Why study Islam in Europe?

Two years ago, Luther College Political Science Professor John Moeller and I led our first January Term course on Islam in Europe for Luther students. This week, we find ourselves in Europe again with a new cohort of students with whom we’ll spend three weeks studying the political and cultural debates concerning the place of Muslim minority communities in five European countries.

Over the past several years, I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me why we travel all the way to Europe to study this topic. The average American does not keep up with the news in Europe and is often unaware of how much tension exists about what role Islam has (or should have) in Europe.

Something's different this time. In the past two days, no one has asked me why we're here studying Islam. After the horrendous attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris Wednesday, the course seems more relevant than it was on Monday when we left for Europe.

I have received many notes from friends and colleagues from the U.S. asking how my students are responding to the attacks and what sort of conversations we are having. Well, to be honest, we're still trying to wrap our heads around what happened and get on top of the story. When the news of the attacks first broke, we were sitting in a seminar room at Rotterdam Town Hall in the Netherlands. This was our first full day in Europe. We were meeting with Nourdin el Ouali, a young Muslim politician and member of the Rotterdam city council. He is one of the founders of the first Islamic political party in the Netherlands, NIDA. Mr. el Ouali received word of the attacks and passed that news along to us during our meeting. He was also having to step out of the meeting on occasion to field phone calls from journalists who were asking him for a statement in light of the attacks. It was all a bit surreal.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the Paris attacks will alter and deepen our discussions with politicians, journalists, scholars, religious leaders and ordinary Muslim women and men over these next few weeks. But I am grateful to Luther College for this tremendous opportunity. The college's commitment to global education and study abroad is one of the reasons John Moeller and I are able to take eager Luther students to Europe to study the tensions and debates surrounding the place of Muslims and Islam in countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and England. In light of yesterday's events, we find ourselves dropped right in the middle of the very debate we came here to study. This is exactly what experiential education is all about!

I have also received emails and messages asking for my own response to the Paris attacks. I have two reactions. First, I am heartbroken. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was in part an attack on freedom of expression, and the senseless loss of life is a tragedy that we rightfully mourn and protest against. But I do not believe that what happened in Paris will harm freedom of expression in the long run, in France or the rest of Europe. If anything, I imagine Europeans will deepen their resolve to this cherished principle.

My second reaction is one of concern. It may not be popular to articulate this sentiment at this time, but I believe that in the long run, the Paris attacks will do the most damage not to freedom of expression but to Muslims. Every time extremist Muslims attack civilians, such as in the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005, all Muslims come under suspicion and scrutiny. And very quickly, the narrative of Islam as an inherently violent, intolerant religion that is at odds with the West reemerges. When this happens, it is not uncommon for hate crimes against Muslims to rise and for governments to ramp up their profiling of Muslims in the name of counterterrorism. But we can condemn the hideous murders in Paris yesterday without implicating Muslim Europeans in that crime. We can reaffirm our commitment to freedom of expression without supporting policies and practices that restrict the freedoms of Muslim in Europe under the assumption that they are guilty of supporting terrorism until proven innocent.

In the meantime, what an extraordinary opportunity my students have this month to experience firsthand the difficult and tense debates concerning Islam in Europe. And what an honor it is for me to journey with them here and to be one of their conversation partners as we all struggle to make sense of what happened in Paris and what this means for the future of Europe's Muslims.


  • January 12 2015 at 10:42 pm
    Perhaps...as Europeans (and westerners in general) reflect on "freedoms" they may also want to reflect on the foreign policies of their own governments that have restricted the freedom of "the other" (the non-westerner) for generations as they themselves reaped the benefits, privileges and luxuries that came along with such policies.... As they reflect on the deaths...they might also want to reflect on the countless people (non-westerners) who have been tortured, killed, or terrorized because they fought for freedoms in their own countries...which the western backed dictatorships denied them....... As they (Europeans) reflect on injustice...they might want to reflect on their own lack of a sense of justice that they so carelessly elected officials that exploited other countries and that they abdicated the responsibilities which comes with freedoms which is to hold their governments accountable for what is done in their name.... And as they desire apologies from Muslims....perhaps they too might apologize for their (Europe's) failings too......
  • January 13 2015 at 4:06 pm
    Todd Green
    Thank you for these reflections. There are larger historical and political forces at play here that the West needs to come to terms with, and you are right to point these out.