Conversation with Olivier Roy (1).
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 4/16/02
Olivier, welcome to Berkeley.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in La Rochelle in France, on the Atlantic coast, in ’49.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?
Fortunately, my parents don’t understand English, so they will not be able to listen to this. In fact, I was brought up in a Protestant family, which is a minority in France. So, there was the presence of my grandfather, who was a Protestant cleric at La Rochelle. I would say I was brought up in the traditional values of French Protestantism, which includes an interest in intellectual things and a certain moral rigor.
Do you remember any books that you read as a young person that stand out, that influenced you, even before you went to college?
We used to read the Bible, not at home, but in Sunday school. I used to read a lot of books, and some of these books were not intended for young children at that time. Many travel stories. A book by Joseph Cassell on Afghanistan, for example. I have been very influenced by travel stories.
So you had broad horizons, even when you were young.
The world was your perspective.
Yes. I was fascinated by the simple idea of traveling.
Where did you do your college education?
My college education was in La Rochelle. When I finished college, I went to Paris to enlist for preparatory school to enter the Ecole Normale Superieure, which is one of the highest high schools in France for the humanities.
What did you major in once you were at the university, and where did you do your graduate work?
My field was philosophy. My first book was my dissertation for MBA. It was on language and China. So even at the time I was dreaming of the horizons, both intellectual and geographic.
Were you a student in the sixties? How were you affected by the revolution in Paris then?
The high school where I enlisted in Paris was Lycée de Louis LeGrand, and it was just at the center of the core of the Quartier Latin. So, there was at that time a huge politicization. I was in a boarding school, living in a dormitory. The whole dormitory turned ultra-leftist. To be very precise, we all became Maoists for two years in Paris. For some months it was a story of demonstrations against the police. Demonstrations against the Americans, of course. We once broke the windows of the Hilton Hotel.
What led you to your focus on Islam and the countries of Islam?
During ’69, when I was both preparing the entry to the Ecole Normale Supérieure and I was also a militant of this small ultra-leftist group, I planned to travel to Afghanistan, for different reasons. It was a dream, a dream of childhood. Every evening, I spent one hour learning Persian from an English book: Teach Yourself Persian. I was learning by myself, so I didn’t have any idea about the pronunciation. I wasn’t sure if what I was learning was the real Persian language. Suddenly, just like that, I decided to go to Afghanistan. I missed the exam to enter the high school. I went outside Paris, hitchhiking. It took me six weeks to get to Afghanistan. I spent three months in Afghanistan. This was my first encounter with Islam and the Middle East.
How old were you then and what year was this?
It was in ’69 and I was nineteen years old.
At that point the country was more stable than it became.
Not only the country, but the whole area. In ’69 you could travel from Paris to New Delhi with just two visas. No war, no civil war, no revolution, nothing. So it was the hippie trail. The first stop was Istanbul, the second Tehran, then Kabul and, for many people, then Kathmandu. I was totally immersed in this hippie culture of the sixties, which, for me, was a way to get rid of the hyper-politicization of the life in Paris at that time.
Having gone there, what led you to then want to study this place where you had been? Why that choice as opposed to others?
In Afghanistan I traveled on foot a lot, from village to village, and I was in close touch with the peasantry in Afghanistan. I was struck by two things. First, we were all human beings; we could chat, discuss our polymorph lives or things like that. Secondly, it was a totally different society. At the time, of course, I was young, it was a bit romantic, so I was thinking about life in the village. This contradiction of the closeness of the human contacts and the difference of culture pushed me to say, “Okay, I have to study Islam, I have to study Persian more. I have to go back not only to understand the society, but, in a sense, to live in it.” I didn’t do that at the time for academic studies. I had no ideas of writing books, of turning anthropologist, or anything like that. I just wanted to travel to Afghanistan every year. And then, usually in the fall, I would go back to my place and resume my job. At that time I was a school teacher. I was quite happy to be a school teacher.
2-Research on Islam
One of your major books is called The Failure of Political Islam, and that topic has become very important for the United States after the events of 9-11. I’m hoping you can explicate for us that set of problems.
What is the best way to understand the currents of thinking of Islam in today’s world?
Islam is a religion, and as a religion, it could have many political forms. It could fit with many different cultures and societies. Islam, as such, is not an issue. Many people think that one should know what Islam really says, but that’s not my aim. What interests me is what the Muslims say what Islam says. So, Islam in practice. Islam in speeches, discourses. But discourses and practices from people, from actors. Either political actors or intellectual actors, or just, sometimes, the guy who demonstrates in the street, or the peasants who rise up in the name of Islam, and things like that.
When I went to Afghanistan to study — really, to do a book — it was just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I suddenly realized that the Mujahadeen were sometimes headed by young intellectuals who could have become Marxists in other circumstances. These guys were students.
They were educated in a modern system of education. Sometimes they spoke foreign languages. They were ingenious, for example, like Masud Ahmad Shad. These guys were fighting in the name of Islam, but they used an almost Marxist terminology: revolution, states, ideology, things like that. So, this mixing between modern Marxism, if I can say that, and religion fascinated me. I was wondering to what extent would they achieve their goal, which at that time was to create a true Islamic state.
These guys were not in the same line as the traditional ulama, or religious Islamic scholars. The ulamas usually don’t care too much about who is in charge. They just want to have the ula, who is implementing the sharia of Islamic law. But my new friends at the time, these Islamicists, I call them, wanted to create an Islamic state, using an Islamic ideology in order to Islamicize the society, to establish an Islamic economy, and so on and so forth. So in a sense, it’s a modern project. It’s a modern view of what a society and a state is. I followed them. Then I went to Iran, also, to see. My intention, or my aim, was [to discover] to what extent their project was viable. To what extent could they create an Islamic state? When I visited Iran, about the same time, the late eighties, I suddenly realized how an Islamic state simply doesn’t work. Because, sooner or later, politics prevail on religion.
Let’s break this apart as we’re talking. What is it in Islam itself that creates contradictions that make that result impossible? Is part of this the problem with the religion itself and its major concepts?
No, I think that the problem is not Islam as such. The problem is, first, what I call imaginary Islam. Let’s take a very simple sentence. In Islam, there is no separation between religion and politics. You will assert evidence for that. The problem is not, is this sentence really in the Koran? The problem is, what do the other people understand with this sentence? And what do political actors do with such a sentence? How can it be translated into a political program? And, in fact, that’s where there are multiple [views]. This project of creating an Islamic state using the modern concept of revolution, institutions, constitutions, ideology and so on, doesn’t work, not because of Islam, but simply because there is no such thing as a religious state. You can have states using religion. You can have states using religious legitinawaaty, but you cannot have a state solely based on religion, whatever the religion.
Why is that what? Why can that not be?
Because, for any religion, of course, the core is faith and virtue, if I can say that. Religions deal with moral concepts of the good, the bad, and so on. But you cannot rule a society just on moral concepts, unless we are all saints. In fact, we are not all saints. So, here, there is a good comparison between this sort of dream and the Puritan utopia.
The American Puritan utopia.
The American Puritan utopia. And, interestingly enough, President Khatami of Iran always speaks very favorably about the American Puritans, because, in fact, it’s the same imagery, that you can have a society based on the virtue of the individual. But, sooner or later, of course, corruption is back. I would say that common wisdom is that you need institutions to make a society work. You cannot rely on the virtue of the judge, or the virtue of your leader. You have to build institutions. So that means that sooner or later, the political rationale prevails on religious morality and religious thinking.
So, in a way, modernity and modernization brings a political formula that is inconsistent with a religious basis. Is that what you’re saying?
I would say that you have to reformulate the religious views of societies in different terms. You cannot just say, like that, there is no difference between politics and religion. Because you have an autonomous field of politics, which, sooner or later, leads to a having an autonomous field of religion. And for Islam, now, this is a challenge. How to conceive an autonomous religious field. How to accept, to theorize, to make a theory, about the de-linking of religion and politics.
And why can’t that be done?
Because in the traditional imagination of Islam, there is no difference. In fact, there has always been a practical difference. The rulers in the whole history of the Muslim world have never been clerics. The ruler were always lay people who took the power. Once they took the power, they used to say, “We are a Muslim society and sharia is the rule of the state,” and this law allowed the ulama to say there is no difference. But now, where the Islamicists want to build a state on Islam, they have to rethink the traditional relation between Islam and politics. They cannot use the padding of the sultans and amirs of the past, because this traditional way of statehood doesn’t fit with the ideological views of what should be an Islamic state. In an Islamic state, the leader, the head of the state, should be a real Muslim, the best Muslim of all. And here we have a problem. How can we appoint somebody on just Islamic criteria?
There’s a misperception in our country, at least in popular consciousness, that the key to understanding the people who are joining these movements of protest are traditionalists trying to impose a conservative religion on modernizing societies. That is a misperception. Explain that to us. Who are these people who are recruited into these movements?
If you take, for example, the Islamic movement of the seventies and eighties, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Refah in Turkey, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the actors are young, urban, educated people, and people educated in the modern, Western system of education. They were engineers. Everybody is thinking about Ayatollah Khomeini, but Ayatollah Khomeini was the only ayatollah in the rolling cycles of Iran, or almost the only one. Most of his ministers were young, Western-educated intellectuals.
It’s the same in Afghanistan. It has been the same in former Soviet Central Asia, the same in Turkey, the same in Egypt, the same in Morocco. The traditionalists don’t challenge the existing regimes. Usually — in fact, it is still true: most traditionalists are supportive of any kind of existing regimes, because they are traditionalists. They are conservative. They are not revolutionary. What they want is sharia, to have Islam being enhanced and supported by the government, but they don’t contest the fall of the regimes, they don’t contest the ulas.
But there is a protest, by especially the radicals now, of modernization, of the consumption products of a globalized age. Why is that, and what is it that they are trying to achieve?
I think most of the Islamicists were and are the heirs of the modern movements of liberation. They are anti-imperialists. It’s clear, for example, in Iran, all the discussions revolving around economy are based not on Islamic considerations, but on the modern idea of building a nondependent national economy. So they used the economics of the sixties. They don’t go back to the Koran to discuss the price of oil, or should we nationalize or privatize the oil industry. No, they think in terms of the debate of the sixties and seventies about statization, privatization, cutting the link with imperialism, being autonomous in comparison with the world leading economic power (that is, the United States). So in this sense, the Islamicists are modern.
You say in one point in your book that “the Islamicists are attempting to restore dignity to the individual, to restore a sense of dignity in the face of humiliation.” Explain that phenomena.
The problem is for everybody, and not just for the Islamicists. In a time of globalization, people have the feeling that they are losing their identities. That they are just becoming Westernized with no possibility to influence the big decisions on the economy. So this sense of alienation is widely felt, of course. The Islamicists, and the other kinds of fundamentalism, they have an answer. The answer of the Islamicist is yes, we can combine modernization and Islamic identity. We can Islamize modernization. We can be proud Islamic engineers, we can be proud and self-assertive Islamic rulers of an independent country. In this sense, yes, they touch a very sensitive core.
Is there a particular problem posed by Islam if you compare it with other protest groups across the world? Does Islam pose particular problems for those trying to assert their identity and embracing Islam as they do it?
Yes, it’s a big issue. In a sense, the same use of a traditional religion to forge a new identity is not related only to Islam. We can see, for example, in India with the BJP [Bharathiya Janatha Party, or Indian Citizen Party], the same use and the reconstruction of Hinduism. But, yes, the movement is specifically striking in Muslim states. Why? First, I think Islam provides a common denominator for different categories of the population. A young, modern, Western-educated intellectual can speak with an illiterate peasant in terms of Islam. Secondly, Islam provides a universal ideology, which is not the case with Hinduism, Shintoism, whatever you want. It’s a universal religion with a tradition of fighting. Not necessarily of blood and things like that, but there is [conquest] in the history of Islam, which goes along with the nostalgia of the idea that we lost our identity, we lost our territories, so we now can restore that by using the paradigm of the time of the Prophet, when Islam was expanding world religion. This is a dimension of internationalism and universalism which is specifically at work in the new Islamic militancy.
But there is a point at which it doesn’t work. Is that because of the focus in Islam on the conversion of the individual, the individual achieving his own salvation?
It’s covered in Christianity, too. The idea of umma, of the Muslim community, is a big tool for political mobilization. This concept of umma has also the advantage of providing an identity beyond ethnic, tribal, and national identities. In the Middle East, which has been sometimes divided by colonial powers into artificial states, pan-Islamism is also a way to revert back prior to the colonial period. Still, I think that most of the concepts and slogans and mottoes brought up by Islamism are not a return to traditional Islamism, but a response to Western colonization and encroachment. It’s a reactive identity.
And it’s an identity that has not succeeded when it confronts the power of existing states in the region. We see over time that these kinds of movements have not been successful in transforming the states that exist in the Muslim world, is that correct?
Yes. The paradox of Islamism is that these movements have been shaped by the state they want to conquer, instead of shaping the states. In the beginning, the Islamicists just wanted to take the state and create an Islamic state. Taking the state doesn’t mean necessarily violence, it could be through relations. But, of course, the state they were confronted with was a complete state: the Egyptian state, the Lebanese state, the Iranian state, and so on. So, the Islamicists, sooner or later, were taken by the political gain of the home countries and became more nationalist-minded than Islamic-minded. Very soon, I would say just months after the success of the Iranian revolution, the Islamic revolution in Iran turned more into a nationalistic, anti-imperialist, than a purely Islamic revolution. The Refah party in Turkey is more Turkish nationalist party with an Islamic domestic agenda, than a revolutionary party. The same with Mr. Hassan Turabi in Sudan. So the paradox of the Islamicist movement is that in the name of establishing a common Islamic state for the whole Muslim community, they reverted to nationalism in most cases. And that, for me, is the failure of political Islam. They have been unable to bypass both the state and both the nation.
So when the religion or the Islamic movement confronts the state, it’s captured by the state.
It is captured by the state, even if it takes the state, which happened in Iran.
In this part of the world, who tends to run the state? You are suggesting in your book that they are solidarity groups, often traditional groups around a particular clan or an ethnic group.
Yes. The predicament of most of the Middle Eastern states is that in fact, beneath the appearance of modern state, what is working is what I call the asabiyya, networks of solidarity. Either these networks are based on tribal links, like in Saudi Arabia; or on a specific religious minority, like in Syria; or military networks, like in Algeria. In any case, it’s not a real state, it’s just a way for a particular network of solidarity to work for its own benefit. So in these circumstances, the Islamicists do provide an alternative, and, to a certain extent, they succeed. The FIS in Algeria succeeded to win the parliamentary elections in ’91 because they ran against the oligarchy. They say, or they write, “We represent the whole population.” The same in Iran. The same for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, of course, addressed the Shia population. But they said to the Shia, “Until now you were represented by notables, big landowners, rich families. But now, you, the people, you are in charge.” So, we have here, of course, a populist approach, certainly. The Islamist parties have been able to bring to the political space segments of the population which were excluded from the political game. And this is, for me, the big and positive achievement of the Islamist movement in the Middle East during the eighties.
But the state, in the end, is able to win out, because the regimes that control the state can adopt the symbols, the apparent re-Islamization of the society, and steal the thunder from these movements, is that correct?
Absolutely. It’s perfectly clear in Iran. But in other parts, the ruling regimes suddenly used, I would say, a conservative re-Islamization in order to undercut the momentum of the Islamist party. The Islamist party did not realize that they were not the legitimate owner of the representation of Islam in the political field. They suddenly realized, in the early nineties, that Islam was a far more polymorph movement than they expected. Let’s take an example: Turkey. The Refah party had a very clear slogan in the seventies. It used to say, look, in Turkey 90 percent of the population claim to be mosque-going believers, and we have only 16 percent of the vote of the population, so if the Muslims in Turkey are coherent, they should vote for us and we should achieve at least 80 percent of the vote. They never made more than 20 percent. Why? Because there were other religious networks. The Brotherhood, for example, the makmondia, the muju, these were not political parties, of course, but they had a huge political influence. A part of the nationbundi, for example, could call for three million voters, and they used to bargain these votes against some payoff. They had no intention of joining the Refah party insisting on an Islamic state. So suddenly the Islamicists who wanted to coalesce all the Muslim believers into one political framework realized that they do not have the monopoly on all of political Islam, that Islam is pervasive and that nobody can claim to have the monopoly of political Islam
You suggest that the end result here is a focus in many of these Islamicist groups on virtue, on a Puritanical zeal to achieve personal salvation. As they react to this global culture of Walkmans and videos and so on, they fail to overcome it, but, in addition, they destroy whatever alternative culture exists. That Puritanical zeal creates a sterility between the family on the one hand, and the state on the other. Explain that.
There are two issues here. The first issue is virtue as a political virtue. We know since the French revolution that once virtue is in charge, it leads to terror, for a simple reason: nobody is virtuous enough. So one is always trying to expel the devil, the evil in us, and this leads to terror. It’s why a good political system can work only on institutions and not a presupposed virtue of the leader. Any system based on the idea that our leaders are the most virtuous of everybody is doomed to failure.
The second problem is, how do we deal with traditions, culture, anthropological society — the way people are living, doing, working, marrying, and so on? The Islamicists, in fact, never endeavored to destroy their own society. In Iran, for example, the problem was opened just at the [end] of the revolution: what should we do with the traditional Persian culture? Fardhousi for example: Fardhousi is not an Islamic poet, not at all. And the music, and so and so. After some meditation, Khomeini said, “Okay, let’s keep the Persian cultural legacy.” And then, it’s done. It means that they do recognize the existence of pre-Islamic Persian culture. They do recognize that they are Iranians, Persians, and so on. So, they give up the idea of creating a purely Islamic state.
Let’s take the Taliban. For me, the Afghan Taliban are not Islamicists. They are what I call neo-fundamentalists. The problem of the Taliban is not of creating an Islamic state. They want a true Islamic society. They don’t necessarily think that one should take the state to have an Islamic society. They think the society will be Islamic the day that every Muslim will behave like a true Muslim. For the Taliban and for all the neo-fundamentalists and the Wahhabi, what is a true Muslim? It is somebody who refers exclusively to Islam. Somebody who has no other interest than Islam. It means somebody who has no culture.
Very explicitly, the Taliban warred on culture. They destroyed the Buddhist statues. They obliged every man to have the same kind of beard. They forbade anything which has a relation with culture — movies, singing, music, dances, novels, poetry. All these things, including to have singing birds at home, and things like that. Because for them it was either negative or useless. For them, they had a very good argument for destroying the Buddhist statues. They said, “These Buddhas are religious statues. We have no Buddhists in Afghanistan, so nobody needs them, let’s destroy them.”
But here we are no more with Islamism. We are no more with people who try to build a state and manage a real society. We are dealing with people who dream of recreating a universal Muslim community cut from all existing societies, including Muslim society. This is why these neo-fundamentalists have some appeal among many second-generation Muslims in the West. These second-generation Muslims — some of them, of course, not all of them — feel alienated from a pristine culture of their grandfathers. They don’t care about how does one live in a Moroccan village, and so on. They feel so alienated with the modern Western culture. And by not reverting, but by joining a neo-fundamentalist movement, which tells them, “Don’t care about society, any kind of society; don’t care about culture; don’t care about politics; just try to be a good Muslim and to recreate the true Muslim community,” they feel at home. They would say, this is an identity for me.
So the failure of the Islamic political project leads to a fantasy based on Islam. Is that right?
It leads to two things. First, for the Islamicists themselves, to a banalization of Islam. It leads to something they call the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democratic [parties]. Like in Turkey. For example, for me, the recent Turkish so-called Islamic Party, the ACT party, which is a successor of the Refah, is the Turkish equivalent of the Christian Democrats. A party which accepts democracy, very partisan, which puts stress on values and religious symbols, but accepts diversity and pluralism. But this is going on, I would say, in most of the Muslim countries.
The second trend is neo-fundamentalism. The guys who say, we don’t want to become Christian Democrats. We don’t want to recognize pluralism. We still think that Islam is the only true religion, and for this reason, we cannot accept compromise on cultural or political issues. So these guys, they have no choice, yes, but to live in a sort of an imaginary world, a virtual Muslim community.
Now, where does Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda fit into this equation? They’re clearly not of the neo-fundamentalist kind, because they seem to be more focused on raw power. Is that correct?
No, for me, bin Laden is a typical representative of the radical branch of neo-fundamentalism — what they call the jihadi, the people who say “we have to do jihad.” Osama bin Laden, for some reason, has been very critical for the Islamic movements of national liberation. He has been critical of the Palestinians, saying, “What use is it to create a Palestinian state? If you create a Palestinian state, it will be like many other states. You should try to mobilize the umma, the Muslim community, for your cause, but not for creating a Palestinian state.” He is opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state. Bin Laden is a man who wants to unify all the Muslim population in the world against the world power, the United States of America. He doesn’t care about Palestine. He doesn’t care about Cairo, he doesn’t care about Istanbul, and so on. If one looks at the favorite jihad, holy world, of bin Laden, it’s not Palestine, it’s not Egypt, it’s not Saudi. Where is he fighting? New York, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Philippines, East Africa. For the periphery of the Middle East, and not at all at the core of the Middle East. Bin Laden is a man of global values. He is a product, a child of world values. He is not some kind of crazy man from the Middle East, coming from the desert to fight the crusaders. No, his battlefield is the modern world.
5-The West and Islam
Now that we have this broad picture, what has been the impact of the West, other than bringing modernization and creating people who want to protest, but are in fact products of what they are protesting? What has been the impact of the West, and is a war between civilizations inevitable?
No, for a very simple reason. Civilizations have no more to hate on a world basis. The East is Westernized, and Islam is in the West. Most, not all, but most of the young terrorists of the bin Laden organization, where did they become born-again Muslims? In the West. Not in the East. Many of them were born in the East. Some of them were born and raised in the West. But all of them became born-again Muslims in Marseilles, in London, in Paris or in New Jersey.
So radical Islam now is not a spillover of the Middle Eastern conflict into the West. It is a consequence of the mixing of the West and the East. Middle Eastern societies are Westernized. They are urban, modern societies. The problem is not with a traditional society; we have no problem with traditional people. We have problems with the people who have been Westernized. And under their hand, now, Islam is definitively rooted in the West. It’s now in Europe; it has been acknowledged by different regimes and parliaments in Europe.
In the States, because there are fewer Muslims, and because of recent events, it’s still not well understood, but it’s clear that we have now a Western Islam. This Western Islam is not different in theological terms from the Eastern Islam; we don’t have two Islams. But the Muslims have a different way to experience, to live their faith. In traditional Muslim countries, you can be normal Muslims [because everybody] around you is Muslim, so you can fast because everybody’s fasting, you can pray because everybody’s praying. But once in the West, you have to reinvent, or at least to reassess your Muslim identity. What does it mean to fast? What does it mean to pray? What does it mean to avoid other religions, let’s say, in the West? So we have a sort of re-foundation of Islam, due to normalization.
So you’re saying that the possibilities for Islam in the West, that is, the opportunities for being integrated into Western societies, make that a better place than the countries of origin. That leads me to the question: Is part of the problem here the failure of the Islamic world to adopt modern economies that can provide jobs, that can integrate these graduates into a productive economy in society?
Here we have to make a difference between Arab countries and Muslim countries. We have to compare what is comparable. Of course, if we compare Morocco and Spain, okay, I can say in Morocco people have little jobs, and things like that. But if you compare the Philippines and Indonesia, you can see that one is better off in Indonesia than in the Philippines. So, the factor is not Islam as such. We have to compare countries which are comparable.
But it’s true that if we take the Arab countries, there is a problem in the Arab countries. And this problem is not linked with Islam, it links with some things which have to do with Wahhabism, if I can say that. But we should not forget that the Arab countries are on the front line between the North and the South. So many conflicts, in fact North – South conflicts, are embodied, rooted in Arab countries, like the Israel – Palestine conflict.
But it’s true that there is a disappointment among many Muslims about their own politics, about what is going on in the Middle East. An Algerian living in France — or somebody with an Algerian accent, a descendent living in France, still an Algerian nationalist because of a legacy of the past — acknowledges that it is better to live in France now than to live in Algeria. So we have this complex and sometimes schizophrenic attitude: “I prefer to live in the West. I voluntarily left the Middle East to go to the West, but I don’t want just to become a Western observer.” So, we have a recreation of identities; we do not have importation of identities.
The way they express their faith in the West is, I would say, on an individual basis. They speak of faith, they speak of individual salvation. They speak of ethnic and moral values, because faith, in the West (not only Islamic faith, but any kind of religious faith) is not supported by the social environment. At least in Europe. I know that in the States people go more easily to the church. But not in Europe. Western Europe is secularized, including Ireland. Attendance at church is going down ten percent in every country. Muslims are experiencing an evolution which is also experienced by Catholics from a sort of evident, dominant social religion to a specific community, a religious community, which has to define itself as a minority. And to define its values against a secure environment. So in this sense, we have sometimes more in common between conservative Catholics and conservative Muslims than between conservative Catholics and de-Christianized Europeans.
What does your work suggest for how the West should craft a policy toward the Islamic world?
I am very cautious about policy recommendations, because first, there is the question of timing. If you propose to any government some kind of policy recommendation, they will buy something for the next two or four years. But here we often deal with generational problems. So you cannot have a policy to integrate Islam in the West until the next presidential election. So my view is, don’t focus on Islam, focus on individuals. We do not have to compromise on our values; we have to be coherent and cohesive with our values. The law, all the law, and no discrimination. There is a debate in Europe about mosques, but it’s not a legal debate, because it’s legal [to attend a mosque]. The problem then is to go through red tape, to convince a local mayor to not put up obstacles. So it’s not an issue of changing the legal system to make a rule for Islam. The issue is to treat the Muslims as we treat the Catholics and any sort of religions, the Jews or the Protestants.
For students watching this video interview, what sort of recommendations would you have about how they should prepare for the future, how they should think about the Islamic world, and so on?
I would say, don’t think about the Islamic world, think about Muslims, about real, concrete people who live in the society, who experience a certain sense of history, and who could be very different from one place to another, even if they share the same religion. That is true also for Catholics. Don’t think in terms of cultural communities. We should not confuse culture and religion. Religions are cross-cultural phenomena. If we reduce Islam to a culture, then we kill Islam as a religion. This is a message too, to the Muslims themselves: don’t ask to be recognized as a cultural group, because you will lose the universal dimension of Islam as a religion.
My conclusion is, be careful with multiculturalism to the extent that multiculturalism presupposes that you have corporate identities. Identities are always experienced, traditional, and identities should not go against freedom. So, for me, what is more important is individual freedom and the right to go for different experiences and to shape your own vision of your own identity.
Your odyssey is a fascinating one. You were in Paris during the sixties, anything seemed possible, you were a Maoist for two years, but then you went to Afghanistan and the problem became essentially, “What is the validity of this political project, these Islamicists who seek to make a revolution?” What lessons might we draw from your journey about the skills that it takes to comprehend these complex social and cultural realities that turn out to be very different from what they appear to be on the surface?
As you said, a journey. The journey as travel to different countries, or the journey as a personal trajectory with many experiences. Of course, you cannot borrow, just like that, experiences from somebody else. Usually, when you borrow something, it’s the worst part. It’s the dogmatic part of an experience. So, the answer is, you have to experience personal diversity by living somewhere or by traveling, or by reading or by meeting people. That is up to each personal trajectory.
On that note, I want to thank you very much for being here today and sharing your intellectual odyssey with us.
Thank you very much.
And thank you very much for joining us for the Conversation with History.
_1- Senior researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. He is the author of numerous books, including The Failure of Political Islam and The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations.