Homesick Everywhere

Lawrence Rosen

  • Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah by Olivier Roy
    Hurst, 349 pp, £16.95, November 2004, ISBN 1 85065 598 7
  • The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West by Gilles Kepel, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh
    Harvard, 327 pp, £15.95, September 2004, ISBN 0 674 01575 4

True or false? 1. Suicide bombers suffer not from a sense of having lost their place in a community but from a sense that they have failed in their quest to find a new, Westernised form of individuality. 2. Muslim fundamentalists – and born-again Muslims in families living in the West – owe their new-found religiosity more to the process of Western secularisation than to the culture they inherited from their parents. 3. What is developing among Western Muslims is not an attachment to Islam as a religion but a highly personal religiosity so dissociated from any particular country that political Islam has no collective reality.

If you agree with these propositions, or if you think they account for the London bombings, then your views are so close to those of Olivier Roy that you need read his new book only in order to confirm your opinions. If, however, you find any of them debatable you will need to work your way through his entire argument in an attempt to sort things out, a task that will have its frustrations, as well as its rewards. Roy is enormously knowledgable and well aware of the problems faced by young Muslims, but his discussion is neither consistent nor clear.

Many elements of his basic argument are attractive. He draws a distinction between two types of Muslim (who might be living in Europe or in the Muslim world): those whose lives are inextricably attached to an Islamic identity grounded in what they see as the incontrovertible precepts of their faith; and those whose faith is more a function of politicisation in a secular world. Western commentators err, he believes, when they confuse the first group, the ‘fundamentalists’, with the second, the ‘Islamists’, who are more typical and more numerous, and who have ‘profoundly altered relationships between Islam and politics by giving the political precedence over the religious in the name of religion’. The Islamists, using religion to assert their political identity, appear to have fashioned an alliance with the fundamentalists but, as Roy sees it, they derive both their perspective and their goals from a desire to be like the secularised political groups they have encountered either in their own countries through globalisation or in the countries to which they or their parents have emigrated. One can’t, therefore, look to Islam for an explanation of the views of these young Muslims, since this would be to assume that the religion itself is so monolithic that one can only be completely committed to it or entirely alienated from it. Rather, it is when Muslims mirror the Western world’s emphasis on the development of the individual that, like similar groups, they display their faith in a political form that seems also to constitute a religious affiliation.

If Roy’s account is accurate it will serve only to increase European discomfort. Even if one can’t ‘blame’ Islam for the extremism of some of its adherents, his argument might imply either that the post-Enlightenment idea of a secular society is being subverted by the Islamists’ politicising of their faith or that Europe might fall into the pattern many see in America, where the right has used faith-based initiatives to consolidate political support. Other Westerners, however, might find Roy’s analysis reassuring. Intense though their beliefs and actions may appear, the Islamists are very like the rest of us: they want to develop as individuals in a global world, they respond to many of the same secular pressures (even if they reject aspects of them), and in time they might even be persuaded to accept the political rules and personal goals that will either turn them into truly secular Muslims or at least adherents of a hyphenated EuroIslam. Which side one leans towards in this prognosis may depend on how critically one reads Roy’s argument in the first place.

Roy reverses many of our assumptions: neo-fundamentalists are individualistic (‘the self, and hence the individual, is at the core of the contemporary religiosity’); ‘the real genesis of al-Qaida violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom’; and, largely because of its ‘passage to the West’, ‘political Islam is a dream or a nightmare, but not a sociological reality.’ But Roy can reach these conclusions only by creating a series of questionable dichotomies and making still more questionable sociological assumptions.

He contrasts the individual and the community, but his application of the distinction is uneven. At one moment he says that learning does not come about through a community of scholars, at another that collective knowledge informs individual meaning; at one moment he says that all suicide bombers have broken with their families, at another that they can’t be placed in a single category. He assumes that, particularly in a ‘globalising’ world, the words ‘self’ or ‘individual’ mean the same thing in all societies. To see the matter otherwise implies, for Roy, reducing the explanation to one derived only from the tenets of formal Islam. He is, therefore, quite correct when he says that Islam is (to borrow a phrase) what Muslims believe and do rather than what the Koran indubitably asserts, ‘not what the Koran actually says, but what Muslims say the Koran says’. But that is a far cry from appreciating that the idea of the self may be quite different in the culture of Muslims and Muslim migrants from what it is in Western experience. Just as wearing blue jeans means one thing in China and another in America, or rock music had a different political meaning in the Soviet Union from the one it had in Britain, so, too, some Muslims may have a very different concept of the self from non-Muslims.

Westerners assume, for instance, that we are capable of fashioning our own moral selves, and that our intentions are not discernible solely from our overt acts and utterances. To many Muslims, by contrast, the idea of a self-fashioned morality is contrary to common sense, let alone religious precept, and no one would say or do something that did not accord with his or her inner state. Similarly, for many Muslims the meaning of a possession has less to do with one’s status as its owner than with the relations that are formed through it. Although there is no explicit Koranic ban on human representation other than as idols, portraits are regarded as largely meaningless since they do not convey essential knowledge about one’s ties to others. Such differences, and the ways of analysing them, go to the heart of Roy’s argument.

For him, the propulsion towards Westernisation is so intense that none of the ‘cultural markers’ of the societies from which they have come can be sustained by Muslim migrants; elements of their background culture can only ‘shape the way in which they express their situation’. But such a perspective tends to reduce the problem, as Roy himself goes on to allow, to migrants’ ‘unhappiness about their situation’. Indeed, the question of belief in a changing world is, as Clifford Geertz once put it, less about what to believe than how to believe it – what rituals or words, what emotional expressions or shared sentiments, what collective enterprises or personal acts will suffice to give people a sense of the orderliness of their world. Moreover, if there is competition for credible patterns of belief among those who have migrated to Europe, that is not the same as saying that individualism in a Western sense has replaced a communal identity or the very idea of the self. Only a false dichotomy between a ‘pristine’ past and a ‘globalised’ present could yield such a view; only a willingness to collect information that shows us how these Muslims themselves conceive of the connections between the various domains can correct a view that the categories of their lives have been utterly displaced by those of our own. And only the shock of discovering that there are indeed different positions but that they don’t necessarily manifest themselves in the form of honour killings or self-immolation, but rather as different views of what constitutes a person or a society, can lead us to appreciate that Muslims in the West are not necessarily reducible to incipient versions of ourselves.

It is, of course, convenient to have culture drop out of the equation and reassuring to know that faith can lead to individualism in Islam as it may be said to have done in the Christian West. And once that claim is made, it is easy to assert that ‘the Muslim community is no longer based on territory and culture, but nor does it have a real social basis.’ On the other hand, such a conclusion must, at the very least, be reached by building up circumstantial detail rather than merely asserted. It is here that Roy’s style of argument becomes as important as his claims.

When referring tangentially to food, Roy states, in a footnote: ‘Warning and reminder – the author of this book is French.’ Most people would have worked this out before page 271: there is something distinctly French about the book’s style of argument. It lies not in Roy’s own intense attachment to laïcité, as revealed particularly in his opposition to headscarves being allowed in French schools, or in the mission civilisatrice with which he seems to credit Western civilisation generally, but rather in his inductive style of argument. The many examples he cites do not lead to a particular conclusion so much as reveal the abstract proposition which has already been asserted as true. This mode of explanation is not unknown outside France, but it has the result here of losing all that is distinctive in the meaning of ideas, attitudes and beliefs for Muslims, since the argument is not grounded in a thorough description of their lives.

On several occasions Roy refers to emotions. He writes, for example, that fund-amentalists use ‘personal and emotional experience’ to lead youth ‘directly to the truth. Discursiveness is rejected in favour of feeling.’ Perhaps, like many others, Roy is afraid that it might be seen as offensively reductionist to talk about the emotions of Muslims – and of Arab Muslims in particular. But there is another alternative, for as we all know (whether as exasperated parents or when claiming greater attachment to our nation’s policies while travelling abroad than we feel when at home), at moments of emotional uncertainty people tend to fall back on the normative roles offered by their culture. The result may be a greater degree of conservatism – even in the expression of emotions – than one actually feels. An appreciation of context – crucial to the ways in which Arabs go about assessing actions and persons – can be enormously important in explaining religious attachment. Just as even wholly secularised Westerners may feel the promptings of the Protestant ethic, so many Muslims are deeply affected by a tribal ethic that, among other things, tends to level out difference and to regard all social units as morally equivalent. To ignore such considerations may seem to make Muslims in the West more comprehensible to us, but it does so only if we ignore that they are seeing the world through the filter of their own cultures and values.

The second example concerns the importance of engaging directly with other human beings. In the early part of his first administration, President Bush turned his back on the Middle East. To many Arabs this was deeply insulting: for them, social ties consist of an ever changing balance between reciprocity and one-upmanship, in which ingratiation and negotiation create obligations that can be converted into any number of responses. To cease from engagement in the process is like pulling the plug: pluses and minuses hold the system together and to cancel them out is to render other agents’ actions incapable of being predicted or influenced. The common Arab response to 9/11 was yes, it was awful, but what do you expect when people don’t even respect you enough to engage with you? When people feel they have been disregarded they may stand back and effectively support what is going on even if they don’t themselves take direct action. This collective sensibility is vital to an understanding of the roles of many Muslims in the West, as they move back and forth across borders. Reducing them to secularised individuals who seek political confirmation through religious engagement fails to take account of such instances, leaving Westerners to be surprised or mistaken in their interpretations of seemingly familiar acts.

If Roy’s thesis does not necessarily lead where he intends, Gilles Kepel’s The War for Muslim Minds tells a story of Arab-Western relations in recent years through a chronology and set of vignettes so familiar that it’s easy to grasp his drift. Unlike Roy, Kepel does not distinguish between fundamentalists and Islamists: indeed, he seems to think of those who are politically active as sharing far more by their engagement than separates them by their reasons for it. His account of the 9/11 hijackers and other suicide bombers hardly suggests that they were either exemplars of Durkheimian alienation or lacking an imagined community that was as real to them as any nation-state. Kepel gives a semi-insider’s account of the personalities involved, the meetings and machinations, the failed approaches and successful reorganisations that lead one or another politician or activist to approach the Muslims’ situation from one vantage point or another. His title is therefore somewhat misleading. This is not a work of theory or even an analysis of the deeper aspects of contested Muslim identity and religiosity, but a clear, if somewhat old-fashioned, account of events and personalities. Along the way, however, it contains some intriguing bits of information.

One of the strengths of Kepel’s reportage is that he pays a great deal of attention to the ways in which people in the Muslim world communicate with one another. Many of his references are to internet postings, which constitute even more ephemeral evidence than archivists are used to dealing with, and which are more likely than conventionally published pronouncements to include clearly anti-semitic remarks, or to group Christians and Jews together as needing to be expelled from the Arabian peninsula. More clearly than in most published accounts, one sees what is at issue for the extremists, namely, the removal of Western (especially American) influence from Arab states rather than an attempt to destroy the West as such. And more than most accounts, Kepel’s demonstrates how extremism has been repeatedly rejected in Muslim countries – and not just by repressive regimes – and how the work of intellectuals in these countries has contradicted Western stereotypes of Arab stagnation and lack of imagination. Like them or not, the voices in Kepel’s account have an authenticity that keeps his story firmly grounded while allowing a reader to consider alternative ways of interpreting the same material.

North African migrants in Europe have a saying: ‘We are homesick everywhere.’ Many do not speak the language of the country from which their parents emigrated; most are criticised when they visit those countries because they don’t know how to speak or act properly there. Once their parents would have expected to return to live in the houses they had built, but now most remain in Europe because corruption has diminished the assets they sent back and their home countries offer no social security benefits. As the Muslim population of Europe grows beyond 15 million, as relations are strained by conflict and backlash, it is important to appreciate that the next generation of children, even when discriminated against in Europe and teased unmercifully ‘at home’, are not simply in search of a lost community or adrift in a European form of existential alienation. The media refer to the bombers who died attacking the London transport system as ‘home-grown’. But the three British-born children of Pakistani immigrants were not at home; indeed it is their sense of being without a place of their own that is striking. To dismiss them as alienated youth or their ideas as perversions of religion is too simple, however. Their culture says that all knowledge should benefit the Believers, but they see no sign of this. On the contrary, the older generation seems ineffectual and the whole world unnaturally inverted. In such circumstances, it is their own culture – not some generalised version of human psychology – that makes the world appear as intensely meaningful to those who take action as it seems horrifically meaningless to those they hurt.

The actions of the London bombers, of the hundreds of Muslims who have blown themselves up in suicide attacks in Iraq over the past two years, and of the millions who have stood mute and allowed others to act are facts that no one can ignore. But they should prompt Westerners to attempt to transcend stereotypes rather than to try to do away with difference. If we concentrate only on the global, the local will almost certainly bite us on the backside; if we see only alienation or loss we may never notice resilience and creativity. We may think we know what it means to be at home or to feel homesick, but we need to understand what it means to Muslims – not just in Europe, but everywhere.