H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is the author of Muslims of Europe: the 'Other' Europeans, published by Edinburgh University Press.
In the wake of the most recent attacks in Paris, the airwaves have been full of myths about Muslim communities in Europe. After the commentator Steve Emerson declared on Fox News that the English city of Birmingham had become a "no-go zone" for non-Muslims, he was roundly denounced by figures across the political spectrum. Even the British Prime Minister himself, David Cameron, used uncharacteristically harsh language to describe the regular Fox News guest as "clearly, a complete idiot." The Fox network finally issued an abject apology for perpetuating this urban myth.
Then a U.S. governor and potential presidential candidate, Bobby Jindal, took that rhetoric further by launching into a missive around certain "people" who move to the West but do "not adopt our values," suggesting that this is the cause of Islamist radicalism.
The underlying claim at the root of Mr. Jindal's comments concerns the supposedly 'foreign' nature of Muslims and Islam in Europe and the West.
However, history tells a rather different tale: Muslims are far from alien from European culture; in fact, they are central to it. The links between Europe and Islam date back to the very first generation of Muslims – one of the Prophet's companions being a blonde-haired, fair, Greek-speaking Byzantine. Called 'al-Rumi' (no relationship to the now-famous poet and mystic), it is reported he was selected as the temporary commander of the entire Muslim community at one point, with the Caliph Umar having vested him with this authority while a leader was being chosen.
We know of the famed rule of Muslim Iberia (now known as Spain and Portugal), which created a thriving multi-religious society, something that was then a novelty in Europe.
Several hundred years earlier, after Muslim Spain had begun, you might have encountered Roger of Sicily, who ruled an island where Muslims lived as subjects of a Christian king, as far back as the 11th century. A successor, Roger the Second, became one of the greatest kings of Europe and surrounded himself with many Muslim notables and intellectuals. Many of his admirals were Muslim as well – indeed, the very word "admiral" comes from "ammiratus," used commonly in Sicily at the time, which is a Latin corruption of the Arabic "emir." The tolerance of Roger the Second among Sicilian rulers did not last long, however – eventually, there were exceedingly few Muslims left in Sicily, at least until the twentieth century.
Contemporary historical curricula often fail to acknowledge the broad breadth of these exchanges and interchanges. The notion of the modern university, for example, is based on the Muslim madrasah. Historians of education know this well, knowing that, for example, the idea of having academic 'chairs' of various subjects is based on the fact that the Muslim professor would sit on a chair in his classes, while his (or her) students would sit attentively on the floor. George Makdisi, a Lebanese-American Christian professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an entire work on the Islamic origins of university organization, entitled The Rise of Colleges. Before he passed away, Makdisi wrote a second work, also looking at the links between Arab-Muslim intellectual history and European thought, entitled The Rise of Humanism.
There is also the domain of law to consider. While British media figures often recoil at the prospect of any influence on society from Islamic law, the English legal system actually owes a great deal to Islamic law. English common law, by many accounts, took from Islamic law the concept of trial by jury and the power of a contract or deed to prove ownership, for example. The concept of the endowment, another famed English institution that spread throughout the English-speaking world, is probably derived from the Muslim 'waqf' system, which is based on perpetual endowments for public benefit.
In the midst of strife and conflict, it is far easier to adhere to histories that claim clear divisions and divides. They are more comfortable, and simpler to deal with. But Europe and Islam do not have that luxury, or would it be to anyone's benefit if they did. Rather, their histories are intertwined – and have been for a more than a thousand years.