Muslim Radicals Are Perfectly "Westernised"

Olivier Roy is one of the most renowned experts on political Islam. In this interview with Michael Hesse, he talks about religious fundamentalism, Islam in Europe, and explains why the Muslim middle classes in the West ought to be recognized as a western faith community, not as an alien culture

photo: Siedler Verlag, Germany
Olivier Roy, author of "The Failure of Political Islam", among others

​​Mr. Roy, are Europe's difficulties with its Muslims a subject of hysterical oversimplification?

Olivier Roy: At least oversimplification. The picture usually presented is that of a "Muslim community" – meaning they are all the same, all stick to Islam – united in refusing "western values" and bringing into Europe the conflicts of the Middle East. In fact the Muslim population in Europe is very diverse, not only because of different origins, but because they made different and often complex, even contradictory, choices.

Some tend to preserve as much as possible a pristine culture in terms of language, diet or endogamous marriages, other play on secularization, speak better French and German than Arabic or even Turkish and just try to be integrated; others, also largely westernized, try to recast a purely religious practice in a Western secular environment by taking models on protestant and Jewish forms of religious belonging; and finally some young "born-again", joined by converts, are fascinated with a de-culturalized fundamentalist brand of Islam, like e.g. salafism, which criticizes as much traditional Muslim cultures – the culture of their parents – as they do with western cultures.

If the – for want of a better word – "traditional Europeans" enable Muslims to feel at home as new Muslim Europeans, could they become a source of cultural enrichment and economic dynamism?

Roy: We should make a distinction between "faith communities" and "ethnic cultures"; integration is usually implemented at the expense of traditional ethnic cultures, but Islam can be, and should be, recast as a "faith community" and should then be treated on an equal foot with the other religions. Practicing Muslim believers call for equality, not for a status of a cultural minority, but they are systematically sent back to a status of a "foreign" ethnic culture.

But the ascending Muslim middle classes in the West want to be recognized as a western faith community, not as an alien culture. This brand of religious practice and perception is usually advocated by a growing educated middle class, who is a factor of economic growth.

But links with the country of origin could also be an asset, not in terms of culture – Turkey for instance is westernizing itself at a very high speed – but of economic exchanges: in the case of Turkey, where there has been a tremendous economic growth and social change in the course of the last 20 years, the mutual benefit between the guest country and country of origin is obvious. Joint-ventures and coming and going of educated and business people are changing the patterns of "emigration": it is no more a pressure from unskilled, poor workers longing for settling in the West; it is now more an exchange. Immigration has also contributed to the development of the country of origin, and both societies are more converging than diverging.

And what if we fail, will there be regular suicide attacks in London, Paris, Berlin … ?

Muslims in Germany (photo: dpa)
Olivier Roy: "Many Muslims are already integrated, even if their integration is not sufficiently acknowledged"

​​Roy: I don't think that the situation is so dramatic. The issue will not be "Muslim migrants" versus "white society", because too many Muslims are already integrated, even if their integration is not sufficiently acknowledged.

In fact if we fail, there certainly will be three kinds of radicalization: a fringe of second generation Youth, whatever their social and economic background, will be tempted by a violent Islamist radicalization; the bulk of the young, disenfranchised, jobless, school dropouts will better indulge in petty delinquency and grey economy, with outbursts of clashes with the police but no religious dimension, and finally some traditional conservative milieus will lock themselves in a cultural and religious ghettos.

Would you say that in Europe, European culture and Muslim culture are clashing?

Roy: The debate – Danish cartoons, blasphemy, freedom of expression – is not between a liberal west and an obscurantist East. Most European religious conservatives are in favour of limiting freedom of expression, the French Catholic Church, for instance, won a court battle two years ago to ban an add using "The Last Supper" in a supposedly offending way – the apostles being replaced by half-naked young women. Most catholic bishops are opposed to gay-marriages. And by the way many Muslims are very critical of the lack of freedom and democracy in Arab countries, whose regimes we are precisely supportive, Tunisia and Egypt for instance.

It is not a debate on cultures, it is a debate on values, and the debate is inside Europe – should we consider the Spanish catholic Church as Muslim just because they oppose secularization, separation of church and state, gay marriage and absolute freedom of religion?

A last point: the modern brands of fundamentalism (wahhabism, but also protestant evangelicalism) are not the product of traditional cultures, but on the contrary the product of a crisis of traditional cultures, the product of deculturation and globalization. Religious tensions are linked with the crisis of traditional cultures, and are not their expression.

Scientists emphasize the cultural diversity of Muslim immigrants in Europe. So is it at all feasible to assume that there is such a thing as religious unity in Islam?

Roy: Immigrants don't belong to a specific culture or to a specific ethnic group. Intermarriages, linguistic changes, change of citizenship shake the traditional identities. But what we are doing, when we speak of a "Muslim community" is to use religion as a way to create a new ethnic and cultural identity. We use the term of "Muslim" as a neo-ethnic term. In fact, the only common factor among many second and third generation migrants is Islam as a mere religion, not as a culture. And we do not want to see the growing de-connection between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture. We push young Muslims to an ethno-cultural identity that most of them reject. They want to be considered as "Muslim" and "citizens", and not as "Muslim citizen". But they do not feel welcome in this direction.

As far as Islam as a religion is concerned, there are many currents. I stressed the role of salafism in the phenomena of young "born-again" believers, rediscovering faith and religious practice. But in many cases, people don't consider themselves "born again" for the rest of their lives. Radicalization is a generational phenomenon. Individual trajectories are far more complex and span all the diversity and trends in Islam.

Sufism, for instance, enjoys a remarkable development in the West as well as in Turkey, Egypt or Morocco, and it attracts many converts. New thinkers openly speak of "reformation" while many conservatives stress the fact that sharia is more about values than about laws. Due to Western democracy, new Muslim thinkers find more room in Europe than in so-called secularist – but nevertheless authoritarian –Arab regimes.

What is your view of the notion of Islamo-fascism?

Roy: It simply does not make sense. Fascism is a system of laws, institutions and ideology centered on a dominant and all-encompassing state power. But if we refer to Islam as a religion, it is like Christianity: a mix of beliefs, norms and values; state and ideology are not an issue. Sharia is not a political ideology, it is a legal system, which may be seen as obsolete, conservative, patriarchal, but has been used as a political reference only very recently. Sharia is never developed by a state; on the contrary: any endeavour by a state to promote sharia is either at the expenses of the state, because it looses the control of the judiciary, or of sharia, when the state transforms the evolutive process of adapting norms to reality into a state code. On the contrary: fascism means that the law is defined by the state, not by an independent corporation of the learned.

Political Islamism, as in the case of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood, is on the contrary based on Islam as an ideology, not as a legal system. There may be some elements in radical Islamist movements reminding us of communism and fascism, as well by the way in the secular Arab Baas party, but it is an instrumentalization of religious references in the political field, not a logical development of the Koran and the Tradition of the Prophet.

If we refer to Islamism, that is Islam as a political ideology, it is something rather new, it goes back to the 1920's, and has given birth to a broad spectrum of political attitudes, from the Muslim brothers to the AK party in Turkey. The same way that Marxism gave birth to Walter Ulbricht and Willy Brandt.

What is to be done against Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism of Al-Qaeda?

Roy: It is not the same thing. Not all fundamentalists are political radicals, and there is in fact little religion in Al-Qaeda. Fundamentalism is a permanent trend in any religion and it does not make sense to promote from outside a "good" Islam; fundamentalism will always attract some people. The issue is to make room for a credible mainstream Islam, which will fill the religious demands of the bulk of the Muslims. We should avoid the trap of Ben Laden: the West thinks that Islam is at the root of radicalization, hence we automatically see in Ben Laden the vanguard of the Muslim world. On the contrary, we should fight him as a terrorist, not as a Muslim.

In fact, young terrorists don't become terrorists because they went to the mosque and read the Koran. They go for action. They are the real heirs of the ultra-left of the 1970's: obsessed by America and the Wall Street, they are anti-imperialist more so than supporters of sharia. Look at the video-filmed staging of the beheading of the hostages in Iraq: it reproduces the killing of Aldo Moro by the Red brigades in Italy, and it has nothing to do with traditional Muslim imagery.

The narrative of the young terrorist is that of an individual hero jumping to save the umma from the western barbarism. Religion does not play a big role in the process of individual radicalization. We should delegitimize this heroism, debunk the narrative of heroism, instead of calling the Muslim community to condemn terrorism.

Let's stop speaking of religion and culture, which are rather irrelevant, and speak about politics and generational radicalization.

What does multiculturalism mean?

Roy: Nothing. It is a slogan which pretends to manage the co-existence of different cultural groups, at a time where cultural identities are in crisis. Multiculturalism supposes that Islam as a religion is embedded in a distinct culture that maintains itself from one generation to the next. One can be a good citizen and at the same time identify primarily with a culture that is not the dominant one. In other words, the citizen's relation to the nation can be mediated by a communitarian sense of belonging.

But the problem is that today's religious revival – whether under fundamentalist or spiritualistic forms – develops by decoupling itself from any cultural reference. It thrives on de-culturation: the young radicals are indeed perfectly "westernized." Among the born-again believers and the converts, Islam is not seen as a cultural relic, but as a religion that is universal, global and that reaches beyond specific cultures, just like Evangelism or Pentecostalism.

Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim reformer, insists that Islam, properly interpreted, need not conflict with a democratic Europe. Is he right?

Roy: Yes of course, the same way that conservative orthodox Judaism, evangelical Protestantism or conservative Catholicism don't conflict … or do conflict. They have a different agenda, they flourish in a different space, but they agree on some basic rules about democratic institutions and settlements of disagreements. Nobody asks the Pope to reconsider his stand on abortion in order to be admitted as a "true" European.

Religions cannot be brought under the yoke of politics and it is why, at the end, democracies have established a more or less consistent separation between church and state.

Europe's problem with its migrant Muslims, the pathology of the In-between People, would exist even if there were an independent, flourishing Palestinian state, and if the United States, Britain, and some other European countries had not invaded Iraq?

Roy: Yes, of course. We tend to overestimate the influence of the Middle crisis in the radicalisation (or lack of radicalisation) among Muslims in the West. In Paris a pro-Palestinian street demonstration never brings more than some 10,000 people in the street, while there are some 2 or 3 Million potential Muslims in and around Paris. The murderer of Theo van Gogh in Holland never mentioned Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, but only the blasphemy. We are confronted here with a generational problem (which was exactly the case, by the way, in the seventies with the European ultra-left), not with a geo-strategic issue. And, by the way, Bin Laden had attacked New York before and not after the US invasion of Iraq.

The roots of radicalization are inside the West, not in the Middle East. Let's deal first with integration of Muslims and of Islam as a Western religion, and stop to focus on Middle East wars on which we have no leverage, and from which European Muslims are far more distant than we often think. The so-called Muslim anger against the West did not touch the bulk of the Western Muslims except in Great Britain, but in continental Europe radicalization of Islam concerns only a fringe of uprooted second-generation Muslims. They have no real existence, except in our nightmares.

Interview by Michael Hesse

© Michael Hesse 2008

Part of this interview was previously published in the German daily, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Interview with Hachem Saleh
"We Should Take the Path of Religious Enlightenment"
Arab thinkers must come up with a new reading of the Islamic message, one which is in harmony with the modern world rather than contradicting it, says Hachem Saleh. Mohammed Massad interviewed the Syrian intellectual in Paris, France

Interview with Abdelwahab Meddeb
In Search of the "Greek" Dimension of Islam
Abdelwahab Meddeb is one of North Africa's most important contemporary thinkers. Meddeb talked to Beat Stauffer in Tunis about the maladies of Islam and his own confession to an open, humanist Islam

Interview with Khaled Abou El Fadl
Jihad Gone Wrong
Khaled Abou El Fadl is a prominent Islamic scholar and intellectual. In this interview with Novriantoni and Ramy El-Dardiry, El Fadl talks about suicide bombings, misinterpretations of 'jihad' and the humanist tradition of Islam