Intolerance Begets Intolerance

This review first appeared in the Spring 2008 edition of Studies and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Secularism confronts Islam
128 PAGES STG £16.

Professor Olivier Roy, a social scientist and research director at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris is a world authority on modern Islam. In this short book he tackles the question – is Islam compatible with Western secular society?

Firstly Roy considers the French legally-enforced secularisation – laïcité. This enforced separation between faith and state is what leads to difficult confrontations over the wearing of burkas in French schools.

Olivier shows that those who campaign against Islam in France today mimic the campaign against Catholicism 100 years ago. He reveals the bitter divisions exposed by the debate in France, and the movement on the part of some on the left to the right on this issue,

Roy deconstructs many popular myths. Two – the need for reformation in Islam, or that it cannot be reformed, are quickly dismissed: “In both cases, we are dealing with what I would call the essentialist position, consisting of seeing in Islam a fixed and timeless system of thought. Critics of Islam and Muslim fundamentalists are mirrors of each other, and each corroborates the other in the view of Islam that they share, merely with the signs reversed”.

Demolishing the nonsense about Islam being one, fixed and timeless, he points out that “Far from tracing continuity over 14 centuries of history, Islam is very flexible, establishes no [fixed] model and adapts to different political systems”. He goes on to deride the clash of civilisations thesis (advanced by Samuel Huntington and Al-Qaeda) which envisages a direct link between dogma and a political system, a link supposedly materialised by a culture.

“What allows us to say that dogma determines the conduct of believers…? The problem with this kind of analysis that claims to explain culture by means of religion is that the founding religious element can never be isolated as such: the so-called Arab-Muslim culture derives, in fact, more from the anthropology of Arab society than from Islam in itself … In fact, Muslim culture is an imaginary construction made up of elements of dogma, historical paradigms, sociological characteristics, and ways of thinking, all unified under the name of culture”. To support the point he notes that “[Muslim] believers in Turkey are closer to Christian religious conservatives than to Arab Islamists”.

He then answers his central question. “The question is thus not that of the persistency of an Islamic culture, but of the sudden appearance of new ways of religion becoming ideological and of new forms of religiosity in the framework of the modern nation-state”. By religiosity, I understand him to mean dressing up a political position with the outward signs of religion minus the underlying value system, which in Islam’s case is tolerant and respectful of other creeds.

He then focuses on the real issue – the crisis of the secular state and new forms of religiosity. The nation-state, although it has not disappeared, has been weakened by globalisation and the construction of Europe, while the mechanisms for social integration and social cohesion have also been weakened (school, army, and labour market, in parallel with increasing urban segregation).

But the churches have also been challenged as institutions, not by the state or by secularisation but, on the contrary, by a religious revival that has bypassed them. At the same time and for many of the same reasons, religion is changing dramatically. “The new forms of religiosity are individualistic, very mobile … weakly institutionalised … anti-intellectual …, and often communitarian, but in the sense in which one joins a community of believers (and not a community of origin). The community is a choice of belonging and not a cultural heritage … A religion is all the more fascinating when it is detached from any context, freed of any territory, not to say exotic”.

This puts the debate on Islam into its proper context. References to Islam are in fact being exploited “by Muslim actors (youth in a protest posture or people with the ambition of becoming community leaders) and by those who think that Islam is a problem. All of them systematically emphasise the reference to Islam”.

He draws an important lesson for us all: “Behind the label “Islam” there are men and women, Muslims of flesh and blood, with their social and economic expectations and their integration into a complex society, well beyond ghettos, banlieues, and housing projects. They need a more diversified offering, so to speak, of religious products, and it is this diversity that ought to be encouraged. But for that we will precisely have to avoid freezing polarised identities and hence avoid systematically politicising religion … the current campaign being conducted against Islam is helping Islam … to turn in on itself” …

His conclusion is a liberating one for Muslims and non-Muslims alike: “The problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion. (Emphasis added) This is not a reason to show indulgence in solidarity with those who seem to be excluded but rather an invitation to think about Islam in the same framework as we think about other religions and about the religious phenomenon itself. This is true respect for the other and the true critical spirit”.

So much of what is said in this small, important book is obvious, but is all the more powerful for being carefully analysed by this French Islamic scholar. It is estimated that 50% of the world’s population adhered to the four main religions (Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam) in the year 1900. By the year 2000 that had grown to 64%. It is expected that it will be 70% by the year 2025. That continuing growth in religion belief will have unexpected implications for us all.

The only quibble I have with Roy’s analysis is that he has ignored the battle within Islam between the majority who share Western beliefs about the separation of church and state, democracy, and the separation of powers, and the minority (represented by Al-Qaeda at its most extreme) that sees the separation of church and state as the real cause of the failure of Islam. However that is a debate for another day.

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