Events

Secularism in the Muslim Diaspora

October 27, 2008 // 8:15am4:30pm
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The Middle East Program hosted a conference on October 27th, entitled "Secularism in the Muslim Diaspora," to present and discuss issues of faith and citizenship among Muslim communities in the West. With about 100 participants, the conference took place in the 5th floor boardroom at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The morning events consisted of two panels, each featuring two speakers discussing the specific challenges facing Muslim communities in specific Western European nations. The first panel, chaired by by Philippa Strum, Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed the cases of Germany and France, and featured Bassam Tibi, Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for International Affairs, Göttingen University; and Jean-Pierre Filiu, Visiting Professor, Georgetown University, and Associate Professor, Political Science, Sciences Po, Paris, France.

In his talk, "The Mosque in Germany between Freedom of Faith, Parallel Societies, Politics of Islamization and Integration in Society." Tibi said that integration and multiculturalism are mutually exclusive policies, and the focus on the later in Germany has allowed mosques to become centers of a parallel society. Tibi argued that throughout Islamic history, the Mosque has been used for the promotion of a separate Muslim community. This organizational capacity is critical to understanding the challenges of Islam in Germany; a small minority of German Muslims associated with political Islamism has the ability to "hijack the Diaspora" by controlling the mosques, a threat exacerbated by the German system of Church-State relations, which favors the more organized religious groups which characterize this Islamist minority. Debates over these issues in German society have been sharply polarized by the left-right divide, with accusations of "Islamophobia" preventing any criticism of the current system of parallel societies. Tibi concluded that freedom of faith, including the freedom to build mosques, is critical to German democracy; however, these mosques do not have to be guaranteed the right to serve as an instrument of segregation; the engagement of German Muslims, including criticism of political aspects of Islam, if not theological aspects, is critical to building a stable, integrated society.

Jean-Pierre Filiu cautioned that Islam in Europe cannot be treated as a monolithic entity. Directing his remarks at "The French Republic and Muslim Diversity", Filiu insisted that, far from an imported phenomenon, Islam in France is inevitably "French" to a degree not often recognized. He said issues in French Islam must be considered in light of the unique history of religion in France, particularly the fact that France has often been "militant in its laicite." In contrast to Germany, France offers no public money to religious associations; a mosque must be presented as a "cultural institution" to receive funding. This creates a system of diversity characterized by mosques servicing specific ethnic communities, as well as unaffiliated or secularist Muslims, which promotes integration, as Muslims in France are often more united by being French than by being Muslim. However, Filiu conceded that several challenges exist, citing the difficulties of democratically instituting Muslim religious associations, or gathering information about trends in practice, in a system where religious statistics are not taken. While there have been several high-profile controversies, particularly the 2004 debate over the veil in public schools, or the riots of 2005, regarding specific social issues, Filiu insisted that France is more comfortable with multiculturalism than neighboring countries, and that most French Muslims believe Islam is compatible with secular society.

The speakers drew attention to the very different ways in which Germany and France engage Muslim communities. Both speakers agreed that the consciously secular structure of France provided a better system for the integration of Muslim citizens, while the engagement of mosque structures by the government in Germany, meant to safeguard religious practice, actually empowers more exclusionary elements within the Muslim community and facilitate segregation.

The second panel, chaired by Cheryl Bernard, Director, Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND Corporation, featured Maajid Nawaz, Director, The Quilliam Foundation, London England; and Afshin Ellian, Professor of International Criminal Law, University of Leiden, Netherlands, and discussed issues relating to Islam in each of those countries.

Maajid Nawaz focused on the question "Is Shari'a a Law?" Nawaz highlighted recent debate in Britain over whether to incorporate the Shari'a, Muslim religious law, into the British legal system, an issue that strikes at the heart of debates over the compatibility of Islam and Secularism. Nawaz argued that the conception of the Shari'a, traditionally a code of individual moral conduct, as a law to be enforced by the state is a modern anachronism created by attempts to reconcile traditional Islamic thought with modern European political concepts. This fundamentally modern approach, Nawaz said, is largely the product of political Islamists, who view Islam as an all-encompassing ideology. He said that the idea of Shari'a as a law is central to the Islamist agenda, which pushes for the foundation of an "Islamic State" to codify and enforce one definition of what is religiously forbidden. Nawaz argued that Islamists have monopolized the debate regarding Muslim populations in the West, as Western academics describing a "Clash of Civilizations" take the Islamist paradigm at face value, preventing the successful engagement of non-Islamist Muslims. Nawaz said that to view the adoption of Islamism by Muslim youth in Western societies as a conflict of integration versus multiculturalism is to misunderstand the modernist nature of Islamism, and its roots in Western thought.

Afshin Ellian spoke on "Emancipation and Integration of Dutch Muslims in Light of a Process Polarization and the Threat of Political Islam." Ellian stressed that freedom of religion is central to Dutch identity, and that recent acts of intolerance by Muslims, particularly the 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, threaten the very foundations of the Dutch state. Ellian said a Dutch policy of polarization, by which all social actors and traditions are equally sponsored and tolerated, has inadvertently promoted the growth of Muslim intolerance by preventing criticism of Islamic tradition. He held up the example of Dutch leaders, particularly Theo Van Gogh and politician Pim Fortuyn, assassinated in 2002, who broke this ban on criticism and supported the "emancipation" of Muslims from discrimination within their own community as well as from outside. By contrast, present Dutch laws promote fragmentation, by allowing the easy immigration of family and marriage partners and allowing immigrants to retain the culture of their country of origin. Ellian maintained that liberal democracy cannot allow ideology of any kind, and that the constitution of any state must be understood by and applicable to all groups in society.

During the following discussions, a strong debate ensued over the origin of Islamic radicalism, a phenomenon central to both presentations. Following his focus on Islamism, Maajid Nawaz insisted that radicalism is of fundamentally modern origins, and, most importantly, is just as much a product of Europe as of Islam. Afshin Ellian took the opposite view throughout his presentation, interpreting acts of violence and extremism in Holland as products of Muslim tradition forced suddenly into a very different society. This disagreement continued throughout the discussion, as both Ellian and Bassam Tibi challenged Nawaz's interpretation of political Islam as a modern development. Ellian and Tibi argued that political concerns have always been central to Islam, and that the traditional thought and practice of Muslims must change somewhat if they are to become true citizens of Europe. Nawaz, by contrast, drew upon his own experience, claiming that his parents, likewise born in Britain, had never felt any conflict of interest between their faith and their citizenship, and, furthermore, had never displayed any of the more extreme interpretations Nawaz himself came to espouse through his membership in Hizb-ul-Tahrir. Another point of disagreement was over the fairness of including "Muslim" as a community in its own right; Ellian and Tibi saw this distinction as valid and essential to engaging European Muslims – Nawaz and Filiu saw the conglomeration of various communities – for example, British South Asians and British Arabs, under a religious label as problematic, only serving to heighten Muslim's sense of alienation.

Recognizing that while the specifics vary from nation to nation, there is a general need for greater communication between Muslim communities and governments in the West, the Division of United States Studies convened a conference in March 2008 to share best practices in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The resultant publication, Governments and Muslim Communities in the West, was presented at the October 27 conference.

Philippa Strum, former Director of the Division of U.S. Studies and co-editor of the volume, summarized the publication's discussion of the situation in the United States and Great Britain. Some of the problems are similar: racial profiling, unfavorable media portrayal, and lack of accommodations of religious practices in schools and workplaces. Seeking to build connections with Muslim communities, the British government initiated a 2005 nationwide project, "Preventing Extremism Together," in which government members initiated meetings with Muslim groups around the country. The conference participants agreed, however, that the most effective connections have been made at the local level. Mayor Sue Greenwald of Davis, California presented a case study of such an efforts, while Sajida Madni of Birmingham Citizens (England) emphasized the role that can be played by non-governmental organizations.

Jonathan Laurence, co-editor, discussed the highly codified church-state relations that exist in France and Germany. During the early decades of Muslim immigration into Europe, the governments outsourced their responsibilities and permitted the governments of the sending countries to organize the Muslim communities and provide imams for them. By the late 1980s, however, the French and German governments began to recognize that integration was a national issue, and each government organized national and regional institutional frameworks for dialogue with representatives of the Muslim communities. While these consultations have been imperfect, they are extremely important in resolving issues of Islamic infrastructure such as consumer protection for travelers going on the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), the construction of mosques and cemeteries, the training of imams, and religious observances.

Commentator Peter Mandaville raised a number of issues that remain unanswered and that he suggested Western governments should consider. What, for example, is at stake when governments approach Islam as the only lens through which people are visible? How might governments identify interlocutors other than representatives from mosques, which are attended by only half the Muslim populations? How representative and relevant are the national Muslim organizations? How can space be facilitated for the younger generation to rise to positions of prominence in these organizations? How, finally, can governments provide religious education to second and third generation Muslims so that they are less prone to the propaganda of radicals?
 

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