Can European Islam Be Inspiring to the Arab World?
Mohammed Hashas, Luiss University 16 April 2014

I make two starting points before I proceed, to legitimize the question. First, there is no doubt that Arab Islam has been so influential in shaping Islam in Europe, especially since World War II and the massive migration flows ever since. At the same time, migration of Islam to the North (beyond the Mediterranean) has been challenged and gradually transformed in consolidated liberal societies. A remarkable wave of confluence, or acculturation, has been taking place between these two socio-political and geographic entities (Western Europe and the Arab world). In an earlier opinion piece I referred to three fertilizing historical moments in the relations between these two entities, and I put Islam in Europe post-WWII as a third fertilizer in this ongoing moment of confluence (See this article on Resetdoc). Second, in another piece I questioned the Arab Spring to see if it has a vision, a political-philosophical one, or not. The point I reached was that the Arab Spring does think, but various internal and external factors impede this process of thinking for the realization of an innovative and independent change (See this article). Because the Arab world has been trying various pathways of overcoming the predicament of Euro-modernity and stagnant conservativism, this piece aims at reflecting aloud on the possibilities the emerging European Islam (or European Islamic thought) can offer for the changing Arab world. These possibilities will be summarized through three major axes that grasp the comprehensiveness of a world religion like Islam: world-society-individual. That is, the interpretation(s) European Islam gives to the “world,” “society,” and “individual” will be generally referred to as a way of illustrating how different they are in comparison with the current conceptions according to Arab Islam. The outcome of these reflections is the following: European Islam is, in many ways, a reformed and pluralist Arab Islam. It is nationalized, institutionalized, and ethicized.

I) The relevance of the comparison

I outline three main notes to clarify the comparison built here. One, European Islam is not a pure European product to be marketed to the Arab world. It is, again, not an Orientalist and Euro-centrist attitude of tutelage and guardianship of the other (Arab, Islam, etc.). However influenced it is by modern values, European Islam is a product of decades of labour of Arab-Islamic thought in the heart of Europe; it faced Eurocentrism and suffered from it, so it cannot be a pure European product; European states cannot claim it as theirs, because they were either hostile to it or at least negligent of its existence for decades, to count for that since WWII. Similarly, the Arab-Islamic world, and its religious authorities and polities, cannot also claim European Islam as its product, because what it fed it with was mostly petrodollar money and conservativism. European Islam is a product of these two socio-political entities (Europe and the Arab-Islamic world).

Two, the predicament of Islam is political. The deformation of Islamic religious authority with the modern state institutions has turned Islamic legal pluralism into a big problem. If pluralism was a blessing that served an empire and its regional diversity, it is now a curse that weakens the functioning of the modern state that requires a central authority. In the case of the Arab world, the undemocratic ruling class allies itself with conservative Islam, and makes political Islam part and parcel of the undemocratic and oppressive ruling systems. The ruling class clings to religious legitimacy because it prolongs its stay in power. Reformist Islam is not welcomed by political regimes; that is where European Islam may be inspiring to Arab conservative religious authorities and political rulers. There is no political will to reform.

Three, the fact that this piece proposes that European Islam may be inspiring to Arab Islam, which is experiencing disarray on the political level, it does not, however, consider it the last or only possible option. Considering the involvement of Europe in the Arab world, and considering the heavy influence of Arab Islam on the European one, because of the massive number of Arabs in Europe (immigrants and their offspring) and the presence of Arab Islamic movements on the European soils, it becomes acceptable, if not required, to draw comparisons between the place of religion in these two geo-political entities. The proposal of considering the relevance of European Islam to the Arab world is tenable because it is a model that is being tested in European institutions when it comes to politics, and it is also being tested and lived by European Muslims, especially by the second and third generations. The fact that Arab Islam may develop its own version of Islam, that might be better in practice, is very tenable: contemporary Arab-Islamic reformists and philosophers have developed innovative projects for the last five-six decades, but the problem with them is that none of them has found its way to real politics yet. That makes them untested projects, which may find their way to realization later, maybe much later than the already (being) tested ones. Secular and liberal thought in their European versions have been so much criticized and even demonized, particularly because they accompanied colonialisms, and still accompany global injustices in various parts of the world. Political Islam has also accompanied authoritarian and theocratic regimes. European Islam tries to get the best out of the two dark stories, as will be explained below.

This said, below I first condense my tentative definitions of European Islam and Arab Islam as I will be referring to them here. Subsequently, I condense my understanding of the emerging European Islam according to the adopted framework: “world-society-individual” axes.

II) European and Arab Islams: tentative definitions

By European Islam I generally mean any discourse, concept, or idea that claims to be Islamic and European in theory and/or practice, irrespective of the degree of this affiliation to Islam and Western Europe, which may be minimal, maximal, or somewhere in-between. European Islam as understood here is based on sociological-anthropological as well as theological work that is emerging, Islamophobia and fundamentalism aside here. Among the names that may be considered icons of intellectual Islam in Europe are Bassam Tibi, Tariq Ramadan, Tareq Oubrou, Dalil Boubakeur, Abdennour Bidar, Imam Yahya Pallavicini, Ziauddin Sardar, etc. Non-Muslim sociologists and anthropologists have certainly also played an important role in shaping the image of what European Islam is, and how it might turn out to be. Whispers from the experiences of especially the Catholic Church and the predicament of the Jewish minority in the past do impact the way Islam and Muslims are handled, and the way they handle themselves, in the modern Western Europe. The difference, or the challenge, is the European Muslims have another mirror where they sometimes like to look, to measure their religiosity: the Arab-Islamic world.

Europe as a socio-cultural and political idea is pluralist, and so is the Islam within it. French Islam, for example, is stamped by French laïcité, and the French history with the Catholic Church and French monarchies. The version of secularism in the country is often described as the most radical of secular interpretations, to the extent that some consider it dogmatic as religious dogmas. British, especially English, Islam appears more accommodative of religious diversity, and undoubtedly English history with religion has played a role in that. The other European Islams are also influenced by the national histories of the nation state where they are practiced and lived. The idea that Islam is recognized in some states like Austria, Belgium and Spain does not make their practice the best in Europe, despite the various institutional advantages that recognition brings about; the socio-cultural recognition seems to be lagging behind the institutional one: discrimination and Islamophobia in states where Islam is more present in numbers or is recognized are still high. The way Islam is seen all over Europe still affects national practices, even when such national practices are sometimes advanced institutionally.

As to which Islam is dominantly practiced in Europe, it is neither the jihadist one, nor the one most salafist, as the media and polls tend to emphasize. It is also not the Islam that is “only spiritual,” when spirituality is defined by some in Europe as belief with non-observance of rituals. If it is easy to differentiate between features of religion in nation states, because the means of measurement are based on laws and institutions, it is not easy with religion, which is more pluralist in its practices and identity-affiliation. While they are very helpful for descriptions and for comparisons, including the misformed ones, polls remain unable to give us a more accurate description of what being religious/Muslim in the modern Western Europe stands for, particularly because, first, comparisons with other religions are very rare, and, second, because the ethical message of religion cannot generally be described or measured with questions about rituals and political beliefs: do you pray or not, do you like the veil or not, do you wear the veil or not, do you participate in European politics, etc., are measurable feels or deeds, but the overall feel about the worldview of such a religion and its ethical various teachings cannot be all described in polls. That remains part of the uncontrollable, and part of the deeply private that still surfaces in the public domain through acts, agency, and not only through visible markers like the veil or the beard.

Arab Islam, too, is influenced by the history of each country. It has historically been deeply political. Diversity of the theories of law in Islam played a major role in its widespread, and its inclusion of minorities, be they religious, ethnic, or linguistic. This does not mean it was always inclusive: the Islam of the Ummayads was strongly Arabo-centrist, compared to Abbassid Islam, Mughal Islam, may be the two most pluralist, or the Ottoman Islam, also pluralist since the adoption of the Millet system. Muslim Spain, which was during its first centuries Umayyad-ruled, was pluralist, too. Pluralism in medieval times did not mean equality of all before the governing law; it simply meant tolerance and respect of the minority, which ruled its community under its own laws. Nonetheless, since the encounter with the modern world, Arab Islam has turned out to be the least open, and the most conservative. Its positioning as the guardian of Islam has turned it into one of its rigid manifestations. The ruling oligarchy that clings to power, instead of opening up to democratic competition, has intensified its use of religion as its major source of legitimacy, despite its “liberal” economies and “secular” administrations. The so-called Arab Spring has unveiled further the political use of religion against the change demanded by the young generations that aspire for liberty, equality, and social justice.

These common features (of rigidity) aside, Arab Islam is still heterogeneous. Moroccan Islam or Tunisian Islam, for instance, differ from Saudi Islam, in what concerns the classical law school followed, the diversity or homogeneity that characterizes each of these societies, their political use of religion, and their support of transnational movements abroad, in Europe in particular. While Wahhabism is considered a very conservative interpretation of Islam that European states and liberal societies do not welcome, Moroccan Islam appears to be gaining ground for the last couple of years in training imams and orienting Muslim youth towards “moderation” (al wasatiyyah). But the point is that while “moderation” appears a requirement in liberal societies, where the nation state is centrist and institutions work well (enough), and this makes Islam as preached by Arab states, like Morocco, acceptable abroad as part of civil society activism supported by national and local associations and institutions, it is not often the case in the Arab world where the functioning of state institutions is minimal, and where the choices are few, and liberty of thought constrained, either by the state or by the community. That is where European Islam and Arab Islam go apart. Broadly, the first is bottom-up, while the latter is top-down.

III) World-Society-Individual axes: reading the emerging European Islam

World axis: the sacralization of modernity and diversity

Considering the fact of multiculturalism which characterizes European liberal societies, compared to their Arab counterparts which are only minimally so, the conception of the world is being re-considered by contemporary reformist Muslims and intellectuals of Europe. The conservative Islamic worldview as the “only best,” because it is the last revealed religion, is being revisited, without this meaning that it (religion) is being negated, or inferiorized. Instead, the diversity of the world and modernity in particular are being sacralized, an aspect which is not new to the creed. Besides, European Islam underlines the harmonious relationship required between man and nature, instead of exploiting it, as if it were “other,” a colony to conquer, a slave to tame. Peace of the individual with himself and with the world are further underlined. Pluralism of the world, a priority, is being re-appropriated. Diversity is conceived of as a sign of the infinite signs of Truth, and the Islamic way is one of them, a leading one still. The Oneness of God (attawhid), which is the first pillar of the religion, seems to give the creed much more confidence in its overall worldview since it in many ways embraces the claim of other “major religions,” if details are put aside, and, most importantly, significantly individualizes faith and its moral teachings for the wellbeing of all: the world, society, and the individual.

The sacralization of modernity and diversity cannot be described as the achievement of modernity in its taming of religion (Islam), nor can it be described as an Islamization of the modern in political terms. What I see being considered here – and the process has still a long way to go especially in philosophical-theological debates – is that both Europe as the icon of modernity and Islam as the icon of conservativism and resistance, to use the terms for ease of expression- are being transformed. The European modern worldview has substantially been challenged by the Islamic worldview for centuries and the last half a century inside Europe even more so, and vice verse. The point here is that change is touching both. The major difference is that Europe needed a break with the idea of God, while European Islam seems to be modernizing without such an ontological break with the divine; only an epistemological break seems to be taking place, gradually.

Arab Islam is still negotiating the same dilemma, but it is lagging behind in that. There is no need to say that, historically speaking, societies are not required to debate the same questions in the same way and at the same time. Various factors influence the timing, the matter and the manner. Still, and considering the various reformist projects that have been developed in the Arab world for the last five-six decades, one can say that theoretically at least the process of change close to, or similar to, the one experienced by European Islam may take play – though it is, again, not the only or best choice one should think of, if the requirements of change are available in the Arab world (recall point number three in “the relevance of the comparison” section above).

Society axis: the historicization of revelation

The universality of Islam is being revisited in a multicultural context like Europe. The multicultural fact has brought the idea of historicizing divine prescribed laws into the forefront of the debate. The overall message(s) of Islam are prioritized over the political ones: social justice, if carried out by majority un-Islamic political systems, are considered Islamic; they observe the requirements of establishing peace, social justice, and equality. The ideas of an Islamic state, the caliphate, the minority rights based on dhimmitude, jihad, and gender inequality before the law are all considered outer manifestations of religion, and not its essence, which are, socially speaking, peace, social justice, and equality, to use some of the most emphasized concepts. Otherwise said, revelation prescriptions are contextualized and historicized. The universality of the religion is being re-claimed.

Moreover, European Islam is institutionalized and nationalized. After decades of being heavily influenced by Arab Islam and transnational Islamic movements, European Islam is organizing itself within the national institutions. This is manifested through the various established national councils for the Islamic belief, national recognition of Islam, political participation of Muslims, their cultural production, and their local associations and partnerships with society at large, etc.

There is no need to say here that this European Islam is still emerging, and is not the dominant version among the Muslims of Europe. Internal and external factors still influence it: national right wing parties, Islamophobia, transnational Islam, Islam of the embassies that accompany their compatriots, etc.

On this axis, Arab Islam cannot compete, chiefly because of the undemocratic environment of the political states in the region. There is very little political will – from above – to change, while the need from below is remarkable – consider the ongoing Arab revolts since December 2010. Even in the states that appear more willing to democratize, like Morocco and Jordan, state institutions are not yet a favourable space for the realization of social justice policies, equality of genders before the law, and enforcement of the rule of law and accountability. European Muslims, for instance, consider Western liberal societies more respectful of the Islamic message of social justice and human dignity than the Arab-Islamic States. This does not eclipse the fact that some would prefer to live Islam in a Muslim majority society, if that society also guarantees the democratic milieu and social welfare the liberal society offers.

Individual axis: the ethicization of sharia laws

The fact that it has historicized revealed law prescriptions instead of denying them, European Islam finds itself ethicizing them; that is, it turns the prescriptions (laws) into moral ones that are now historically not applicable; it keeps the historical punishment as applied either by the Prophet Muhammad or introduced by his Companions later as an example of a possible worldly and contextualizable punishment. In the past, as a moral worldview rooted in this world, sharia required mundane punishments when the moral code was not applied; that is how the hudud prescriptions were ordained. In democratic states where peace and social justice are secured, their shortcomings aside, there is no need to implement the old prescriptions in a multicultural society that has other sources of governance going against of which would endanger the established peace and social justice.

No need to say that European Islam does not applaud liberal societies as socially just ones; rather, it recognizes their defects, and works from within its national institutions to improve them. It should be noted that such an emphasis on social justice mostly has to do with the rampant injustices in the Arab-Islamic world from which the current speakers of European Islam come from originally. Certainly their discourse compares their European reality with the Arab-Islamic one. It is no wonder that some figures, like the ones mentioned above, clearly distance themselves from Arab Islam and its influence on Muslims in Europe.

That is how European Islam re-interprets its sacred text, without fully abolishing it from its re-formed modern worldview. The divine as a source of ethical inspiration is preserved. This means that the individual is centralized, instead of the community, as was in medieval Islam, or as is still the case with Arab Islam. European Islam requires that the individual in the multicultural liberal society be the master of oneself, and the center of ethical teachings. If the citizen is ethicist, and participant in the socio-political system of his society, the highest demand religion requires is henceforth answered. More clearly put, seeing that the idea of the umma is spiritual, and that modernity is sacralized, and liberal democracy not fully negated, the ethics of Islam – most of which are shared by other religions – now do centralize the individual. European Islam considers Islamic ethics as spiritual nourishments that liberate the individual from any forms of “slavery” (the market, consumerism, state bureaucracy, excessive liberties without duties, dogmas, etc.). Sharia laws are ethicized. The individual has to think of them, even when not applied, as a means of self-discipline, liberation, and existential well-being. Change starts within.

Does the predicament of Islam in liberal societies in particular and in the modern world in general seems solved with such a description? It is not. The European Islam portrayed here is still emerging. It is heavily ethicist. However liberal and secular it may appear, it still does not seem easy to be a European Muslim, for internal and external reasons. (“Liberating” or “spiritual” Islam may appear more appealing terms to modern believers, instead of “liberal” and “secular” Islam, which still resonate bad in the ears of many for various reasons). It is still facing the challenges of recognition both from the modern nation states and from the other interpretations of Islam that are dominant. Comparatively, if Arab Islam can be a source of inspiration for spiritual-ethical teachings to European Islam, the latter can especially be inspiring on the organizational-institutional level. At a certain point of time, they may go apart, if the Arab world does not clean its house. Their point of diversion may be substantially their interpretation of ethics, largely theologico-political.