European institutions and official bodies continue to launch and support a number of intellectual, research and religious initiatives in the Middle East under the pretence of reforming Islamic thought or addressing crises in the Islamic world. This European interest in Islamic reform raises many questions about the goals of these initiatives and the background behind this growing and ongoing activity.
Is there a new European conspiracy against Islam and Muslims? Or are the Europeans doing this for the benefit of the Muslims and to contribute towards combatting the common threat of violence and extremism in the world?
A number of European institutions support religious reform in general, but particularly of Islam. For example, Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Berghof in Germany; the Cordoba Foundation of Geneva, supported by the Swiss Foreign Ministry; and the Swedish Institute Alexandria, which helped the Centre for Arab Unity Studies organise an important conference on religious reform, the results of which were published recently. There are also churches in Sweden, Denmark and Britain involved in such activities, along with European embassies in the Middle East. More specifically, the British, Norwegian and Danish embassies support a number of institutions working in the field of religious reform and Muslim-Christian dialogue.
These institutions, foreign ministries and churches also sponsor dozens of conferences and workshops held in Arab countries to discuss the situation of religions in general, although they tend to focus on Islam and Muslims.
I have also noticed an increase in the volume of research and studies published in Europe, especially in France, on violence in Islam, Islamic movements and how to confront extremism. There are several researchers who specialise in monitoring Islamic phenomena, including Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, who have published many books on Islamic movements.
Why this European interest in religious reform, in particular of Islam? Sources involved believe that there are several reasons. They point first to the increased presence of religion as a factor in European societies, particularly Islam. There is also interest from official and research institutions to understand the Islamic phenomena which has emerged in recent years.
Then there is Europe’s history of religious conflict and wars, especially between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the European ability to have Christian denominations more or less co-existing along with several initiatives for religious reform. However, there is a difference between the reality of the European and Islamic experience given the current sectarian conflicts being endured by Muslims.
We also have to consider Europe’s growing fears about conflicts in the Arab and Islamic world, and the repercussions for and within Europe. This is pushing Europeans to address these conflicts and cooperate with Arabs and Muslims in this respect.
This is why European institutions feel obliged to contribute, albeit within certain limits, to the Islamic reform process. I think this is perfectly logical from their point of view.
However, the Muslim and Islamic point of view looks at the European colonisation of the Arab and Islamic world, especially by Britain and France, as having contributed to the establishment of these sectarian and doctrinal divisions and resultant conflicts. This point of view also believes that the European and US intelligence agencies backed the extremism that has emerged in the Muslim world over the past 100 years right up until today. If these countries and agencies are indeed behind the spread of extremism and sectarian and doctrinal conflicts, how can their institutions contribute positively to religious and Islamic reform?
There are concerns among some Islamic circles that the aim of the European initiatives is to distort Islam or divert it from its real objectives. They also fear that the initiatives will create a new kind of European Orientalism.
Regardless of the legitimacy or soundness of either point of view, the reality today indicates that European activity related to religious reform, Islamic movements and Islam is on the increase.
Activists in the Muslim community cannot ignore these initiatives or boycott them. It may actually be better to deal with each initiative separately to figure out its objectives and effectiveness. We cannot judge them collectively or judge what is going on precisely, because each country has its own considerations and goals and every institution has its own vision for its intellectual, political or research activities.
Translated from Arabi21, 5 October 2017
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.