Interview with Olivier Roy

"Full Equality before the Law for All Religions"

French political scientist Olivier Roy is one of the foremost European experts on Islam. His new book, "Holy Ignorance. When Religion and Culture Diverge", will soon be published in English. Eren Güvercin spoke with Roy about the current Islam debate in Europe

Olivier Roy (photo: AP)
Behind the Islam debate in Europe, which revolves around visible symbols such as minarets or headscarves, is the question of European identity and the role of religion, argues Roy

​​ In Switzerland, a majority votes for a ban on minarets; in France and in Belgium, Islamic headscarves are heavily debated; in Italy, crucifixes are under fire. And also here in Germany, the debate about the Muslims is often very hysterical. Why do Europeans fear religious symbols or "foreign" religions so much?

Olivier Roy: The debate in Europe has shifted in some 25 years from immigration to the visible symbols of Islam. Which means a paradoxical thing: even people who opposed immigration acknowledge now that the second and third generations of migrants are here to stay and that Islam has rooted itself in Europe. So now the debate is about the status of Islam. And here we have a strange phenomenon: while anti-immigration feelings were mainly associated with the conservative right, anti-Islam feelings are to be found both on the left and on the right, but on two very different grounds.

For the right, Europe is Christian and Islam should be treated as a tolerated but inferior religion. There is – unfortunately – no way to ban it, because of the principle of "freedom of religion", inscribed in our constitutions, international treaties and UN chart, but there are means to limit its visibility without necessarily going against the principle of freedom of religion – for instance the European court of human rights did not condemn the banning of the scarf in French schools.

For the left, the issue is more generally secularism, women's rights and fundamentalism: it opposes the veil not so much because it is Islamic but because it seems to contradict women's rights. Hence the debate on Islam hides a far more complicated issue: What does a European identity mean, and what is the role of religion in Europe; and of course on these two issues the left and the right have very different positions. But we see the rise of a new populist movement – like Geert Wilders in Holland – mixing both approaches, basically siding with the right but using leftist arguments.

​​In your book you say that fundamentalists like Al Qaida have nothing to do with the tradition of Islam. But for the people in Europe they appear very traditional ... Are Al Qaida and similar organizations and movements a modern phenomenon?

Olivier Roy: The kind of terrorism perpetrated by Al Qaida is unknown in Muslim history as well as in Christian history. So in any case it is a recent phenomenon. If we consider some of its main characteristics – suicide attacks, execution of hostages, targeting civilians – they all have been put into practice recently, before Al Qaida, by other organizations: the Tamil Tigers for suicide attacks, the Italian extreme right in Bologna bombing in August 1980, and the Italian Red Brigades. If you look at the video of the execution of foreign hostages by Al Qaida in Iraq, it follows exactly the "staging" of the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades: banner and logo of the organization, hostage hand-cuffed and blindfolded, a group of "militants" staging a mock trial, the reading of a "sentence" and execution.

By its modus operandi, its form of organization, its target: US imperialism, and recruitment: young Western-educated Muslims or converts to Islam, it is obvious that Al Qaida is not the expression of a traditional or even fundamentalist Islam, but of a recast of Islam under the cloak of Western revolutionary ideology.

Are there similar Christian organizations? Can we find similar developments in Christianity?

Olivier Roy: It depends what you call "Christian", and that is the same issue for Islam, too. Is violence motivated by faith or by a political ideology? I argue that in both cases the motivation is driven far more by ideology, even claiming a religious legitimacy, than by faith. There has certainly been a "white" Western terrorism, for instance at the Oklahoma bombing in 1995. But in fact there is no real symmetry: the present struggle looks more like asymmetrical warfare; Islamic radicals have no air force or air carrier. A radical Christian crusader who wants to fight Muslims does not need to enter a terrorist organization: he can just enlist in the US Air Force and become the pilot of a fighter-bomber. The US media have closely documented the fact that the US Air Force Academy of Colorado Springs is a hotbed of Christian evangelicalism, at the expense, by the way, of Jewish or atheist cadets.

How do you explain the success of such radical movements or ideologies? Are poverty and exclusion really the reasons?

Olivier Roy: No. All studies show that there is no correlation between poverty and radicalization: there are far more Saudis than Bangladeshis (in fact almost no Bangladeshis) among radicals. I think that the present struggle is a continuation of the old fault-line of anti-imperialist, third-worldist movements against the West and specifically the USA. Bin Laden says little about religion, but mentions Che Guevara, colonialism, climate change etc. It is also clearly a generational movement: Al Qaida is a "youth" movement of young people who split with their families and their social milieus and are not interested even in the home country of their family.

Also, there is an astonishing number of converts among Al Qaida, which is now acknowledged but not taken into account. The converts are rebels without a cause who would have joined the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades thirty years ago but now go to the most successful movement on the anti-imperialist market. We are still in the midst of a mostly Western revolutionary millennialism that has turned away from the concept of establishing a new and just society. The new movements are profoundly sceptical about building a good society, hence their suicidal dimension.

Today some Europeans maintain that European culture is essentially a Christian culture, and hence that everything Islamic is problematic and alien for Europe. What do you think of this position?

Poster of the Al Qaida (photo: dpa)
"The most successful movement on the anti-imperialist market": Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida terror network

​​ Olivier Roy: They say that at the same time that Pope Benedict, following John Paul II, is saying that Europe is rejecting and ignoring its Christian roots. The debate on sexual freedom, abortion, gay rights is not one of Europeans versus Muslims, but rather of secularists on the one hand – and there are Muslim secularists – and conservative believers on the other, who could be Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox Jews. In fact, Europe is highly divided about its own culture, between secularists who consider the Enlightenment with human rights, freedom, democracy as the real birth certificate of Europe, and the "Christian culturalists" who believe that the Enlightenment also led to Communism, atheism and even Nazism.

Is there a real risk of Islamophobia in Europe?

Olivier Roy: The problem is how we define Islamophobia: Is it just another term for racism, and specifically racism against people with a Muslim name, whatever their real degree of belonging to a faith community, or is it the rejection of a religion? There are anti-racist militants who cannot stand the veil – that is the case among feminists. There are racist people who do not oppose the veil – because they think that anyway these people are too different from us. The issue is complex because we do not try to disentangle two issues: ethnicity and religion.

Of course in Europe most Muslims have a foreign ethnic background, but the disconnect between ethnicity and religion is increasing: there are converts both ways; there are atheist "Arabs" and "Turks"; and more and more Muslims want to be acknowledged as believers belonging to a faith community, but not necessarily as members of a different cultural community. We need to distinguish between "ethnic communities" and "faith communities", because both suppose a different approach, and because "ethnicity" is less and less meaningful in terms of culture, but is more and more linked with skin colour.

In an interview you say that for example the biggest campaign against Darwin in Europe is being conducted by a Turkish Muslim, on the basis of translations of books written by evangelical Americans, and that there is then a convergence of values and norms, but also of the manner in which those religions translate their convictions into political action and intervention. How can the political world find a way to deal with this "drifting, deculturalized and globalized religion"?

Olivier Roy: I think that the "successful" religions are the global and deculturated religions like evangelicalism, Salafism, cults etc., not the traditional churches like the Catholic Church. This trend is dominant now. It does not make sense to fight against it, particularly in countries where constitutions prevent the State from interfering with beliefs. On the contrary, I think we should accentuate the separation of Church and State by implementing full equality between religions, but not on a basis of "multi-culturalism"; we should consider religions as "mere religions", whatever they say about themselves.

The issue is not 'what does Islam say', 'what does the Pope say', but under which conditions a faith community can freely exercise its rights. Government should contribute to the unlinking of religion and culture, but rejecting the multi-culturalist approach to religion in favour of a neutral and strict freedom of religion within the framework of existing laws.

In the media we often have a dialectic of "liberal" vs. "radical" Islam. Is there a "liberal" or "radical" Islam? When we look at the five pillars, is it possible to do the prayer "liberally" or "radically"? Is this terminology actually applicable on this matter?

Olivier Roy: No. I think the mistake is to consider that to be a good citizen in society, a believer has to choose a "liberal" theology. The debate on the "reformation" of Islam is irrelevant. People who advocate a Muslim Luther never read Luther: he was not a liberal, and quite anti-Semitic by the way. The "formatting" of Muslims into a Western environment has nothing to do with theology. It is done by the individual practices and endeavours of the Muslims themselves. They try to reconcile their practices with the Western environment, and they find in this environment tools to do that, rethinking norms in terms of values for instance. In the long run these changes will certainly translate into a theological rethinking, but anyway it does not make sense to associate modernity with theological liberalism: to think like that means either distorting history or relying on wishful thinking.

Interview: Eren Güvercin

© Qantara.de 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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