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Interview: Islam's Image In Europe And Imams As Bridge Builders

This Istanbul poster, by Burak Delier, depicts a woman wearing a chador made from the EU flag (AFP) A conference of Muslim prayer leaders, known as 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. One participant, Dr. Adly Abu Hajar, secretary-general of the European Islamic Conference and president of the Scandinavian Muslim Academic Council, talked about the image of Islam in Europe and how European imams can build bridges between Muslims and people of other faiths.

RFE/RL: Dr. Hajar, what is the main aim of the Vienna conference?

Dr. Adly Abu Hajar: We'll discuss the situation of [European] Muslims and the role of imams in Europe. We think that we have many things to do to create a new vision of Islam and to help society against extremism in Europe. I think there are many bad visions about Islam, because of many people -- and also sometimes, imams who came from their homeland, they can't know the situation in Europe. And I think we need to discuss and find the solution to these problems.

Cartoon Controversy

RFE/RL: The controversy over the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is still fresh in everyone's memory. What lessons have we learned from it?

Hajar: I think free thinking is no problem in Islam, but the problem is that we need respect -- we need all people to respect each other. We can discuss, they can take an idea or refuse it, but in a respectful manner. And, the second point: I know there are many people in Europe who don't know many things about Islam and Prophet Muhammad, and to whom we now try to explain the situation in Islam, what Prophet Muhammad means, and not Prophet Muhammad only, but what all prophets mean in Islamic thinking.

Afghan Apostasy Case

RFE/RL: Europeans recently saw another case which stirred controversy over Islamic faith: the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan man who faced execution for converting from Islam to Christianity. Do you think that Islam's image is depicted properly in Europe?

Hajar: I think there are some problems on this side, and there are some [problems] about Islamophobia. There are some bodies, some lobbies, who try to create [a conflict] between civilizations, between Muslims and others. It's wrong, because at the same time they don't make any difference between Islam [as a religion] and tradition [in Islamic countries], or [between] Islam and what 's called the old interpretation of Islam.

There are many laws in Muslim countries which are not from [the religion of] Islam, they come from tradition. The media and the academic [community] must know the difference and what Islam says. We can understand Islam from the Koran and [the teachings of the] Prophet Muhammad. I can understand it if somebody in the street has some wrong image about Islam, but the intellectual or the media are not allowed to present a wrong image of Islam, because they have responsibilities.

RFE/RL: Is there a divide within Islam itself, between those who emphasize the conflicts between East and West and promote fundamentalism, and those who favor a moderate interpretation of Islam and reach out to other faiths?

Hajar: I think there are a few [bad] people, but some media use their actions to present a negative image about Islam. These are the extremists who are everywhere, in every country. Now I think that we, moderate Muslims, we represent the majority of Muslims, but we are only trying to do something on a voluntary basis, we have no support or help from any country. But now, this conference of imams in Vienna is OK, we get some help from the European Union and Austria.

I think we must follow this way, to take our role [seriously] and together with other activists in European society, with other civilizations, with other minorities, and with other religions in Europe, open a dialogue, because we now live in the same society, as a family. I think that if we go on the same side and we get help, we shall stop these few people who are trying to pit civilizations against each other.

RFE/RL: How important is the role of European imams and preachers as bridge builders between Muslims and Christians? Could they do more?

Hajar: I think the Muslim imams have a big role in society, because they teach people at the mosque, they answer their [people's] questions daily, therefore I think, as a teacher at school, the imam can also give good or bad orientation in society. I feel that that they [imams] can [achieve] something, but not alone. They need help, they need support from the society, because we speak about more than 50 million Muslims in Europe, and I think the voluntary activity of the imam alone is not enough. The imam must try, but it is not enough. Because there's also the role of school, the role of parents, the role of academics at the university, and the role of the media, which are very important. There are many other components that have a role in the society [besides the imam].

RFE/RL: How would you define yourself: a Muslim in Europe, or a European Muslim?

Hajar: I am a European Muslim and, at the same time, I write about Islam, I speak at the university about Euro-Islam, or Islam by European understanding. I am a human being, I live in Europe, and at the same time I am a Muslim. Muslim for me [means] one human being who believes in God, and at the same time respects and helps other people. That is the Islam for me.

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