[Paleopsych] spiked: Fundamentalism begins at home

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Wed Jan 26 16:06:59 UTC 2005

Fundamentalism begins at home

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

    by Josie Appleton

    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
    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
    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
    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).

    (1) See a translation of [4]the letter left by the hijackers, in the
    LA Times


    4. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-092901trans.story

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