A cousin of the West
It is clearly not possible to transpose this notion to relations between Europe and the Muslim world, which would presume that the two were separated beforehand. Recent historical research tends, on the contrary, to consider Islam as an expression of late Antiquity which in some way ends this phase of history. One could even argue that the only Judeo-Christian production or synthesis in the broadest sense is precisely Islam, that which makes it a cousin of the West. Islam has drawn, at least in part, on the same sources, namely Hellenism and the Christian and Jewish traditions, despite also being inspired by Iranian and Indian culture. We must therefore reject the notion of Islam as a rupture of the Mediterranean area (the famous Henri Pirenne’s thesis): actually, the rupture, which indeed was limited in time, took place in the tenth century in the context of a maritime war.
Starting in the eleventh century and from the start of the crusades, the Mediterranean returned to being an area of conflict and exchange, through rather different episodes like the Spanish Reconquista, the birth of franc potentates in the Levant and their subsequent disappearance, the conquering of Anatolia and the Balkans by the Turks and eventually European colonialism. In addition to the Mediterranean, in the sixteenth century Europe opened up another road to the Muslim world through the Indian Ocean. Nor should we forget the Russian advance in central Asia, which at times produced paradoxical effects: for example, French was introduced among the Persian élite by means of Imperial Russia.
Products and ideas
Throughout all these centuries, waves of conflict went hand in hand with exchange. Products and technologies posed no problems and well before the contemporary era material objects moved between the two worlds. On the other hand, there is a general agreement on the fact that it is not possible to switch from one world to another, if not through conversion. The number of renegades (European Christians who converted to Islam) are thus fairly numerous. The lingua franca is practiced at the time on the two shores of the Mediterranean, though it is essentially oral. This implies that, at the start of the modern era, what Muslims perceived of Europe spread through an oral form, while the Europeans, after the birth of Oriental Studies, located themselves in a context of writing. A kind of travel literature came about, which was initially inspired by medieval pilgrimage literature, then quickly taking its own form, characterized by a permanent comparativism, implicit or explicit.
Some groups, especially Eastern Christians (with the Armenians for example) and the Jews, acted as intermediaries and were important vectors for ideas in both directions. Nevertheless, the conversion barrier remained in effect. There were very few intermarriages, except between Europeans and Eastern Christians. In this case in fact there was no prohibition. Therefore, in general there was no exchange of women (a phenomenon whose significance was well identified by Lévi-Strauss). In the centuries that precede colonial occupation, sociability and cohabitation were very common, but intermarriages remained rare. Levantine sociability, which has still not completely disappeared, is a perfect example. The populations frequented one another as equals, but inter-community marriage was not practiced. Even today, large countries like Egypt require conversion in order to marry a Muslim woman.
The nineteenth century brings with it colonial domination over the majority of the Muslim world, accelerating the spreading of Western technologies and products. Already around 1820, the Egyptian historian al-Gabarti had a European painting in his house. European objects imposed themselves and the interiors of houses were transformed. Important changes came about in body language and in dress code. The fez hat, for example, was born as non-religious headwear, intended to unite all Ottoman subjects, regardless of religion or creed. But this is not a matter of objects alone. The matter also touches on knowledge and technologies, like the disciplines of the body and hygiene.
From that moment, two arguments were made to justify borrowing from Europe. On the one hand, European science was considered the fruit of medieval Islamic science: “Our goods are coming back to us.” On the other hand, there is an insistence on non-sectarian and universal knowledge. In reality, as modernity makes its gradual advance, Islam increasingly became a haven for identity.
Decolonization, which happened for the majority of Muslim countries after World War II, brought with it an important change. While the European powers had codified a mixed legal code (Anglo-Muhammadan Law or droit musulman), which confirmed the Islamic prohibition of mixed marriages, the end of the Algerian War in 1962 resulted in the abolition of Islamic law in France (with the sole exception of Comoros, where this principle was only recently abolished). From that moment on, interarriages were practiced with increasing frequency. Currently in France, mixed marriages are estimated at between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population of Muslim origin. This is a significant figure, the effects of which have not yet been measured.
Two kinds of movement
Today the condition of Islam in Europe reveals a lot about the specificities of every country and the wide variety of European societies. And as a result there is an inability to find, thus far, a common response. Nevertheless, it is possible to propose some general notations, the first of which is the existence of a dual regime of circulation between Europe and the Muslim world: a type of authorized movement, which is that of tourists and retirees, and prohibited movement, that of migrants.
In the second place, and despite the security barrier which has been erected, the communication between the two shores of the Mediterranean remains constant. Nevertheless the perception of Europe in Arab countries is often distorted by the stories of the Muslim diaspora and the image of the Arab world in the West is monopolized by the issue of terrorism. Moreover, these Muslim diaspora generally have a transnational nature: just think of the paradox of Moroccan Arabic, which is already a language of movement within the European area.
The transformation of the role of Islam
But especially, the role of Islam has changed over time. Before colonization it was focused on itself, while today it is in dialectical tension with the West, as if it were knocked off its center. And it is as a result of this that conflicts arise between the West and an Islam which becomes a counter-West. The main topics of the conflict are the woman’s body, religious symbols and the issue of freedom of expression. The tension is increased by the fact that secular bodies advocate social values which would have been incomprehensible to the founders of secularism themselves, like Émile Combes in France for example.
In front of these dynamics, scholars cannot help but notice a dual identity crisis. On the one hand the crisis of Europe, which manifests itself in xenophobia and islamophobia, which I would not hesitate to denounce as weapons of mass destruction. On the other hand, the deep identity crisis of contemporary Islam. In the short-term, it seems as though the prospects are rather bleak. But in the medium-term, I nurture the hope for an active recovery of movement that could open a new chapter in this thousand-year history.
Finally we must not forget that the Mediterranean dream itself is counter-East. This category has been in fact created to overcome the West/East separation by creating an area of mixing and proximity. The category has had a certain success, and today it seems possible to identify three circles of the Mediterranean: first and foremost, the countries that lie on the two shores; therefore continental Europe and the Arab Gulf; and finally the American diasporas, insofar as the latter implies the globalization of the Mediterranean, to the point that, by now, the Mediterranean has become a global space. Our space.
Henry Laurens, L’Europe et l’Islam : quinze siècles d’histoire, with Gilles Veinstein and John Tolan, Odile Jacob, Paris 2009
This article was translated from the original French