INTERVIEW: Dutch professor Jean Tilly compares recent controversial student protests to Muslim radicalism

Background information:

The high ranking Dutch University of Amsterdam (UvA) had been occupied by unsatisfied students for months (since February 25th) before being violently cleared out by the riot police last week. Students were camping in the occupied “Maagdenhuis” which is the main administrative building of the university. Critical students and university professors unified themselves in a new movement called “De Nieuwe Universiteit” (English: The New University) criticizing the university management for their neo-liberal policies and focus on financial revenue. Some of the main demands of the occupiers are more democratization in the university and more influence in the decision making process and university policies for students and teachers. After the violent clearing out by riot police the movement’s latest demand is for the university management to vacate their positions. UvA professor of politics Jean Tillie was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Het Parool. In the interview Tillie makes comparisons between radical students and Muslim radicals. What follows is a full translation of the Dutch interview. To read the interview in Dutch follow this link:

The interview:

Muslim radicals and radicalized students are almost the same

Jean Tillie, professor of politics at the UvA, expects a radical group will unify itself in the student protests. And he warns. In radicalism we can observe democratic phenomenon but it can also be innovative. If students radicalize we all [trans. i.e. prominent figures] visit them in order to profile ourselves. But when Muslims radicalize we view that as a security threat.

The joy over the “Maagdenhuis” started when Jean Tillie (54) saw a picture of parliamentary members Mei Li Vos (Partij van de Arbeid / Labour Party) and Jasper van Dijk (Socialistische Partij / Socialist Party) in conversation with students in the occupied administrative room of the UvA college-chairman Louise Gunning. On the picture you can see someone in the background looking at books about administrative thought.

Tille has been doing research on radicalism for years. When thinking of radicalism people mostly think of Muslim radicals. This is not fair, he thinks. Student who are occupying the “Maagdenhuis” should also be seen as radical. So what then is a radical? “A large amount of distrust towards established elites, combined with an interest in their thought.” This is symbolized by the person in the background of the picture studying the bookshelves.

Do politicians then associate with radicals?

“I can say so because I used to be a radical anarchist. Aside from that radicalism may exist in a democracy right? It is not the same as extremism. But behind radicalism may lurk potential innovative changes. If students radicalize we [i.e. prominent figures, trans.] all visit them because we want to profile ourselves. But if Muslims radicalize we view that as a security threat.”

You think that is hypocrite?

“Radicalism can have something in and of itself that can be revitalizing and innovative. But it also contains democratic phenomena, even if the persons involved claim to be autonomous. I have never experienced democratic people as with the anarchists.”

“The terminology that is used I also find embellishing. My colleague professor Ewald Engelen pleads for the establishment of a “commission of truth” at the UvA [‘waarheidscommissie’ in Dutch. A term used for the commission responsible for the research on the infringement on human rights during the Apartheid regime of South Africa, trans.]. ‘Exactly!’ I think at such a point. Because through that you are actually saying that the UvA college board – just like the regimes of South Africa and Uganda – should be taken to account for their past mistakes, should get out of their position as an elite with an us-and-them mentality, and should reconcile themselves with those who actually give them their worth. In that way you can also see the value of the radicalizing professor, dangerous for powerful elite that operates in the shadow!”

Must politicians always associate themselves with groups that are radical?

“The offices of the management board should always be open. Even for students. And especially for radical renewers. As a politician you should get excited by such means. You must be able to connect aims and means.”

How did such things happen in your time?

“I’ve been a squatter and an anarchist for eight years. I participated in the crowning riots [i.e. the riots during the crowning of the former Dutch Queen Beatrix in 1980, trans.]. When I became 24 years old I stopped. Now I am 54. So I have had thirty years to think about it. And this is my conclusion: leftist radicalism is the same as rightist radicalism is the same as Muslim radicalism. But if it is from the Muslim community, from low educated youth, we tend to act hypocritically and untrusting. If it is about right-radicalism it already becomes much more complicated – take the examples of Breivik and Hans Janmaat [a former extreme rightist Dutch politician, trans.] – and if it is from the leftist community then listening is suddenly seen as a value…

The reasoning of activists is: the elite does not want to listen. Sometimes more radical actions are necessary to be able to achieve something.

“In my time as an activist we also we also organized rather firm actions. And did it have a result? Yes. If we take a look to the anarchist movement – that got little money and support – the profits were not minor. We were against nuclear energy and a further development of nuclear power station did not come to pas. We were against cruise missiles but unfortunately we stumbled upon deff ears there. You could say the housing has improved but not that squatters have been stigmatized as extremists and isolated their public support and because of that their engagement has been lost.

The occupiers of the Maagdenhuis say that it has not been up until now that they are being heard. Before the protests there was no serious discussion going on at the universities.

“If you want to be really effective it takes a much longer process. Then you should have a look at educational programs and departments. And you should translate the radical movement into renewed and better politics. It is not until then that the movement becomes meaningful. So the students should above all be persistent.

Must the students leave the Maagdenhuis?

“No. My proposition is that if you can warrant your own sympathetic aims you don’t have to go away. It was not up until now that serious conversations took place with the college board. I expect a slow recuperation of the communicative trust between the elite who at first did not want a conversation and the group of radicals who are careful of an all-to-quick settlement without the political renewal I just spoke about. If they will leave de “Maagdenhuis” a new divide will come into existence between the elite and the people and a disappointed ever more radicalizing group of students.”

What will happen with such a hardened group?

“It is a very uncomfortable story. Such a hardcore group could be further stigmatized, which was already seen during the student demonstrations and for which a ritual from 1969 was criminalized. Then it becomes extreme. It remains attractive to fight for justice. It is the attraction of democracy, dissimilar to what the racist and aristocratic Le Bon claimed about the mass. Something you get from beautiful human things such as sex of dancing but also through commercial surrogates such as drugs and violence – opium of the people – to obstruct them from real democracy.”

You eschewed violence. Why did you yourself stop being an activist for peace?

“I became a father. But a few years before that another incident happened. We were at a big party in the squatting house “De Groote Keijser” and supporters of the extreme-rightist Hans Janmaat – who just won a seat in parliament – were also present. They celebrated this by beating up a black friend of mine. It became a huge fight and I almost died: I was hit in the face with an iron rod. When I was recovered and returned into the movement people reacted as if I was whining. I was simply the victim of an international struggle. Romanticism withers away in such an activist movement.”

Date: 02-04-2015

– Translated by Jeroen Vlug –

Interview: How France could better regulate the imams who preach on its soil

Atlantico: From the time he was Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls wished for French imams to be trained in France. Would that be possible?

Haoues Seniguer: It seems to me that we must make a distinction between desirable and possible, what is feasible and impossible. Several of Manuel Valls’s predecessors have discussed training imams in France, but it’s difficult to accomplish under the constraints. Moreover, permanent structures must exist with a multidisciplinary education, notably in history and in Islamic studies available at recognized universities.

Atlantico: Does it not pose a geopolitical problem that certain foreign imams come to France concerning the question of internationalization of educating the forein imams?

Franck Frégosi: Take the example of Turkey. The Turkish state believes that where important communities are located, it can exercise its right to monitor and control religious speech. This allows them to follow the eventual political evolution, to avoid what they consider to be hostile commentary. In Turkey, the religious administration is allowed to exercise control over what officially occurs in the Turkish mosques.

Atlantico: What are the problems encountered by Muslims in the education of imams?

Frégosi: Among the most well known private institutions there is the European Institute of Social Sciences, which has a satellite campus in Paris, and the school at the Great Mosque of Paris. The number of years of study to become an imam in France depends on the structure of each private institute. In general, the training is between three and four years. From the beginning, religious institutes are mostly preoccupied with opening places of worship or mosques in France, the question of the education of imams came much slower and later, when the French government raised the issue. It seems difficult to design an educational system different from that in Islamic states who have a state religion, and who wish to form an official clergy. Concerning Muslims in foreign countries, such as Turkey and Algeria, some imams were trained in their countries in religious universities. As I explained before they are sent and sponsored by their home country.

Atlantico: The difficulty in training imams doesn’t have to do with the multiple interpretations of the Qur’an?

Frégosi: It primarily comes from the fact that there are several different Muslim populations in France: North Africans, Turks, etc. who have different cultures and therefore different interpretations. Each Islamic federation wants to maintain complete control in training its imams, and therefore it’s difficult to develop a uniform training. The problem of foreign imams living on French soil demonstrates that Islamic education in France is not adapted to those who live in France. We need a global response from Muslim countries to this education, including countries such as Morocco who fear radicalization. Morocco has established an increased politicization of Islam concerning the training of its imams. This allows them to have a more contextualized interpretation of the texts; this also allows the state to maintain control over what happens in its mosques. Because if the state finances religion, it’s normal that it would control them.

Atlantico: Should the French state finance the training of imams?

Seniguer: Retaking the reigns would mean nothing less than a revision of the 1905 law. This would not come without reviving and exacerbating distrust between everyone.

Frégosi: Legally, it’s not possible for the state to intervene in the financing of a religion, and therefore in the training of imams. On the other hand, the state could show its support in the training of imams who are in charge of civic duties and allow them to have an official status. Thus, the expenditures would be for the training only, not the remuneration of religious sectors.

Atlantico: What would be the other necessary conditions to create an Islam of France? Is that the role of an imam?

Frégosi: I have the tendency to say that an Islam of France already exists; it is in the day-to-day lives of all the Muslims of this country. But looking at it from a sociological reality, it must develop its roots in France through any educational and theological work. This allows Muslims to have their own intellectual and spiritual reference and ensures that they no long rely on just any person’s interpretation of Islam.

The imam has a role to play in this respect but most of the time he possesses a secondary role. He’s not just an employee of the mosque, it is he who runs it and who has the most influence. The imam has a role to play in the transmission of the fundamental elements [of Islam], he is an integral part of the successful integration of Islam, it’s why certain large mosques established instructional seminars to be able to educate imams about the work and to understand the practice of Islam in France.

Dutch Islam critic Wilders: “If we don’t act it will also happen here.” [INTERVIEW]

“The attack in Paris is a key moment”, says Geert Wilders (Islam critic and political leader of the Dutch Freedom Party). According to him now more than ever it became clear that freedom and Islam don’t go hand in hand. Citizens will not accept it anymore: “The revolution will come.” (Photo: Reuters/Michael Kooren)
“The attack in Paris is a key moment”, says Geert Wilders (Islam critic and political leader of the Dutch Freedom Party). According to him now more than ever it became clear that freedom and Islam don’t go hand in hand. Citizens will not accept it anymore: “The revolution will come.” (Photo: Reuters/Michael Kooren)
[This is a full translation of the interview with Islam critic and political leader of the Dutch Freedom Party that appeared in the Dutch news paper Het Parool on 9 January 2015. For the Dutch version see the link below.]

“The attack in Paris is a key moment”, says Geert Wilders (Islam critic and political leader of the Dutch Freedom Party). According to him now more than ever it became clear that freedom and Islam don’t go hand in hand. Citizens will not accept it anymore: “The revolution will come.”

Nine pictures are shown on the death roll that appeared in the online magazine of Al Qaida. Left of the middle shows the picture of Wilders. Located right of him is a picture of Stéphane Charbonnier, the killed editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo.

“On the internet I saw that the list is now also circulating with a red cross through his head,” says the Freedom Party leader, “with texts such as: ‘and now the rest.’ That’s not something to be happy about.”

This morning he woke up at 4.00 AM and afterwards could not sleep. “I knew this would happen at some point. But off course I was shocked anyway because I’m on the same list. I would lie if I said I am not afraid. Off course it has consequences…” He looks at the security guard who just checked the room in which the interview is being held.

“It’s war,” he already declared a few hours after the attacks. Directly after this statement he demanded a debate with the Dutch Prime Minister [Mark Rutte]. “Because if this attack makes one thing clear its that jihadis should be dealt with in a much firmer manner,” he said. “Isn’t it crazy that tens of them walk freely in this country? Who goes to Syria should never be able to come back. And the ones who have returned should be send to prison immediately. By way of an emergency law, not by way of the judge. The security of all is more important that the basic rights of some. If we do nothing the same will soon happen here. It’s a matter of time.”

And you think you can stop this?
“If we would close the borders for immigrants from Muslim countries and would deport everyone who has bad intentions it would already be a huge step. If we have achieved this we should extract ourselves from the Schengen Agreement and start to guard our own borders again. And we need the army. Isn’t it baffling that our soldiers are in Mali while our own security is under threat? Our soldiers should be here guarding stations and shopping malls. The jihadis are walking there now freely. They have declared war on us and we do nothing. They are laughing at us!”

What about the reactions of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other political rivals?
“They express their aversion and then continue to busy themselves with the usual daily business. But they do not mention the cause. Islam is the cause. They don’t say it but people see it. Our voters are no xenophobes, they are people who feel that something is not right. That the Islam doesn’t belong in their country and that everything that happens is leading back to that. I do not want to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists but what is happening does have something to do with it.”

Do you not think that a lot of Muslims also reject this attack?
“I don’t know that. I don’t hear that much. I have seen a declaration from some mosques I believe and [Mayor of Rotterdam] Ahmed Aboutaleb said good things. Besides that it remains quiet. I don’t see large demonstration in which Muslims distance themselves from it.”

“I’m not at war against all those people. I also believe that their mosques should be safe spaces. Someone who gets it into his head to set a mosque on fire should remain behind bars according to me. So I do not say all those Muslims are at fault but they bring with them a culture that is not ours.”

A part of our culture is also the freedom of religion. You want to close mosques.
“But I do not believe Islam is a religion. It has the symptoms of a religion – a holy book, an imam, and what not – but it is not. It is a totalitarian ideology. A dangerous, frightening, violent, and wrong ideology.”

“It will lead to a revolution because citizens will not have it anymore,” Wilders says. “Not the British – mark my words, Ukip [the UK Independence Party] will have extraordinary electoral results! In Germany the Pegida, in France Le Pen. The revolution will come, let that be my single most important message. There will be no stopping this. Even if [Prime Minister] Mark Rutte will demonstrate on the Dam every evening.”

English Translation by Jeroen Vlug.

First Interview with Lady Warsi on Palestine and why she left her position

"“There is a lack of political will and our moral compass is missing,” says Lady Warsi. (Photo: Paul Cooper/Rex Features)
“There is a lack of political will and our moral compass is missing,” says Lady Warsi. (Photo: Paul Cooper/Rex Features)

The tipping point for Sayeeda Warsi came in the aftermath of one of the most notorious incidents of this year’s Gazan war: the killing of four Palestinian children by Israeli shells as they played football on the beach. Warsi hoped that David Cameron would condemn the attack as beyond the pale. Instead, she heard only the dry language of diplomacy. She insists her resignation was not a knee-jerk response and makes clear that she is far from an isolated voice within her party.


On domestic issues such as extremism and the government’s approach to counter-radicalisation, Warsi refuses to be drawn. “My argument is that extremists are more of a threat to British Muslims than the community as whole; not only do those people cause us harm like everybody else – they’re indiscriminate – but also the backlash. It’s a double whammy. British Muslims have more incentive to rid society of extremists.”


For her, the issue is how will Islam evolve and overcome an atmosphere of mistrust and misunderstanding towards it. “What will British Islam look like for my kids, grandkids? Chinese Islam is very different to Saudi Islam; the challenge for our times is how we find this place.”

Interview with Maha El-Kaisy-Friemuth, “We urgently need reform within Islam”

In an interview with Professor Maha El-Kaisy-Friemuth, professor of Islamic Religious Studies at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, Qantara writer Claudia Mende asks, “What is the focus of a feminist theologian’s work?” In her interview, Professor El-Kaisy-Friemuth emphasizes the need for reform within Islam. She notes that within the newly created academic departments on Islamic theology in Germany, younger scholars are ideally positioned to lead and promote reform within Islam, especially related to women.



A Call for Muslims in the West to Serve Their Societies: Interview with Amr Khaled

10 November 2010

Amr Khaled is one the best-known TV preachers of the Arab world, reaching millions of mostly young Muslims via satellite channels, internet, books, cassettes and CDs. In this interview with Christoph Dreyer, he talks about the role faith and activism can play for Muslims’ integration into Western societies. In recent years, Amr Khaled has increasingly taken on a global outlook, initiating a dialogue between Arab and Danish youths during the cartoon crisis and speaking out against religious extremism. Today he lives in Birmingham, UK.

Interview: Islam and Europe – An interview with Olivier Roy

GM: In Switzerland, a majority voted for a ban on minarets; in France and in Belgium, the Islamic headscarf is being heavily debated; in Italy the crucifix is coming under fire. And also here in Germany the debate surrounding Muslims is often hysterical. Why do Europeans fear religious symbols or “foreign” religions so much?*

The debate in Europe has shifted in some 25 years (a whole generation) between immigration and the visible symbols of Islam. Which creates a paradox: even people who were opposed to immigration acknowledge now that the second and third generation of migrants are here to stay and that Islam has rooted itself within Europe. So now the debate is about the status of Islam. And here we have a strange phenomenon: while anti-immigration feeling is mainly associated with the conservative right, anti-Islamic sentiment is to be found on both the left and the right, but for two very different reasons. For the right, Europe is Christian and Islam should be treated as a tolerated, albeit inferior religion. There is (unfortunately) no way to ban it (because of the principle of “freedom of religion”, inscribed in our constitutions, international treaties and UN charter), but there are means to limit its visibility without necessarily going against the principle of freedom of religion (for instance the European Court of Human Rights did not condemn the banning of the scarf in French schools). For the left, the issue is more generally secularism, women’s rights and fundamentalism: it opposes the veil, not so much because it is Islamic, rather because it seems to contradict women’s rights. Hence the debate on Islam disguises a far more complicated issue: what is a European identity, and what is the role of religions in Europe; and of course, on these two issues the left and the right take very different positions. But we are witnessing the rise of new populist movements (like Geert Wilder’s In Holland) mixing both approaches, basically siding with the right but using leftist arguments.

*GM: In your book you say that fundamentalists like Al-Qaida have nothing to do with the tradition of Islam. But for the people of Europe, they appear very traditional… Are Al-Qaida and similar organisations and movements a modern phenomenon? Can you explain this matter?*

The kind of terrorism perpetrated by AQ is unknown in Muslim history, as well as in “Christian” history. So in any case it is a recent phenomenon. If we consider some of its main characteristics: suicide attacks, execution of hostages, targeting civilians; they all have been put into practices recently by other organizations before AQ: The Tamil Tigers used suicide attacks, the Italian extreme right (Bologna bombings in august 1980), Italian Red brigades: if you look at the video of the execution of foreign hostages by AQ in Iraq, it follows precisely the “staging” of the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades (banner and logo of the organization, hostage hand-cuffed and blind folded, a group of “militants” staging a mock trial, lecture of a “sentence” and execution). By its modus operandi, its form of organization, its targets (US imperialism), and recruitment (young western educated Muslims or converts to Islam) it is obvious that AQ is not the expression of a traditional Islam (even fundamentalist) but of a recasting of Islam under the cloak of western revolutionary ideology.

*GM: Are there similar Christian organization? Can we find a similar development in Christianity?*

It depends what you call “Christian” (and that is the same issue for Islam): is violence motivated by faith or by a political ideology? I argue that in both cases the motivation is driven far more by ideology (even claiming a religious legitimacy) than by faith. There has certainly been “white” western terrorism (Oklahoma bombing in 1995, for example). But in fact, there is no real parallel: the present struggle looks more like an asymmetric warfare; Islamic radicals have no air force or air-carriers. A radical Christian crusader who wants to fight Muslims does not need to enter into a terrorist organisation: he can just enlist into the US air force and become a fighter-bomber pilot. The US media have well documented the fact that the Colorado Springs US Air force Academy of is a hotbed of Christian evangelicalism (at the expense, by the way, of Jewish or atheist cadets) (note: Air Force Removes Chaplain From Post: Officer Decried Evangelicals’ Influence, By T.R. Reid, Washington Post Friday, May 13, 2005)

*GM: How do you explain the success of such radical movements/ ideologies? Are poverty and exclusion really the reasons for it?*

No. All the research shows that there is no correlation between poverty and radicalisation: there are far more Saudis than Bangladeshis (in fact almost no Bangladeshis) among the radicals. I think that the present struggle is a continuation of the old fault-line of anti-imperialist, third-worldist movements against the West and specifically the USA. Bin laden says little about religion, but mentions Che Guevara, colonialism, climate change etc. It is also clearly a generational movement: AQ is a “youth” movement of young people who have split with their families, their social milieus and are not even interested in the family’s country of origin. There are an astonishing number of converts within AQ, which is now acknowledged but not taken into account. The converts are rebels without a cause who would have joined the Rote Army Fraction or the Red Brigades thirty years ago, but now they have joined the most successful movement on the anti-imperialist market. We are still in the continuity of a mostly western revolutionary millenarism that has turned away from the concept of establishing a new and just society. The new movements are profoundly sceptical about building a good society, hence their suicidal dimension (also to be found with the RAF).

*GM: Today some Europeans maintain that European culture is essentially a Christian culture, and hence that everything Islamic is problematic and alien for Europe. What do you think on this position?*

They say that at the same time as Pope Benedict as John Paul used to say that Europe is rejecting and ignoring its Christian roots: the debate on sexual freedom, abortion, gay rights is not opposing the Europeans and the Muslims, but secularists on one hand (and there are Muslim secularists) and conservative believers on the other hand (they could be Muslim, Catholic or orthodox Jews). In fact Europe is highly divided on the topic of its own culture, between secularists who consider that the Enlightenment (with Human rights, freedom, democracy) to be the real Birth certificate of Europe, and the “Christian culturalists” who consider that enligthment also led to communism, atheism and even Nazism.

*GM: Is there a real risk of Islamophobia in Europe?*

The problem is how we define Islamophobia: is it just another term for racism, and specifically racism against people with a Muslim name, whatever their real degree of belonging to a faith community may be, or is it the rejection of a religion? There are anti-racist militants who cannot stand the veil (this is the case among feminists); there are racist people who do not oppose the veil (because they already think that these people are too different from us anyway). The issue is complex because we haven’t tried to disentangle two issues: ethnicity and religion. Of course in Europe most Muslims have a foreign ethnic background, but the distinction between ethnicity and religion is increasing: there are converts both ways; there are atheist “Arabs” and “Turks”, and more and more Muslims want to be acknowledged as believers belonging to a faith community, but not necessarily as members of a different cultural community; we need to distinguish between “ethnic communities” and “faith communities”, because both require a different approach, and because “ethnicity” is less and less meaningful in terms of culture, but is more and more linked with skinned colour.

*GM: During an interview, you said that, for example, the biggest campaign against Darwin in Europe was being conducted by a Turkish Muslim, on the basis of translations of books written by evangelical Americans, and that there was then a convergence of values and norms, but also in the manner in which those religions translate their convictions into political action and intervention. How can the political world find a way to deal with this “drifting, deculturalized and globalized religion”?*

I think that the “successful” religions are the global and deculturated religions (evangelicalism, salafism, cults, etc) not the traditional churches (the Catholic Church, in particular). This trend is dominant now. It does not make sense to fight against it, particularly in countries where constitutions prevent the State from interfering with beliefs. On the contrary I think we should accentuate the separation of church and state by implementing full equality between religions, but not on a basis of “multi-culturalism”; we should consider religions as “mere religions”, whatever they say about themselves. The issue is not what does Islam say, what does the Pope say, but under which conditions a faith community can freely exercise its rights. Government should contribute to the deinking between religion and culture, but at the same time reject the multi-culturalist approach of religion in favour of a neutral and strict freedom of religion within the framework of existing laws.

*GM: In the media we have often dialectic of “liberal” vs. “radical” Islam. Is there a “liberal” or “radical” Islam? When we look at the five pillars, is it possible to do the prayer “liberally” or “radically”? Is this terminology actually applicable on this matter?*

No I think the mistake is to consider that in order to be a good citizen, a believer has to choose a “liberal” theology. The debate on the “reformation” of Islam is irrelevant. People who advocate a Muslim Luther never read Luther: he was not a liberal and quite anti-semitic by the way. The “formatting” of Muslims into a Western environment has nothing to do with theology. It is done by the individual practices and endeavours of the Muslims themselves. They attempt try to reconcile their practices within a western environment, and they find in this environment tools to do that (rethinking norms in terms of values, for instance). In the long run these changes will certainly translate into a theological rethinking, but in any case, it does not make sense to associate modernity with theological liberalism: to think like that means either distorting history or relying on wishful thinking.

Interview with Mouhanad Khorchide: “For me, it’s a question of finding a contemporary interpretation of Islam”

Mouhanad Khorchide, originally from Lebanon, has been appointed Professor of Islamic Religious Education Theory at the University of Münster, where he will take over from Sven Kalisch, a controversial figure in Muslim circles.

Enquired about his principles of a contemporary interpretation of Islam, Khorchide replied: “This interpretation [of the Koran] should ask what answers were given in what social context to what questions. We have to understand what people’s concerns were at that time and what the meaning was of the answers that were given at that time. On the basis of hermeneutics we can then ask ourselves what meaning the sacred texts have for us today.”

Muslims in European public spheres and the limits of liberal theories of citizenship

Recent events in Europe, from the cartoon crisis in Denmark to the controversy over the construction of minarets in Switzerland, have brought the status of Islam in the secular public sphere to the forefront of European political debates.

Recent events in Europe, from the cartoon crisis in Denmark to the controversy over the construction of minarets in Switzerland, have brought the status of Islam in the secular public sphere to the forefront of European political debates. The consequences of these debates can be seen in a hardening of the boundary between what is public and what is private, as many assume that religion generally belongs to the private sphere. Collective views in Europe have come to dictate that any claim or expression in public space deriving from religious beliefs be seen as illegitimate. As Jürgen Habermas has noted, the liberal vision of a secular public sphere imposes a special burden on the shoulders of religious citizens. Many believers, however, would not be able to undertake such an artificial division in their own minds between their religious beliefs and their civic commitments without destabilizing their existence as pious persons.

According to many liberal theories, expressions of religious citizens are acceptable in the public sphere so long as they do not influence formal law-making and are expressed in an appropriate public venue. But the political reality is actually more complex and reveals a narrowing or even complete disappearance of public spaces in which religious expression is possible. Talal Asad explains this contradiction by engaging in a Foucauldian deconstruction of public space. Asad’s approach to secularism is particularly helpful for explaining the current debate on Islam in Europe, though it nonetheless requires some additional nuance and further contextualization.

Unlike the liberal theoreticians John Rawls and Charles Taylor, Asad does not see the secular public sphere as a neutral, shared space composed of different voices that accept and abide by the same principles or ethics of citizenship. Instead, he defines the private/public divide as embedded in a heterogeneous landscape of power. From the beginning, in Asad’s view, the “liberal public sphere” has excluded certain kinds of people: women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the poor classes, immigrants, religious groups, and others.

In the same vein, Dominique Colas analyzes the fight between Iconoclasts and the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and observes elements relevant to the concerns raised by Asad: the power of the state is employed to violently crush movements that refused to accept the limitations placed upon their religious claims in the broader public realm. Colas clearly illustrates that the concept of tolerance in the “civil society” of the sixteenth century was not a neutral force. Those who refused to accept the limitations for social behavior and expression were labeled “fanatics” and harshly punished. “Fanaticism,” as defined by Colas, is precisely this refusal to accept the duality of the public and private realms of the social order.

The tension between civil authority and the particular cultural and religious norms of minority communities is the crucial issue in the debate over the definition of “secularism.” In twenty-first century Europe, it is important to understand the public sphere as, not only a disembodied voice, but also a product of the media as well as state-mediated discourses. During the cartoon crisis, for example, alongside Muslims protesting expressly against blasphemy, several made use of secular arguments that could, in principle, have been received in the public sphere, but were rejected because of the asymmetrical balance of power between European establishments and the growing—and increasingly assertive—Muslim minority. Some, for example, utilized arguments similar to those concerning the prevention of hate speech (as it is guaranteed by most European states), holocaust denial, and incitement to violence. Regardless, unconsidered perceptions of Muslims based on a stigma of extremism often prevent rational consideration of expressions that are legitimate within European legal systems.

In the same vein, the rallying of European Muslims who wanted to ban The Satanic Verses and murder its author, Salman Rushdie, has been seen by some prominent advocates of minority rights as an important example of a religious and cultural minority attempting to introduce restrictions that are unacceptable, given that they undermine individual autonomy. Charles Taylor, for instance, considered the demand that The Satanic Verses be banned to be illegitimate. Michael Walzer, well known for his relativist approach to values, took a hard-line liberal position to defend Rushdie against his detractors, arguing that immigrants, by their very choice of immigrating to Europe, have chosen to adopt the tenets of Western liberalism and should therefore conform to them.

On the other hand, many of those in Europe who champion multiculturalism, such as Tariq Modood and Bhikku Parekh, have criticized such positions, explaining that it is a mistake to see the fight against apostasy as British Muslims’ key motivation. Instead, they explain the protests of Muslim leaders as evidence simply of their desire to include Islam under the British Blasphemy Law that, before its repeal in 2008, was strictly limited to Anglicanism. These examples of the divergent ways in which Muslims make claims on and in the secular public sphere highlight the limits of the “overlapping consensus” view and suggest an imbalanced relationship of power between a specific religious group and the representatives of civil authority.

An important question raised by the Muslim presence in Europe is how the protection of specific subcultures can promote, rather than stifle, individual emancipation. Will Kymlicka offers one possible way to reconcile the two conflicting demands: “If we simplify to an extreme, we can state that minority rights are compatible with cultural liberalism when a) individual freedom is protected within the group, and b) they promote equality, and not domination, between groups within the different European societies.” Sometimes, however, Islamic groups collectively appeal for rights that would, in effect, limit individual freedom. The Rushdie Affair and the call to ban The Satanic Verses are illustrative of such dilemmas.

A different—and contradictory—example of the tension between civic order and the Islamic community, on which the rest of this article will focus, concerns the recognition of Islamic Law within existing legal systems. In order to bring nuance to Asad’s interpretation of secular space as simply a hegemonic regime, the examples that follow will show that representatives of civil authority do, in fact, try to foster equality and tolerance among European citizens of different cultures.

Contrary to the widespread belief that Muslims in the West seek the inclusion of shari’a statutes in the constitutions of European countries, most surveys show that Muslims are quite satisfied with the secular nature of European societies. When Muslims agitate for change, they engage in the democratic process, utilizing mainstream parties and institutions. At the same time, their acceptance of secular practices does not mean that they renounce the use of Islamic principles and legal rules to guide or structure their daily lives. In a study funded by the Sixth European Union Framework Programme, which convened 50 focus groups of Muslims in London, Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam, I clearly observed this tendency: for example, many Muslims expressed a strong attachment to religious, rather than civil, marriage and divorce.

We examined the literature and jurisprudence of several key European countries in order to ascertain the arguments used by the courts and by Muslims respectively when conflicts arise. The plethora of national laws in Europe and the diversity among Muslim groups makes comparison difficult, but we found a general trend of European countries recognizing foreign civil law. In countries like France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, the law distinguishes between national and foreign jurisprudence, allowing residents to act in accordance with their own national laws. In these cases, the country of residence may apply a discriminatory foreign law. For Muslims, Islamic laws on marriage, divorce, and custody may differ according to their school of thought (Hanafi, Shafi‘i, Maliki, Hanbali, etc.) or country of origin (Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco, etc.). Furthermore, in some countries—like Tunisia, Turkey, and Morocco—the family law has been secularized and respects, in theory, the principle of equality between men and women. However, these reforms do not always prevent the continuance of customs that can be discriminatory toward women and that can often be presented as “Islamic.” One example is the recent divorce case of a Moroccan couple, brought before the French courts, in which the husband appealed for divorce on the grounds that his wife was not a virgin at the time of their marriage.

Similarly, participants in the focus groups highlighted the difficulty they faced in trying to express their indignation during the Danish cartoon affair. They were bothered less by the representation of the Prophet Muhammad itself than by the fact that he was depicted as the quintessential figure of violence. The participants felt that their disapproval of the cartoon was interpreted by their fellow citizens as unpatriotic, while they themselves did not consider such opinions to be incompatible with their European citizenship. The same discrepancy emerged in some groups with regard to issues of dress code and, specifically, the hijab, the wearing of which is considered unpatriotic in some European places, while it obviously has a very different meaning for many Muslim women. We see a further manifestation of this issue in the recent case of a fully veiled Moroccan woman who was denied French citizenship in 2008 on the grounds that wearing the niqab was incompatible with French values. And the same suspicion of anti-civicism or anti-patriotism can be discerned in the debate on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.

When we turn to the shari’a debate, Kymlicka’s two conditions come under intense scrutiny. Our research corroborates the Gallup polls’ findings showing the acceptance of secular orders by the majority of Muslims in Europe. In fact, not one of the focus group participants expressly rejected European secular principles. Nevertheless, such acceptance does not preclude tension between, for instance, Islamic practices of marriage, divorce, and child custody and the principle of individual freedom under secular civil law. In legal practice, the question of whether to take Muslim family law into account in the regulation of daily life is bound to the condition that these laws meet the criteria prescribed by human rights and fundamental liberties. Therefore, due to inequality between men and women, acknowledgment of Family Law codes imported from some Muslim countries appears as a hindrance to the process of integrating Muslims, to the point that some compare the situation to a conflict of civilizations. There do exist fringes of the Muslim population across Europe that reject the paradigm of secular civil law and act violently in ways that strongly prejudice Europeans’ perceptions of Islam and Muslims. However, the silent majority of European Muslims already accept Islam’s compatibility with the basic precepts of human rights.

The second condition advanced by Kymlicka, promoting the equality of cultures, is also problematic, since Islam as a religion and culture is still perceived as alien to Europe. Promoting equality between cultures involves redefining public culture and the status of Islam within the public space at the level of both nation-states and the European Union. However, some claims on behalf of Islamic culture in fact champion the European conception of human rights, by arguing, for example, that laws banning religious symbols from French public schools are contradictory to the European notion of fundamental rights.

Because of these complex circumstances, we find different and sometimes contradictory attitudes among Muslims toward European secular laws. As mentioned previously, complete rejection of secular law is rare; more commonly, objections are targeted specifically at elements of French secularism. But complete acceptance of European civil law is also rare. Among focus group participants, a preference for Islamic prescriptions for family organization was clearly expressed, especially in the European context. However, the extent to which these prescriptions are taken to heart varies greatly according to gender, age, and education. For example, educated Muslim women tend to adopt a more individualized attitude toward family law, requesting greater equality between men and women. On the other hand, less educated men tend to remain closer to some cultural traditions inherited from their countries of origin.

In short, the majority of European Muslims acknowledge the compatibility of Islam with the basic tenets of human rights, although there are still parts of the Muslim population in Europe who reject this paradigm. For example, a group called Islam4UK, which emerged in autumn 2009 in Great Britain, demands the enforcement of shari’a. It is also significant that Islamic parties have recently emerged on the political scene in Germany and the Netherlands.

Surprisingly, this reconciliation between Islamic principles and secular regimes has often been conducted in an indirect way through decisions by European judges rather than Islamic legal experts or Muslim theologians. Consequently, a slow and “invisible” form of personal Islamic law is being constructed and adapted to Western secular laws. Of course, European judges do not claim Islamic authority, but the fact that Muslim theologians do not contest their decisions, and sometimes even endorse them, illustrates the law’s adaptation. The contours of this evolution remain to be defined, depending on the country and the Islamic group concerned.

These results, derived from survey research of European Muslims, clearly demonstrate the core deficiency of Asad’s view of secularism: it fails to adequately recognize the complexities of political interactions that occur between disparate stakeholder communities. Craig Brittain correctly states, “It is one thing to argue for the legitimacy of religious adherents to publicly voice their particular worldviews; it is quite another matter to suggest that such voices be granted equal argumentative weight, without mediation, in public debate.”


Interestingly, Talal Asad has perceived the tragic character of secularism, especially in his interpretation of Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels. Incidentally, it may contradict his tendency to reject the category of secularism as an instrument of power and domination: “This world is ‘secular’ not because scientific knowledge has replaced religious belief (that is, because the ‘real’ has at last become apparent) but because, on the contrary, it must be lived in uncertainty, without fixed moorings even for the believer, a world in which the real and the imaginary mirror each other. In this world, the politics of certainty is clearly impossible.”

Such a perception of secularism can help religious theorists address Asad’s principal concern that the concept functions with an overly Westernized bias against non-Western religions. It echoes at the level of what Charles Taylor calls “the third meaning” of secularism, namely, the fact that believers exist in a world in which their beliefs are continuously challenged by other values. The challenge of being able to believe without feeling threatened by others’ beliefs came across very strongly in the focus groups when participants were asked about relationships with non-Muslims and tolerance vis-à-vis apostasy. No real consensus emerged on these issues, but the discussion highlighted a clear divide between the perception of the virtuous Muslim as one who values the moral commitment of the Ummah above all others versus one who lives according to Muslim principles but maintains a certain sense of relativism. This question forms the core of a book by Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks that led to an intense and controversial debate in the UK six years ago, and represents the most salient challenge to the status of Muslims in Europe or the United States: how can one maintain one’s sense of the Islamic truth and simultaneously acknowledge the truth of others?

Tags: citizenship, Craig Brittain, Europe, immigration, Islam, Jürgen Habermas, law, liberalism, secularism, Shari’a, surveys, Talal Asad