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Between fascination and aversion
Research

Between fascination and aversion

Since the Middle Ages, both Islam and Europe have come together in a history steeped in both rapprochement and hostility.

4 minutes
17 June 2021

No, the presence of Muslims in Europe is not a recent phenomenon. Many people see the arrival of the guest workers in the 1960s as the start of Islam on an old continent. But according to professor of Arabic and Islamic studies Amr Ryad, the story of Islam in Europe begins much earlier. Since the Middle Ages, both worlds have come together in a history steeped in both rapprochement and hostility.

In the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, conflicts regularly arose between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy – early-modern Central and Eastern Europe. “Think of the Siege of Vienna in 1683, when the Turks stood before the gates of the Austrian capital for the last time.” At the same time, diplomatic relations and trade contacts developed between the two superpowers. “Ottomans traded in the Habsburg Netherlands, Great Britain and France, and European traders travelled to Aleppo and Istanbul.”

Amongst Europeans, there was a fascination with the exotic East. Some were so attracted to mystical Islam that they converted.

Rather Turkish than popish

This accumulation of conflicts and contacts resulted in an ambiguous relationship that was aptly summarised in the sixteenth century by the slogan “Rather Turkish than popish”. Due to a resurgence of Protestantism in the Northern Netherlands, Stadtholder William of Orange demanded more religious freedom from the Roman Catholic Spanish Habsburgs. If that demand were to be rejected, Dutch Protestants would turn against Catholic oppression.

They wore silver tokens in the shape of a crescent – the symbol of Islam – with “Rather Turkish than popish”. This slogan expressed their preference for religious tolerance within the Ottoman Empire. “Ottomans were seen as vicious scoundrels, but at the same time tolerant. Under the Habsburgs, Protestants were burned at the stake, whilst the Ottoman sultan guaranteed a measure of religious freedom for Christians and Jews.”

This ambivalent attitude towards Islam also characterised the twentieth century. Professor Ryad focuses his historical research on the presence of Muslims during the interwar period. After the First World War, tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers settled in Europe. Moreover, many young Muslims went to Western Europe to study – most of the Western European colonies were Islamic.

“Although Islam was considered a fanatic or even dangerous religion, Europe was sometimes a bit enamoured with Islam as well,” says Professor Ryad. Amongst Europeans, there was a fascination with the exotic East and its interwoven mystical Islam. “Some Europeans were so attracted to this spirituality that they converted.”

During the world wars, mosques were used as propaganda tools: By emphasising their affiliation with Islam, European powers hoped to convince Muslims to fight on their side.

Jihad Made in Germany

The first Islamic places of worship appeared in Europe during and after the First World War. Mosques were built in several European capitals, including London, Berlin and Paris. “That happened for pragmatic reasons. During the world wars, mosques were used as propaganda tools: by emphasising their affiliation with Islam, European powers hoped to convince Muslims to fight on their side.”

Germany also used jihad, or Islamic holy war, to incite Muslims from the Ottoman Empire to fight against the Allies. “Jihad – a term that today has negative connotations – was something positive in higher German circles during the First World War.” Using a genuine jihad campaign, Germany tried to unleash a holy war against the Allies: “Walking through the streets of Istanbul, Cairo or Damascus, you could have had a pamphlet pressed into your hands saying ‘Kill the French! Kill the British! Slaughter them all!’” Professor Ryad says. “It was an appeal to all Muslims.”

In 1915, the Dutch Islamologist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje wrote the manifesto “Jihad Made in Germany”, in which he criticised Germany's role as an instigator of jihad. “Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers fought each other in a war that was not theirs,” says Professor Ryad. “They were used to defend Western interests and thus unwittingly became part of the political divisions in Europe.”

Whilst thousands of pamphlets were distributed during the First World War, the radio was used as a propaganda tool during the Second World War. Using Arab, Chinese and Turkish radio stations, Nazi Germany sought to spread its political message far beyond Europe. To thwart Nazi propaganda, Britain introduced an Arabic version of the BBC in the late 1930s. “There were even language committees established to investigate how propaganda could be disseminated not only in Modern Standard Arabic, but also in local Arabic dialects.”

The 1960s heralded a new chapter in the relationship between the West and Islam. Turkish and Moroccan guest workers settled in Europe and started building houses of worship, precisely at the time when Western Europe began to secularise. Those developments help to lay the seeds for recent tensions.

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Sonar

Summer 2021