Making Muslims

Brother, our society needs to be reformed, and reform cannot emerge out of wretchedness, fear, and conservatism. What are we conserving? This backwardness? The Westerners ride our backs with their armies, with their economy, their media, and their science, and we just sit there being conservative?... By Allah, our faith will become stronger if we go to the countries of the West. Our faith will only grow. My faith grew stronger in Europe, in France, in Britain. My faith grew stronger, and so did my knowledge, Allah be praised.

Hassan al-Turabi

Over the centuries, Islam has adapted successfully to the various societies in which it has found itself. A critical question for policy makers today is whether the same process can occur within a European setting, so that Islam in Italy becomes Italian Islam, Islam in Britain acquires the distinctive coloring of a British Islam, and so on. If Catholicism in the Netherlands has become so thoroughly acclimatized to the Dutch polder landscape, to become polder Catholicism, might we before too long imagine a polder Islam? Could Swedish Islam acquire a "blue-yellow" patriotic tinge, as many hope? In fact, powerful forces favor such assimilation. Islam historically has few international or global institutions, so there is no equivalent of the Vatican to regulate religious interactions in a particular society. Also, many European Muslims follow styles of belief and practice that would not flourish under strict or puritanical clerical regimes, which would make them the first targets of a hypothetical Euro-Taliban. They have a vested interest in preserving religious tolerance and diversity.

So strong in fact are the forces working against orthodoxy or militancy that the recent trend to hard-line positions demands some explanation. Partly, this was a matter of historical accident, that the great age of immigration coincided exactly with the global resurgence of aggressively political forms of Islam, which became engaged in several emotive battlefields around the world. But we also see a pattern reminiscent of changes within Christianity in the same period. In both cases, a faith that had flourished successfully in small and deeply rooted local communities suddenly found itself facing much greater social complexities that proved hostile to traditional religious structures. While many believers slipped away from the faith, others turned to smaller and more activist groups that demanded more commitment and dedication. Some younger Muslims turned to transnational forms of the faith that preached strict orthodoxy and heavy political involvement. People responded to the painful encounter with modernity by returning to ancient purity, or at least, to what they imagined it to be. Heavy-handed intervention by Muslim nations has encouraged this turn to orthodoxy and clericalism, making it difficult for Europe's migrant communities to develop their own kind of accommodation with the mainstream societies they encountered.

Yet we must keep this kind of militant neo-orthodoxy in perspective. It does not represent the beliefs of most religiously active Muslims, still less of the large populations who identify little with religion in any form, who are anything but religious in any approved or institutional sense. The nonobservant "cultural Muslim" is a familiar type. In France presently, just 5 percent of Muslims attend mosques with any degree of regularity, and a third of Muslims reported praying every day, figures that suggest almost Anglican detachment from formal religious commitment. Of course the mosques always look full and bustling, since worshipers are trying to squeeze into a relatively small number of facilities. As Olivier Roy comments, "You have many millions of square meters of churches in France, but only a few thousand square meters of mosques." Popular impressions of mass Muslim devotion, he argues, are in fact no more than a trompe l'oeil, an optical illusion. Muslim populations in contemporary Europe already contradict the familiar stereotypes of Muslims as strict and monolithic in their piety, still less as fanatics. Moreover, life in a secular state forces a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the secular and religious spheres, especially when Muslims are conscious of their minority status.1

Also, it is too easy to characterize any religious or political view by quoting its most extreme advocates. Imagine the picture we would form of American Christianity if we heard only the views expressed by Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. Among Muslims similarly, the voices quoted in the media are often far removed from the sentiments one hears in ordinary conversation. Commentators find it easy to condemn Islam by citing the words of rabid extremists like Omar Bakri Muham mad or Abu Hamza: easygoing and tolerant people simply are not newsworthy. Asked about the political coloring of his British mosque, boxer Amir Khan replied "Yeah, but in Bolton they're all so normal. They do the prayers and maybe talk about the Koran and that's about it." And that statement characterizes a large proportion of apolitical and unexceptional mosques across Europe. Without suggesting the speaker is typical, we might turn to the poor Moroccan man in France, as quoted by scholar Farhad Khosrokhavar. He complains of the repressive state, noting that with Islam, you don't need the state any more to do right, you seek what is right in yourself. Islam means speaking without shame, it means not being disturbed, speaking gently and considerately [avec douceur et delicatesse], speaking from your heart and also speaking from your head. It is peace and tranquility. ... It means you have to educate your children, respecting family and neighbors, doing the five prayers, giving alms without stinting, being generous. Religion means peace toward yourself and your neighbor. Al Rasul [the prophet Muhammad] prayed with Christians as brothers, while Muslims reject them today. A neighbor is also a brother. You mustn't do to others what you don't want for yourself. It's God who judges.2

The more European states can limit the influence of militants, the more likely it is that this kind of observant Islam will become the norm. The best sign that such an accommodation is in progress will be when Muslims form their own sacred space in Europe, their own shrines and pilgrimage sites, which the puritanical hard-liners will denounce with holy passion.

When we contemplate the disturbing face of Islamist extremism, we should recall that this represents a desperate reaction to these broadly progressive directions rather than its natural expression. Islam in modern Europe owes much of its extremist qualities to the consequences of globalization and migration, but those same factors are also promoting more expansive and broad-minded forms of the faith. The Islam proposed by reformers need not be "moderate" in the sense of apathetic, but it rejects violence and extremism: its advocates are comfortable with social and religious diversity and find active advantages in living in an atmosphere of official secularism. If indeed this is the emerging Islam of multifaith Europe, the future is anything but doom-laden.3

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