August 14, 2007

The Economist: Rules of the Game

In this week's The Economist (August 9th), there is a book review on Olivier Roy's "Secularism Confronts Islam." The title by itself suggests an anti-Islamic tome but, apparently, the book is anything but. From the blurb by the publisher, Columbia University Press:
The denunciation of fundamentalism in France, embodied in the law against the veil and the deportation of imams, has shifted into a systematic attack on all Muslims and Islam. This hostility is rooted in the belief that Islam cannot be integrated into French - and, consequently, secular and liberal - society. However, as Olivier Roy makes clear in this book, Muslim intellectuals have made it possible for Muslims to live concretely in a secularized world while maintaining the identity of a "true believer." They have formulated a language that recognizes two spaces: that of religion and that of secular society.

Western society is unable to recognize this process, Roy argues, because of a cultural bias that assumes religious practice is embedded within a specific, traditional culture that must be either erased entirely or forced to coexist in a neutral, multicultural space. Instead, Roy shows that new forms of religiosity, such as Islamic fundamentalism and Christian evangelicalism, have come to thrive in post-traditional, secular contexts precisely because they remain detached from any cultural background.

In recognizing this, Roy recasts the debate concerning Islam and democracy. Analyzing the French case in particular, in which the tension between Islam and the conception of Western secularism is exacerbated, Roy makes important distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims, hegemony and tolerance, and the role of the umma and the sharia in Muslim religious life. He pits Muslim religious revivalism against similar movements in the West, such as evangelical Protestantism and Jehovah's Witnesses, and refutes the myth of a single "Muslim community" by detailing different groups and their inability to overcome their differences.

Another positive review of Roy's work is located at A Fistful of Euros.

The Economist review:
It is a risky business nowadays to engage in debate about secularism; doubly so if the subject is French-style secularism (laicité) and its confrontation with Islam. As a respected French scholar of the modern Muslim world, Olivier Roy has clearly grown tired of the uninformed polemics of those he wryly dubs the "Islamologists of court, academy or cocktail party." In a work of sustained deconstruction, he takes apart the myths, clichés and prejudices which characterize the current conversation about Islam.

His central contention is that "[the] problem is not Islam but religion or, rather, the contemporary forms of the revival of religion." For the past 20 years or so, the notion that religion should be a purely private affair has been challenged by a new breed of charismatic (often born-again) Christians, Jews, Muslims and others. The new believers are often individualistic, rejecting conformity with either orthodox theology or institutionalized religion. The secular European state, where mainstream religion is in decline, is uncomfortable with this new, assertive and unconventional religiosity.

But Islam has been singled out, partly because of its terrorist fringe. Mr Roy argues that the "Islam" depicted as incompatible with (indeed threatening to) modern Western secular society is a one-dimensional construct wholly at odds with the diversity of life experienced by real flesh-and-blood Muslims, including those living in the West. The defenders of laicité, in their alarm at a largely mythical Islam, sense danger at every bus stop.

The wearing of the veil (seen, in the face of the facts, as involuntary) becomes an emblem of a deeply-laid plan of Islamic subversion. All arranged marriages are seen as forced marriages and therefore repressive. The ultimate aim of the well-known Muslim intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, is deemed to be to turn France into an Islamic state. The periodic riots in the Paris banlieues are seen as signs of Islamic revolt rather than social protest.

Mr Roy rejects all of these contentions and, along the way, has some fun at the expense of those who have created an Islamic exception. Why attack only Islam as discriminatory? Should we not stigmatize the Catholic Church for not allowing women to be priests? Why not ask Jews to give up the notion of the "chosen people?" More seriously, he suggests it might be honest, though hardly honorable, to admit that Islam is singled out because it is the religion of immigrants and because it is associated, in entirely negative ways, with the Middle East.

In truth, conservative Muslims view sex and family in essentially the same way as conservative Christians and Jews. Mr Roy argues that in all cases the state's attitude should be the same—to distinguish between moral values and legal norms. Those who regard abortion or gay sex as a crime are not required to renounce their views, only to respect the law (and not, for example, assault gays or set fire to abortion clinics). You can believe what you want provided you obey the rules of the game.

The relevance of all this goes well beyond France. Many in Europe, believing that multiculturalism in Britain and the Netherlands has failed, are wondering whether the stricter French were right after all. Olivier Roy's cogent little book may give them pause.

Update: Oddly enough, this post has been linked to by an Islamophobic blogger (no, I'm not going link back to him). I don't think, though, that he realizes I'm a Muslim. Weird.


Anonymous said...

I've always been rather wary of Roy. For example, I read one article written by him published in ISIM in which he claimed there was no halal butchery in the UK because the British are big on animal rights. Funny, animal rights campaigners are always standing about in my town calling halal butchery to be banned (and the decision to permit it was local, anyway). So much for the 'expert' on European Islam. He seems to be someone who goes for the 'big issues', but I am far from convinced he really knows his biscuits, and in the end, that may see this book gunned down as its critics find holes in his less the thorough scholarship.

JDsg said...

You may be right; I don't know just yet because I haven't read the book, just a few reviews.