Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The Islamist identity

As Muslims move from the countryside to the city and from the Middle East to the West, they are transforming not their own religion but also the way the West views them

By Nilufer Gole

For example, non-Muslims usually see veiling as a sign of the debasement and inferiority of Muslim women. From a stigma, however, it has become for Muslims a sign of their positive affirmation of an Islamic identity.

Young Muslim women in Europe illustrate this transformation perfectly. Girls who adopt the headscarf in French and German schools are closer in many respects (namely youth culture, fashion consciousness, and language) to their classmates than to their homebound, uneducated mothers. In adopting the headscarf for Europe's public sphere, these girls are unintentionally altering the symbol and the role of Muslim women.

This tendency extends deeper than headscarves. All Western Muslims possess a double sense of belonging, a double cultural capital. They define themselves through their religiosity, but they also have gained universal, secular knowledge. Because they have a double cultural capital, they can circulate relatively freely between different activities and spaces -- home, school, youth associations and urban leisure space.

Being a Muslim and being an Islamist are not the same thing. What we are witnessing today is a shift from a Muslim identity to an Islamist identity. The religious self for individual Muslims is being shifted from the private to the public realm. The question for everyone is whether that search for identity can be satisfied with headscarves and wide public acceptance of Islamic religious practice, or if positive affirmation of Islam demands a more fundamental renunciation of modernity.

Nilufer Gole is directeur d'etudes, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. This column belongs to a series produced by a working group, named by European Commission President Romano Prodi and chaired by the rector of Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences, Krzysztof Michalski, charged with identifying the long-term spiritual and cultural perspectives of the enlarged Europe.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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