Book Review:

April 1, 2010

Secularism Confronts Islam

By Olivier Roy

Published By: Columbia University Press

On: September 22, 2009

Buy Here $65.0

Reviewed By: Allison Hart

Whether considering the recent Swiss ban on the construction of minarets or the French and Belgian efforts to bar the burqa, there is little doubt that Europe continues to have a problem with Islam. There is, however, a real problem with the Islam “problem” in that it is a broad net cast over issues including immigration and integration, faith and fundamentalism. The desire to frame Islam in Europe as a single and easily definable phenomenon is understandable but damaging, as is the tendency to read “Islam” into myriad social issues. In Secularism Confronts Islam, Olivier Roy helps to disaggregate elements of Europe’s difficulties related to its Muslim populations. He steers the conversation about Europe’s Muslims in a useful direction by demonstrating how a focus on agreed rules of the game is more important than a debate over dogma and illustrates that, far from being incompatible with secularism, Islam in Europe has already been transformed by it.

Roy examines Europe’s Islam debates and finds that the arguments that cast Islam as incompatible with secular Europe fundamentally misunderstand the practice of Islam in Europe today as well as the contract between believers of any faith and the secular state. Secularization is a social process that occurs over time and changes the way religion is experienced, shifting it from the communal to the individual. Sometimes the effect has been to reduce religion to a historical idea—the mold for the foundation of society that is no longer necessary once the foundation has solidified. This has been the case among many of Europe’s Christian communities. In other cases, though, secularization changes the experience and practice of religion without removing its importance. Roy finds the latter at work among many practicing European Muslims. “Secularized” believers live their faith as individuals and create a new practice around the contexts in which they live. Moreover, Roy emphasizes, the successful relationship between the believer and the secular state need not come from an acceptance of the values of the state but rather from an agreement to abide by the state’s rules.

In discussing the question of Islam’s compatibility with Western values, those on both sides of the argument usually point to passages from the Quran and to anecdotes from Islamic history. Some find elements in sharp contrast with Western ideals while others see essentially common foundations on which Judeo-Christian society is built, but whether Islam is touted as a religion of war or of peace, the benefits of this debate are dubious. The experience of Muslims in Europe today is distinct from those of 7th century Medina (as well as of 21st century Cairo). European Muslims have in many ways adapted the conceptualization and practice of their faith in light of their current contexts, making the Islam practiced in Europe today distinct from traditional Islam and so not readily explicable by the study of Islamic traditions and theology.

And yet even if theology played a significant role, is there a place for non-Muslims in reshaping Muslim dogma? If as Roy points out the secular state does not attempt to instate female priests in the Catholic Church, why then does there seem to be such a concern with synthesizing Islamic religious practices with secular ideals? The key to the peaceful coexistence of religious citizens and a secular state lies not in adapting religious values but in adherence to a set of rules. Roy offers the example of abortion: it is not necessary for a citizen to believe that abortion is morally right, but he must agree not to bomb the clinic where it is performed, prevent a woman’s access from the procedure, nor harm the doctor who might perform it. The rule in this case is permissive but does not compel – a member of the society, Muslim or not, may not like what is allowable but is not obliged to participate in the permitted act. While it may be unsatisfying to some that certain members of society strongly disagree with some of the rights guaranteed by that society, disagreement that does not impair the rights of others is not grounds for excommunication.

In highlighting why Islam does not need to be a part of the conversation about integrating Europe’s Muslims, Roy neutralizes so much of the ammunition used by far right or anti-Muslim groups who claim an intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and the West. His focus on playing by the rules creates a space in which solidarity can be constructed without sacrifice. However, while Roy provides a useful reframing of the relationship between practicing Muslims and the secular state, he ignores the possibility that some might refuse to play by the rules. It seems there are two categories of rule-refusal that are useful to address: general rejection and general acceptance with specific violation. In the first case, there are those who reject the system on the whole. Concerns over this refusal are particularly relevant given that the context for refusal might arise from precisely a “secularized” Islam that is detached from tradition and therefore creating a new identity purportedly grounded in the “pure” fundamentals of the faith. Those who make up this category are likely to be radical and may be dangerous. Examples include members of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir who may live in European countries but who seek separation from or even destruction of the secular systems under which they live. But legitimate as concerns over radical groups might be, those who might reject the rules wholesale make up a relatively small portion of Europe’s Muslims, and like others who shun the social contract and break its rules, they are best dealt with by the law.

The second category presents more of a challenge. In this category, the system of rules is accepted, but particular rules are rejected not because they are permissive but rather because they are restrictive in such a way as to bring the requirements of faith into direct competition with the requirements of the secular state. The most prominent example of this type of rule is a ban on headscarves. If a woman chooses to break this rule, it is not necessarily a matter of theology—many Muslim women believe they are required to cover their hair in public
while many others do not. Religious edicts have been issued by prominent theologians who have ruled that if a Muslim woman is living in a society that does not permit her to cover her hair she is not obliged to cover it. However, what is at stake here has less to do with Islamic principles than with Western ones. If a society is said to allow religious freedom and yet forbids elements of the practice of a particular religion—elements that do not infringe on the rights of other members of society—what message does that send to those members of
society who see themselves as members yet are being denied their rights? Some of those in question will choose to violate the rule because they prize their faith over their membership in that society. Others, however, may violate the rule precisely because they believe in the importance of their membership in society and cannot tolerate society’s rejection of what they see as a right that should be guaranteed by the system.

Not all who disagree with a restrictive rule will violate it, but the impact of the rule may be resentment. If individualism is part of the secularization of religion, it should not be surprising that in becoming secularized individuals, some would seek to assert their individuality through public manifestations of their personal beliefs, not wholly unlike so many teenagers who seek to assert their individuality by wearing the Chuck Taylors best representing their deepest selves. When the reaction to this assertion by Europeanized Muslims is rejection by the very societies they see themselves as part of, it is not surprising that they would feel wronged. However, though it does not exonerate the societies that bend their own rules to avoid the acceptance of a perceived other, demand for participation in the system will persist, and unless Europe’s Muslims are forced to the outskirts of society, they will grow in their European identities. The Islam they practice will continue to evolve with them.

Not every headscarf-wearing European Muslim is a champion of the secular system. But the idea that for some, an insistence on the right to wear a headscarf does not mean the rejection of Western society but rather a manifestation of the embrace of rights granted by the secular state is worth consideration. Europe may think it has a problem with Islam, but Roy demonstrates that Europe can integrate its practicing Muslims just as it does its committed Catholics, its avid atheists, and its ambivalent agnostics—by moving the conversation away from disagreement over religious beliefs and toward a recognition that what matters more is that members of European societies, Muslim or not, agree with the rules of the game. 

Allison Hart is a European Studies concentrator at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center. Prior to enrolling at SAIS, Allison was a research assistant at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. She received her BA from Northwestern University in Middle East Language and Civilization.