‘Gender issues: Europe’s main challenge to internalizing Islam’

‘Gender issues: Europe’s main challenge to internalizing Islam’

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
‘Gender issues: Europe’s main challenge to internalizing Islam’

The marginalization of Europe as a democratic reference will be a loss for [Turkey] and Islamic countries that are trying to become democratic, says Professor Yılmaz, speaking at the Boğaziçi University campus. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Europe is confused on how to cope with Islam, according to Professor Hakan Yılmaz, an editor of the recently published book “Perceptions of Islam in Europe: culture, identity and the Muslim other,” which compiles several articles by prominent experts. The aim of the book is to reveal the real points of contention about Islam in Europe and gender issues constitutes one of the most important contention points, Yılmaz told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

What is the common message of the articles complied in the book?

Our main motivation with this book was to scrutinize the perception of Islam that has been shaped following [the] Sept. 11, 2011, [attacks in America]. After the end of the Cold War, Islam and Muslims started to become the new ‘other’ in Europe and this trend became ossified after Sept. 11, 2011. We wanted to question the perception of Islam as ‘the other’ and find out what Islam in Europe is really about while also showing where the real contention points are.

One other motivation we had was the several books that had been published after Sept. 11; books on Islamophobia or the so-called Eurabia books. The real points of contention about Islam in Europe are not the ones pointed out by those Eurabia books. In order to find the answer to the question of ‘How can we live together?’ you have to pinpoint the right points of contention and in the book we have several articles on different cases. One article, for example, talks about Muslims in Poland. Another one talks about how Holland is trying to “Hollandize” Islam.

Is this trend of Europeanizing Islam a general trend throughout the continent?

Europe has understood it cannot get rid of Islam. Islam is within Europe and it is in its neighborhood. The current problem is about the modalities of integrating Islam. Through which modality should Islam become part of Europe? In some cases, there is a will for total assimilation, in certain cases there is an effort to nationalize and localize Islam.

Is Europe trying to cope with it by attempting to Europeanize Islam?

One way is to create a national local Islam. But this is not the only way. In the period between the Cold War’s end and Sept. 11 there was an acceptance of Islam in Europe. It was the golden age of globalization and liberalism and there was more room for Islam. But this perspective changed with Sept. 11 and there came a perspective that saw Islam as a danger, a threat to the European way of life. Of course the perspective present and valid before Sept. 11 did not disappear. That’s why you can find both inclusive and exclusive approaches in Europe and that’s why I believe Europe is confused about Islam. Europe is on a pendulum. You have on the one hand the inclusive approach of the liberal, global trend of the pre-Sept. 11 era. On the other hand is the exclusivist trend of the post-Sept. 11 era that says we need to draw the borders of Europe, and Islam should stay beyond those borders while the Muslims that stay inside these borders should adapt totally to us; an assimilation approach.
But in the meantime you said earlier they have accepted that Islam is part of Europe.

Europe understood that they could not exclude the millions of Muslims living in the continent, but the pendulum moves back and forth on what to do with them. Gerard Delanty, one of the authors of the book, argues that the European capacity for dialogue is not inherently ‘European.’ Europe did not always have an ‘inclusive’ culture. Each time Europe faced a challenge in integrating a new culture and religion within its boundaries, it has increased its degree of freedoms to incorporate these challenges and this is how Europe became ‘Europeanized.’ Delanty calls it a process of cosmopolitanization, which, for instance, involves the process of making Protestantism, secularism and Judaism a part of Europe.

The argument is that each time Europe opted for the inclusive approach, which is what made Europe what it is today. Is that right?

Correct. If Europe would today say: ‘I am tired and exhausted. I will no longer go further in cosmopolitanization,’ then we would be talking about the end of Europe as a concept. The continuation of liberalizing European culture will only be possible to the extent that it will internalize Muslims. This is the challenge today, and it is not limited only to those Muslims living in Europe. This challenge includes Turkey’s membership to the European Union as well as the issue of how to deal with the countries in the Mediterranean.

What are the problems that stem from Islam that make the challenge harder?

The biggest contention point is the issue of striking a balance between the sacred and the profane. In European culture it seems that what is profane is more prominent. In the case of Islam, however what is sacred for the average Muslim has a greater place compared to the understanding of an average European.

Europeans have probably become more secularized.

Looking from the perspective of Muslims, the real challenge with Europe is not about Europe’s welfare state or its level of freedoms. Gender issues are, for instance, an area where the issue of what is sacred and what is not is most reflected.

In a 2009 survey we found that culture predominantly affects Europeans’ perception of Turks. In order to understand what Europe perceives as [Turkish] culture we provided 24 cultural characteristics, such as individualist, rational, strong family values, sexually liberated, respectful of others’ rights and asked which of them were considered European, Turkish or both. The European respondents overwhelmingly, with 70 percent, saw sexually liberated as a European characteristic while only 2 percent thought that was a Turkish characteristic. Ninety percent of the Turkish respondents thought sexually liberated was a European characteristic and said this was not a trait of Turkish culture.

If this is one of the contention points, what is the solution then?

There is a trend in some part of Europe that argues for multiple legal systems, where some problems among Muslims can be solved according to their own law. One of the contributors to the book, Deniz Kandiyoti, says that should not be the solution. She argues that the universal approach to women’s rights and citizenship rights should be maintained, and it should not be left to the domain of religion or sects. There should be an accommodation effort of only what is left after maintaining the universal gains.

What do you think about Europe’s stance on political Islam especially in the context of the Arab Spring?
Europe is the one place best equipped to help the political transformations in its environment. It has soft power. Yet the cultural phobias about Islam in some European governments have weakened Europe’s strategic talents. Europe could not show enough of a reflex in the face of the Arab Spring. This cultural deafness can be a strategic cost to Europe, but the marginalization of Europe as a democratic reference will equally be a loss for [Turkey] and Islamic countries that are trying to become democratic as the alternative does not provide an easier road.