Seeing Muslims

The attack on multiculturalism raises other issues about the by now well-established methods used to integrate new ethnic communities.

To take one question that has emerged forcefully, should western European states see Muslims at all? The question seems absurd, given the undeniable presence of some 15 million residents who nominally have some connection to that faith. But should states react to them primarily according to their religious credentials, as opposed to some other status that they may possess? Following the multicultural model, European states have since the 1990s responded to Muslims as Muslims, as part of a community with a distinctive religious and cultural leadership. In recent years, however, concern about radicalized Islamic politics has provoked a frontal attack on this aspect of multicultural politics. While Europeans initially failed to appreciate the religious and cultural distinctiveness of their new immigrants, they have arguably over-compensated for this in later years.

Most states agree that the best way to prevent violence or disaffection is to ensure that Muslims are conscious of having a voice in democratic society. France has failed dismally in this regard, as the nation's large Muslim communities have no representation whatever in that nation's Chamber of Deputies. In other countries, though, including Belgium, prominent Muslims have succeeded in entering the political mainstream. Since the late 1980s, Britain too has its parliamentary cohort of Asian origin, now with several members of Pakistani background, though the number still falls short of what it should be if it reflected the Muslim share of the population as a whole. The fact that a constituency elects an individual Muslim to represent it leaves no doubt about that person's credentials to speak for at least part of his or her community. More difficult though is the question of recognizing community and religious organizations to serve as voices of Islam, and that has been a controversial question in recent years.

The logic of seeking out moderate and responsible groups is convincing, especially as a means of heading off Islamic extremism. If in fact rioters or terrorists are motivated by religious zeal, then in theory they should pay some heed to official condemnation; and if militants are recalcitrant, then they would find themselves isolated in their communities. (Both theories have proved dubious in practice.) Moreover, the fact that a visibly Muslim body is negotiating with the senior levels of a European government would give ordinary Muslims a sense that they had a voice in national affairs. The practice fits splendidly with the goals of multiculturalism, of acknowledging the different values and interests of communities. Unfortunately, it has also promoted the role of very conservative Muslim activists who on some occasions are themselves scarcely less radical and anti-assimilationist than the extremists they are meant to counterbalance.

Despite its commitment to absolute secularism, to laicité, the French government has long pursued a policy of identifying and cultivating moderate Muslim leaders, usually clergy. In 2003, France promoted a new governing body of French Islam, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, CFCM, under the leadership of Dalil Boubakeur, imam of Paris's Great Mosque. When two journalists were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin went to the Great Mosque to join Muslims in prayer for their release. British authorities, likewise, have long cultivated the MCB, and have made every effort to draw distinctions between "ordinary" Muslims, of presumed moderation, and extremists or terrorists. In the aftermath of the July 7 subway attacks, British police ordered officers to wear green ribbons in order to show solidarity with Islam. The government, moreover, persuaded a group of distinguished Muslim "moderates" to serve as conveners for a Home Office task force intended to combat extremism among young Muslims and to join a speaking tour. In 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of the conquest of Moorish Spain, a new Spanish government recognized the Comisión Islámica de España as the official representative of Spain's Muslims, with whom it signed a detailed agreement of Muslim rights and privileges—in effect, a Concordat, much like those agreed between nation-states and the Catholic Church.33

The multicultural strategy underlying the "moderate" offensive has much to recommend it, but European nations are only beginning to realize the dilemmas of confessional politics. By seeking to respond to religious minorities, governments are in effect recognizing particular clerical and religious groups as the official representatives of their communities, treating people not as individuals and citizens but as members of collective religious/cultural entities, holding group rights. The policy thus tends toward communautarisme, communalism, which successive French governments have regarded as a kind of ultimate political evil. Also, as Christopher Caldwell notes, the incentives offered by the strategy drive community representatives toward radicalism. Strident political voices are not just admitted to conversation—they are the preferred voices, because they are seen as more "authentic." If the government's top priority is finding people with the street credibility to dissuade potential terrorists, then the ideal Muslim interlocutor is someone who shares the terrorists' goals while publicly condemning their means.34

Moreover, populations of Muslim background are by definition seen as Muslims and presumed to operate under religious and clerical authority. While that assumption might not initially be correct, it could easily become so over time. The media assist this process when reporting on ethnic communities through the lens of religious leaders and organizations, who naturally have their own interests in presenting particular viewpoints. Ethnic issues are thus reported as religious problems, and viewers and readers tend to see them in that guise. This danger is all the greater since many Muslim migrants come from homelands in which religious authority is inextricably bound up with state mechanisms, exercised through ministries or directorates of religious affairs. On European soil, in contrast, immigrants found an environment of religious freedom in which religious creativity and experiment were now possible. It would be all too easy to revert to older ideas, however, to the controlled patterns prevailing in Morocco or Egypt.

By consigning individuals to a religiously defined status, governments are precluding other options. Journalist Nick Cohen reports hearing an imam deliver a reactionary lecture on gender roles at an East London Muslim Center, funded by British and European government money. As he notes, "For the purposes of official classification, they weren't British or British-Asians or English or working class or Londoners or Bengalis or women. They were Muslims and their religious leaders must have a large say in how they lived."35 As we have seen, Europe's Muslims represent a huge diversity of practice and devotional styles. Treating all under the single label of "Islam" tends to encourage exactly the sense of supranational religious identity that runs flat contrary to goals of assimilation. It also, literally, consecrates the role of religious leadership within those communities. Could the Muslim Brotherhood have designed things more to their purpose?

Incidentally, these official attitudes also have a direct and positive impact on Christian populations. If "immigrant problems" are defined in terms of religion, but more specifically of assimilating Muslims, far less attention is paid to Christian migrants, who in many official classifications are lumped in with old-stock whites. No agency is contemplating erecting government-sponsored Christian Centers, nor are they likely to: who knows, they might practice exorcism? This differential approach to immigrant faiths could accelerate the integration of some sections of the population, by placing African or east Asian migrants in the desirable mainstream category of non-Muslims.

At an extreme end of multiculturalism, we even find the development of a kind of millet model of confessional religious governance. The word millet stems from Ottoman Turkish practice, in which each minority religious/cultural community—Jews, Armenians, Orthodox Christians—enjoyed considerable autonomy to manage its own affairs, subject to the overarching authority of the Ottoman regime. While minorities enjoyed far fewer rights than those accorded to Muslims, the system worked effectively for centuries. While no serious leader has suggested the revival of the millet in contemporary Europe, a significant minority has indeed demanded that Muslim communities be allowed to operate under their own law codes. A 2006 poll of British Muslims found 40 percent in favor of applying sharia law in "predominantly Muslim" areas of the country, and other surveys report a solid majority. In practice, this would involve the establishment of courts operating on sharia principles, chiefly in matters of family and personal law, in divorce, custody, and inheritance, "so long as the penalties did not contravene British law." The Swedish Muslim Association has formally proposed the introduction for separate legal provisions in that country. Amir Taheri suggests that in some parts of France, a de facto millet system is already in place. In these areas all women are obliged to wear the standardized Islamist hijab while most men grow their beards to the length prescribed by the sheikhs. The radicals have managed to chase away French shopkeepers selling wine and alcohol and pork products, forced "places of sin" such as dancing halls, cinemas and theaters to close down, and seized control of much of the local administration often through permeation. A reporter who spent last weekend in Clichy and its neighboring towns of Bondy, Aulany-sous-Bois and Bobigny heard a single overarching message: The French authorities should keep out!

When in 2006 the British Home Secretary visited East London, extremist leader Abu Izzadeen heckled him, demanding, "How dare you come here to a Muslim area?"36

The prospect of sharia law operating in Europe appalls liberal critics, partly because sharia is commonly associated with brutal physical penalties for crimes. But most find even a modified civil form unacceptable and a reversal of centuries of state-building and progress toward a rule of law. Trevor Phillips has urged Muslims who want to see sharia law to return to their countries of origin, since they simply do not understand British or European values.37

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