|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
31 Dec. 1998 - 6 Jan. 1999
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Tomorrow's grey areas
A senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Roy defines Islamism as a socio-cultural movement embodying the discontent and frustration of a generation that has not been integrated socially or politically.
Roy's writings have aroused the wrath of Islamists, who accuse him of looking at the Islamic world through narrow Orientalist eyes. His most controversial book on the subject is The Failure of Political Islam, which recently hit the bookstores. In this book, Roy harshly criticises the "poverty of Islamist thought on political institutions, and the Islamists' impossible quest for a virtue that can never be attained. Because their political model is attainable only in man, not in institutions; therefore, the creation of an Islamist polity is almost impossible."
Last week, Roy engaged in yet another debate on the issue with a number of Muslim scholars and intellectuals.
You claim that political Islam has failed in terms of text, concept and, most importantly, in terms of action. What is the basis upon which you have reached this conclusion?
My point is that the conceptual framework of Islamist thinking is unable to create a true "Islamic state", because it is based on the concept of virtue (the leader is supposed to be "the best Muslim"), without proper political mechanisms that could allow for the appointment of this leader and organise the decision-making process.
There are many other points: the application of the Shari'a leads either to political rethinking, as in Khomeini's case, or to a fundamentalist and scripturalist approach, as in the case of the Taliban. So the real political mechanisms of any Islamic state heavily rely on other (non-avowed) bases: ambition, economic interests, communal loyalties, etc. This is true of any political system, but it is particularly destructive in a system which claims to implement "true Islam". Democracy is not based on virtue, but on the rules of the game.
Political repression has clearly prevented the Islamist movements from achieving political participation. In this sense, the regimes in power bear responsibility for the lack of democracy (with a large measure of approval from the West). But the Islamist movements have also largely been unable to broaden their political base by building alliances with the other democratic forces precisely because their ideology is hegemonist -- at least in the Arab world.
In Tajikistan, for example, the IRP forged an alliance with democrats and nationalists, and is now a member of a coalition government. In Turkey, Refah was able to head a government through a political alliance. In Algeria, the predicament of the Islamist parties is their inability to build political alliances because there is no ground for that in their ideology.
But Islamist parties have always achieved landslide victories in the electoral process. Therefore, to judge that their political agenda has failed before they are even allowed to implement it is premature.
By "failure" I never meant that the Islamist parties could not win elections, only that they could not establish the kind of state they want. Nevertheless, the Islamist parties are and will remain part of the political landscape. They are legitimate actors in the political game and should be granted the right to participate in elections, as long as they forego violence.
The mainstream movements (such as the Muslim Brothers, Refah/Fazilet, Al-Nahda in Tunisia and even the FIS) abide by the rules of the game, and should not be prevented from running in the elections. What I mean is that the simple fact of accepting democracy -- again, not as an ideology, but as the rules of the game -- would rapidly transform the Islamist parties into "Muslim-democrat" parties, just as there are "Christian-democrats" in western Europe. That is why I think that democracy should prevail. So Islamist movements have to accept pluralism (that is the debate in Iran), and the regimes should stop playing off secularism against democracy.
Why are political movements in the second half of the 20th century choosing Islam as an ideology through which to express political dissent?
I would explain the electoral successes of the Islamist parties by two elements: on one hand, the failure of the secular and socialist ideologies promoted by most of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation movements in the '50s and '60s, and the bureaucratic and often corrupt regimes that followed them.
On the other hand, the fact that the Islamist parties have been able to embody two heritages: precisely the anti-imperialist trend, but also the embodiment of a reconciliation between tradition and modernity, conservatism and anti-imperialism. This is particularly true of the FIS, Hamas, and Al-Nahda.
Writing on political Islam tends to be informed either by secularism or by religion, leaving no space to see the other side with any objectivity.
There is a general ambiguity when Easterners criticise Westerners: sometimes the West is viewed as a Christian world, sometimes as a secular one. Both trends do exist, come into conflict in Europe and produce different attitudes towards Islam. The anti-Islamic biases in the West could stem from either trend: Pope John Paul II would not speak, I guess, of the "light of secularism, the darkness of religion"; nor could Clinton or Tony Blair. Theocratic states like Saudi Arabia, as far as I know, are not seen as a threat by the West (of course, one can ask whether Saudi Arabia is a true Islamic state, but this is another issue). There is not "one" West.
I am not an "Islamologist" but a political scientist. When I discuss Islam, I do not speak about Islam in general, but about the political movements which present Islam as a political ideology capable of shaping a new kind of state.
Not every Muslim is an Islamist, and I do not pretend to speak about relations in general between Islam and politics. I address a very specific issue: the impact of the Islamist movements on the contemporary political scene in Muslim countries.
So-called Western "values" do not define a precise political system. There were dictatorships in Europe not so long ago. Today, secularism and democracy are seen as congruent, but when one has to choose (in Algeria or Turkey), most Western analysts chose secularism against democracy (better cancel elections than accept an Islamist regime).
My view is the reverse: democracy should prevail over secularism. An Islamist party in power will be confronted sooner or later with popular demand for democracy (as in Iran), and this will lead to genuine, not imported, democracy.
Is it not impossible to understand the Other when one's own values are seen as fundamental principles, to which all other values must defer?
I do not advocate any special values. I just look at the way political systems can work and meet people's requirements. This is why I think that democracy ultimately leads to stability, because it implements pluralism and rotation of the ruling elites.
I also have my doubts regarding the dichotomy between self and other. Islamists are sometimes the Other of other Muslims. In the West, views concerning Islam conflict, but so do views on religion in general. In the US and France, there are wide-ranging debates on the role of religion.
So can we speak of a return of the sacred and the decline of secularism in Europe?
Secularism is not receding in the West. The return of religion is an illusion resulting from the high visibility of modern Christian militants. For instance, there are fewer and fewer young students attending Catholic seminaries in western Europe. Fewer people go to church; the clergy is aging. Churches are closing, not opening.
All the recent elections in western Europe (except in Spain) indicate the rise of socialists against Christian Democrats. Recent US mid-term elections showed that the American religious right has been unable to mobilise against Clinton.
But would a return of the sacred make the West more understanding of Muslim perceptions?
Religiosity is double-edged: it could unite believers against secularists and atheism (see for example the support of some English Anglican clergymen for the banning of Rushdie's Satanic Verses); but it could also pit believers of different creeds against each other, because by definition a believer thinks he holds the only truth.
The new Christian fundamentalists in Europe, for example, are less pro-Muslim than many leftist secularists. The Christian right in the US is pro-Israel. The Catholic Church is more ambivalent: politically, it is pro-Arab (see its stand on Jerusalem), but in religious terms, it took some distance from the inter-faith dialogue initiated by more liberal clerics.
Why do you lament the fact that the Islamists use "Western" techniques in promoting non-Western ideas?
I never lamented this fact. I just noted it. For me, it is a positive fact. I consider that in this way, the two civilisations are intermingled.
Do you perceive a time when the West and Islam could be reconciled?
The lack of symmetry in your words is interesting. The West is not defined, while the East is defined by religion. What is the "West" and "Islam"? If Islam is "East", what about the Christian Arabs? What about the five per cent of the French population who are Muslims?
Migration, education and technology have not only brought people closer, but have mixed them. Boundaries between East and West are blurred. The West is in the East, and the East is in the West.
I do not think in terms of clashes of civilisations. On the contrary, I think that it is because boundaries are blurred that there are so many antagonistic speeches and slogans on both sides, trying to define new boundaries and fix new identities based on older dreams, on a reconstruction of an elusive self. But cultural and social changes and real life experiences are far ahead of these rather superficial debates about East and West.