On Imam Ghazali and Bosnia

AHM: A few years ago I helped a couple of French journalists who were writing a book on the phenomenon of conversion, and was interested to learn from them that most conversions in Western Europe today are to Islam, with Buddhism as a close second. They calculate that around 100,000 French people have joined Islam, with the number increasing substantially if we include those who convert for purposes of marrying a Muslim woman. In Britain, partly because of the English sense of reticence, many educated converts do not make their conversion known, even to close members of their families, and it is hence not possible to speculate about numbers. I myself know, for instance, a professor at my university who with his wife has practised Islam for thirty years totally unknown to his colleagues at work. Some prominent British cultural figures, such as Lord Northbourne, were only known as converts after their death. In France the situation is rather different: you have philosophers such as Roger Garaudy, and cultural leaders such as the painter Alijs Mojon, or the Sorbonne professor of Arabic Vincent Monteil, who are very public about their faith, and defend Islam controversially in a public arena increasingly noted for right-wing xenophobia and mounting support for neo-fascist parties.

EK: You have spent much time in Western universities. Do you think that academic attitudes to Muslims are changing?

AHM: Islamic Studies departments in the West are an anachronism, inasmuch as Jewish Studies are almost always taught by Jews, Christian studies by Christians, feminist studies by feminists, and so on; while Islamic studies are almost invariably taught by people indifferent to the religion, and in some cases actively hostile. I have encountered several cases

of Muslim scholars excluded from jobs for which they are well-qualified simply because appointments committees believe that Muslims cannot be ‘objective’ when

teaching Islam. Using that logic, one would have to prevent Christians from teaching Christianity, and feminists from teaching feminism, and so on! The only

way around this really is for British Muslims whose Islam is not conspicuous or even known to enter university life. Oddly, there seems to be less prejudice

against converts than against native Muslims, perhaps because converts understand how to be inconspicuous when the interests of Islam require this.

Most Muslim teachers of Islam in British universities now are in fact from the convert community. They face an interesting task, since Islamic studies, which

was until recently a minor academic ghetto, has taken on immediate and heavy political and cultural significance in the past two decades. It is on the basis

of the advice and literary output of academics that politicians often take their decisions in parts of the world about which they know little. Hence it is of

vital importance for Muslims to rectify the current asymmetry in universities and play a central role.

EK: What is your experience of Bosnia?

AHM: I first visited Bosnia before going to university – I was one of those long-haired teenagers with back-packs who wander around Europe for no apparent reason. I remember how impressed I was at the age of 18, having spent a day in Belgrade, a city which I found to be of intolerable greyness and ugly heaviness, waking up on a train near Zavidovici, and being

startled by the verdant green of the hills, the yellow mounds of hay on the slopes, and the white minarets in the villages. It was like seeing a beautiful woman for the first time after leaving prison!

I visited Bosnia several times thereafter – I was in Sarajevo during the trial of Alija Izetbegovic and the others, and was able to bring some information to Amnesty International as a result. I spent time at the offices of Preporod and at the Gazi Husrev-begova Biblioteka. I was impressed by the conviviality of the three religious communities, which I took to be proof of the fact that religious toleration in its truest and most durable sense has only ever been able to flourish in the Muslim parts of Europe. And in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the fall of Granada to the forces of the Reconquista, the war launched by the Serbian nationalists seemed to prove that my theory remained valid even at the end of the twentieth century.

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