Transnational Islam in Interwar Europe: Muslim Activists and Thinkers

TRANSNATIONAL ISLAM IN INTERWAR EUROPE
  • Book Title:
 Transnational Islam In Interwar Europe
  • Book Author:
Götz NordbruchUmar Ryad
  • Total Pages
252
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TRANSNATIONAL ISLAM IN INTERWAR EUROPE – Book Sample

Introduction – Toward a  Transnational History of Islam and Muslims  in Interwar Europe

The study of Muslim encounters with and experiences in interwar Europe is still in its initial phase. Many aspects about the history of Muslim interaction with Europe before the influx of Muslim immigrant workers are still entirely unknown.

With the exception of the edited volume Islam in Interwar Europe and a number of references in the secondary literature,1 no conclusive research has been conducted as yet about the meaning of the intellectual and political out/input of Muslims to the history of Europe itself. The present volume contains eight case studies that were presented and discussed during the inter- national conference “Transnational Islam in Interwar Europe.”

The conference was organized by the two editors at Leiden University in a collaboration between Leiden University Center for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS) and the Centre for Contemporary Middle East Studies of the University of Southern Denmark (12–14 December, 2011).2

A group of scholars and historians from different disciplines was invited to investigate the evolution of Muslim networks and activities in interwar Europe.

The various contributions focused on the trans- national dimension of such activities in Europe in the interwar period by analyzing the significant sociopolitical ideals and religious affiliations of the actors within these networks. World War I was chosen as a point of departure, as it was the catalyst in encouraging the migration of Muslims to Europe as a result of the demands of the war.

We took 1946 as the end of our period of interest, since most political and cultural activities of individual Muslims and Muslim organizations declined by the end of World War II, and reemerged only with the coming of guest workers in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Particular focus was placed on research on personal archives and contemporary writings that so far have widely been ignored in the study of European history.

The conference intended to place Muslim activities in interwar Europe within world history by combining the historical data and the patterns of social, political, religious, as well as cultural mobility of Muslims as new social actors in Europe of that era.

Indeed, both world wars were huge transnational cataclysms in human modern history. Despite the extensive literature on the history of interwar Europe, however, much more remains to be said. After the end of World War I, the Paris Conference of 1919 represented the beginning of a new connectivity in modern international relations that should cherish the principle of national sovereignty.

 This year witnessed a shift in our understanding of the concept of “internation- alism” by imposing new analytical frameworks of what is now known as “transnational history.”3 As for the Muslim presence in Europe during the interwar period and World War II, it is observed that their stories have been mostly dealt with as part of Middle-Eastern and Asian history, colonial studies or—briefly—as related to European migration history.4

 Previous research focused either on the accounts of Arab/Muslim travelers and residents in Europe in the nineteenth century or on the later Muslim labor migration in the post–World War II period.

Such approaches doubtlessly have their justification, as Muslim actors in interwar Europe often considered themselves as part of the political and cultural movements in the geographical Muslim world. Yet these studies tend to overlook the impact of Muslims as transnational actors in Europe itself.

Muslims were no key players in Europe of that time; however, the contribution of individual Muslims and Muslim movements to European interwar history represents a remarkable laboratory for our understanding of the religious needs and sociopolitical demands of a minority group in Europe in the colonial era.

 The present book therefore stresses the importance of this history for the colonized as well as for the colonizers. Precisely because the politics of the interwar years had momentous impact on European and world history, the volume tries to unearth original insights into the history of Muslim interactions and encounters with and in European societies.

 It also highlights how such interactions coincided with emerging geopolitical and intellectual East-West networks that transcended national, cul- tural, and linguistic borders.

Owing to its multifaceted nature, the subject of Muslims in inter- war Europe is well-suited for a collection of chapters.

In the present volume, Muslims in interwar Europe are perceived as subjects formed by their participation in different religious and political ideologies in their historical setting. The articles aim at formulating new approaches to Muslim-European history.

 Muslim presence in interwar Europe was tied to emerging discourses of transnational and at times global reach and impact. As it will become clear, in their pursuit of global religious and political transformation in the interwar period, Muslims made various attempts to reinforce the manifestation of their self- consciousness in the land of the European colonial powers.

The main link between Muslims in interwar Europe was their mobilization in various entities, such as religious institutions and political structures of power, that provided meeting points for activities and exchanges across borders. Although they aggregated specific religious entities and political properties and relations, they were in many cases cribbed by the societies of which they were members.

This volume intends to fill in a lacuna by mapping out this history of Muslims by using interwar Europe as a point of departure, and by analyzing how they laid the groundwork for new political and reli- gious ideas on European soil. By focusing on links and encounters, it considers Muslim actors in interwar Europe as part of European and global intellectual and political history.

As we shall see, the interwar period was an intriguing moment in time when Muslims in Europe were confronted with immense chal- lenges within the course of world history. The chapters discuss indi- viduals, communities, institutions, and formal or informal networks. These studies are based on previously unexplored sources, adding a new historical inquiry about the evolution of Islam in the increasingly transnational context of the early twentieth century.

They collectively create new directions for the questioning of established categories that have been applied in descriptions and analytical reconstructions of Muslim communities in interwar Europe. Taking the history of Muslims in interwar Europe into consideration adds an intriguing case study that will enriches the ongoing conceptual debates regard- ing the meaning of transnational and national boundaries, human agency between local conditions and global contexts of history, the histoire croisée, Transfergeschichte, and so on.

Europe as “the Other”?

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Europe was a crucial point of reference in contemporary debates among Muslim scholars and activists. Arab and Muslim engagement with Europe was often characterized by ambiguity that implied both fascination and rejection.5 For Muslims actors in the interwar period, Europe was a colonial space and a “cradle” for modern civilization and culture at the same time.

 Their experiences illustrate the complexity of interwar societies in the context of global transformation. While colonialism and an increasing secularization of society were perceived as representing the repressive and antireligious tendencies of European intellectual tradi- tions, the advance of modern sciences and the institutionalization of political liberties were regarded as achievements providing potential signposts for reform in Muslim societies.

Europe, however, was no entity with clearly marked delimitations. Rather, it often stood as a shifting metaphor that was interpreted as a mirror image for elaborating one’s own identity and defining one’s own ambitions.

Internationally, Muslims regularly drew an image of a “declining West” while searching for alternative civilizational discourses that would take up Islamic history and traditions.

 However, Pan-Islamic appeals were challenged by the decline and unmaking of empires and the appearance of two alternate political claims that promised to reshape the imperial world order—namely, the Bolshevik Revolution and the principles of President Wilson that inspired anti-imperialist, socialist, or nationalist European movements.6 These principles also resounded among Muslims in interwar Europe.

It is obvious that the interwar era was a significant watershed for the development of various intellectual, cultural, and political net- works that developed across national borders and in the context of the new international relations.

It was the very moment when intriguing questions were posed concerning individual and collective identities and their relevance within the emerging local and transnational intellectual discourses and political networks.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim sociopolitical and intellectual transnational networks discovered Europe as a suitable ground where they could set up and seek to defend their respective interests and promote their thoughts and ideologies.

Their activities in Europe were also linked to a wider Arab nationalist movement that had gained ground in the interwar period, and included Christian and Muslim nationalists belonging to upper-status or elite families.7

The study of Muslim activities in Europe in this era provides intriguing examples of the interplay between their under- standing of nationalism, populism, and religion in interwar Europe, and how their experiences shaped their conceptualization of ideology and Islamic traditions.

 In order to realize their goals, Muslim activists attempted to exploit their scholarly, professional, social, and political positions in lobbying, campaigning, and making alliances with Western politicians, diplomats, Orientalists, publishers, but also with the wider public.

As Muslim activists in interwar Europe engaged culture and politics, European cities increasingly turned into a new locus for Pan-Islamist aspirations. These ideas were thus not fully detached from their propo- nents’ vision of Europe. Muslims as an international minority of that age pursued this idea in Europe itself again due to their new experi- ences and imaginations in the West.

Pan-Islamism was seen by many Muslim political actors, intellectuals, and propagandists in Europe as the only practical way to continue their activities.8 Maybe the most significant figure among them was the Lebanese Druze prince Shakib Arslan (1869–1946), who made his place of exile Geneva “the umbilical cord of the Islamic world.”9

In collaboration with other Muslim nationalists inside and outside Europe (such as Rashid Rida [1865– 1935], Amin al-Husayni [1897–1974], and many others), Arslan laid the foundation for reformist religiopolitical ideas that gained wide cir- culation among many elite groups in the Muslim world.

These Muslim networks were mobilized by the abolition of the caliphate (1924) and colonial politics in the Muslim world.

They created an informal community of intellectual/activists beyond national boundaries that helped foster an ethos of transnational Pan-Islamism. Yet, Muslims in interwar Europe were no homogeneous group. They belonged to various ethnicities and classes, but many of them understood their shared religious ideas and political aspirations in the European context.

However, by studying their activities and thoughts, the role of other nationalists, Pan-Arabists or secularist liberals belonging to the boundaries of the Muslim world should be taken into consideration. In early twentieth century Muslim thought, the “umma” is often considered as a single entity with established traits of religious belonging and solidarity.

Yet, Muslim intellectuals and activists who interacted with European societies also inevitably experienced a sense of Muslim diversity through their contacts with fellow Muslims of different origins. At the same time, they became aware of many similarities with non-Muslims that went against notions of religious distinctiveness and cultural authenticity.

This volume thus studies the redefinitions of religious community as articulated in the thoughts and activities of Muslim activists in Europe; it aims at investigating the question whether religion was a well-embedded framework of reference to the self-identification of Muslims in Europe.

 Did the activists and thinkers in question perceive Islam in the singular, and as something distinct? Or did they consider their Muslim identity as merely one aspect of their complex experience as individuals living in Europe?

How did Muslims define Islam (for instance, with regard to the diversity of Islamic schools, ethnic origins, etc.) and the Muslim community (for instance, with regard to class dif-ferences, educational background, urban/rural background, migrants/ indigenous Muslims)?

How did such actors relate to non-Muslim com- munities, movements, or intellectual trends? What kind of loyalties did they develop (with regard to cities, nations, religion, etc.)?

Agency between Local Conditions and Global Contexts

Muslims in interwar Europe were no passive strangers to local politics and public debate. Like their non-Muslim European peers of that period, many intellectuals and activists among them had a variety of ways to articulate, such as letters, memoirs, and newspapers.

Besides, they actively engaged with European and international institutions, social actors, and political movements—all while their politics and networking were subject to local influences and restrictions.

The idea of international conventions was the single most striking phenomenon that connected Pan-Islamists in the interwar era. The congresses of Mecca (1924) and (1926), Cairo (1926), and Jerusalem (1931) had their affiliates in Europe.10 Likewise, Muslim religious and political associations were established in interwar Europe as well.

Examples of these were: Society for the Progress of Islam; Islamische Zentralinstitut, Islamische Gemeinde, and Verein für islamische Gottesverehrung (Berlin); Alliance Musulmane Internationale, La Fraternité Musulmane, Association des oulémas musulmans en Algérie (Paris); Orientbund and Islamische Kulturbund (Vienna); and the European Muslim Congress (Geneva).

In a similar way, during the interwar years the local controversies and prevailing social and political concerns impacted on the intel- lectual outlook and political visions formulated by Muslim thinkers.

 The ideas and visions formulated by Muslims in interwar Europe were closely related to prevailing discourses in Muslim societies. Most Muslim political mediators chose Switzerland, Germany, Britain, and France as points of departure for their political mobility. Germany in particular offered many of them an exceptional opportunity for….

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