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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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