Analysis Michael Lüders

Islam as "Wellness"

Self-confidence seems not to be a strong characteristic of western society, says Islam expert Michael Lüders. Islam, however, gives the faithful much more moral authority and spiritual security – a vital necessity for young uprooted European Muslims.

Self-confidence seems not to be a strong characteristic of western society, says Islam expert Michael Lüders. Islam, however, gives the faithful much more moral authority and spiritual security – a vital necessity for young uprooted European Muslims

photo: AP
Young Muslims in Europe are struggling to find a place in the modern world - often emphasizing symbols of Muslim identity, like e.g. the headscarf

​​The confrontation with the Other is always also a confrontation with oneself. Whether one regards the Other (and thus the Other's view of oneself) as a threat or as an enrichment, depends on one's self-confidence. Self-confidence, however, seems not to be a strong characteristic of western society. How else can it be explained that not just Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam itself is seen as an exotic step backwards into a past which is historically no longer valid?

What does it still mean today to be German, French or Dutch? What role does national identity play in the context of European integration and globalisation? The national state is declining in importance and in its ability to provide a meaning for life or even a sense of belonging. The values which have been brought in to replace them, especially democracy and the rule of law, may be honourable, but they're also fairly detached from daily life. They're not much help to the individual in defining an identity.

Aside from the achievements of Europe in the field of liberation, there are few collective points of reference, as there are in Islam. Islam gives the faithful much more moral authority and spiritual security than the Christian churches have managed to do in the last few decades. To be a Muslim in Europe means: I have an identity; I belong to a brotherhood of faith.

The Koran as a handbook

This message is a provocation in a secular society whose pluralism tends to uproot the individual rather than to strengthen his or her identity. And that's even more true insofar as the absence of religion in the public arena in Western Europe is seen as a sign of freedom.

One measure of the extent of the provocation offered by Islam is the discussion about the headscarf. There are good reasons to oppose it, but the vehemence of the debate shows the extent of the insecurity on the part of the non-Muslims. In fact, scarcely any subjects raise so much emotion as the issues of women and Islam or Islam and violence.

In traditional Islamic societies, religion and daily life go hand in hand. What Muslims eat, which mosque they go to, how they organise their social and political networks – all this occurs in the context of the Koran. The arrival of modernity, especially in the last thirty or forty years, has undermined the influence of the family and the power of religious authority.

Islam, as it is lived in daily life, has increasingly distanced itself from its Middle Eastern context, but at the same time, the Koran has become a handbook for individual needs and desires. One measure of this is the internet sites in which everything is available, from practical advice on daily life to information about Jihad. Most of them are run by self-styled preachers who claim to know what "Islam" says. The spectrum ranges from charismatics who market themselves like American TV evangelists to apologists for terror and violence.

It's notable that the September 11th hijackers and the man who murdered Theo van Gogh all belonged to a new type of fundamentalist Islam. In this new development, neo-fundamentalists claim to act in the name of the Umma, the Islamic community, which they redefine according to their needs. It's an imaginary Umma, which offers a home for rootless Muslims and creates a new group identity. It's not without reason that this neo-fundamentalism is especially widespread in the diaspora or among culturally rootless Muslims of the Arab upper class.

Purifying the religion from wrong belief

Unlike traditional Islamists, they are interested only marginally in social questions, the reform of society or simple issues of power. Rather like the old Marxist student groups, they create their own reality, in which symbols or poster actions are more important than reality. For the one, it was the bourgeois society, for the others, it's the purifying of religion from wrong belief or Jihad.

Traditionally, "holy war" is limited to one territory, as with Hamas or Hezbollah. Neo-fundamentalism, on the other hand, is universal and targets icons, whether they are banking towers or a film-maker like Theo van Gogh, whose artistic universe seemed to be blasphemous in the imaginary world of his attacker. Neo-fundamentalism is not an Islamic phenomenon, and it doesn't have to promote violence. Its equivalent is the evangelical movement in the USA, the "born again Christians" who helped President Bush to his second term.

Their division of the world into good and evil influences world politics as much as does the agenda of the neo-fundamentalists, who are even prepared to enter into alliances of convenience with traditional Islamists. That's the case, for example, with Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has influence in Central Asia, Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries. The movement preaches non-violent resistance against repressive dictators and has built up an effective network in the region.

Activities are discussed and coordinated in the organisation's headquarters in London and then distributed by internet. In April 2002, three British Muslims, two of them converts, were arrested in Egypt while they tried to propagate the aims of their movement: neo-fundamentalists and those who were seeking meaning in their lives had obviously come together.

In the European context, transnational neo-fundamentalism is unlikely to have reached its high point yet. Especially in France, Spain and Great Britain, it can be observed among Arab immigrants of the second and third generations. New forms of religion are the expression of social change, and social change is currently occurring at breakneck speed among young people of Arab origin.

Their fathers' generation was conformist and was content to live on the margins of society, which still seemed preferable to the slums back home. The young are rebelling against that. They are looking for their place in society, and at the same time for an identity somewhere between Islam and Europe. Neo-fundamentalism, which has many faces, helps them in their search, even answering their questions about lifestyle – Islam as "Wellness."

What should one wear, how can one get money quickly and legally, how should a cyberspace-Muslim go about meeting a suitable woman? That's all part of the provocation for Europe. The "non-believers" are also searching for the way, but haven't found it yet.

Michael Lüders

© Michael Lüders 2005

This article was previously published in Germany's daily 'Frankfurter Rundschau'.

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

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