[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
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 the letter left by the hijackers, in the
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