Secularism confronts Islam by Olivier Roy

When I look at contemporary public discourse, no day seems to go by without at least someone mentioning the threat of Islam. Last week Dutch MP Geert Wilders even went as far as to call for a ban on the Koran itself, comparing it in true Godwin style to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, because “it incites violence in the name of a fascist ideology”. His idea was widely condemned, even by people who would normally sympathize with at least some of his views, but the fact that he was confident enough to put this idea to the test is very telling. Islam is a hot topic and the threat of Islam, the Islamic monster as it were, either perceived or real, sells.

At the same time there has been real violence in the name of Islam. 9-11 and the bombings in London and Madrid are obvious examples but, the scope of the inflicted destruction notwithstanding, they could be placed in a wider geopolitical context. Far more telling, for me, was the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. He was killed in the name of Islam by a young, Dutch Muslim extremist of Moroccan descent called Mohammed Bouyeri. This particular murder has been as devastating as the aforementioned bombings, not in scope but in psychological impact. He brought the threat of Islam home… from the inside out. His religious radicalization leading up to his murder of Theo van Gogh cannot be explained merely by geopolitical events or by what some people, like Wilders, would call inherent traits of the Islamic religion. The prosecutor in his murder trial formulated it like this: “The defendant rejects our democracy. He even wants to bring down our democracy.”

The murder of Theo van Gogh was seen as proof of the failure of multiculturalism and, much more important, a direct link was established, in the public mind, between Muslim immigrants and religious violence. What had thus far been a sociological problem, the cultural integration of immigrants who had, by the way, been around for decades, turned into a debate on the position of, in this case Islamist, religion in Western society. Islam, in short, had become a subversive force in Western society threatening traditional values and democracy. Islam was no longer just another religion, it had become a political, assertive and proactive force. Again, in the public mind. I remember fifteen odd years ago there already were lively debates on the position of immigrants in Western society. But those debates hardly ever considered religion. What exactly happened between then and now? Why did some young Western Muslims radicalize and how did they, arguably a minority within a minority, manage to have such an impact on Western public opinion?

With these introductory questions I can finally introduce world renowned expert on Islam Olivier Roy and his excellent new book Secularism confronts Islam, published by Columbia University Press. As far as the body of the book goes, Columbia University Press already did a great job summarizing this online:

Analyzing the French case in particular, in which the tension between Islam and the conception of Western secularism is exacerbated, Roy makes important distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, hegemony and tolerance, and the role of the umma and the sharia in Muslim religious life. He pits Muslim religious revivalism against similar movements in the West, such as evangelical Protestantism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and refutes the myth of a single “Muslim community” by detailing different groups and their inability to overcome their differences.

The great value of Secularism confronts Islam, which should make it a lasting classic, is that it recognizes the complexity of the issues at hand and that it offers us, by revealing their diverse and often surprising underlying dynamics, the tools to understand them better. Olivier Roy hands his readers a wealth of material that will allow them to interpret past, ongoing and future developments in a more objective and different manner. And, maybe most important of all, he reduces “the Islamic threat” to its just proportions and, in doing so, gives us the means to deal, both intellectually and emotionally, in a more appropriate and effective way with that very same threat. One example to illustrate this:

Laïcité creates religion by making it a category apart that has to be isolated and circumscribed. It reinforces religious identities rather than allowing them to dissolve in more diversified practices and identities.

In other words, by fighting a monster the wrong way, you can actually make that monster stronger.

Olivier Roy does not necessarily provide conclusive, foolproof all-encompassing answers to the questions I asked in my introduction, but he does provide a wealth of insights that may help us understand not only what is going on, but how things have developed and how they should be seen in a wider context. To rephrase it using my monster metaphor: Who is the Frankenstein behind the monster and how tall and threatening is that monster really?

It is here that Olivier Roy excels. Instead of focusing on the monster itself, I am of course talking about the public perception in the West of Islam, he takes a hard look at the surroundings and circumstances in which it was created. In the preface to Secularism confronts Islam, which can be found online on this page of the Columbia University Press website, he states:

The redefinition of the relations between religion and politics is a new challenge for the West, and not only because of Islam. Islam is a mirror in which the West projects its own identity crisis. We live in a postculturalist society, and this postculturalism is the very foundation of the contemporary religious revival.

With this observation Olivier Roy takes his readers on an intellectual, yet fact-based, journey that ends with another remarkable observation:

What I have attempted to show here is that even fundamentalism has at bottom incorporated the religious space of the West (individualism, separation between politics and religion) and is striving to promote its conservative, indeed reactionary, values in a discourse and practice that mirror those of Christian and Jewish conservatives. The problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion.

Olivier Roy comes to this conclusion by analyzing the true meaning and origin of the French laïcité policy and by contrasting laïcité with secularism, by exploring the different attitudes different countries in the West have adopted to Islam and immigration, by comparing neofundamentalist doctrines (and finding too many similarities for comfort), by explaining the political dimension of religion, by pointing out the importance of and quest for identity, etcetera. In the end it all comes together nicely and clearly and the reader is left, not necessarily with clear-cut answers to the (re)integration of religion, and notably Islam, in Western societies, but with a clearer vision of all the different elements that are working together in (re)shaping our societies.

In short, even when Secularism confronts Islam focusses on the confrontation between Islam and secularist values, which, as Olivier Roy demonstrates, are not necessarily exclusively Western, it is most of all a work that, by its sheer depth, inspires readers to think about many other concepts. It inspires readers to even rethink some of those concepts in order to gain a better understanding of all the dynamics at play. As we all know, the first step in solving a problem is understanding that problem. Or, to pick up my silly monster metaphor again, if you are afraid of something, the best thing to do is to confront the scary monster by trying to understand it. More often than not you will find it to be much less threatening than you initially thought it would be. The monster may even confront you with yourself… Or, in this case, with the dynamics of our own societies.

So, if you feel the need to chase some monsters, imagined or real, from under your beds, go and read Olivier Roy’s Secularism confronts Islam. As he himself states this is:

…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 criticial spirit.

30 thoughts on “Secularism confronts Islam by Olivier Roy

  1. Still, it’s very dishonest and ignores the gorilla in the room- christian fundamentalism. With ~25% of all US-Americans being part of the millenialist doomsday cult, bent on bringing about armageddon to destroy all non-believers, giving up the western humanist ideals in favor of a new dark age?

    Whats changing our societies? A handful of muslim immigrants? A murdered neo-nazi filmmaker brings about the end of the west? Or is it the abolition of science and teaching Creationism?

  2. Anonymous,Roy does not ignore that gorilla at all:

    “The problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion.”

    “by comparing neofundamentalist doctrines (and finding too many similarities for comfort),”

    It is just that, at least in Western Europe and for the time being, Islam is more prominent than, for instance, some evangelist movements.

  3. And what exactly is that evil “Islam” doing? Occupying Israels holy land? And occupying oil reserves, nothing else. The entire fundamentalism is funded by the “West”. The Saudi Royals are 100% in the wests pocket and that is where the “fundamentalism” is coming from.

    That Frenchman has some nerve, his country killed millions of Algerians and never even apologized for it! Some fine “laicite” they got.

  4. Antonymous–I’m not sure how you are interpreting Roy in this post, but he in fact rigorously criticises the diabolisation of Islam by “the west.” So unless we’re going to diabolise him for his nationality, we should probably look first to his arguments, the grand themes of which are mostly well represented in this post.

    Regarding the post–I am curious about the phrase “the true meaning…of laicité policy.” Roy tends to emphasize that there is no “true meaning” of laicité and that the term can only be considered in light of its history and interpretations.
    And although I agree that we should stop treating Islam as something so analytically different, it’s reductionist to think that it thus is structurally the same to other fundamentalisms.
    Finally, an alternative interpretation to laicité in France: instead of constituting the opposite of religion/Islam and that thus excludes religion/Islam from all public life, it is, as the french civic religion, functionally similar. From this perspective, it is this proximity of laicité to Islam–not their opposition–that creates tensions.

  5. Your use of “religion” is very telling. Normally I’d expect to find this with the nutters: the religion of communism, the religion of.. laicite?? Gimme a break. You know, this way you have made your argument about fundamentalisms being different actually… fundamentalist.

    IMHO This book wants to:

    – promote Christianity and religious dumbness in general
    – obscure even the simplest foreign political matters, like the Wests political elites support for fundamentalisms everywhere and past western crimes against humanity
    – use xenophobia about Muslims to divert attention from the apocalyptic doomsday cult that is thriving with the Christian nutters

    As to your question, are the consciously French of today still responsible for the millions killed during colonial occupation in Algeria? Thats a clear Yes in my book, as long as they can’t even apologize or the French state wants to create laws that proscribe positive speech about this historical fact.

  6. @Américaine: ““the true meaning…of laicité policy.”

    Actually, you’ll have to read the book:-)Roy explains the origins of laïcité and how it is now coopted, or even abused, by people in different ways. In essence, you could see laïcité as a policy in that the state, through law, determines what is acceptable or not. France’s policy of not considering people’s ethnic background can be seen in this light. On the other hand, there is factual secularism. There is no law forbidding or urging people to go to church, yet church attendance in the West has fallen dramatically over the past few decades. This would be secularism, a more or less natural development or way of life.

    The problem with reviewing a nuanced book like Secularism confronts Islam is that is in actual fact very nuanced. Any summary would simplify what Roy actually says.

  7. Anonymous: where this “millenialist doomsday cult” come from? 25% of the U.S. population would be 75 million people. Neither the Roman Catholic Church, nor the Southern Baptist Church, nor the United Methodist Church espouse millienialism in any of its traditional forms. Considering that these are the only churches whose membership could comprise 10% of your 75 million, the numbers just do not add up.

  8. Whilst I agree with antonymous that Xtian fundamentalism is the real ‘enemy within’, Roy’s book does finger religion as the culprit, so unfair to snarl at him. However, in the Western world at large, it is still Islam as a whole that gets demonised rather than evil Xtian nutters, so lazy/corrupt/biased media are a better target for blame.

    Re laicité, this seems to be being discussed as if it were a fierce, repressive idealogy. It’s not. It’s more a noble idea that today – as Roy suggests – has unintended consequences. The separation of Church and State (imitated in the US Constitution) was an important result of the French Revolution. The philosophy of laicité is about humanity – another vital Revolutionary value – and its application, especially in the classroom, more to do with freedom (from the malign influence of the Catholic clergy) than with repression. But as we have seen with the problems of the headscarf in French schools, maybe in today’s far more complex society, laicité can no longer in practice achieve what was so nobly intended.

  9. Groucheaux, thank you for your thoughtful comment. You are right. Roy also points out: “Laïcité thus ought to be negative above all: it aims at freeing political, but also public, space from religious control. But it does not aim to replace religious discourse by a new ethics: such an idea is totally absent from the body of laws that defines laïcité.” This is not to say that there aren’t people who cling religiously or ideologically to laïcité.

  10. antonymous August 11th, 2007
    A murdered neo-nazi filmmaker?????????
    You are totally and completely out of your mind to say that.
    You better don’t say anything at all than this complete and utter bullshit.

  11. The real monster is not formed by the muslim immigrants themselves but the madman like mayor Thielemans forbidding a demonstration against islamization of Europe because the Brussel local immigrants (!) would be insulted by conmemmorating the victims of 9-11. (sign the petition on this ban

    If islam was only the ideology of majorities in the middle east and of minorities of immigrants in Europe I would not be so worried. What worries me more are the beheadings in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and the way children are raised as killers in Gaza, Westbank and Afghanistan.
    Most worrying I ever read about islam however was on Indonesia. Islamic scum threatened to attack christian churches. Decent muslem people offered the churches to defend them but they declined the offer. That is the monster.

    I do not believe that the west has the Saoudi princely parasites in their pocket: I am afraid it is more the other way around.

    Antonymus maybe should listen to this wise and courageous Sikh living as a refugee in Britain after his father was assassinated by islam when fanatics split the country:

  12. Well you little children have certainly been brought up to hate 🙂

    The murdered film-genius whose famous films drew millions into cinemas all over the world, Theo van Gogh, before he agitated against Muslims, was agitating equally distastefully against Jews. So he shares the history of the Neo-Nazi movements: from anti-semitic to anti-islamic xenophobia. Lets see how the rest of the lifecycle goes 😉

    And in other news, it’s the old WW2 alliance of paranoid & violent Nazis and fanatic Christians financed by big capital that is haunting Europe. Nothing new under the sun.

  13. @ antonymous:

    Theo van Gogh wasn’t agitating against jews, he agitated against one jew: Leon de Winter. He felt that De Winter (ab)used his jewish heritage for personal gain. So he once wrote something along the lines: “What is that sweet caramel smell? Oh, they are burning the Jews with diabetis [sugar-disease in dutch] now!”

    Since foolishness and demagoguery knows no religion, many Jews looked no further, took immediate issue with this and villified Van Gogh for it, as you do now, as an anti-semite.

    Van Gogh was neither that, nor an anti-islam…ist. He was a rude loud-mouthed mofo, who loved to shock and believed that he had the right to say whatever he wanted.

    His last years were in part devoted to insulting islam precisely because he (rightly?) held the notion that he should be able and be allowed to. The very fact that so many people got so very upset over him calling muslim terrorists; goat-fuckers and suggesting getting a pet-pig and calling it Allah, and told him to stop, in his mind, made it all the more pressing that he kept saying precisely those things.

    What he said was rude, insulting, sometimes witty and mostly tasteless. To find a clear ideology of hate in there you have to be very creative with his words. The only thing he seemed to hate/love was the controversy. If people had shrugged their shoulders he would have stopped, moved on and still be alive.

    Because, regardless of what he said, he was never violent, never incited to violence or in any other way had blood on his hands. That’s not something all of his opponents can say.

    Yes, most of his films weren’t stellar.

  14. Well I’d call TvG a freelance journalist, since his few “films” were actually homemade 15-minute videos. I don’t know if he really worked anything besides racist provocations or whether he was some kind of privatier. And it should be mentioned that TvG’s last horror film was some kind of co-production with a certain Ms.Hirsi.

    She had used her marriage to a Canadian businessman to escape her African middleclass home that had sent her to the best schools in the country, however studying was not her thing. Once out of the country, she dissolved the marriage with her Canadian husband and snuck into the European refugee circuit by pretending a false identity.

    Being the first one in millions of muslim immirants with this kind of character, she decided to get into the field of politics by way of gross and calculatedly shocking fairytales about “Islam”, starting on the hysterical talkshow circuit and eventually moving into real politics on a wave of violent xenophobic sentiment.

    Some corporations “think tank” is paying her rent in the US, since she doesn’t like to work and they need every one these racist propaganda types for their plans of world domination.

    Thankfully we don’t have to put up with these two political gangster types anymore.

  15. Do I recognize the true spirit of “the religion of peace” here, anonymously rejoicing in murderthreats at the address of and actual killings of political opponents?

  16. I think you can recognize the sound of blood rushing between your ears 🙂

    Hey “Frans”, the netherlands has one of the strongest neo-nazi movements in Europe. They beat up tons of people, terrorize their cities as crime gangs and spread their pestilent hate everywhere.

    Do I recognize the spirit of this “ethic of freedom” in your anonymous words?

  17. The murdered film-genius whose famous films drew millions into cinemas all over the world, Theo van Gogh, before he agitated against Muslims, was agitating equally distastefully against Jews. So he shares the history of the Neo-Nazi movements: from anti-semitic to anti-islamic xenophobia.

  18. “the netherlands has one of the strongest neo-nazi movements in Europe. They beat up tons of people, terrorize their cities as crime gangs and spread their pestilent hate everywhere.”

    If by “movement” you mean a handful of nutters, by “tons of people” their wives, by “cities” their children and by “everywhere” the 3 meter perimeter around their own homes then you would be correct.

    You’ve never been there, have you?

  19. “The murder of Theo van Gogh was seen as proof of the failure of multiculturalism”

    You don’t even have “multiculturalism” in Europe-unless that means a bunch of countries predicated historically not on a form of government but on some hyperbolic sense of culture and then after that genetics.
    A condescending Parisian with brown skin and dreadlocks is a Frog to me, but not to most Frogs. A German Jew isn’t German to most Germans, even today. I’m not at all sure even liberal Europeans understand the immigrants’ situation. Amusing that I live in the most “multicultural” neighborhood on Earth, and most of the immigrants here, from every part of the world, would rather be living in Europe!

    Odd if multicultural social democracy finds fertile soil in the US, thanks to the European failure to extend social opportunities to its newcomers. Someone had to make my country more livable.
    Thank you!

  20. I have yet to receive a concise, simple definition of the shibboleth that is “multiculturalism”. None of the conservative hacks (but perchance I was uneconomic with my words there!) who use the word (and they *use* it, baby) give a definition of what they think it is. There is no clear accusation to defend against. Just a fudge word.

  21. Pingback: Secular science confronts Islam | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

  22. It takes a rather dense individual to claim the real problem is Christianity in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I’m assuming Groucheaux is European, which would make his claim even more absurd.

    Xel, perchance your simply not listening or asking the right question. The simplest definition I’ve heard from people who dislike multiculturalism is that it’s defined as the belief that all cultures are equal, which clearly is not the case.

    I’ve ordered the book!

  23. Your next post doesn’t allow comments, but if it did, I would say this:

    I’m very suspicious of French attempts to preserve culture, because it puts so much effort into destroying linguistic diversity in France. One good way to get cultural diversity is to teach Breton, Basque, Alsatian, Provencal, Dutch, etc. in public schools.

  24. Thanks for pointing out to me that my next posts do not allow comments, Hektor Bim. It was a technical thingy I forgot to tick. It should work now. Sorry about that.

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