EuroIslam: the periphery speaks up.

In 2003 a collection of essays by young Danish Muslims appeared in Danish daily Politiken. Amongst its conclusions was the claim that ‘Islam is also a Danish religion, we must distance ourselves from the Middle East’s monopoly on holiness’. Between 1950 and 2010, the total Muslim population of Western Europe grew from 300,000 to 45 million – increasing by a factor of 150 in sixty years. The majority of today’s European Muslims, moreover, are second- or third-generation natives of the continent. There exists today, therefore, an embedded Muslim population right on the very periphery of the Muslim world. The various ways in which this new, fringe Muslim population has come to understand and express its faith has important ramifications for the making of Islam as a force in international politics. That is, both in terms of new political opportunities enabled by the workings-out of a peripheral European Muslim identity, and in terms of the creation of new Islamic norms in a condition of otherness.

For, as has been noted by Justin Gest in 2010, ‘immigrants entering new cultures have no choice but to transform their lives in a variety of ways’. European Muslims find themselves at the interstice of two dynamics. Firstly, released from the pressures of conformity in core states European Muslims are free to develop, in the words of Tariq Ramadan, ‘a pure faith liberated from ethnic rituals and cultural accoutrements’. Secondly, in a condition of ‘modernity’, European Muslims are forced to combine elements of their Islamic and European identities – such that a new form of faith emerges which, according to Bassam Tibi in 2002, ‘is the very same religion of Islam, although culturally adjusted to the civic culture of modernity’. The outcomes of these two processes carry important ramifications for the international politics of Islam.

In some instances, the process of Euro-Islamic identity formation exercises a centripetal influence on European Muslims. The emphasis in such cases has been on aspects of individuals’ ‘Islamic’, as opposed to ‘European’, identities. As Werner Schiffauer put it in 2007: in conditions of otherness, ‘the search for recognition must almost of necessity lead to a fight for recognition… It makes the development of an identity impossible which is not constantly under pressure to define itself in opposition’. For example, confronted with the challenges of laïcisation (particularly the call for girls to unveil in schools), French Muslims have developed a deep personal attachment to traditional customs. During a 2002 Union des Organisations Islamiques de France debate, Iraqi scholar Shiyma al-Sarraf quipped that ‘the veil, the hijab: the West attacks us with these things, to make us spend all our time on these useless things’. For Shiyma al-Sarraf, customs like veiling were of secondary importance. But for her French audience such symbols had developed an intense value. The story of one French woman who spoke at the debate makes this clear. Having faced repeated suspensions of her medical studies because of her refusal to unveil, the woman reflected that ‘the easiest solution is to take off the headscarf… I had to stop my studies and change towns before I found a situation where I could resume my study covered… I have lived what God said’.

Centripetal identities develop significance for Islam in international relations when opposition at the European periphery creates political opportunities at the Muslim world’s core. The escalation of controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is illuminating in this respect. Initial protests against the book’s publication in Bolton and Bradford in 1988 sparked further demonstrations in India and Pakistan – the countries from which the majority of Britain’s Muslims are drawn. Subsequently, Indian political elites sought to capture public discontent by banning the book’s import. The Indian National Congress under Rajiv Gandhi instrumentalised Indian Muslims’ grievances in a bid to capture their electoral support and arrest the ailing party’s political decline. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa of 1989 ought thus to be viewed as a late (but dramatic) attempt to re-assert Iran’s prestige at the core of the Muslim world, in response to the challenge of peripheral societies’ vocal leadership. In the course of the Rushdie Affair, therefore, the negotiation of a British Muslim identity opened up new pathways and challenges in the Muslim world’s core states. The same can be said of the 2005 Danish Cartoons Controversy, in its ignition of ‘Day of Rage’ protests across the Middle East. Frustrated by the challenges of negotiating an Islamic identity in a European context, the infamous imam delegation sought in 2005 to ‘elevate the issue of the cartoons into a transnational arena’, according to Lasse Lindekilde’s 2010 account. In Egypt, the Danish imams encountered a government that understood their concerns as an opportunity, as Lindekilde argues, ‘to show that they stood guard for respect for Islam and thereby soften the critique of Islamic opposition within’. One Muslim Brother in Cairo, however, noted the inconsistency of the regime’s sponsorship of mass indignation, when he asked ‘why worry about cartoons when there is Palestine and Abu Ghraib to worry about?’ Through its sponsorship of anti-cartoons demonstrations, the Egyptian government sought cynically to mobilise a three-pronged political assault: winning public support by orchestrating the outcry; side-lining the Brotherhood by presenting itself as the defender of Islamic values; and nudging the Bush administration away from its agenda of political pluralism in the Middle East by releasing a manageable, but nonetheless frightening, level of Islamist sentiment. Self-evidently, then, the negotiation of Danish Muslim identity has political implications at the Muslim world’s very core: enabling an autocratic regime to entrench its position; inhibiting the role of subversive sources of Islamist authority; and drawing attention away from more intransigent issues like the Palestinian question.

Such is the impact of the centripetal forces of Euro-Islamic identity formation. But what of the ramifications of centrifugal identification? For, alongside the oppositional trend, a more accommodating form of Euro-Islam has emerged to contest the conservatives’ right to leadership. In response to the controversies of 2005, Muslim Member of Parliament and founder of Democratic Muslims Naser Khader emerged to champion ‘an organisation that protests the enveloping of the youth by fundamentalist imams and ensures that moderate Muslims are heard. Muslims who are against shari’a, and who endorse religion as a private matter’. Subsequent respondents to a 2006 survey of Danish Muslims designated Khader (a secularist and supporter of gay rights) as the spokesman who best represented their views. Hence, as Nezar AlSayyad argued in 2002, we see that, besides the headline-grabbing activities of groups like the imam delegation, ‘Muslims in Europe are devising a liberal form of Islam which is accommodating of European ideas of citizenship’. That is, as Lasse Lindekilde puts it, an Islam that claims ‘freedom of speech, democracy, tolerance, and nonviolence as fundamental Islamic values’. Over the past half-century, first- and second-generation European Muslims have thus engaged in the creation of dynamic new forms of religious identity – a process whose normative significance Jorgen Nielsen compared to ‘the debates which ranged among Islamic theologians in the formative periods of the eighth-eleventh centuries’. Thus, the challenge to the ‘Middle East’s monopoly on holiness’.

Throughout my argument, it has become clear that a peri-centric approach goes far in explaining the international opening and closing of avenues for Muslim politics: both practically and normatively. I will end by highlighting the impact that Muslims on the European periphery have had within their new surroundings. On September 18th 1989 in the Parisian suburb Creil, three female students were suspended from the Gabriel Havez School for refusing to remove their headscarves: igniting controversy regarding the integration of Muslims within French society. Twenty years after the storm of 1989, in April 2012, French politics returned to Creil: this time, as the stage for a popular campaign video in the run-up to François Hollande’s election as President: ‘48H Avec FH’. ‘48H Avec FH’ showed one West African woman chanting ‘François pour Président – Insha’Allah!’; whilst a North African man presented Hollande’s campaign as a watershed moment in his conception of citoyennité: ‘je n’ai jamais voté dans ma vie, mais là je vais voter. Pour François Hollande, Insha’Allah’. In the end, Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy by only 1.1 million votes – meaning that the 1.5 million votes for Hollande cast by Muslims played a decisive role in determining the election’s outcome. The integration of European Muslims into the continent’s political life highlighted by this episode is highly significant. For, insofar as the role of Islam in international relations has been powerfully shaped by the interventions of external Western powers, European Muslims’ ability to re-shape the West’s future relationship with Islam may well prove decisive. In conclusion, therefore, a peri-centric approach that takes the negotiation of Euro-Islamic identity as its centrepiece offers valuable insight into the role of the Muslim world’s fringe in making Islam a force in world politics. Western politics have always been relevant in determining the currents of Islamist politics – now, the centripetal and centrifugal dynamics of Euro-Islam may well turn that fact on its head.


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