Muslims in the Public Sphere

Islam in Sight – Yet Still in the Distance

The anthology "Islam in Sight – The visibility of Muslims in the public sphere," edited by Nilufer Göle and Ludwig Ammann, investigates the reasons and implications for the increasing visibility of Islamic symbols in public. Ines Braune introduces the book

Photo: AP
Islamic symbols are becoming increasingly visible in public, yet there is no uniform Islamic identity

​​The collection of essays deals with the fact that Islam currently enjoys an increased visibility in the public sphere, primarily in the form of mosques, headscarves, Islamic cultural associations, etc. The goal of the book is to understandably account for the greater visibility of Islam by analysing the transfer of Islamic practices and symbols to the public realm.

The authors refer to this phenomena as the "second phase of Islamism," which initially sounds confusing, as Islamism is usually associated with radical political groups and movements. However, these activities, claim the authors, are characteristic of the "first phase of Islamism."

Beginning in the 1990s, a new set of Muslim actors appeared on the stage – intellectuals, businessmen, and young people. Their demands were not aimed against the system, but rather they sought to gain access to participation in public life.

The naturally innate category of "Muslim" gave rise to that of the "Islamist," which refers to those who consciously choose the different lifestyle offered by Islam, all the while accepting modernity.

No uniform Islamic identity

The stance of the Islamist is not merely that of quiet acceptance. Recourse to Islam offers a positioning and an "oppositional empowerment" in the modern world. As a result, Islam penetrates deeply into the social structures of everyday life, in contrast to radical demands posed by first phase Islamists, who stood outside of the system. This doesn’t mean, however, that the current demands for participation are any less political.

The emerging and lived "Islams" are so multifarious and hybrid that they resist a collective description that points to a uniform Islamic identity.

In order to clearly present these multifarious Islamistic identities and the mechanisms involved, the editors have divided the anthology into three parts. The first chapters of the book offer basic interpretations on Islamism and modernity (Nilüfer Göle), on the public sphere in the singular and plural senses (Christian Geulen), and on the relationship between private and public in Islam (Ludwig Amman).

The heart of the book consists of case studies from the secular Republic of Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and pluralistic Europe. The predominantly empirical studies aim to elucidate the nature of public and corporeal manifestation of Islamic symbols.

Three chapters – meant to be taken as an overview – complete the book. Shmuel N. Eisenstadt depicts the role of the public in Islamic history, Simonetta Tabboni refers to the interplay between identity and alterity, and Charles Taylor illuminates the role played by religion in the struggle for identity in modernity.

Belief offers orientation

The complexity and density of the issues facing the team of authors hereby becomes apparent. In order not to remain at a merely general level of discussion, one aspect from the case studies had to be picked out that concerned living together with Muslims within a European context.

The contributions offer precise accounts of how belief provides orientation and self-confidence, serving as a "springboard to the non-Islamic majority society."

For those stigmatized by epithets such as "Turk" and regarded by society as inferior, religion plays a decisive role in "transforming a stigma into a source of self-empowerment" and a means to act assertively.

The turn to Islam is a way of coming to terms with experiences as a stigmatized minority in a majority society. The function of religion in this respect is in no way fixed, but rather is defined anew according to the specific situation in order to best come to terms with everyday life.

The need for "equality"

Against this background, Islamic cultural associations fulfill various functions. They serve as a meeting place, where young people can get together and exchange experiences on the daily challenges posed by the majority society.

The development of a feeling of solidarity endows individuals with inner strength on the one hand and, on the other, enables the person to articulate interests and needs out in the open, in public. This maxim holds true even for secular organizations.

The demands of Muslims for recognition thereby follow the logic of equality along with other sections of the majority society. As a result, Islamic religious communities form, just as do all religions, on the basis of confessional differences.

Islamic cultural associations offer an alternative sphere, which mediates between the personal and the public worlds, and thereby empowers members not only to act towards achieving religious demands, but also in terms of a wider civil engagement.

In sight or further off in the distance?

At this point, a critical question must be asked. What happens when alternative spheres turn into spheres of opposition? What if the main concern is not integration, but rather demarcation and superiority?

It is desirable that when Muslims achieve visibility, they are also accessible through their public demands. What happens, however, when their aim is to exclude themselves from the majority society, with the effect that Muslims are pushed further off in the distance?

In my opinion, the mere recognition of difference conceals the fundamental problem of asymmetry, the struggle for supremacy within a cultural sphere. The article by Guelen is the only one to raise this issue, and it questions whether the model of symmetrical recognition of various positions is a meaningful possible solution or if other approaches must be found in order to establish true co-existence within a society.

Majority society questioned

The question posed above is not asked by the team of authors, who nonetheless owe their readers an answer. What they do work out in a detailed and precise manner, however, is a final farewell to the nightmare image of Islam.

Islam is presented as a source to cope with everyday life and a means of orientation in a majority society. It appears in various facets, especially in the public sphere.

On this basis, Nilüfer Göle formulates the central hypothesis. "The public visibility of Islam and the specific practices underpinning this [...] trigger new ways of imagining a collective self and a common space that are distinct from the Western liberal self and progressive politics."

The finger points in the direction of the majority society. National principles of consensus are destabilized and questioned to the degree to which Muslims and Islamists, respectively, are empowered to act by turning to Islam. The majority society is challenged to come up with a new way to relate to minorities and then integrate this into its concept of modernity.

The fear of a monolithic Islam has proved to be of no help. This collection of essays provides a first intensive examination of the "various Islams."

Ines Braune

© 2005

Translation from German by John Bergeron

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