Book Review: Islam in Europe

REVIEW: Islam in Europe
Dawn, April 6, 2008

The book looks at the lives of young Muslims in Europe, and examines the implications of scrutiny, that in many cases includes multiple levels of discrimination and violence.

Excerpts from: Islam in the European Union: Transnationalism, youth and the war on terror Edited by Yunas Samad and Kasturi Sen; Oxford University Press, Karachi

The planet’s ‘Coca-Colaisation’ is the most palpable facet of globalisation. Another facet that receives less media attention but which is just as prevalent is cultural heterogenisation, a phenomenon that becomes apparent not only in cultural crossbreeding, but also by the fact that different groups (communities, nations...) continue to survive and recreate themselves against the cultural imperialism of the West. The excessive homogenisation of lifestyles can indeed be viewed as a danger, and in turn lead to all kinds of self-preservation and self-reconstruction, sometimes in the more excessive incarnations such as ‘fundamentalism’. Planet ‘Coca Cola’, built around cultural products that have been standardised by the entertainment industries (music, television, cinema) and around communications industries, is a place where the search for true authenticity becomes difficult. ‘Authenticity’, this new buzzword to enter the international stage, refers to any movement that expresses within the political arena a need for specificity, whether in the form of eastern nationalism, provincialism of western democracies or religions.

The above ideas lead us directly to the following dilemma: is it impossible, as Samuel Huntington claims, to disassociate the quest for authenticity from all the varied forms of fundamentalism, as well as from the notion of the clash of civilisations? Or, on the other hand, does this quest allow for the concept of individuality to be redefined? Certain people are inclined to favour the clash of civilisations hypothesis. According to this theory, Islam clearly becomes, in the period that follows the end of the cold war, the enemy of the West. Islam can only be considered a major cause of conflicts because of the supposed incompatibility between the Islamic value system and that of the West. Other thinkers, such as Bryan Turner, prefer a postmodernist interpretation according to which the Islamic quest for authenticity confirms the defeat of the Aufklarung. According to this approach, it is understood that the anti-consumerist ethics, based on traditional Islamic doctrine, are a response to the West’s cultural domination; and it is posited that Muslims seek security (regarding their identity and authority) in a literal interpretation of the Islamic tradition, applicable to all areas of life.

My approach is not based on either of these interpretations. Neither religion in general nor Islam in particular will be considered merely as a cause of international conflict, or as a reaction against modernity. I opt rather for a sociological investigation of Islamic religious identities and practices using analytic tools that have been applied to other religious groups in order to dissolve the artificial opposition between East and West (the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Occident’), inside which the analysis of Muslim populations are still all too often enclosed, and that leads to Islam being considered as a ‘special case exception’. This sociology of religious practices is based on the hypothesis that religions have the ability to accelerate the process of globalisation by promoting the move from community ties to association-based ties. In other words, in the response to globalisation, religions do not merely strengthen pre-existing identities (based on gender, family, or geography), but also offer resources for constructing new forms of individualisation and globalisation. The ideoscapes described by Arjun Appadurai are not exclusively tied to those promotions of western culture such as Coca Cola or McWorld. Religious and cultural facts that spread the ideas of justice, morality, dignity and authenticity also play a crucial role in the shaping of ideoscapes in the same way that the Declaration of Human Rights, democracy, et cetera. In this respect, Muslim minorities within western democracies come to be a very appropriate example of the complex relationships between modernity and globalisation.

Western Muslims are faced with a radically new situation: the integration of the Islamic tradition at the heart of secularised democracies. Throughout this process, the compatibility of Islam with the notion of Western citizenship, the adaptation of tradition within a situation of pluralism, and the transmission of and education in Islam within a minority situation are topics that necessarily become of key importance. These questions are not only raised within the context of each national area, but echo and respond across national boundaries, an effect of cultural globalisation. European Islam is connected with the stakes and political and cultural difficulties of the Muslim world, as demonstrated by the Sept 11 attacks. However, beyond sometimes-radical networks of political activism, it is a whole collection of doxa, debates, controversies and figures of authority that western Muslims share with the Ummah. At the same time, they are far from being merely an echo chamber for the political and cultural issues that are taking place elsewhere, for they are, on the contrary, at the heart of religious and cultural innovations linked to their European context.

More than 12 million Muslims currently live in the main countries of western Europe. This Muslim presence is the consequence of immigration channels leading from the former colonial empires in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to continental Europe, channels that grew to significant dimensions in the early 1960s. The official end to work-based immigration in 1974 meant that the taking-root of these populations has become irreversible, and is linked to the increase in policies regarding the reunion of dispersed families, thus leading to reshaping and increasing the size of families within Europe. Within such a context, an individual’s belonging to the Islamic faith constitutes a major dimension of sedentarisation. It is thus around the visibility of Islam that inquiries, doubts, and sometimes violent oppositions connected with the integration of these ‘new arrivals’ within the different national collectivities will be crystallised.

The vast majority of immigrant Muslims come from countries where Islam is, if not a state religion, at least the religion of most people in the country. The transplanting of population, that implies interdependency with a majority non-Muslim environment, represents an unprecedented challenge to which Muslims are currently inventing responses that vary according to their competency in matters of Islam (in the sense Anthony Gidden gives to this concept). This competency is shaped in the first instance by the large variety of cultures, and the place given to Islam at the heart of the cultures and nations from which Muslims originate. However, this competency is also affected by the cultural traditions and national mindsets specific to each host society. Therefore, a double tropism is at the centre of the integration of Muslims in Europe: the first is oriented towards the Dar-al-Islam (the world of Islam); the second is anchored in the specificities of each host nation. In respect of the Dar-al-Islam we find solidarity networks and forms of mobility that form connections between European populations and the geographic and national spaces of the Muslim world. Regarding the host societies, the urban context is a determining factor because the global city is the privileged location for the settling and adaptation of Muslim immigrants to their new national and social contexts. Paris, Berlin, London, New York, and Los Angeles (amongst others) are henceforth Muslim capitals, given their high concentrations of Muslim immigrant populations.

Whereas an industrial city would be organised around groups whose defining lines do not coincide with ethnic and cultural borders (but rather along more universal aggregates: the proletariat, other employees, private sector versus the public, et cetera), the global city tends to give preference to, and to preserve, ethnic differences. The development of ‘ethnic business’ as well as of all forms of self-employment within the service sector creates economic opportunities for the masses of new arrivals at the heart of the more larger cities. Given such circumstances, we have to wonder how Muslims can articulate their religious and spiritual needs in terms that take into account both the Islamic way of life and the host societies’ dominant structures and systems, at the local and the national level.

In this process of accommodation, the role played by globalised forms of Islam is decisive. Over the past two decades, two different globalised forms of Islam have attracted more and more followers in different parts of the Muslim world and beyond. One form of global Islam refers to diasporic communities that develop solidarity beyond the boundaries of nations and culture, and that are often labelled ‘transnational networks’. It refers to non-governmental participants such as religious leaders, immigrants, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals, who foster bonds and identities that transcend the borders of nation states. To achieve transnational status, a group must possess three main traits: (1) awareness of an ethnic or cultural identity, (2) existence of group organisations across different nations, (3) development of relations — whether monetary, political or even imaginary — linking people in different countries. It is, in fact a double relationship to time (memory) and to space (networks of relationships, the construction of a mythical place) that is crystallised in the condition of Muslims living as a minority in the West. Certain Muslims preserve or even strengthen their links with their country of origin, which very often means the re-localisation of local religious communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Algeria, Turkey or Egypt. This re-localistaion is sometimes accompanied by a rigidification/fossilisation of Islamic references originating from the home countries, especially when the re-localisation concerns rural groups. The relationship between men and women, as well as the status of women, are the most delicate questions of this eternalising reproduction of traditionalist Islam.

The other form of global Islam refers to theological and political movements that emphasise the universal link to the Community of Believers (Ummah) such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Tablighi Jamaat or the Wahabi doctrine. Today, the conditions for communication and the free movement of people/ideas make the Ummah all the more effective, without mentioning the fact that national ideologies have declined.

Yunas Samad is director of the Ethnicity Research Centre at Bradford University, and deputy director for the Centre for South Asian Studies, Geneva. He in on the editorial board of a number of journals, including Contemporary South Asia and the Journal of Peace and Democracy in South Asia.

Kasturi Sen is a social scientist who has worked on public health and development issues for the past 20 years. She is currently director of research at INTRAC, an international research and training NGO in Oxford, UK.


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