Reflections on Islam in Europe

One of the Danish artists who made the offensive drawings of Mohammed survived an attack by a man who had broken into his home. The man is a Somalian supposedly connected to the Islamist al-Shabab militia. Islamist militants have placed a $1 million bounty on Kurt Westergaard, the artist’s, head.

Recalling the widespread protests in the Muslim world when the drawings were first published in 2005, we once again come across the question of Muslim integration in Europe. Christopher Caldwell, the author of the new book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, is one critic who sees the Islamization of the continent as a serious problem. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, he claimed that it is too optimistic to think that Muslims can be easily integrated into the “insecure, malleable, relativistic” culture of modern Europe (or the West in general):

“Islam poses difficulties that other immigrant groups do not. Part of it is the growth of political Islam in the world in the last half-century. A large minority of European Muslims feel solidarity with the Muslim community abroad, and they feel at the same time that the West is at war with this world.” 

I have not read the book yet, but I suspect that like many conservative critics of Islam today, Caldwell’s fears are largely guided by a common misunderstanding of the relationship between the secular and the religious domains. As Malise Ruthven, the reviewer of Caldwell’s book in the New York Review of Books pointed out, Caldwell’s “reading of Islam takes an essentialist perspective of a primordial religion impervious to change, as if he were oblivious of the way that essentialist views of religion have long been under sustained intellectual attack.” In other words, Caldwell is drawing upon a flat, one-dimensional picture of Islam (‘Orientalist’ in the words of Edward Said), in this case as a spiritual force precisely at odds with Western materialism. This completely ignores the dynamism of both culture and religion in relation to the effect of social forces.

What’s even more, on a discursive level, the separation of religion and politics in the West was never replicated in the Muslim world. As a result, modern Islamism is not a religious resurgence, or even an atemporal spirituality that has remained in place since the seventh century. Instead it is a modern political ideology. Caldwell’s ignorance of this is revealed in his own tautological phrase, ‘political Islam’.

Leaving Caldwell alone, the question remains of how European governments can best strike the proper balance between a robust multiculturalism and a common legal system, without compromising either. One solution is the idea of ‘constitutional patriotism’ proposed by Habermas, which appeals to a self-sufficient, rational, and intersubjective form of politics that is universal in scope. As such, citizens would no longer appeal to some form of pre-political identity (religion, ethnicity, mythical origin) but conduct political deliberation, and therefore form their own identities, based on a set of universal norms.

As Charles Taylor argued in his recent debate with Habermas, this idea of a secular, constitutional patriotism may not only be too much to ask of individuals, but itself could be far less of a neutral ground than Habermas envisions. While Habermas’s project is a noble one in the sense of it wishing to attain justice by consensus, it suffers from an all-encompassing universalism that eradicates political contestation.

The question of Muslim integration has become such a worrisome issue in Europe today precisely because it has raised a specifically Political (ontological) question for European politics. Possibly not since the 1960s has there been the same need to resolve the fundamental question of political values, which cannot be dissected into smaller questions of policy or bureaucratic shuffling. The wariness of the Islamization of Europe has returned a sense of urgency to how politics is to be conducted on the continent, which may not be such a bad thing after all.


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