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  / 

Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 9

Everywhere you look nowadays, Islam is used (and misused) as a political force. Some Muslims employ it as a call to action; many in the West (and elsewhere) perceive it as an "other" demanding containment and exclusion. As a Turk, I feel both sides of this debate directly.

The reason that Islam seems like a religion of the "other" to Western eyes is that the West has witnessed a systematic de-institutionalization of religion. It is not religion that disappeared from modern Western life, of course, but rather the claims that religious institutions can make on individual behavior. Religion in the modern world is a much more personal and spiritual experience than ever before.

Yet a process of de-institutionalization of religious experience is also taking place within Islam. Politicization of Islam is displacing the authority of Islam's religious classes, the ulema. As in the West, Islamic religious experience is becoming more personal. Interpretation of religious texts by individual Muslims, including political militants, intellectuals and women, is one result. Another is the vulgarization of religious knowledge, with the Koran's teachings abused and taken out of context to support political ends.

Who now decides what is legitimate and what is illicit in Islam? Who has the authority to interpret religious texts? Who can issue a fatwa or declare jihad? Nowadays, activism and terrorism provide, or rather impose, a new source of legitimacy. So lay people decide what Islam does and does not mean, without the authority of religious schools and specialized training.

Indeed, Islam today is primarily interpreted through political actors and cultural movements, not religious institutions. This de-institutionalization has enabled Islam to move from being a local and national social bond to forging imaginary ties between all Muslims, everywhere, who feel oppressed or displaced.

Thus, Islamism can unite adherents who previously were deeply divided: spiritual Sufi and canonized Shariat Muslims, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, conservative Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Iran.

At the same time, Islam is on the move, with its believers leaving rural areas for cities, including the cities of the West. Many see this movement as something negative, emphasizing the fact that these people are socially uprooted, which leads to alienation and, for some, to terrorism. But social mobility is also a precondition for creating a modern outlook.

Of course, through migration Muslims experience a sense of distancing, if not an outright break, from their social origins. So their religious experience is of a new kind, bereft of theological, community or state institutions.

Religious experience instead becomes a form of social imagination within which they reconstruct a sense of belonging to Islam in new and strange surroundings. It is not distance from modern life, but proximity to it that triggers a return to religious identity.

Indeed, most radicalism arises in groups who, by their experience of mobility and displacement, are acquainted with secular Western ways of political thinking and urban living. Disoriented by unfamiliar surroundings, Islam becomes their anchor.

But for this anchor to work, Islam must be liberated from its traditionally subservient, passive and docile posture in the face of modernity. By wearing a veil or beard, claiming the right for places to pray at work or school, and demanding special foods, Muslims identify themselves overtly as Muslims. They are telling everyone around them that they are more zealous and meticulous in their religious observance than those who confine their religiosity to private life.

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