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12.00  Muslims at the "Doors of Christendom": The Refugee Crisis and the Heritage of East-West Contact

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9:00, Lundi 6 Juin 2016 (30 minutes)

A journalist at a dinner I attended some years ago described the prospect of Turkey being admitted to member status in the European Union as bringing Turks “to the very doors of Christendom.” Obviously, this statement was referring the alarming prospect of a Muslim nation in the EU—whose members were then (and still are) overwhelmingly Christian. Now, the EU is again being been faced with a different, and more immediate, prospect of Muslims in Europe. Anxieties over the Syrian refugee crisis are, like the prospect of Turks in the EU, based in no small part on the unresolved religious-historical relationship between Islamic cultures and the West.  

The leaders of a united Europe would like to speak to this crisis with one voice and achieve a consensus of its fractious member states. Despite the fears of “erosion” of national identities, however, it is pan-Europeanism itself that seems to be most at stake. The painful images of Czech and Hungarian officials writing numbers on arms and putting exhausted families on buses and trains to nowhere, or worse to squalid camps, are causing many Western Europeans to recoil. German officials, in particular, are frustrated by this behaviour and have, ironically, turned to Turkey for help even though Germans have been the most vigorous opponents of Turkish accession to the EU.    

In Eastern Europe the religious subtext, is openly acknowledged. Not all of the refugees are Muslims and the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have been quick to point out that their doors are open to Christian refugees. Hungary, in particular, retains a strong memory (emphasized by its Prime Minister on many occasions) of having borne the brunt of repeated attempts by Islamic empires to make incursions into Europe. Western secular nations, like Norway, may have similar fears but are loath to express them in terms of religious discrimination.  

Not surprisingly, this east-west rupture in the face of a burgeoning Muslim diaspora in Europe can be seen on the cultural heritage stage. Norway’s “official” response to Muslim migration, for example, encourages projects such as a planned Muslim Art Center in Oslo, while its strong secular nationalism continually confronts the religiosity of Norwegian Muslims, as evidenced by a recent ''Je suis Charlie'' Cartoon Exhibition in Drøbak. Hungary, which unlike Norway actually has a number of important historic Islamic monuments, has a less conflicted view based on a continuing memory of occupation. An illustration of Hungarian trepidation about invaders from the east are the expressions of heritage in the city of Pecs, which has some of the best examples of Early Ottoman architecture found anywhere in the world. Notably, Hungary’s only World Heritage Site in the culture-historical category is, pointedly, the early Christian necropolis underneath Pecs.  

The contrast between these two differing discourses of Muslim migration to and contact with Europe is the topic of this paper, which will describe the results of a comparative study of the reciprocal effects of Muslims on cultural heritage in Norway and Hungary. Using both narrative and critical discourse analysis for examining museum exhibitions and heritage sites alongside of recent news reports, the approach taken in this study is to build a multi-dimensional picture of responses to the continuing Muslim migration to Europe.    

This examination will focus on using cultural heritage representations to discern the roles of history and memory in shaping Norway’s idealistic multiculturalism (and its unintended consequences) and Hungary’s actions as modern “guardians of the gates” of Europe and how these two examples, together, may lead us to a fuller examination of the challenge of Muslim migration to the notion of a pan-European cultural heritage.

Sandra Scham


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