Facing the Realities of Islam in the West

A US-NGO Conference on Muslim Integration Ended with a Renewed Call for “Soft Power”

News | Susan Doering | November 2007

An impressive line-up of speakers had gathered in the prestigious setting of the elegant, marble-floored "Camineum" at the National Library to discuss contemporary Islam.

The conference – "Diverse Modern Views from European, Asian and North American Muslims," hosted by the United States Embassy together with the United States Mission to the European Union and Women Without Borders – was the part of a series of cooperative events designed to open discussion about bridge-building between Muslims and the rest of the world and the special role that women can play in this process.

And as delegates from all over Europe mingled before taking their places, it was clear that the gathering had raised expectations – perhaps unrealistic – that taboos could be challenged and a broader basis for dialogue laid down for the future.

"A conference like this can not take any decisions, let alone enforce their implementation," admitted German law Prof. Zümrüt Gülbay, an afternoon panellist. "But such meetings do have a role to play as a catalyst for contacts and new ideas."

And indeed, the buzz of delegates busily networking in the lunch break proved her point, as Huma Jamshed, President of a Muslim women’s organisation in Barcelona pointed out.

"This is what makes it worthwhile: coming together and relating the speakers’ statements to our everyday experiences," Jamshed said, "Making new contacts, recognizing what we share with women from all over Europe and reaching out to non-Muslims helps us to go back to our countries with renewed hope for our work of integration."

This was the tone set by co-organizer and founder of Women Without Borders, Edit Schlaffer, in her opening address, as she underscored the "fear of faith syndrome" prevalent in the Western outlook and called upon women to "explore and not fear diversity".

The morning panel focused on the issue of integration first from the point of view of the US State Department. Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Adviser for Women’s Empowerment, reported on her first-hand perceptions that the work of the US-Middle East partnership, MEPE, bringing political governance, economic and educational development and the empowerment of women to the region in a peaceful scenario, was making progress, but that cooperation and support given by the US in this area remain, she felt, too little highlighted in the media.

Haifa al Kaylani, Chair of the London-based Arab International Women’s Forum, warned that Europe was already losing valuable, qualified young people as a result of the failure to integrate and provide employment for immigrants. She quoted a female Sorbonne graduate: "If France does not need me, then I do not need it."

Dato’ Seri Abdul Jalil, Malaysian Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, wearing a beautiful national dress, painted an almost paradisiacal picture of Malaysia as a harmonious, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, where "all share together the fruits of their labors in happiness and, most importantly, love" – a statement perhaps too uncritical to lead to fruitful discussion.

The elegiac tone was interrupted, however, by the last speaker of the morning, British author Ed Husain, whose account of his personal journey to radical Islamism and back demonstrated the way in which isolation, lack of cultural roots and identity pose a real threat to young, second generation Muslims growing up in the West.

Alienated from both the culture of England where they were born and the culture of the land of their fathers, to which they have no access, these young men easily fall prey to radical Islamism, which offers them friendship, solidarity, and a cause.

"We’ve created mono-cultural ghettoes," he explained, "which should be broken up in every way possible. The them-and-us mentality works both ways, and Muslims need to embrace the mainstream Europe where they want to spend their future. This means religion, culture and language must not be allowed to lead to isolationism."

Husain condemned the preachings of radical Islamicists, which have "nothing in common with the true teaching of Islam," he said.

His opinion was echoed by German law professor Zümrüt Gülbay, who was also outspoken about the need for steps to be taken by both cultures to bridge the gap. The second generation daughter of Turkish immigrants and currently Professor of International Law at the University of Anhalt in Bernburg – the youngest ever to be appointed in Germany – Gülbay might be considered a shining success story.

Gülbay refused, however, to be labelled a role model.

"I am just who I am," she said. "I regard it as a privilege to live in Europe, and I have worked very hard to get where I am today. I am ready to fight anyone who sets out to destroy the values and democratic foundations upon which Europe stands."

Although there is no once-and-for-all remedy for the problems facing us, she believed strongly that democracy was the key.

"Democracy is rule by the will of the majority, which, however, includes respect for the wishes of the minority," she said. "But this does not mean that all the wishes of the minority have to be fulfilled. Compromise is essential. For example, the Muslim faith requires that one should pray five times a day. But in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, Muslims are in the minority, and so Muslims should accept that it will not be possible for them to take time during work to pray. There has to be a will to compromise on both sides."

As a young university professor, she was proud of her achievements and of her university.

"We have many young professors in 11 faculties altogether. We are very international - in my subject we have 1500 students, and 200 come from China. Education is opportunity, is challenge, is a chance to change things.

"But you have to be disciplined," Gülbay emphasized. "Work and effort have got to become cool, just like jeans."

At the conference Prof. Gülbay earned spontaneous and heartfelt applause when she stressed that relations must be founded on mutual respect rather than tolerance, and that the pride a culture takes in its roots and its own identity should be matched by respect for other cultures. Change can only take place, she insisted, on the basis of the constitution, democratic structures and peaceful political activity.

Speakers and delegates alike seemed to put their hopes for a better mode of "living together" between Muslims and non-Muslims in diplomacy and the power of the majority to overcome radical tendencies, and the role of women to exert authority in "the realm of soft power" (Edit Schlaffer) and to change society was advocated several times.

Other articles from this issue