Many have recently sought to understand and explain today’s crisis of legitimacy within Islam, with some analysts placing the blame for that crisis squarely on Islam itself. In my view, today’s crisis of Islamic religious legitimacy and the spread of Salafi ideology are a direct legacy of 20th century European empires. I don’t mean that as a moral cudgel, nor as a plea for political correctness. But to avoid making the same mistakes again, we need to understand both the contingency of that history and the vacuity of the term “Islamic fundamentalism,” which is used as a stand-in for everything from traditional views of gender roles and homosexuality to religiously-inspired mass murder.
Former Brookings Expert
Europe’s 20th century mistake
How did more rigid and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam prevail over the relatively tolerant brand of Ottoman Islam? Let’s look to history. One century ago, in summer 1916, European powers started a chain reaction that enabled and sanctioned the 1924 Saudi takeover of the Hijaz—including Mecca and Medina. In one seized territory after another, Europeans continued to interrupt traditional ties of Islamic authority and religious education between their new colonial subjects and the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul. The new imperial rulers cut off the circular flow of judges, muftis, seminaries, and mosque projects between the Ottomans and Muslims in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Near East. Centuries-old religious endowments and religious leadership configurations were uprooted in favor of institutions that Europeans thought they could control.
Centuries-old religious endowments and religious leadership configurations were uprooted in favor of institutions that Europeans thought they could control.
Even as the Ottoman empire declined in its final century, the caliphate flourished as a global spiritual project. It had more adherents leading up to its abolition than any other time thanks to the spectacular growth of Muslim populations under British and Dutch rule.
But more than one hundred million Muslims in British India and the Dutch East Indies who prayed toward the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul were forced to rededicate Friday prayers towards whomever the colonial powers selected. Turkish nationalists were arguably only able to abolish the religious power of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 because European powers had already undermined the institution.
Today’s greatest religious-political challenges lie at the epicenter of this fragmented world: the Mediterranean core of the old Ottoman empire, including Turkey, North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. The caliphate’s demise sparked a century-long supernova of pretenders and Islamists spanning the Muslim crescent. The violent jolts of post-caliphate Islamic extremism travel precisely the same path through the global umma (Muslim community) that was traced by Ottoman religious diplomacy, including today’s Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. Any Ottoman legacy has been repurposed or erased, dimming the prospect of native resistance to, and resilience against, imported religious extremism.
Any Ottoman legacy has been repurposed or erased, dimming the prospect of native resistance to, and resilience against, imported religious extremism.
The resulting fitna (strife) has undermined the political stability and military autonomy that Sunni Muslims in the region once enjoyed. Istanbul’s traditional role as the apex of spiritual leadership is now partitioned across more than a dozen countries—and hotly contested by transnational non-state actors, including al-Qaida and ISIS. This dissensus is mirrored in the disrupted religious lives of millions of Muslims now residing in Western Europe who can trace their origins to the same region.
How did Salafism and Wahhabism manage to inculcate entire swathes of two generations of European Muslims? The same European powers—which began to welcome large numbers of immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s—invited the Saudi-based Muslim World League to set up full-service mosques, salaried imams, and free Qurans, all part of a transactional relationship based on oil. European countries often snubbed offers by Morocco, Turkey, and Algeria to provide an alternative. By the early 2000s, more Moroccan imams in Europe were employed by the Saudi king than the Moroccan one, and Saudi Arabia still sponsors 14 imams a year in France. It’s therefore no surprise that some European Muslims find their way to Salafi-Wahhabist Islam—their governments contributed to the billions of dollars spent on the propagation of extreme ideologies.
Don’t repeat yourself
West European countries face a similar choice today about the role Ankara, Rabat, and Algiers can play in the spiritual lives of European Muslims—and several countries are on the verge of repeating the historic mistake of the early 20th century. Governments are once again seeking to decapitate the religious center at its source: Islamic propagation programs by Middle Eastern governments.
In the decade following 9/11, many countries sought to formalize the state-Islam relationship in an attempt to shield European Muslims from religious ideologies emanating from the Gulf. Real progress was made on public religious education in Germany, for example, and French officials cultivated meaningful relationships with the country’s Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders. But European countries have been hesitant to facilitate Muslims’ religious lives or to fully integrate them into existing state-church structures. The European approaches have been shaped by their deep suspicion of official religious services offered by Muslim-majority countries. The end result has deprived young Muslims of legitimate Islamic arguments they could wield against extremist ideas.
It’s…no surprise that some European Muslims find their way to Salafi-Wahhabist Islam—their governments contributed to the billions of dollars spent on the propagation of extreme ideologies.
This has recently come to a head. In 2014, the Austrian parliament voted to end Turkish funding for religious activities and evict Turkish religious personnel. The move echoed the Austro-Hungarian empire’s decision one hundred years earlier to replace the caliphate in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a Vienna-approved religious leader. Belgium recently passed a similar decree regarding the nomination of imams, and German politicians have for months called for an end to Turkey’s influence in European Islam. The EU recently funded a journalism project dedicated to exposing “Turkish puppets” who promote the religious ideology of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and AKP within Europe.
In fact, Turkey—and other countries like Algeria and Morocco—has improved its export-grade Islam to Europe. This includes special linguistic and cultural courses pre-departure, and degree-granting programs for European Muslims to be trained for their specific context. Germany currently hosts the largest number of Turkish imams and teachers who help tend to the spiritual care and religious education of German Muslims, and German authorities are grateful for these programs, even as they make entirely rational plans to also cultivate other networks of Islamic knowledge and institutions.
But the current debate about Islamic fundamentalism—and the accumulating scorn towards the Turkish government—now threaten to politicize what should be more thoughtful decisions about the kinds of religious organizations that should be encouraged. This is even more urgent as more than one million new Muslim refugees arrive in Germany. Turkish Islam should retain a prominent place alongside the expansion of other religious offerings. This will require convincing the German public that however difficult, the religious affairs relationship with the Turkish government remains vital.
It is right to expect that all religious organizations register and comply with local laws and regulations, but it is self-defeating to cut off links to personnel, prayer, and education. Anyone who doubts that should look to the rise of Wahhabism in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. In the 21st century, it’s not Saudi Arabia lurking beyond the vacuum, but ISIS and a vast online community that can propagate radical messages quickly. Last century’s European empires arguably could not anticipate the impact of their interference on global Islam today, but today’s European countries should know better. Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.
Note: This post is translated and adapted from an article published on July 16 in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.