Home Political science Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity
Faces of Islam
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, US President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience: ‘These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith ... The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.’ In Britain, his sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Arabic newspaper, al-Hayat:
There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting.
However reflective such views may be of the ‘moderate’ Muslim majority, they are not uncontested. As John Kelsay shows in his new book, Arguing the Just War in Islam, debates about the ethics of conflict have been going on since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The scholars who interpreted the Prophet’s teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using ‘hurling machines’, or mangonels, where non-combatants, including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the ‘realm of war’ outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed; for example, the eighth-century jurist, al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that, if such methods were not permitted, the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.
There may be a vast distance in time and technology separating al-Shaybani’s authorisation of mangonels and the attacks on New York and Washington, but the boundaries of legal discussion remain remarkably consistent. In their 1998 Declaration Concerning Armed Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders following the deployment of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their co-signers belonging to the ‘World Islamic Front’ cited rulings by thirteenth-century scholars, including the celebrated jurist Ibn Taymiyya, in order to justify their ruling that ‘to fight the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual obligation for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible’. In a recent video, bin Laden invites Americans to embrace Islam, a requirement the classical authorities insist upon before a non-Muslim enemy may legitimately be attacked. The critiques of bin Laden’s statements coming from religious authorities focus on the means by which the ultimate objective of a ‘restored’ Islamic polity under Shari‘a law may be achieved, rather than the objective itself.
For example, in a recent open letter to ‘Brother Osama’, the prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Oadah made a scathing attack on bin Laden for the excessive violence and damage to Islam inflicted by his campaign
- including the ‘destruction of entire nations’ and the ‘nightmare of civil war’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their impact on surrounding countries. But the sheikh’s quarrel with bin Laden is essentially about means rather than ends. The burden of his attack is that al-Qaeda’s methods - and the political fallout they engender - are counter-productive. Even if the radicals take power somewhere in the world, the sheikh writes, they will not have the experience or competence to govern in accordance with Islamic law.
None of these arguments are really new. The debate has been raging since before 9/11. Will the militant actions taken in the service of justice yield more harm than good? Should a distinction be made between actions against ‘near enemies’ occupying Muslim lands in Palestine or Chechnya and the ‘far enemy’ in Washington? As Kelsay explains, ‘statements by al-Qa’ida are best understood as attempts to legitimate or justify a course of action in the terms associated with Islamic jurisprudence’. He usefully terms this discourse ‘Shari’a reasoning’.
The word shari‘a, usually translated as ‘law’, refers to the ‘path’ or ‘way’ governing the modes of behaviour by which Muslims are enjoined to seek salvation. The way may be known to God, but for human beings it is not predetermined. A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Shari‘a reasoning is therefore ‘an open practice’. In Islam’s classical era, up to the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad - independent reasoning
- to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning ‘effort’ or ‘struggle’, the word that is sometimes translated as ‘holy war’. Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgements reflecting the idea that ‘changing circumstances require fresh wisdom’. The Shari‘a is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat.
It is therefore open to question whether the hijackers and the terrorists automatically put themselves beyond the bounds of Islam by killing innocents, as statements by Bush, Blair and dozens of Muslim leaders and scholars suggest. With no churches or formally constituted religious authorities to police the boundaries of Islam, the only universally accepted orthodoxy is the Shari‘a itself. But the Shari‘a is more of an ideal than a formally constituted body of law. While interpreting the law was once the province of the trained clerical class of ulama, any consensus governing its correct interpretation has broken down under pressure of regional conflicts and the influence of religious autodidacts, whose vision of Islam was formed outside the received scholarly tradition.
None of the three most influential theorists behind Sunni militancy, Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), Hasan al-Banna (1906-49) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), undertook traditional religious training. Yet both they and the authors of the landmark texts examined by Kelsay in his admirably lucid book (including the Charter of Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and bin Laden’s 1998 Declaration) claim the mantle of the Shari‘a, as did the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in New York, Madrid and London.
Like it or not, these terrorist campaigns were inspired by the example of the Prophet’s struggle - his ‘just war’ - against the Quraysh, the pagan tribesmen of Mecca. In the context of the original conflict between the early Muslims and the Meccans, the sources, including the Qur’an and the narratives of Muhammad’s life, suggest that ‘fighting is an appropriate means by which Muslims should seek to secure the right to order life according to divine directives’. In militant readings of the Shari‘a, the historical precedents are not so much interpreted as applied. For ultra-radicals such as bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, there is, as Kelsay observes, ‘little room for a sustained process of discerning divine guidance’ along the lines enjoined by traditional scholars. An even more striking absence is evident in the criticisms of militant readings advanced by official Islamic authorities, including the widely respected Sheikh al-Azhar, head of the mosque-university in Cairo and once the single most important voice in Sunni Islam. While questioning the methods of the militants on grounds of practical ethics - will the ‘actions taken in the service of justice yield more harm than good?’ - their criticisms usually fall short of challenging them on the grounds of political legitimacy. Conservative Muslim critics of militancy ‘do not in fact dissent from the militant judgment that current political arrangements [in most Muslim majority states] are illegitimate ... In its broad outlines, the militant vision articulated by al-Zawahiri is also the vision of his critics’.
The core of this consensus - shared by traditionally trained scholars and more populist leaders such as al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Maududi, his South Asian counterpart - is the belief that the abolition of the caliphate by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey in 1924 must not mean the end of Islamic government. In this vision, which is also shared by Shi‘a jurists such as the late Ayatollah Khomeini, parliaments and elections are only acceptable within the frame of Islamic supremacy. They ‘cannot compromise on Muslim leadership’, Kelsay writes. Fullblown democracy, where the Muslim voice might simply be one among many, implying a degree of moral equivalence between Islam and other perspectives, would be ‘dangerous, not only for the standing of the Muslim community, but for the moral life of humankind’.
In the majority, Sunni, tradition this sense of supremacy was sanctified as much by history as by theology. In the first instance, the truth of Islam was vindicated on the field of battle. As Hans Kung acknowledges in Islam: Past, Present and Future - his 767-page overview of the Islamic faith and history, seen from the perspective of a liberal Christian theologian - Islam is above all a ‘religion of victory’. Muslims of many persuasions - not just the self-styled jihadists - defend the truth claims of their religion by resorting to what might be called the argument from manifest success.
According to this argument, the Prophet Muhammad overcame the enemies of truth through divinely assisted battles as well as through preaching. Building on his victories and faith in his divine mission, his successors, the early caliphs, conquered most of western Asia and North Africa as well as Spain. In this view, the truth of Islam was vindicated by actual events, through Islam’s historical achievement in creating what would become a great world civilisation.
The argument from manifest success is consonant with the theological doctrine according to which Islam supersedes the previous revelations of Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians are in error because they deviated from the straight path revealed to Abraham, ancestral patriarch of all three faiths. Islam ‘restores’ the true religion of Abraham while superseding Judao-Christianity as the ‘final’ revelation. The past and the future belong to Islam even if the present makes for difficulties. Kung asks:
In the history of religions, did any religion pursue a victorious course as rapid, far-reaching, tenacious and permanent as that of Islam? Scarcely one. So is it any wonder that to the present day Muslim pride is rooted in the experience of the early period?
This formative experience of victory is what interests Michael Bonner in his scholarly essay, Jihad in Islamic History. Viewing what has become an increasingly crowded field, he points out that the word jihad has acquired different resonances for a wide variety of actors, from the Islamist radicals for whom it forms the heart of a militant ideology, to mystical quietists who regard the ‘greater jihad' as the struggle against the ‘lower self’ of baser human impulses. Some observers, notably the political theorist Benjamin Barber, in his widely read book of 1995, Jihad vs. McWorld, have stretched the definition to encompass local resistance to globalisation. Other definitions mirror that of the militants themselves: the jihad doctrine is cited as proof of Islam’s innate tendency toward violence and its incompatibility with democratic norms. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those scholars, such as Abdulaziz Sachedina - a professor at the University of Virginia who studied in Iran, whose readings of the sources convinces them that jihad is purely defensive.
In clearing a path through this highly-charged intellectual undergrowth, Bonner adopts a thematic approach aimed at uncovering ‘the inner logic’ or ‘structural’ sense underlying the Qur’anic teachings, even when ‘they sometimes appear to be in contradiction with one another’. He concludes that ‘where the Qur’an treats of war, we usually find a rhetoric of requital and recompense’. God grants the Muslims permission to fight ‘those against whom war has been made, because they have been wronged’. The law of reciprocity applies to goods as well as to warfare: whatever the faithful spend in the ‘path of God’ will be amply repaid. After the Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632, the law of recompense was institutionalised: the fighters received a fixed stipend from a treasury staffed by clerks who inscribed the recipients’ names in a special register.
This expanding ‘conquest society’ was funded by rewarding the fighters with taxes extracted from the defeated, with a ‘relatively small elite of Arab warriors’ becoming recipients of taxes contributed by ‘an enormous, taxpaying majority’. It was the purse, rather than the sword, that was an incentive to conversion, since Muslims, including converts, paid less tax than the non-Muslim majority. Eventually, from the ninth century onwards, the Arab fighters lost their privileged position, and the conquest society was replaced by systems under which Muslim rulers recruited specialised military units from non-Arab tribes, including Turks, Sub-Saharan Africans, Berbers and Slavs. For example, the Fatimids, who founded Cairo in 969, depended for their military power on Berber mercenaries and Sudanese slave-soldiers. But the notion of reciprocity remained embedded in Shari‘a reasoning. The ‘martyr’ who dies on the field of battle is ‘rewarded’ in heaven for his courage. Proper religious motivation is paramount, but since ‘only God has full knowledge of the fighter’s intention’, those slain in battle are given the benefit of the doubt and treated as martyrs.
Whatever the limitations imposed on the conduct of war by the jurists, jihad became deeply embedded in Islamic discourse. In Bonner’s words, it is ‘an indissoluble part of the transcendent, transforming Message’ that ‘provides motivation and pride’. Given the expanding frontiers of the formative period when the laws of jihad were developed, it would be wrong to regard the classical jihad as being purely defensive. As Bonner has it: ‘The historical experience of pre-modern Islamic states, together with the pronouncements of many classical Islamic jurists, would all tend to undermine this modern view of jihad as being preeminently defensive in character.’
After an extensive survey of the best scholarly literature available in European languages, Hans Kung arrives at a similar conclusion:
The apologetic argument often advanced by Muslims that armed jihad refers only to wars of defence cannot be maintained. It is contradicted by the testimonies of the Islamic chroniclers, who show that the jihad was of the utmost political and military significance. It is hard to imagine a more effective motivation for a war than the ‘struggle’ ... which furthers God’s cause against the unbelievers.
As ‘an ecumenical theologian committed to fairness to all religions’, Kung sets himself the task of making a ‘critical reconnaissance’ of Islam with a view to assisting in its ‘renewal’. His volume completes the ambitious threefold project that has already resulted in massive books on Christianity and Judaism. No religion, he says,
can be satisfied with the status quo in this time of upheaval. Everywhere there are amazingly parallel questions about a future renewal. In the face of antisemitism and increasing Islamophobia, what are called for are not uncritical philosemites or Islamophiles ... but rather authentic, truthful friends of Judaism and Islam.
By ‘authentic’ one assumes that Kung means ‘believing’. The believer’s route to an understanding of religious traditions other than one’s own is more risky and demanding than that of the sceptical outsider, because, in addition to the intellectual challenges, there are formidable emotional issues at stake. Since the God in which a vast amount of emotional energy has been invested appears to have said different things to the various individuals claiming to speak on His behalf, belief in the certainties held by one tradition necessarily excludes the others. This is especially so in the Abrahamic family of Western monotheisms, where confessions are deemed to be exclusive. In the mainstream, orthodox versions of these faiths, one cannot at the same time be a Muslim and a Christian, or a Christian and a Jew (though hybrid versions, such as ‘Jews for Jesus’, undoubtedly exist). In a globalised culture, where religions are in daily contact with their competitors, denial of pluralism is a recipe for conflict.
Yet acceptance of pluralism relativises truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to ultimate truth, an individual’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of personal choice, and choice is the enemy of the certainties that religions - especially monotheistic ones - are supposed to uphold. Fundamentalism is one contemporary response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences. Another - diametrically opposite - response is the global ecumenicism promoted by Kung. In approaching the prospect of dialogue with other religions, Kung is surely right in proposing that participants must abandon the literalist interpretation of their sacred texts, since every tradition must acknowledge its local origins: ‘A conversation with Jews and Muslims, or with Hindus and Buddhists, Chinese and Japanese, is doomed to failure if the linguistic tradition of a regional culture, whether that of the Greek East or the Latin West, makes absolute claims.’
Outside the ranks of a small intellectual elite, the theological obstacles to dialogue are indeed formidable. In the ninth century, the caliph al-Ma’mun and his immediate successors tried, and eventually failed, to impose as orthodoxy the belief that the Qur’an had been created in time (with the implication that its teachings might be contingent and time- specific). In reaction to this policy, the majority Sunni tradition espoused an anti-rationalist theology that holds the Qur’an to be ‘uncreated’ or co-eternal with God. In consequence, the extraordinary veneration of the Qur’an has dominated Muslim religious thought and popular culture for more than a millennium.
Whereas historical criticism of the Bible has been accepted by most Protestants (apart from fundamentalist diehards) as well as by Reform Judaism and, belatedly, by the Catholic Church (following the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5), ‘higher criticism’ of the Qur’an has yet to take root despite the impressive achievements of individual scholars such as (the late) Fazlur Rahman, Mohammed Arkoun and Farid Esack (all of whom work, or have worked, in Western universities). For Kung:
It can only help Islamic faith if Islamic scholars begin to tackle the historical problems. This can still be dangerous for a Muslim today, just as a heterodox view was for a Catholic at the height of the Inquisition or for a liberal Protestant in Calvin’s Geneva.
What is needed, he concludes, elaborating on the term made popular by Thomas Kuhn, is a ‘paradigm shift’ towards modernisation comparable to those that occurred in the Christian and Jewish traditions.
Kung’s paradigm theory, which he illustrates with a complicated series of charts, makes structural comparisons between different stages in the evolution of the three monotheistic religions. The results, like some of the discursive threads in his monumental book, are at times confusing. Despite the apparent rigour, the detail is somewhat daunting, with the shape of the vast forest he sets out to map obscured by the density of the trees. His case could have been made more clearly in a shorter, leaner book.
But the direction of his argument is sound. Like other religious systems, Islam has no option but to enter the waters of post-Enlightenment modern society, a universal milieu where religion is no longer, as it was in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, an institution set over the social system to guarantee its unity, but merely a factor, a sphere, a one-part system among several.
There are precedents for this necessary paradigm shift - for example, in the expansion from the Arab empire with its limited cultural horizons to the world religion Islam eventually became, incorporating the non-Arab peoples who now make up the vast majority of Muslims. The intellectual groundwork for change has been laid in the works of modernist reformers who have been revisiting the sources of Islam for more than a century. They include Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-98) and Syed Ameer Ali (1848-1928) in India, and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), the influential chief jurist of Egypt. The problems do not lie in the realm of theology, where Muslim intellectuals have charted retreats from the received certainties of the medieval paradigm that are just as ingenious and (for true believers) just as plausible as the efforts of Western theologians. The obstacle lies rather in the absence, in the majority traditions, of structures of leadership through which reformist ideas can be effected at the popular level.
The size of the mountain that must be scaled before many Muslim societies can undergo Kung’s ‘paradigm shift’ may be gauged from Ayaan
Hirsi Ali’s remarkable memoir, Infidel. Born in Somalia in 1969, Hirsi Ali became a celebrity in Europe when her collaborator, the film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was murdered in an Amsterdam street in broad daylight two months after the airing of a television film they had made depicting the plight of Muslim women. A note pinned to van Gogh’s body warned Hirsi Ali that she would be next. The ten-minute film, Submission, Part 1, showed the opening verses of the Qur’an - a universal prayer for Muslims of all persuasions - displayed over a woman’s body. Hirsi Ali states:
My message was that the Qur’an is an act of man, not of God.
We should be free to interpret it; we should be permitted to apply it to the modern era in a different way, instead of performing painful contortions to try to recreate the circumstances of a horrible distant past. My intention was to liberate Muslim minds so that Muslim women - and Muslim men, too - might be freer.
Men, too, are forced to obey inhumane laws.
In the ensuing fracas, Hirsi Ali - who had recently been elected to the Dutch parliament - was forced into protective custody and, like the author, Salman Rushdie, has now emigrated to the safer and more congenial haven of America, where Muslim immigrants tend to be less isolated, better educated, more prosperous and less hostile to Western values than their co-religionists in Europe. Critics have labelled Hirsi Ali an ‘enlightenment fundamentalist’. This interesting charge places her in the distinguished company of, among others, the late Ernest Gellner, the philosopher- anthropologist and one of the most sophisticated yet sympathetic observers of modern Islam.
It might be more appropriate, however, to describe Ali as a ‘born-again’ believer in Enlightenment values. Infidel has the hallmarks of a spiritual autobiography in which she progresses through various stages of illumination, from childhood trauma in Somalia (entailing genital mutilation inflicted by her own grandmother), through an adolescence in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where a brief espousal of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood empowers her to question her family’s tribal values within the frame of the movement’s stultifying, still patriarchal, religiosity, towards eventual enlightenment and emancipation in the Netherlands, aided by encounters with Dutch fellow students and readings from Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin, Durkheim and Freud. This remarkable spiritual journey is interlaced with a classic story of personal courage in the face of a parochial and misogynistic social system that systematically brutalises women in the name of God, and in which women routinely submit to neglect and violence. Told with a rare combination of passion and detachment, it is a Seven Storey Mountain in reverse: a pilgrimage from belief to scepticism.
Yet for all Hirsi Ali’s questioning, there is a spiritual quality about her rebellion. The final break with her family occurs when senior members of her clan arrive in the Netherlands to persuade her to rejoin the husband chosen by her father, in order to save the family’s honour. Her refusal seems divinely mandated: ‘I paused for a moment, and then the words just came out of my mouth. “It is the will of the soul”, I said. “The soul cannot be coerced”.’ The clan leaders, and her husband, accept the verdict. The soul cannot lie.
Hirsi Ali’s political trajectory takes her from Labour to the Liberals, and then out of Dutch politics altogether, and beyond the soft boundaries of Islam. She now works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In Kung’s terminology, she has negotiated a double paradigm shift, from the aristocratic clan-based identity into which she was born, through the new-style ‘disembedded’ religiosity promulgated by the Muslim Brotherhood, towards the individualism of the Occident, whose values she espouses in full. Her residual feelings for her religion evaporated after 9/11, when she saw television images of ordinary Dutch Muslim children celebrating in the streets:
It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam ... True Islam, as a rigid belief system and moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behavior.
There are none of the ethical nuances here that one finds in the discourse of Shari‘a reasoning. Indeed, she is infuriated by the claims of ‘stupid analysts - especially people who called themselves Arabists’ - that Islam is ‘a religion of peace and tolerance’. Such statements she regards as being no more than ‘fairy tales’. Her understanding of Islamic discourse is based exclusively on experience. Even though she acknowledges that female circumcision is not exclusive to Islam and is rarely practised outside of Africa, she shows little awareness of the diversity of Muslim practices outside her own Somali culture. Her angry musings about the Qur’an are muddled:
I found myself thinking that the Qur’an is not a holy document.
It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.
Seemingly unaware of the basics of Islamic scholarship, she confuses the holy text with the Prophet’s biography. But, disarmingly, she acknowledges her limitations:
Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Qur’an; we are taught it in Arabic, which most Muslims can’t speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant.
As a Dutch MP, Hirsi Ali mounted a successful campaign to expose the honour killings of young women in Muslim families for alleged sexual misdemeanours, and the scandal of circumcisions performed on little girls on Dutch kitchen tables. Finding the Labor Party less sympathetic to her agenda, she switched her allegiance to the Liberals before being forced, in effect, to emigrate to America. It is far from clear that she wants to influence the debate about gender and Islam now taking place throughout the Islamic world. Unlike Muslim feminists such as Fatima Mernissi or Leila Ahmed, who challenge the misogynistic and patriarchal interpretation of the holy texts, she confronts, and rejects, the canon in toto. This is not a position from which she is likely to have much impact on Muslims with a deeper knowledge of their own religious traditions.
In the Netherlands, as in Britain, multiculturalism or even ‘cultural sensitivity’ can provide a cover for the abuse of women and children, not to mention neo-fascist tendencies, such as Holocaust denial and the rampant anti-Semitism prevailing in some Muslim circles (a subject on which Hirsi Ali has been courageously eloquent).
In France, the situation is somewhat different. Debates about multiculturalism occur under the overarching canopy of laicite, a term that loosely but inadequately translates into English as ‘secularism’. Olivier Roy, in his short, discursive essay, Secularism Confronts Islam, exposes the historical roots of laicite and its implications for France’s Muslim communities. Though underpinned by the 1905 law of separation between church and state, laicite extends far beyond the setting of institutional boundaries. It is a full-blown statist ideology whose pedigree stretches back to the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution. Laicite, Roy insists, must not be confused with secularisation. With secularisation - a universal process integral to modernisation - ‘a society emancipates itself from a sense of the sacred that it does not necessarily deny’. With laicite, the state actively ‘expels religious life beyond a border that the state itself has defined by law’. Laicite actually fosters religion by making it a separate category. It reinforces religious identities rather than allowing them to dissolve into more diversified social practices.
Roy’s essay was originally published in France at the height of the debate over multiculturalism that followed the government’s decision to ban the veil and other conspicuous manifestations of religiosity in schools. He objects to the one-sided way in which politicians insisted on regarding the veil as a symbol of female oppression. One of the most astute observers of Islam writing today, Roy believes that strong enforcement of the policy of laicite distorts the complex evolution towards secularisation that is occurring in the Islamic world, as it is in other faith systems. Disembedded from its various regional cultures, Islam is evolving into a distinctive faith system comparable to Christianity and other religions. The counterpart of the intensified religiosity that is found in fundamentalist movements of all traditions is a de facto acknowledgment of secularisation that can be observed, for example, in the behaviour of Muslim youth. Self-assertiveness among young Muslims should not just be attributed to ‘Islam’. Roy writes:
Adolescents’ intentions to assert themselves by wearing provocative clothing is a banality in secondary schools, but the affair of the veil has been experienced as the penetration of the school system by Islamism. A girl wearing the veil wants simultaneously to assert herself as an individual, escape from the social constraint of her milieu by adopting a sign that grants her both value and autonomy, make herself noticed, affirm a form of authenticity.
The state should not interfere with this process. Rather than intervening theologically (for example, by trying to boost ‘moderate’ or liberal religious leaders against ‘fundamentalists’), the state should leave religious communities to evolve under their own internal dynamic. According to Roy:
Many very conservative Muslims have adapted very well to secularisation and to laicite by reformulating their faith in terms of values rather than norms, along the lines followed by Christian conservatives. They defend the family, sexual difference, and the criticism of morals; they oppose homosexual marriage and even abortion and divorce (two categories that hardly cause any difficulties in traditional shari‘a); but they remain within the framework of legality.
Roy’s analysis chimes in well with Kung’s own strictures on lai'cite as an ‘anticlerical secularism’ that has outlived its purpose: ‘Today the French Republic is no longer confronted with an over-powerful ultramontane political Catholicism (the religion which embraces the majority of the French) but with an often marginalised Muslim minority to whom the freedom of the individual brings little.’
As indicators for policy guidelines, Kung’s and Roy’s analyses make sense - but within crucial limits. There remains a strong body of evidence that the terrorist atrocity of July 2005 in London, and subsequent unsuccessful attempts, were inspired, at least in part, by radical preachers working out of British mosques. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter of the fundamentalist Sunni ideology known as Wahhabism, may be actively opposed to jihadism in its present forms. But as Roy explained previously in Globalized Islam, the oil-rich kingdom and neighbouring Gulf states have helped to extend Wahhabi or Salafist (fundamentalist) influence ‘through an intensive outpouring of fatwas and short conferences or lectures, spread through the internet, television stations ... or via cheap booklets’. These products, he argued, are
an important part of the curriculum of worldwide Muslim institutions that are subsidised by Gulf money. Through informal networks of disciples and former students, [Wahhabi preachers] reach a lay audience far larger than the madrasas [seminaries] in which they teach.
A recent survey of jihadists in Europe concluded that ‘activists invest considerable time and energy in self-study of Wahhabi Islam and subsequently the jihadi strain of Salafism’.
There are countervailing tendencies, for example, in the appeal of Sufi ideas and religious disciplines (to which Wahhabis are adamantly opposed) in some literary and artistic circles, and in related mystical traditions imported from India/Pakistan. But so long as there remains a generation of European Muslims who feel alienated from their parents’ traditions yet rejected by the wider society, the style of religiosity supported from Arabia will remain a powerful ‘ultramontane’ force.
Published in The New York Review of Books, 8 November 2007.
The books reviewed were:_
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007) Infidel. New York: Free Press.
Michael Bonner (2006) Jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
John Kelsay (2007) Arguing the Just War in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hans Kung (2007) Islam: Past, Present and Future, translated from the German by John Bowden. Oxford, UK: Oneworld.
Olivier Roy (2007) Secularism Confronts Islam, translated from the French by George Holoch, Jr. New York: Columbia University Press:
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