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 Hitlerâ€™s Mein Kampf, because â€œit incites violence in the name of a fascist ideologyâ€. 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 homeâ€¦ 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: â€œThe defendant rejects our democracy. He even wants to bring down our democracy.â€
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 â€œthe Islamic threatâ€ 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:
LaÃ¯citÃ© 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 laÃ¯citÃ© policy and by contrasting laÃ¯citÃ© 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.