The spiritual crises of European Arabs9 min read

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(Last Updated On: 27/08/2018)

Arab Millennial is an Arab website that is not directly associated with a particular religion – not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab. However, from time to time, it can be difficult to separate discussions on Arab identity from discussions on Muslim identity.

1. Deconstructing superstitions

Growing up in a Moroccan household, delicious food, political music, huge gatherings and frequent superstitions become facts of life. If I exposed too many plans and photos on social media, I may get “ayn” (evil eye) that may be responsible for me failing future exams. There is truth to the idea that envy can be destructive. But, in a more superstitious sense, it is at about the age of 18 where I started to ask myself why somebody like Cristiano Ronaldo could continue winning trophies, scoring goals and sign a huge advertising contract with Emporio Armani in front of a global audience of millions yet never be “hit” with a freak case of ayn. Interestingly, when I started taking responsibility for my own failures, my university grades started to improve significantly.

Of course, you will nearly always face resistance when you communicate these realisations to older peers who have not only been brought up at a different time, but also in a different place – i.e. in a conservative Arab society. Why would a 60 year-old woman change her entire life view now? Would she really enjoy realising that the superstitions she had prepared for over the last 60 years and that had been bothering her and hindering her life all this time had been little more than metaphorical? Personally, I would rather hold a false belief for 60 years and then stop holding this belief, than to continue holding a false practice for even a single additional year. But then again, I do have the mindful energy of youth on my side.

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2. Balancing identities

It is of little wonder why psychologists conclude that people are more likely to become more anchored in their views at middle- to late-age. I hear many stories of these generational incompatibilities between European Arabs and their Arab-born parents. These parents often stay faithful to their set of values yet expect Arabs born in Europe to both maintain their European identity as well as their Arab identity.

There are many European identities. British, pan-European… Sometimes, European and Arab identities are more than compatible. In my school days, for example, I found common ground with my Protestant and Humanist childhood friends: we collaborated and performed spiritual music with existential lyrics at local charity concerts. Today, we are still friends, but this requires, at times, the Arab or European identities to be compromised in lieu of the other.

Take British Arabs celebrating both Christmas and Eid with their comrades; bridging the gap between East and West. This reconciliation, this global perspective, can be seen as a distinct identity in its own right. Sometimes we see glimpses of this unique identity emerging in the behaviour of Arabs living in postcolonial climates in North Africa and the Middle East. For example, in Khaleeji women incorporating extravagant Louis Vuitton trends in their hijabs, or in Maghrebi and Lebanese men making a conscientious decision to stop drinking Heineken three months before Ramadan.

At other times, I have also seen a polarised reaction to “global Westernisation”, where European Arabs make an effort to stay in touch with their native identity as a form of political resistance, unintentionally alienating themselves from both cultures. In an overzealous attempt to identify with their native culture, a sense of disillusionment is developed where their perceived identity of Arabness is not in concert with the “actual” Arab experience of the Middle East and North Africa. The enthusiasm of European Arabs can sometimes encourage people to romanticise and construct an Arab and Muslim past that had not even existed. We are all familiar with descriptions of Salahuddin as an Arab (he was actually Kurdish), or the idea that Salahuddin had been received by historical Arabs without any controversy. Actually, his strategies to emancipate Jerusalem were highly contested at the time. These realisations, these conflicting identities, is but another of the spiritual crises of European Arabs.

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3. Seeing beyond literal interpretations of religion

Although I was born and bred in Europe, I fortunately identify as Muslim. I say fortunately because – for some bizarre reason – older Arab Muslims tend to be less dismissive of my views. They see me as “one of them”. They probably believe more easily that my intentions are to improve – and not to undermine – Islam. This is actually true: there’s a lot I love and enjoy about more spiritual, “Ghazalian” Islam.

I never understood Salafism – it is impossible for me and my Arab friends in our humble abode in Warwickshire to believe that Jesus has been physically, biologically alive (as opposed to spiritually alive in the Sufi sense) for hundreds of years. I think this anecdote is but one of many other anecdotes and metaphors in our religion, and I suspect that many medieval Muslims probably felt the same way about this topic as many of my Arab friends in Britain do today. I don’t believe that my opinions are unique in this respect.

Unfortunately, however, “Arab” has become synonymous with “Islam”, and “Islam” has now almost become synonymous with more conservative manifestations of the religion. I think that this is caused by a combination of phenomena, including large populations (incidentally) of South Asian diaspora spreading stricter tones of Hanafi Islam combined with cultural conservatism, as well as the rise of Saudi Arabia as a global cultural and economic powerhouse investing millions of riyals into Salafi publications that legitimise Saudi theocracy.

Given that Salafism was born of a political context, isn’t it also ironic that many Salafis continue to assert that there is no room for politics and culture in our religion, and that their experience of Islam transcends cultural, political influences? Do the London Wahhabi movement not know that the very Islamification of Arabia that they tend to romanticise was directly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophers, namely Plato and Aristotle? How can one then assert that Islam not only transcends European and Arab culture, but should not be influenced by European and Arab culture?

A historical Arab illustration of Socrates and his students by 13th century Syrian author Al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik. (Could one of the students depicted in the illustration be Plato?)

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Islam is in constant interaction with other religions, ideas and cultures. Whilst historians generally agree that a historical person matching Jesus’ description was crucified, Muslims generally believe that Jesus was not crucified and that somebody resembling Jesus was instead crucified. This may not actually contradict historical records – mistaken identities do occur, especially over a span of hundreds of yearsMuslims do, however, share the virgin birth story with Christians, an anecdote that also resembles the story of Horus in Ancient Egyptian culture and the story of Zoroaster in Ancient Persian culture.

It is at this point that I reluctantly realise that Islam more than likely exists as a lens (and not the lens) through which we can explore abstract, metaphysical concepts in poetic, digestible, and largely metaphorical language. More conservative European Arabs would, however, reject my views, leaving me, at times, as isolated as them: like a disease spreading beyond its vicinity.

European Christians went through similar disruptions. Many Christians now accept that the universe is unthinkably huge, and that our little, round earth is only millions of years old. Humanity, even younger, a mere hundreds of thousands of years old. Thinkers and ideas come and go. Plato, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad. Most of them, interestingly, men, albeit from Arab, African, European and Asian cultures. Yet, a few hundred years ago, it would have been uncommon, brave and sometimes even unthinkable for a European Christian to openly hold the objective view that the earth is round as opposed to flat, or that humanity is hundreds of thousands of years old as opposed to hundreds of years old… or that religions and philosophies operate within cultural and political contexts and interests. This would have contradicted more fundamental interpretations of Christianity.

An illustration of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543 CE), who discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way round.

People often state that Islam is younger than Christianity, but Islam also reconciled with (and even encouraged) scientific revolution during its Arab Abbasid Caliphate (750-1517 CE). Perhaps, in a few hundred years, European Muslims and Arabs will also accept the overwhelming fossilised, biological and historical records pointing towards human evolution theory, learning from the European Christian and the Arab Muslim experience. This would then mean that the Adam and Eve story is also analogous; and if so, what else is analogous?

A statue of Ibn Khaldun in Tunis, Tunisia. An Abbasid evolution theorist.

As human beings, we often thrive for order and authority to keep us “disciplined” – Muslims call this innate disposition our fitra. The idea that there is justice, emancipation and life after death gives us existential purpose. There is a lot at stake for European Arabs interacting with a variety of perspectives, some of which undermine their very instincts and sense of being.

The idea that I share a common ancestor with another species seems vulgar to me and evidently disrupts my fitra; but perhaps – like the Copernican revolution – it is an uncomfortable truth that will continue to reshape our identity as a human race with a very humble beginning. This does not rule out the concept of God, but adds to Its majesty, allowing us to reach even further in scientific exploration. Maybe, then, my fitra will re-adjust itself to this new, dialectical experience of the world around me.

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4. Conclusions

So, aside from:

  • Deconstructing superstitions,
  • Learning to balance multiple identities, and
  • Grappling with more nuanced understandings of religion

is it all turbulent and disruptive being a European Arab? I think not. Sure, very evident realisations may hit me that can be very difficult to communicate in my native country without being perceived as a rebellious heretic. But I can learn from Europe’s troublesome experience with Christianity, an experience which shows me, as an Arab:

  • How to communicate my ideas,
  • To whom I should communicate my ideas, and
  • When to simply remain silent.

With thanks to Miriam Hussain, Ahmed Sobeih, Lawrence Joffe and Linda Wesson for their feedback and contributions to this article.