BRUSSELS, Sept 20, (Agencies): For months after the Brussels extremist attacks of 2016 it seemed an exhibition on Islam’s legacy in Europe might never open in the city. At first, the creators and city officials felt the time wasn’t right, and then they struggled to find a location willing to host a show certain to be seen as controversial by some. But the “Islam. It’s Also Our History” exhibition at the city-owned Vanderborght Building finally managed to open last week and is telling its story of a long Islamic presence on European soil that has shaped Western culture in areas ranging from medicine, philosophy and architecture to diplomacy, language and food.
“We want to make clear to Europeans that Islam is part of European civilization and that it isn’t a recent import but has roots going back 13 centuries,” said Isabelle Benoit, a historian with Tempora, the organization that designed the exhibition.
Funded by the European Union and Belgian authorities, the show was conceived many years before the deadly Paris attacks of 2015 were carried out by a Brussels-based extremist cell and the March 2016 attacks that killed 32 people in Brussels itself. It tries to build bridges in an era of distrust and fear by showing the rich civilization that Muslims first brought to Europe in the Medieval period, when they ruled in the Iberian Peninsula, today’s Spain and Portugal, for eight centuries.
There they produced a rich civilization and oversaw a long era in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in peaceful co-existence, albeit with Jews and Christians as second citizens. The golden era is recalled today in Islamic architectural gems — castles and mosques-turned-cathedrals — that still dot Granada, Seville and other parts of Spain, Portugal and even Sicily.
The show also addresses difficult issues, including violent extremism and the problems that Belgium and other Western European countries have faced in past decades in integrating large Muslim communities. While stressing that integration is often a success, the exhibition puts some blame on both native populations and Muslim migrants for the times integration fails, and says building bridges requires accommodation on both sides.
To Muslim newcomers there is a pointed message delivered in a short video: certain values are “non-negotiable” in Europe, including democracy, individual rights, secularism and gender equality. A variety of traditional objects and installations are used to tell the story of three major periods of Muslim presence on Europe’s soil: the Arab conquest of Spain in the Middle Ages; Ottoman rule over southeastern Europe starting in the 14th century; and the Colonial era, which opened the way for Muslims from the Middle East and Africa to begin settling in Europe in the 20th century.
The unsettled problems of today, including the large-scale migration over the past few years and Islamic violence, are dealt with primarily with artistic installations, some of them provocative. One installation — “End of Dreams” by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen — is an ode to those who have died trying to reach Europe in dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea. Visitors find themselves in a dark room surrounded on all four sides by large videos of the sea bottom, with bundles on the floor evoking the small bodies of children who have drowned at sea.
Tech cos urged to block extremists: Prime Minister Theresa May is urging internet companies to block the spread of extremist material, calling on social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google to develop technologies that will prevent content from being posted in the first place. Britain’s leader will focus on the fight against extremist content during a meeting with internet companies Wednesday at the UN General Assembly in New York. May says that while social media platforms have made progress in fighting extremist propaganda, they need to ensure content is removed in less than two hours. She will say that “industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content” because extremists “are placing a greater emphasis on disseminating content at speed in order to stay ahead” of surveillance.