Changing the factual past in an attempt to gain political authority. It’s one of the paradoxes of modern populism, where the target audience is presented a twisted and fake past as a nostalgic idealistic image for the future. Populist politicians reminisce publicly about the benefits and pleasures of the days of yore, recollections where facts often have to make room for emotions.
The populist branch within the Flemish Nationalist thought lends itself particularly easy to such interpretations of the past, and makes severe historical mistakes in an attempt to uphold and protect that same history. The historical and geographical Flanders is the areas we currently designate as Zealand, East- and West-Flanders and French-Flanders all the way up to Dunkirk. The provinces of Antwerp and Flemish Brabant belonged historically to the duchy of Brabant, and the modern-day province of Limburg was a patchwork of small governments under influence of the Holy Roman Empire, the largest of which was the County of Loon, part of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège.
So historically speaking, there’s no truth in an independent Flanders based on the territory of the current Flemish Region. And yet, nostalgic references are made to the Battle of the Golden Spurs, the County of Flanders and the Flemish Lion. These are mere emotional ideals for a people desperately in search of its own identity amidst a rapidly changing world. That all of this “past” needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and that the average Limburgian shares less history with his West-Flemish countryman than with someone from Liège, often doesn’t matter no more. It’s an emotional support, and a form of political opportunism. This sort of false representations of a national past on a micro-level is internationally recognizable, but it nonetheless becomes increasingly apparent on a macro-level. The modern European continent is such an example, where right-wing populism is rapidly gaining ground and threatens to achieve political successes.
In an almost romanticized narrative, Europe is being presented as the so-called Abendland, the Evening Land, a common territory inhabited by peoples and societies that share a homogeneous cultural unity and a common history together. It’s from this populist utopia that the resistance grows against the so-called illusion that Europe was partly formed by external influences and ideas from other continents around the world. It’s from this outset that a isolationist and supremacist historical thinking is pursued. It doesn’t come as a surprise that such theories aren’t only wrong on a historical level, but form an acute danger that threatens to separate people, based on ghosts from the past and vague ideals.
This Eurocentric thinking, in which Europe is considered the initiator and not the receiver, persists throughout colonial and post-colonial European thought. Besides, this trend is also observable in our modern Western high school system, where education tends to look at human history through a pure European lens, as if it was the exclusive result of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Years of history classes are being taught within this framework, offering students just a limited amount of tools to effectively look beyond their own geographical and historical area. This is with regard to a 21st century’s educational system disastrous, and such outdated curriculum only serves the interests of populists and idealists.
The history of the several African civilizations, some more focus on the earliest states of the Fertile Crescent and some time on the rise and development of the United States were severely lacking during high school, and I had to wait until university to actually be taught those things. What I found most lacking, however, was any in-depth attention for the complex relationship between Europe and the Islamic World.
The narrative that Europe is the sole result of a Judeo-Christian tradition with roots in ancient Greek and Roman Antiquity needs to be swept aside for once and for all. By no means was there in Europe at any point up until the Second World War an example of cultural, religious or social unity. On the contrary! The continent has always been a patchwork of warring tribes, feudal kingdoms and modern nation states that had in most cases little more in common than their shared geographical position on the European land mass.
More than one third of that Europe found itself under a strong Islamic influence for several centuries. In the west, the Iberian Peninsula known as al-Andalus. In the east, Greece and the Balkan all the way up to Vienna. Important Islamic cities like Cordoba, Granada, Sarajevo and Istanbul are still standing in all their glory as we speak, effectively forming visual and tangible landmarks of the Islamic presence on the European continent. This part of history and its influence on modern Europe, however, is predominantly kept silent in the rich historical corpus this continent possesses so abundantly, just as much as in the average high schools so paramount in the formation of our youngest generations.
It was mere randomness that determined that Judaism and Christianity, both religions arisen from Semitic societies, are considered to be European and Islam, which equally emerged from a Semitic society, to be non-European. The fact that European Muslim scientists and philosophers like Ibn Zuhr, al-Zahrāwī, Ibn Rushd or Ibn-Ẓafar al-Ṣiqillī were often much more relevant to modern European science and philosophy than the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, seems long forgotten.
True European Islam
This constitutes true European Islam in my opinion, i.e. the Islam that grew on the European continent and which left its mark on the future development of states influenced by its presence. The Islam that was equally and simultaneously influenced and touched by the proximity and contact with other European peoples.
That abhorrent mixture of Islam and liberal, secular and humanist ideals that people nowadays wish to propagate as ‘European Islam’ by presenting it as an acceptable alternative of the Islamic religion within Europe is in my opinion nothing more than a product of the European superiority thinking and undoubtedly also the inferiority complex lots of immigrants suffer from. European Islam predates all of this politicized circus for several centuries, and doesn’t need any dilution or mixing in order to be accepted as European. People like Ivan de Veenboer and Jan Janszoon probably don’t immediately ring a bell, and yet they were among the first Dutch Muslims who actively served as seafarers under the Ottoman Empire.
Ivan de Veenboer was an infamous Dutch corsair who sailed the Mediterranean Sea and converted to Islam somewhere at the start of the 17th century. He received the honorary title of ‘Sulaymān-Reis’ from the Dey of Algiers and was promoted to captain and commander of the Algiers corsair fleet, a promotion that heralded a highly successful career. His chief mate was another Dutch corsair, Jan Janszoon. He converted to Islam as well, and assumed command as Murād-Reis over the Fleet of Salé, a powerful squadron of seventeen privateers under Ottoman command. The word Reis is a derivative of the Arabic word for commander, raʾīs, and was given as an honorary title.
Already in 1566 did the Ottoman Empire under Sulaymān the Magnificent as the sole foreign power offer its aid to the Dutch rebels of William of Orange. The Protestant Dutch were involved in a violent rebellion against Catholic Spain, and found an ally in the Ottomans. In 1574, Selīm II took Tunisia from the Spanish Empire in a successful attempt to lower the Spanish pressure on the Low Lands.
The Geuzen, the Dutch guerrilla and privateering forces who opposed the Spanish Catholics during the Eighty Years’ War, wore a badge with the inscription: “Rather Turkish than Pope.” When the village of Sluis fell under control of the Dutch rebels in 1604, they found several Muslims among the Spanish galley slaves. The Dutch immediately chose to grant them their freedom and to transport them to the shores of North Africa as a sign of gratitude towards the Ottomans.
The Ottoman caliph Aḥmed I asked the Dutch revolutionaries to send him an ambassador, effectively becoming one of the first world leaders to recognize the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic. That ambassador’s name was Cornelius Haga, who arrived with a delegation in Istanbul in 1611. In 1612, he agreed on a very advantageous trade agreement with the Turks, exempting the Dutch from several taxes. Haga remained at the caliph’s court until 1639.
It’s regrettable that such examples are barely covered when speaking about the history of Europe, even in high school. It is indeed from this point of view that a much broader insight could be built up among students with regard to the role of Islam and the Muslims in Europe.
The fact that the average history lesson doesn’t speak a word about the complex relationships between European nations and Muslim empires, like the Umayyads and Abbasids, is a missed opportunity. In particular because the global history of the European nations can’t be detached from these Muslim empires and vice versa.
From Islamic Andalusia and Sicily through the Crusades all the way up to the Ottoman support for Ireland during the Great Famine, European states constantly existed in interaction with neighboring Muslim countries. Keeping silent about all of this benefits only the far-right populist establishment. Right-wing historians, like the Belgian Wim Van Rooy, go as far as denying the entire Islamic civilization and all of its achievements throughout the centuries, calling it an invention of 20th century Arab Gulf states.
The fact that the historical role played by Islam in Europe is reduced to an absolute minimum in popular modern historiography only contributes to a wrong understanding of the current question of Islam in the West. Islam dwells longer than today on the continent, and didn’t just slip through the net as a result of the mass immigration after the Second World War, as claimed by several populists.
Evelyn (Zainab) Cobbold was a Scottish noblewoman who converted to Islam after having spent several years in Algiers and Cairo. She was as a matter of fact by 1933 the first British Muslim woman that ever performed the pilgrimage (Ḥajj) to Mecca, aged 65 years old.
British writer and journalist Marmaduke (Muḥammad) Pikthall, praised by great writers like H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence, converted to Islam publicly in 1917. In 1930, he published an English translation of the Quran, and in 1936 he was buried in the Muslim part of famous Brookwood cemetery in London.
Sir Archibald (ʿAbdullāh) Hamilton, Etienne Dinet, Claude Alexandre de Bonnevalle, the Hungarian Jozef Bem and even the younger brother of Vlad Dracul, Radu, were all early European converts to Islam, and the list is much longer. Can’t all of this be considered a common part of European history?
Goethe dedicated a poem of his to the prophet Muḥammad in the form of his Mahomets Gesang, known moreover for his love and fascination for the poetry of Saʿdī al-Shīrāzī. The Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw didn’t make his admiration for the prophet Muḥammad much of a secret as well. His famous quote still emits a serene respect: “I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality.” In the January 1933 issue of the Lahore The Light magazine in which he made this comment, Shaw added that “he forecast that within a century, Islam would be the religion of Europe.”
According to him, Islam was dismissed for centuries by Europeans as pagan heresy and nonsense, depicted as the embodiment of Evil, but 18th and 19th century thinkers like Goethe, Gibbon and Carlyle brought a positive change in how Islam is viewed. All four of these thinkers, including Shaw, deviated from the contemporary traditional European historiography and observed instead the Middle-East, the Greek-Orthodox Church and the development of Islam. Not only did they get to know the prophet Muḥammad as a religious symbol, but equally so as an efficient political leader and a genius strategist.
Connection instead of polarization
This entire message, however, won’t probably ring a bell to most, including Muslims themselves. It’s a message that got lost amidst the deafening sound of disinformation, political opportunism and populist interests. If this information would be made into a new standard of European historiography and common knowledge, both in school as in public, more connection and mutual understanding will grow as opposed to the rising polarization of today.
Teach students to make connections. Teach them to look at the bigger picture, to understand the historical reality that nations simply need to interact with each other in order to survive, apart from culture or religion. Nobody fell from Mars and left his mark on earth, no! Everything we can observe today arose as the result of a long historical process. When our newest generations then learn to think and reason inclusively and see the shared collectiveness of our world history, they’ll walk the earth with an open-mind and they’ll be less inclined to think in terms like “supremacy” or “exclusivity”.
The last thing I want to do with this longread is to preach and to sum up lists of “how good Islam is”. No, but I do wish historical justice in the ugly face of the contemporary mass-populism. I want to demonstrate that the Islamic religion forms an integral part of European history, and that this religion can just be European as well, without the need to substitute its norms and values.
We don’t need to search for a European Islam, because it already exists for centuries.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.