Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2010
Issue No. 1003
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The future of Islam in Europe

While Western Islamophobia is a reality to contend with, Muslims based in the West often don't help matters, writes Khalil El-Anani*

The current Western obsession with the niqab, or full- face veil, often seems part of a subconscious plot to restrict anything Arab and Islamic, symbolic as that may be. The niqab is not really Islamic garb, this I am sure something that Western politicians know. And yet it is becoming a target of hate because it is seen as a cultural symbol that is extraneous, and indeed dangerous, to European societies.

Sometimes I wonder, what if it were Indian women, or Sikhs and Buddhists for that matter, who wore the niqab ? Would European parliaments still spend entire sessions discussing the niqab ?

Theological debate on niqab aside, Western outrage against the niqab seems to be a by-product of Islamophobia, a phenomenon that is raging like wildfire across Europe, asserting itself sometimes as mosque- phobia and at other times as minaret-phobia. Should this trend continue, the day may come when European parliaments ban men from wearing their beards long and shaving their moustaches. I wonder what kind of phobia we'll name that one!

There is a real crisis of conscience in the West. When it comes to Islam, Europe seems to be negating its past of freedom and equality, the very essence of what it claims to be defending today. What damage is done to 65 million in France, 22 million in Australia, and 10 million in Belgium, and a similar number in the Netherlands from hundreds, or even thousands of niqab -clad women? Whether the niqab is an expression of faith or habit, I fail to see the damage it is being blamed for.

Meanwhile, the Western intelligentsia seem silent on the matter. For all their loud defence of homosexual rights and of gay and lesbian marriages, the European intelligentsia remain sympathetic to anyone who criticises Islam and Muslims. Criticism of Islam is seen as part and parcel of Europe's freedom of expression.

The French parliament has voted to ban the niqab, calling it a threat to the secularism of the French state. But secularism is innocent from this kind of thinking. The ban on the niqab -- and an earlier ban on the hijab -- has nothing to do with secularism. As a doctrine, secularism was supposed to defend the rights of everyone, especially minorities. Secularism was supposed to protect the rights of all to religious freedom and identity. It was supposed to be a statement of pluralism and religious tolerance.

I have three words I wish to add to the famous motto of the French state, that of liberty, equality, and freedom. I wish to add the phrase, "for non-Muslims only".

The ban on the niqab is a moral scandal as well as an insult to the Western tradition. For one thing, the anti- niqab crowd assume that any woman wearing the niqab (and perhaps any man wearing robes and a beard) is a time bomb that must be defused. The anti- niqab crowd make no distinction between extremists and moderates. It is bigotry such as theirs that inspired the murder of an innocent Egyptian woman, Marwa El-Sherbini, in Germany a year ago.

There is no real evidence of a connection between the niqab and terror. All the terrorist operations that took place in Europe -- from London to Madrid -- were mounted by men baring their faces. The attacks mounted by masked men and women across the Arab and Islamic world are rare compared to those mounted by individuals showing their faces. Terrorists like to be seen and recognised. That's how they are.

I find it ironic that the admirable work of the great intellectual and philosophical brains of the European Enlightenment, of men like John Locke and Montesquieu and Kant, is being reversed by their grandchildren. I find it appalling that in a multi-ethnic country such a Britain, a country known for its religious pluralism and human tolerance, more than 30 Muslim tombs in Leeds have been desecrated. Shops owned by British citizens of Muslim origin were attacked in Birmingham a month ago.

Equally disturbing is the fact that religious fervour and identity-related obsession are spreading across Muslim communities in Europe. Muslim minorities in Europe seem to think that the future of Islam hinges on such outward matters as wearing the niqab, growing a beard, or attaching a minaret to a place of worship. Some members of the Islamic community, especially those of Asian origins, deal with Western societies as if they were still back in Peshawar or Islamabad. Their actions only fuel the Islamophobia of those at the other end of the spectrum.

Islam may be the fastest growing religion in Europe, but its true power is not in outward appearances, but in the spiritual appeal of its message, a message that attracts those wishing to break free from materialism.

The tendency of Muslim communities in Europe to place their "universal" connections above their local loyalties is perilous. There is a tendency for Europe's Muslims to worry more about Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan than about the more immediate tasks of women's rights, communal ties and political affiliation. They confuse one's country with one's citizenry. In their minds, their countries are not where they live, as in Britain or France, but where they came from. But this doesn't make sense, for it is in Europe that they ask for their rights as citizens. It is in Europe that they demand equality and religious freedom.

The schizophrenia of European Muslims is triggered by a mistaken loyalty to Salafi, or fundamentalist trends. As many know, Salafi movements oppose integration and are loath to constructive coexistence. The Salafis both fuel the current Islamophobia and thrive on it.

Some of the Muslims who live in Europe have turned into an impediment to Islam. Some actively obstruct the spread of its message of tolerance. Some are distracting non-Muslims from the values of Islam, because of their ignorance and their obsession with appearances.

It is my opinion that mistaken religious concepts are being propagated among the Muslim minorities of Europe. These concepts are bound to hinder their integration into their new societies. A few days ago, I heard that some Muslim men in London branded as haram, or religiously banned, the participation of British Muslims in the general elections of last month. This is crazy. Even worse, the fanatical utterances were made by recent British converts to Islam.

New converts to Islam tend to subscribe to Salafi views as being pure and therefore perfect. In doing so, they turn their back on tolerant views and the progressive opinions that are required for coexistence. This narrow-minded view of Islam makes much of appearances, such as garments and minarets, and of the literary interpretation of religious texts. It also tends to confuse freedom of worship with respect for the public sphere. It is necessary for European Muslims to stop viewing the cultural legacy of European countries as a threat to their religious freedom.

Western countries defend and allow the practice of religious freedoms without hindrance. But they also want to maintain their cultural legacy and protect it from perceived threats, especially when these threats -- like the niqab -- are matters of contention within the Islamic world, not just in Europe.

The Salafi interpretation of Islam may not be dominant among European Muslims, but it is the most vocal in Europe's public sphere. As such, it creates a wall between Europe's Muslims and non-Muslims. It also inspires some of Europe's most racist laws. The Salafi currents are giving Europe's rightwing groups reason to claim that a Muslim takeover is imminent unless action is promptly taken.

A polarisation of identity is taking place inside two groups, each obsessed with the other, and each reassured of its own superiority. Should this continue, the next decade will just be as bad as the last.

* The writer is senior scholar at the Institute for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Durham University, UK.

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