile of Kristiane Backer likewise avoids any unsettling inquiries into this Muslim convert and former MTV host. She addressed the radical annual conference of the Muslim American Society (MAS) and Islamic Circle of North America in (ICNA) in 2014, two extremist Islamist organizations. There she recounted how “from a life of hedonism and materialism, I was guided to find contentment and inner peace by surrendering to God in Islam.”
Given her Islamic submission, Backer in particular now understands why Muslim friends of Pakistani cricket star and politician Imran Khan once insisted that she wear a long coat over her miniskirt at a restaurant dinner. “Why should a woman showing her skin get places in life?,” she asked at the MAS-ICNA conference. Others might wonder how such Islamic sartorial obligations for women (or Pedersen’s polygamy or the Dar ul Quran imam’s Quranically-sanctioned wife-beating) validate the statement of the veiled London Muslim social activist Humera Khan, who claims in the film that “gender inequality doesn’t exist from a scriptural point of view” in Islam.
Contrary to Ahmed’s fawning portrayals of Muslims, his presentation of any opposition to Islam or Muslims is less flattering, notwithstanding his oft-professed commitment to objectivity. British journalist Jon Snow in the film dismisses any valid concerns about Islam and reduces Europe’s rising rightwing populist parties to a class warfare phenomenon. For them, supposedly “it’s about inequality, it’s about resentment, and it’s about alienation. It’s not about race and it’s not about immigration and it’s not about Islam.”
Ahmed’s film thus gives little indication why Hathroubi would state that in France the “narrative of the far-right wing, of Marine Le Pen, has been very successful,” such that French socialists and conservatives “are using the same narrative.” Concerning rightwing voices, Ahmed falls considerably short of his statement at a March 26 Georgetown University Berkley Center book presentation that he fulfilled his research “hit list” of “top people in the business.” Europe’s insurgent new right leaders for whom Islam is often a key issue, such as Le Pen and Holland’s Geert Wilders have film appearances limited to still photos and cable television clips.
By contrast, Ahmed devotes an extended interview and film focus to the fringe Britain First movement in the United Kingdom and its founder, Jim Dowson, who has since left the group because of its bullying tactics. Ahmed leaves unexplored Dowson’s accounts of how Muslims in certain British neighborhoods have threatened couples holding hands, a manifestation of growing concern over Europe’s so-called “no go areas.” This emphasis on Britain First helps buttress Ahmed’s claim at the 2016 German embassy event that the film includes “very racist” viewpoints.
Ahmed’s film reaches its best balance in Denmark, where he interviews public persons such as Danish People’s Party Deputy Chairman Soren Esperson. “Islam can be very difficult to integrate in what we call a modern Western civilization,” he states, while noting how Islamic doctrine can often be lethal to dissent. Evidence for this position appears in a film interview with Flemming Rose, editor of the Jyllens Posten that published the 2005 Muhammad cartoons.
Rose discusses how forswearing free speech in the name of not giving offense can enforce a “tyranny of silence.” The interviewer Ahmed himself concedes that in his native Pakistan, Rose would endanger his life. At the Berkley Center, Ahmed noted that because of his Rose interview, “many Muslims would say I myself become guilty of association and it’s a dangerous business.”
At the German embassy in 2016, Ahmed also recalled that he was the first Muslim to meet with the British-Indian author Salman Rushdie in hiding under British police protection in 1989. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had called for Rushdie’s death as a blasphemer of Islam after his publication of the Satanic Verses, an appeal whose effects Ahmed personally experienced. After his Rushdie meeting, Ahmed received telephone calls at what was his Cambridge, England, home from Muslims asking why he had not made use of his meeting to kill Rushdie.
Such lethal Islamic threats to free speech contrast drastically with the Islamic dawa represented by Yasin Puertas, described as a “political activist” in the film. Yet Puertas manages Spain’s Cordoba International TV, as the Cuban-born American diplomat and Middle East specialist, Ambassador Alberto M. Fernandez, has noted. This broadcaster is a “Saudi Wahhabi”-funded, “barely disguised effort at proselytization aimed at both Spain and Latin America.”
Yet this imbalance between open Islamic advocacy and intimated non-Muslims does little to upset Ahmed’s film thesis of interfaith harmony between Western and Islamic civilizations with equally limited flaws. The film offers a quotation from the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī: “I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue, and the Christian church, and I see one altar.” Meanwhile Backer concedes that “Islam here in Europe is a little bit fossilized,” and an Englishwoman in Cambridge, Susan Fell, offers the personal view that, among other faults like xenophobia, the English “drink too much.”
Ahmed concludes his film advocating a pluralistic “universal humanism,” with which “Europe can once again become a beacon of civilization for the world.” This apparently entails open borders for Europe, irrespective of recent refugee crises, for, as Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando states while considering Sicily’s multicultural history, “for Sicilians no man is illegal.” Bosnian politician Haris Silajdzic similarly claims a “right” for Muslims and other inhabitants of Europe’s former colonies to immigrate to Europe as a kind of reparation owed from former imperialists.
Nonetheless, several viewers at the 2016 German embassy preview remained unconvinced; one questioner observed that the film offered no Muslim “self-criticism” such as that undertaken by Germans after Nazism, only “a lot of self-pity.” Ahmed unpersuasively responded that Syrians and others fleeing Muslim-majority societies presented the “ultimate self-criticism” by “rejecting their own society.” Little suggests that these refugees have reflected upon how Islamic political doctrines have abetted their misfortune.
Ahmed’s February 1, 2016, Institute of Global Engagement (IGE) conference call remarks indicate that his heartfelt feelings predominate over his considerable intellect formed partly by his beloved Catholic schooling in Pakistan. This member of Pakistan’s Westernized elite noted his refusal to let any “pessimistic prognosis as a consequence of my research ever affect my innate optimism and faith in human nature.” For other critical observers, a more objective distance from Ahmed’s passion to harmonize Islam and the West commands greater caution.