What is El Emara? asks my Belarusian friend and journalist with a beatific smile that never seems to touch his deep-set, sad blue eyes. Andrej Dynko has had a far from pleasant experience in his native Belarus. He had to spend some time in his country’s notorious prisons for hurling too many uncomfortable questions at the powers that be. That hasn’t stopped him from coming up with more questions though.
We are taking a late evening stroll along the sleepy boulevard next to our hotel in Brussels. It’s half past eight. Yet the sun doesn’t appear to have gone home. There is so much light it looks as if it’s still 5 in the evening. And there’s a reinvigorating nip in the pleasantly caressing, fragrant air. Having spent the past couple of weeks back home in a typical Indian summer, it is refreshing to be in Brussels. The city is home to the headquarters of the European Union, the powerful economic club of 27 nations and the world’s biggest free trade zone.
Dynko, who edits a political weekly Nasha Niva, is visiting Brussels like me in connection with EU’s Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize ceremony. He obviously thinks coming from the Middle East I could have the answer to his query. Unfortunately, yours truly is as familiar with the glory of Arabic language as Bush had been with Musharraf and Vajpayee before his election by the US Supreme Court. Which is a real disgrace. Having lived and worked in Dubai for years, one should be ashamed of oneself if one’s familiarity with the Arabs and their rich language and culture doesn’t go beyond the regulation shawarma, sheesha, desert safaris and a mindless emphasis on ‘khallas’ and ‘maafi mushkil’.
The trouble is, you may live and work in the UAE for years without ever really bothering or requiring to learn the local language. Which is what most expatriates from India, Pakistan and the West do. They live, work and move often all their lives in the limited spheres of their communities, without ever trying to understand the host country or society. This says something about this great country and its amazing people, especially their tradition of tolerance and respect towards guests and guest workers.
Returning to Brussels, I told Dynko that El Emara was perhaps an improvisation on Amara, a common Arab and Muslim female name. And in this Brussels neighbourhood, from where the EU parliament and headquarters are only a stone’s throw away, you come across hundreds of Arab and Muslim sounding names of cafes, shops and fast food joints. Watching roadside cafes with animatedly chatting North African Arabs enjoying their steaming Turkish coffee or kebab, you would think you have stepped back in time or landed in Cairo or Casablanca thanks to your pilot’s error of judgment. Indian and Pakistani takeaways greet you as soon as you step out of Brussels’ Midi Station, where our high speed train had taken us, promising you ‘Islamic’ food. My apprehensions about ‘halal’ food had been clearly far from justified. Unlike the rest of Europe, this great city steeped in history and tradition somehow managed to escape the destruction of the two World Wars thanks to Belgian leaders’ clever diplomacy and business sense. Having been repeatedly invaded by almost all its big neighbours, especially by the French, the Belgians have over the centuries mastered the fine art of diplomacy and political tightrope walking. Which is perhaps why Brussels has for over the past century or so remained the economic and political hub of Europe.
The birth and success of the European Community and later the EU have only ensured and emphasised this unchallenged preeminence of Brussels. Not for nothing Brussels is considered Europe’s heart. And the large Arab and Muslim community in Belgium, especially in Brussels, is working hard to win it over. There are more than 200,000 Muslims in Brussels alone, a city of one million people who appear to be remarkably at peace with themselves and their incredibly serene city. From flight and train attendants of North African descent to hotel receptionists of South Asian origin, the Muslims are everywhere. And there are plenty of headscarves too.
If you thought the 9/11 events and Bush’s war on Muslims have forced the believers to lie low or recede to the margins of European society, think again. Far from retiring to the oblivion of their ghettos, Arabs and Muslims form a healthy part of the mainstream and host societies in this part of the world. At the same time, they are comfortable with their religious and cultural identity. And it’s a proud and assertive Islam that continues to spread its wings, constantly conquering new territory in what is considered the citadel of Christian Europe.
The Muslims, after Christians, are already the largest religious community and Islam is the fastest growing faith across Europe. No wonder Pope Benedict XVI is getting increasingly concerned over the changing religious profile of the continent and his flock. But whether Europeans love or hate Muslims, they are there to stay and the hosts can do little about it. Besides, if the Muslims and other immigrants continue to pour into Europe in droves looking for jobs and a better life, the aging Europe too needs the young arrivals.
Not only the continent is not getting any younger, constantly falling birth rates in the indigenous, Caucasian populations pose a serious challenge to the continent’s future. The immigrants fill this vacuum. So this is a mutually benefiting, win-win relationship. But it would be a disservice to countries like Belgium if you don’t recognize the fact that they have gone out of their way to welcome the never-ending stream of visitors.
Although Belgium doesn’t have an awfully good record in Africa in its colonies like Congo, it hasn’t been bad to Arab and Muslim immigrants. It wooed hundreds of thousands of North African Arabs and Muslims after the World War II to work in its coalmines. The present generation of Arabs and Muslims in Belgium are mostly the children of those miners. Significantly, instead of forcing their own culture and ethos on the new arrivals, the Belgians have allowed them to live and flourish in their own space retaining their distinct identity. It’s this approach to integration that is at the heart of the EU experiment. As a result, the modern Belgian Arabs and Muslims are equally at ease with both Arabic, the language of their forefathers, and Flemish, the language of the country of their choice. So contrary to what Kipling warned, the East and West not only meet in modern Europe but also appear to be enjoying the encounter.
And just as the large expatriate community in the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries has played a decisive role in building their host countries, Arabs and Muslims can proudly claim they have a stake in the progress and development of Europe, especially states like Belgium, France and Germany, the original architects of EU.
If Belgium and France are home to Arabs, Germany hosts a huge community of Turkish Muslims. It’s often noted with regret by Muslim historians that Europe would have been part of Muslim world if only the Turks had persisted in their siege of Vienna in the 16th century. The powerful Ottoman army had swept through the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor to reach Vienna by 1529. The long siege of Vienna, the gateway to Europe, however failed to open the way for Islam. The Turks returned in 1683, under the leadership of Mustafa Pasha, to knock at the gate of Vienna once again.
The second attempt too failed to succeed despite the perseverance and huge losses suffered by the Turks. The Muslim armies were faced with an impregnable wall of resistance largely built by the Pope Innocent XI. The Pope managed to unite the Christian Europe against the ‘infidels’ in the name of God and the survival of Christendom. As a result, the Muslim armies were forced to retreat from Vienna once again.
The Ottoman tide turned at the Gates of Vienna and receded gradually, beginning its long withdrawal through the Balkans and Greece into Asia Minor over the next two centuries. But, you know, history has an annoying habit of repeating itself. For what the Turks failed to accomplish four centuries ago – conquer Europe – by force appears possible today.
The Muslims are winning Europe, not by force as the Ottoman Caliphate had repeatedly sought to do and failed. The once all-white, all-Christian continent is being changed from within. The Europe that steeled itself against the onslaught of invading Turkish armies four centuries ago is opening itself to the soft power of Islam. The continent that once proudly stood its ground in the face of the legendary Muslim firepower has submitted itself to Islam’s power of persuasion. Never underestimate the power of faith.