Fundamentalism begins at home

A French author argues that new forms of Islam owe more to Western identity politics than to the Koran.

Josie Appleton

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After 9/11 the Koran became a bestseller in the West, as readers scoured the text for phrases that might explain the hijackers’ actions. Some argued that violence is inherent in Islam; others said that Islam means peace. The ‘understanding Islam’ industry boomed, with debates, books and pamphlets professing to unearth the mysterious depths of Islamic culture, politics and history.

In Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, the French sociologist Olivier Roy criticises this ‘confused’ and ‘sterile’ debate. ‘It is based on an essentialist view’, he tells me, ‘the idea that Islam is this or that. But you can find anything in Islam. The problem is not what is in the Koran, but what people think is in the Koran’. His concern is to look at the lived reality of Islam, rather than its canonical or historical background. For example, in the book he argues that the idea that Islamic suicide attacks are an attempt to win virgins in paradise is ‘not very helpful. Why should Muslims have discovered only in 1983 that suicide attacks are a good way to enter paradise?’.

In a decade of research for the book, Roy travelled throughout the Middle East, searched Islamic websites on the internet, and studied Muslim immigrants in France. Far from having roots in the seventh century, he found that new religious forms are a response to Westernisation – to the modernisation of Muslim societies, and the migration of increasing numbers of Muslims to the West.

Roy deals with everything from the nihilism of al-Qaeda to the French schoolgirls determined to wear veils; from personal Islamic webpages to Pakistan’s madrasas (religious schools). What new breeds of Islam have in common is their focus on the fulfilment of the self, rather than on community obligations. In these terms, re-Islamicisation is the recourse of isolated, Westernised individuals seeking to find a spiritual pattern and meaning for their lives.

In traditional Islamic societies, religion is tied up with culture: with the food people eat, the mosques at which they pray, their social and political networks. Modernisation has led to a weakening of family and community ties and the undermining of religious authorities. Increasingly Islam is becoming detached from Middle Eastern culture, and the Koran is being seen through the spectrum of individual needs and desires – in his book, Roy notes that cyberspace is full of people that could be ‘Mr Anybody’ pronouncing on what ‘Islam means…’.

These more individualised forms of Islam are linked to fundamentalist violence. ‘Dutch public opinion is blaming foreign culture for the murder of Theo van Gogh’, Roy tells me, ‘but if you look at the background of the guy who did that, he is fluent in Dutch, he is a Dutch citizen, and you even have two converts from an American father and a Dutch mother who played a big role in the plot. Clearly the more radical violence is linked to the deterritorialisation and globalisation of Islam’.

Most of the 9/11 ringleaders were ‘born again’ Muslims, who went to secular schools, had spent time in the West, and had cut themselves off from their families and communities. Judging by the documents they left behind, they had invented a bizarre set of religious prescriptions for themselves – instructions for the attacks included to ‘wear tight socks’ and ‘blow your breath on yourself and on your belongings’ (1). Such nihilistic violence cannot be understood in conventional religious or political terms – instead, it seems to be an individual’s demonstration of the strength of their faith.

Neofundamentalists act in the name of a global ummah (community), but this is entirely an invention of their imagination. Roy writes that: ‘Neofundamentalism provides an alternative group identity that does not impinge upon the individual life of the believer, precisely because such a community is imagined and has no real social basis.’ Islamic militants tend to see both politics and community ties as a bit grubby, a distraction from the pure religious project of developing the self. The fact that radicals have made no attempt to win adherents at Mecca, Roy argues in his book, shows that they have ‘no interest in the real ummah’.

At the other pole we’ve seen the rise of Islam as a consumerist lifestyle choice. One American Muslim quoted in Globalised Islam says that ‘Muslim preachers are salespeople, smiling and sweet-talking salespersons. If salespersons fight and argue with the customer, do you think people will buy the product’[?]. And there seems to be little to distinguish the customers of Islam from other customers. On internet chatrooms, Western Muslims ask whether ‘body piercing is permissible in Islam’ or whether they should marry their lover, a variation on advice columns in lifestyle magazines. As with crystals or yoga, Islam is presented as the cure for the ills of modern life: there are publications on ‘Modern stress and its cure from Qur’an’, ‘Health and fitness in Islam’, even on prayers as a breathing technique for better health.

While the French press sees headscarves as the symbol of a foreign and patriarchal culture, the girls themselves put it in terms of personal choice: ‘this is my right’, or ‘nobody can tell me what to wear’. If young Western Muslims use traditional greetings, wear traditional clothes or eat Halal food this is more the result of identity politics than a pristine cultural survival.

When I recently attended a November meeting held by the Dialogue with Islam Forum in Whitechapel, London, many of the young Muslims in the audience – even recent converts – prefaced their comments with the greeting ‘assalamu alaikum’ (peace be upon you). Speaking from the panel, David Goodhart, editor of the British political monthly Prospect, argued that enduring Muslim identities showed the difficulty of social integration, which he put down in part to the ‘low social class’ of many Muslim immigrants. Yet the audience – educated, integrated and religious – refuted his theory. Roy gives a different view. ‘To say assalamu alaikum in Afghan Persian is vernacular’, he writes, ‘but to use it when speaking French [or English] is to display an ostentatious, quite exotic and even provocative religious belonging’. This is about the projection of a confrontational identity against mainstream society, little different from gay/black/anti-globalisationist identities chosen by other young people.

Changes in Islam parallel changes in other religions. ‘We are in an age of fundamentalism’, Roy tells me. ‘In Christian religious revival we find the same basic tenants as in Islam – individualisation, the generational gap, “born again”, bypassing religious authority.’ Evangelicals also emphasise personal religious experience rather than community ties, and promise to mitigate people’s dissatisfaction with modern life.

New-style Islam can be seen everywhere from Turkish cities to Pakistani madrasas, but it is strongest among Muslim immigrants living in Western cities. In fact, far from fundamentalist Islam being a Middle Eastern import into the West, it is increasingly the other way around. Most of the jihadi websites, Roy reports, are based in the West. Omar Saeed Sheikh (of Wanstead, London) and Raed Hijazi (who studied business at Sacramento University, California) were arrested for fundamentalist attacks in Pakistan and Jordan respectively. The Islamic fundamentalist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir spread to Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East from its London hub. In April 2002, three Britons were arrested in Egypt accused of propagandising for Hizb-ut-Tahrir – none had any connection with Egypt, and two were converts.

Roy cuts through the mystical veil of religion, and shows how new forms of religion relate to social changes. In this, he is heir to the classical sociologists of religion – Emile Durkheim’s studies of primitive religion, and Max Weber and RH Tawney’s work on Protestantism. But the task, Roy tells me, is more tricky today. ‘We have a problem with using traditional sociological categories. We are in societies that are less socially integrated, so the social categories are not so strong.’ While Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism showed Puritanism to be the religion of the rising bourgeoisie, things aren’t so clear-cut with contemporary Islam. ‘In today’s societies people can build identities outside of socio-economic milieu’, says Roy. ‘There are more spaces to build imaginary and virtual communities. The problem is what to do with the traditional requirements of sociology, to assign a place in society for the people we are speaking about?’

Fundamentalist networks are often composed of a ragbag of individuals. For example, one included an Algerian married to a Frenchwoman, a football player and petty drug dealer, a computing student, and four converts. Contemporary Islam doesn’t seem to be concentrated in a specific social class, or have a particular functional role. In fact, it seems that rather than representing a social group or interest, religion expresses the breakdown of social ties. It is prompted by individuals’ experience of dislocation – their search for a community and rules by which to live their life – which is something that seems to exist across society.

So why is modern Islam viewed as an exotic, historical throwback? ‘It is a way to defend an imaginary Western identity’, Roy tells me. ‘We are using Islam as the Other to avoid discussing the present crisis of identity in the West. Specifically in Europe, there is a crisis of the nation state, because of globalisation and European integration. What does it mean now to be Dutch, French or British? We are confronted with the crisis of national identity, and we tend to blame Islam.’

These are points that could have been developed more in his book. By focusing almost exclusively on Islam, Globalised Islam neglects to analyse the important changes in the nature of Westernisation. At times, Roy risks implying that modernisation is always alienating and disorienting, and that it is natural for Muslims to want to hang on to their religion, to ‘express [Islam] in a Western context’. But new forms of Islam were only really seen in the late twentieth century. Prior to that, the modernisation of Muslim societies had gone hand-in-hand with the adoption of Western ideologies, such as Marxism or nationalism, while Muslim immigrants to the West often joined left-wing movements or identified with national institutions.

The new breeds of Islam are really just the shadows cast by the changing shapes of the West. Today, with the old political frameworks gone, the West is unable to furnish the ideologies to go along with the process of Westernisation. Islam is reached for as an age-old gel, to hold things together in a dislocated world. Iran is modernising in reality – the age of marriage is on the rise, as are female literacy rates – but in ideology it is going backwards, with the lowering of the legal marriage age to nine. Educated, well-off young men, with degrees and laptops, imagine that their box-cutters are the equivalent of seventh-century swords.

The West tends to see Islam as exotic and foreign to assuage itself from blame, to avoid asking hard questions. Globalised Islam gets under the skin of today’s quintessentially modern forms of Islam, and points the debate in a new direction.

Globalised Islam, by Olivier Roy, is published by C Hurst and Co, 2004 (first published, Paris 2002). Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

(1) See a translation of the letter left by the hijackers, in the LA Times

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