Listening to the History of Islam in Europe

Listening to the History of Islam in Europe

No history is as present in today's world as the history of Islam in Europe, argues Maurits Berger. He made a podcast about it.

References to the past are omnipresent in current debates about Islam and Muslims in Europe. Interestingly, most of these references are implicit. Take the statement by a European commissioner in 2004, made in the heat of the debate about admitting Turkey to the European Union: “If Turkey were to be admitted, then Vienna would have been in vain.”

What did Vienna have to do with this? But as it turned out, very few Europeans needed any further explanation. His European audience knew that he was referring to 1683, when the Ottomans almost succeeded in taking Vienna. In the collective memory of Europeans, this was a pivotal moment in their history: if the Ottomans had taken Vienna, they would surely have conquered the rest of Europe. Or at least, that is how that moment in Europe’s history is remembered. There are many such moments in that history.

Islam-Christian civilization

It is interesting that not even scholars agree about the relation between 'Islam' and 'Europe'. Take two eminent American professors, Bernard Lewis and Richard Bulliet. They reached opposing conclusions. Bulliet argued that Islam and Christianity shared a common civilization, while Lewis asserted that the two civilizations were always at loggerheads. In this academic disagreement, it was the views of Bernard Lewis that gained wide popularity, especially after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Physical and virtual Islam

This ambivalence prompted me to retrace the history of Islam in Europe. One part of this history is made up by the interactions with Islam in its physical form, that is the Muslims themselves, but another part is the interaction with Islam in its virtual form, as a religion or an idea.

The physical interactions with Muslims have indeed been conflict, but also trade, diplomacy, and coexistence. Muslims have lived in Europe for a long time: 800 years in Spain, 400 years in Sicily, and they still live in Lithuania and Poland where they have been for over 600 years, as they do in most Balkan countries where they have lived for more than 500 years. These are generations of people with roots in European soil and culture.

The 'virtual Islam' was an interaction by means of the study of Islam, but more so by stories and imaginaries. This was the principal interaction that large parts of Europe have had with Islam for the longest time. Only with the arrival of Muslim migrants and refugees since the 1970s have these European societies for the first time in their histories been confronted with Islam in its physical form.

History revisited

Thirteen centuries of Europe's encounters with physical and virtual Islam make for great stories, many of which are told in the podcast. The question then is: can we speak of a continuation of history? Is the current presence of Muslims in Europe a next chapter in the history of Islam in Europe? Yes and no.

In terms of physical Islam, Muslims were at times the greatest enemy of Europeans but also their best friend: they were the despicable infidel but also the tolerant Muslim, the representatives of a culture to be admired but also to be looked down upon. This ambivalence seems to have continued right up to today. I argue, however, that the second half of the twentieth century shows a break.


That has to do with the way the notions of equality and freedom have become interpreted and practiced. Equality means that no one is better or higher than the other. And freedom means that one is free to be who they want to be. These are two important values around which Europe has shaped and regulated its social order.

The result is that Europeans are manifesting their identities in all forms and shapes without anyone having prevalence over the other. Even though some Europeans might still want to enforce their idea of a European or national culture, the political and legal reality is that such hierarchy does not exist. Women, people of colour and LGBT people have already preceded the European Muslims in emphasizing this equality of rights.


Where history shows remarkable continuity, on the other hand, is in virtual Islam. Certain images and ideas that Europeans held centuries ago about Islam are still very much alive. Three stand out: the mocking and criticism of the prophet Mohammed, the concern about the oppression of Muslim women, and the view of Islam as an aggressive and expansionist religion. I do not mean to argue that these images may be wrong. My point is that, when Europeans observe Muslims, the actions and behaviours of these Muslims tap into subconscious images that have been stored in European memory for centuries. All the more reason to open up this memory.

Maurits Berger’s podcast, Matters of Humanities: History of Islam in Europe, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and universiteitleiden.nl/wearehumanities.