Olivier Roy: On Islam in Europe
An interview with Olivier Roy
This article was first posted on the Islam in Europe blog - islamineurope.blogspot.com/
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: 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.
Source: Globalia Magazine (English)