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Islam: The Challenges Of European Integration And Muslim Identity

Dr. Abduljalil Sajid (Courtesy Photo) A conference of Muslim prayer leaders, or imams, from all over Europe is due to open in Vienna on April 7. On the agenda at the three-day meeting is how to integrate Muslim communities into the European mainstream while maintaining European Muslims' identity. RFE/RL interviewed one participant, Dr. Abduljalil Sajid, the chairman of Britain's Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, on Islam's place in Europe and the identity of European Muslims.

RFE/RL: Dr. Sajid, what issues do you intend to bring up at the Vienna conference, and what is the message you are taking there?

Dr. Abduljalil Sajid: We should bring a common European imams' voice, because we are Europeans, so we need to create our [own] European Islamic jurisprudence specific to the areas where Islam is not an authority. How Muslims should behave and live in non-Muslim societies, what our rules and duties are, and what the duties of preachers and teachers are.

The message is very clear: we need to create a common platform on common, shared human values.

All these issues will be discussed. I hope we'll create a permanent committee and this permanent committee will guide European Muslims in all daily issues, and also, dealing with authorities like the European Commission, European Council [comprising the heads of EU states], ministers, governments, because we are here to stay. Muslims are not going anywhere, so they need to play a positive role as citizens, and we have to educate our people so that the evil of extremism and racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism completely go away. The message is very clear: we need to create a common platform on common, shared human values.

The Cartoons Controversy

RFE/RL: What lessons do you think we have learned from the controversy over the satirical cartoons of Prophet Muhammad?

Sajid: There is no freedom without responsibility. We need to restrict ourselves, otherwise we all will be naked in this open and free world. The cartoons issue has showed us that we are not in a position to attack the sensitivities of others. Even if we may not like them, still we have to restrict ourselves. Language and word have power, especially jokes can hurt people. [That] is to be understood from both sides.

Violence is not a part of Islam, it is contrary to Islam; I always say it is a betrayal of Islam.

Muslims will have to understand that in the Western world people are free to say whatever they like; it is in their custom to make jokes and fun about authority, even [about] queens, and kings and others. And they have to realize they [non-Muslims] are free to do so, but with some restraint and responsibility. And the Western world has to understand that, religiously, Muslims cannot tolerate that their deities, their respect for God, Prophet, and the [Holy] Book can be what we call 'insulted.' Freedom to insult and freedom to abuse is not there. Freedom to respect is there, freedom to create harmonization is there. They are free to criticize Islam and Muslims without any problem, but with respect. But what Muslims did [in terms of] overreaction, in terms of burning flags and burning embassies, that has to be condemned, too. That is not the Muslim way, that is not the Islamic way. Violence is not a part of Islam, it is contrary to Islam; I always say it is a betrayal of Islam. So that will be the message coming out from this conference.

The Apostasy Controversy

RFE/RL: Another case has stirred controversy over Islamic faith -- the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who faced execution for converting from Islam to Christianity. What is your opinion, as an imam, about this case?

There are no words in the Koran which say that if anybody changes their faith from Islam to any other faith they should be killed.

Sajid: It is normally accepted [within the Muslim religion] when people become Muslims from any other faiths, there is no big issue about it. Then why do people mind when Muslims become Christians or something? That issue has some historical aspects, because in the past it was understood that conversion from Islam is not going to be allowed. I take it historically. I take it that there is nothing in the Koran stopping them. There should not be any force used against any person. Wherever they were born, it was their culture, their birth, but according to their own choice they should become whatever they want to become. This conference definitely will not look into these tough issues at this moment, because we are not a jurisprudence, we are not coming here to Vienna to look into Islamic law and its classical and present-day implementation; but I can assure you that there are no words in the Koran which say that if anybody changes their faith from Islam to any other faith they should be killed.

RFE/RL: Do Muslims have an image problem in Europe?

Sajid: We do have an image problem. Why? Because Muslims do not control the press or media in this country [Britain]. Media [staff] mostly [come] from secular and nonreligious backgrounds and they have their own agenda. Because they knew a few centuries ago there was a problem with Christians who used to jail people, or ax people, and there was a state-Church controversy whether the state should be under the Church or the Church should be separated from the state. With all these controversies as background they think, when our issue of Islam comes up, they think 'oh my God, theocracy is coming back, religious leaders now in the name of Islam are bringing back what we have gone through several centuries ago and we have defeated it.'

Identity And Building Bridges

RFE/RL: Could one say that Islam itself is divided between people who want to emphasize the conflicts between East and West and people who favor a moderate interpretation of Islam and want to build bridges to other faiths?

Sajid: Well, Muslims are multifarious and multifaceted people throughout the world, and Europe is not separated from the world. Muslims are divided, as all human beings are. First of all, God has created us free, and we believe we do not have any central authority who could tell us what Islam is and what Islam is not. It is up to individual interpretation. And that's why Muslims have different views, because they have independent opinions on various issues. And Europe is also divided. We didn't come here as a monolithic, collective group in Europe. We all are coming from different backgrounds and we all have to cement our differences and work out together what are our issues, common challenges, common problems, and how we can bring a common approach to deal with those challenges. That will be our strength. I think we can form a permanent body of European imams' councils. That would be a great strength. There we can debate our issues and bring common resolution to those issues to the whole world, and especially to the European people that we are going to be your partner in faith, in belief, and in citizenship. And you have nothing to fear from the Muslims of Europe.

RFE/RL: Do you feel imams and preachers are adequately building bridges between Muslims and Christians? Or is this something that still must be done in places of worship around Europe?

Sajid: Well, I'll give you my own example. I started to work on building bridges between [Muslims and] various faiths, Jews, Christians 40 years ago. We all need to live in peace. Peace and coexistence will not come by talks. It will come by practice; it will come by how we respect each other, how we recognize our differences and accept those differences and value and appreciate our humanity together. When we come to respect our humanity, I think that common sense will prevail, and respect will come. Abiding the law of the land and the rule of law is paramount.

RFE/RL: Do you consider yourself a Muslim in Europe or a European Muslim?

Sajid: I'm both. I consider myself a European Muslim. My identity is in my geography, my area, but I myself also consider that my first and foremost duty is to the identity of my faith, believing in God. So I am a Muslim in Europe as well as a European Muslim. I do not see a contradiction in either of these two terms, and we should not be asked and forced to choose one against another. We can be both.

Religion And Tolerance

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