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A Plea for Multireligious Self-Confidence

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by Mohammed Khallouk

The place of Islam in the European public sphere

Nilüfer Göle (source: EHESS, original photo: IHS; thumbnail image is considered 'fair use').

The  Turkish-born sociologist Nilüfer Göle, currently director of studies at l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris is the author of a number of books in Turkish, German and French, in which she investigates the identity conflicts of young Muslims, especially women, in European society. Several of her books have since been translated into English. Her latest book, an essay with the original French title “Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe”, first published in 2005, was issued in an English version last year by Markus Wiener Publishers; as the title for the English edition, translator Steven Rendall and the publisher chose the phrase “Islam in Europe: The  Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism”. In a somewhat fragmentary way, the author claims for young educated Muslims in Europe to be a part of this continent, although – or maybe because –  Islam with its own value system is a basic element of their identity. The attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent debate were a decisive turning point in the consciousness of Muslims, who realized that they had to find a workable arrangement with Western modernity. The word “Interpénétrations” in the original title was meant to show the non-Muslim majority in the most important European countries that they could no longer continue to ignore the fact that Islam had become part of their civil societies and that, instead, they would have to come to an arrangement with Muslims living among them. Moreover, they would have to accept Muslims as European citizens with their own values and opinions that differ  from those shaped by Christianity as well as those of secular-minded Europeans.

Turkey’s “Third Way” between Islam and European Modernity

A main theme of Göle’s essay is the difficulty for Europeans to define themselves and the European Union as a pluralistic project that includes Islam in a modern interpretation. Europeans need to rid themselves of the thought, promoted by Samuel Huntington’s theory of a ‘clash of civilizations’, that Islamic civilization is a hostile opponent to their own civilization. What is needed is the realization that one can be member of the same civilization, even if one holds on to divergent religious beliefs and value categories. For Göle, the young veil-wearing Muslim women of the third immigrant generation in European cities like Paris or Berlin constitute evidence for her thesis. On the one hand, these women identify with a conservative female role as well as with traditional ethical codes  and sexual morals. On the other hand, they opt for a career of their own and pursue university diplomas and academic positions. As Göle sees it,  Islam, for a whole generation of young women in Central Europe, as well as in Turkey, is a means of becoming part of modernity and of finding their individual way of life in the world of modern Europe. They confront both the non-Muslim majority in Europe and the traditional Kemalist elites in Turkey with a new understanding of secularization – one that does not intend to hide religious symbols, but instead bring them out into the open, without thereby forcing others to submit to them.

In this context, both the ongoing tension between a (self-professed) Islamic-oriented government and the Kemalist elite in Turkey and the European debate about Turkey’s application to join the EU, in Göle’s eyes are equally significant. Indeed, with the help of Göle’s concept of “Interpénétrations”, a ‘Third Way’ between Political Islam and Secularism may be within reach, as may be a Turkey that is a member of a truly multireligious European Union, in which Islam has long been  represented by Muslim immigrants in Western European countries, where they share the public sphere with non-Muslim natives.

Cosmopolitanism as an alternative to radical Islamism and intellectual Islamophobia  

For Göle, the movie “Auf der anderen Seite” (English title: The Edge of Heaven, 2007) by Fatih Akin, a son of Turkish immigrants in Germany, illustrates how the envisaged interpenetration of Turkish Muslim culture with Western European urban culture can work in practice, and how classic European attitudes can likewise become part of the Turkish value system. However, the best example of a  modern European Islam, interpreted as a foundation for a new symbiosis of Islam and Europe, are the young Muslim women mentioned earlier. Although they believe in conservative Islamic values, with many of them wearing a headscarf  and adhering to traditional sexual morals, these women, according to Göle, pose the  most formidable challenge to radical Islamists, since their way of life is evidence of the fusion of the West and Islam – that is, of their own female individuality and religious spirituality, as well as of Oriental tradition and European modernity. Islamist terrorists are their enemies because the latter deny any possibility of finding an arrangement within Western modernity that does not require giving up  their own (“non-Western”) religion.

In summary, one can state that Göle’s essay shows, at many levels, what cosmopolitanism amounts to and in which direction lies the future of a Europe where Islam is a basic ingredient. The book is a stimulating read and presents a wealth of new aspects in the debate about the integration of Muslims into European society with its Christian roots and its basis in secularism. What is missing, unfortunately, is a common thread that would connect the various theses discussed – one that would offer a coherent answer to the question of how all these different aspects might be integrated. Nevertheless, Göle’s essay is recommended reading for anyone in search of a dissenting voice to the image of Islam and Muslim immigrants conveyed by such authors as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Oriana Fallaci, and, most recently, the former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin. Göle’s essay in no way glorifies Islam – least of all of political Islam, which she characterises as a very real danger; instead, she offers the prospect of an Islam that has arrived in the modern world: an Islam that is compatible with European democratic pluralism.

Nilüfer Göle: Islam in Europe. The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism.
Translated by Steven Rendall

Markus Wiener, Princeton 2011.
ISBN-13: 9781558765269
Paperback, 320 pages, US$26.95

Mohammed Khallouk was born in Morocco and works as a political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies at the Phillips University of Marburg and the University of the German Federal Armed Forces in Munich. His work analyses Islamic fundamentalism in Northern Africa and the Middle East, which was the topic of his doctoral work. Another research theme of his is the history of the Jewish community in Morocco, which he is writing his Habilitation thesis on. He also works as a translator of German contemporary literature into Arabic.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books.

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