This is according to Dr. Oliver Scharbrodt, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chester, Britain, who paid a visit to Iran a few weeks ago to deliver a number of lectures on Islamic studies, Shia Islam in particular, and other relevant subjects from an academic perspective.
IQNA conducted an interview with the British scholar on certain challenges and issues facing the Islamic world, notably European Muslims.
What follows is the second and final part of the interview.
IQNA: In your lecture delivered at the International Conference Hall of Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University with the theme of “Shia Studies in Britain”, you put emphasis on seeking ways to build up an institutional platform to develop partnerships in favor of dialogue in the academic framework of Islamic, and especially Shia, studies. Considering the present situation of Islamic community, and the widening gap between different Islamic denominations, do you think such a partnership would be realistic or feasible?
Prof. Scharbrodt: I think they are two separate things. I mean obviously there is a need for some sort of inner Islamic intrafaith dialogue between different Islamic nations. This kind of dialogue is now more urgent and more difficult than it ever was. But what I was referring was about possible ways to bridge the gap between academic scholarship and the needs and perspectives of the Muslim communities.
I am moderately optimistic because I think this is the way forward but it would be very difficult because some of the concerns from Muslims themselves and how they want to see Islam is represented are not necessarily shared by academic researchers. Muslim scholarship would need to establish true and pure Islam and to show what Islam is, which is not necessarily concerned of academic scholarship of Islam.
But one of the things that make me optimistic is the growing number of second and third generation of Muslim immigrants in Europe who were educated and brought up in the west to enter universities to follow academic studies on Islam, and who want their voice and particular perspectives heard within the public sphere and academic context.
I think these demographic changes can change the way how Islamic studies are approached academically. But it would be difficult and challenging.
IQNA: According to some documents and surveys released by security agencies and authorities, and which have been covered by the media, a considerable number of European citizens are joining Daesh (ISIL) to fight in Syria, Iraq, or carry out terrorist attacks in different parts of the world, and the number is on the rise. This is while the majority of them are young and somehow educated. I was wondering if this fact could be in contradiction to or, at least, not in accordance with your optimism. Could factors such as Islamophobia, alienation, isolation, and stigmatization of European Muslims be involved in ISIL recruiting of extremists from the West?
Prof. Scharbrodt: There are different things coming together. On the one hand, it certainly is a matter of radicalization while a small minority of young Muslims are radicalized and join ISIS or ISIL in this sort of movement and this is certainly a response to the experience of Islamophobia, a sense of social exclusion, and the idea that Islam is not seen as a recognized identity in the strict sense of the term in contemporary Europe. That certainly plays a role as well.
The other problem is obviously the rise of Salafism and again it has appeal to certain young Sunni Muslims because it promises to sort of restore pure Islam as it has claimed to be pure and authentic Islam by going back to the scripture Sunnis refer to. But this is not the case because Salafism has a particular approach to and interpretation of Islam as such. So there is a strong appeal among young Sunni Muslims of Salafism because of the sense of unity and also because of the kind of isolationist approach of Salafism which again reflects perhaps their lived experience.
In this regard, I am actually a bit pessimistic because the way how current European governments tackle the issue is by putting more pressure and more suspicion on Muslim communities. That obviously will alienate more young Muslims.
IQNA: With reference to your last word, one example of exerting pressure on European Muslims by some European politicians would be the recent so called anti-terrorism bill presented by the British Prime Minister to the parliament. However, the bill was not welcome by the British Muslim community since only less than 10 percent of them expressed their agreement to the bill, deeming it discriminatory and politically motivated. How do you assess the issue and its possible outcomes?
Prof. Scharbrodt: There are many floors in the approach taken by the British government in terms of the bill. Many assumptions are made. In fact, it is putting the whole responsibility on the shoulder of the Muslim community, not recognizing that the whole society has a role to play as well.
Unfortunately, in order to justify these policies, the government also reverted to very outdated orientalist and Islamophobic stereotypes, putting particular sort of attention to Muslim women again such as the need to educate them as their representation has been traditionally submissive. That has alienated many communities because the discourse around it has referred to very old orientalist and Islamophobic stereotypes. I do not think this kind of discourse has been helpful.
There is also another problem that is increasing not only in Britain, but also all over Europe. The governments prefer to talk to so called representatives of Muslim communities that do not really represent Muslim communities, but just respond to the political expectations of the governments. This behavior is increasingly growing in the UK context where money is channeled into organizations that sort of copy and paste this discourses coming from the government. So I think the approach is entirely floored and, as a result, completely counterproductive, making the situation probably even worse.
In one of my recent lectures in Iran, I gave the audience an example concerning the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. There was in a particular region in China a plague of flies. The teachers of a particular school asked the pupils to catch and kill flies to combat the plague. What actually happened, pupils began to breed flies in the dormitory. I think many of the policies that European governments are adopting in order to fight radicalism is exactly like that. They seem to address such a combat but, in essence, it provided new breeding ground for further radicalization.
Oliver Scharbrodt is the Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chester, UK. He studied Comparative Religion, Islamic Studies and Philosophy at the University of Bonn in Germany and completed his graduate studies and research in London, obtaining his MA and PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). After teaching in London, the US and Ireland, he joined the Department of Theology and Religious Studies in September 2014.
The same year he was appointed the first Professor of Islamic Studies in the University of Chester as one of the prime centers for the academic study of Islam in the UK. Responsible for teaching courses on Islam, his research interests lie in the intellectual history of modern Islam, the historical and contemporary presence of Islam in Europe and the role of mystical, esoteric and millenarian traditions of Islam in the modern world.
At the moment, professor Scharbrodt is the principal investigator of a research project on Shia communities in Britain and their links to the Middle East. He is also the executive editor of the Yearbook of Muslims in Europe.
“Modern Readings of the Qur’an”, “From Hafiz: Irish Orientalism, Persian Poetry and W. B. Yeats”, “Shaping the Public of Image of Islam: the Shiis of Ireland as moderate Muslims”, and “Erin and Iran: Cultural Encounters between the Irish and the Iranians, constitute, among others, some of his works published by globally well known centers of publications.