Philosophy: Bridging the Atlantic divide between Muslims

“View into a lane” by August Macke

There are few works of American political philosophy that are hailed by leaders on all sides of the American political spectrum as classics. One such work is Democracy in America by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville who published this in-depth analysis of American society and politics after his extensive travels in the United States (Volume 1 in 1835, Volume 2 in 1840). This book has become a staple for American political education and is required reading for many American high school or college students.

The first chapter of the second volume of Democracy in America begins with the phrase “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States.” While these words may be interpreted as a mark of European arrogance, Tocqueville goes on to explain that Americans have developed their own individual methods by which they tackle philosophical questions. These are characterized by attempts “to evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to strike through the form to the substance…”.

In Tocqueville’s view, the lack of philosophical education of the American public was therefore not necessarily a weakness, but also allowed Americans to achieve results and socio-economic prosperity. Some may consider this 19th century analysis to be outdated for evaluating the modern day American society, but I think that many aspects of Tocqueville’s analysis are very true, especially when applied to contemporary American Muslim culture. There are, of course, a few American Muslims who participate in literature, philosophy or the arts. However, the priority of educated American Muslims seems to be the pursuit of economic stability as well as social and political equality, instead of actively engaging in the intellectual domain.

I came to the United States in the mid 1990’s and have lived and traveled throughout the United States. As a German Muslim, I have been especially interested in meeting American Muslim communities and comparing American Muslim culture to European Muslim culture. There are many clear differences, such as the fact that most American Muslims have income levels and education levels that are comparable to or even higher than those of fellow non-Muslim Americans. This is in deep contrast to the situation of Muslims in many parts of Europe, where we are plagued by low levels of income, high unemployment and crime rates amongst Muslims and only a minority of Muslims pursue university education.

Furthermore, American Muslims are also quite comfortable with practicing their faith in public and actively engage non-Muslim faith communities through interfaith or community outreach events. Due to the diminished role that religion plays in the public life in Europe, all faiths have been relegated to the private sphere and, therefore, faith-based dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe has been quite limited. However, while it is common for many European Muslims who attend university to develop a basic interest in philosophy and literature, it is not uncommon to meet university-educated American Muslims who have not read David Hume or Immanuel Kant.

One comment by an American Muslim took me by surprise. “I’m grateful for being Muslim in America and don’t wish for the struggles my European counterparts are engaged in,” she said. “Theirs is a struggle for civil rights before it is a struggle for religious tolerance. My African-American predecessors are always in my prayers for having fought that battle before I was ever born.” As European Muslims, we do not necessarily view our struggles as being civil rights struggles, but as struggles between competing philosophical views. The ongoing European discussion about wearing hijab in public is more about the role of religion in public space than a debate about civil rights.

My biggest struggle as a German Muslim has been the search for an intellectual comfort zone. Europe suffered tremendously as a result of devastating wars during the past centuries and many of these wars were based on religious beliefs or nationalist and fascist ideologies. In the wake of these wars, we Europeans have become generally distrustful of ideologies and belief systems. Existentialist philosophy and postmodern literature are intellectual responses that symbolize this distrust. As European Muslims, we are struggling to integrate our European heritage of critiquing and questioning beliefs with our Muslim faith.

While American Muslims may look to American civil rights leaders as their heroes and role models, we Europeans often look to philosophers, artists or scientists as our heroes. We are glad that Paul Tillich introduced anxiety and doubt as pillars of faith. We look to Breton and Magritte’s revolutionary surrealism and are inspired by Heisenberg’s view of causality and quantum physics. Just as the American founding fathers and civil rights leaders inspire contemporary American Muslims, these European intellectuals have inspired contemporary European Muslims. The British writer Ziauddin Sardar, for example, wrote a scathing critique of postmodernist philosophy while the German movie director Fatih Akin has developed ground-breaking new approaches to movie making.

A key factor is that writers like Ziauddin Sardar or movie directors like Fatih Akin do not just cater to the Muslim community in Europe, but are known by the general public and are considered important contributors to the contemporary European intellectual discourse. Fatih Akin, for example, is one of Germany’s best contemporary movie directors and has won numerous major European and German movie awards. While it is obvious that most of us do not have the talents or skills of these intellectual and artistic leaders to create cultural movements, many educated European Muslims do participate in the intellectual process by studying and critiquing their works. This active participation of the general public in the intellectual process is a big part of our European heritage, which we European Muslims have begun to apply to our Muslim faith and culture.

The historical focus in the United States on economic prosperity and political equality noted by Tocqueville is visible in contemporary American Muslim culture. The leadership of American mosques often consists of high-income professionals such as doctors or lawyers. Even the attempts to reform mosques often center on giving more power and prominence to women or diverse ethnic groups, quite in keeping with the American historical tradition of the civil rights movements. However, I have rarely come across American Muslim communities that highlight the importance of personal intellectual development. And while there are attempts to enhance gender or ethnic diversity, there are few attempts to promote intellectual diversity by recruiting artists, historians or philosophers to leadership positions in American mosques.

I recently discussed the socio-economic and intellectual development of Muslim communities in the United States and Europe with a group of Muslim friends. I pointed out that as European Muslims we feel some combination of concern, pity and empathy when we observe the relatively limited intellectual discourse of American Muslims. One of my American Muslim friends felt this observation was “insulting”. Similarly, some European Muslims get offended when American Muslims try to express their concern, pity or empathy regarding the socio-economic challenges of European Muslims.

Dwelling on the weaknesses without trying to find remedies is not constructive. American and European Muslims have to first recognize their own weaknesses and strengths, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective counterparts across the Atlantic Ocean. We then have to take the next step in which we seek help from each other and exchange approaches on how to improve matters. American Muslims can draw on the wonderful American heritage of civil rights movements and the welcoming atmosphere of the melting pot culture and help us European Muslims learn how to better integrate into European society.

On the other hand, as European Muslims we can draw on our millennia old heritage of European philosophy, literature and arts. We can use this heritage to help American Muslims learn that society at large can actively participate in the intellectual domain and that intellectual activities do not have to be confined to the academic ivory tower. By learning from each other, American and European Muslims have the ability to realize their own potential and develop a synergy that can give rise to new political ideas, intellectual movements or economic opportunities. This synergy will not only benefit Muslims in Europe or the United States, but this growth and integration will likely also be of great benefit to all fellow citizens.

Jalees Rehman is a German Muslim scientist currently on faculty at the University Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Medicine. He also works both as a stem cell biologist and a cardiologist. In addition to his work in the biomedical sciences, he has also studied the boundaries between religion and science with a view towards understanding the clash between modernity and postmodernity.


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