Why is it that Islamic movements and sometimes the mere whiff of Islam often give rise to conspiracy theories about a political takeover? This is true of completely different categories of actors such as the AKP (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Muslim groups in various countries of Europe. AKP is a political party functioning within a democratic system of governance in a majority Sunni country and with an economically liberal and EU-friendly agenda. While the Shiite Hizballah is also a political party, albeit in a barely functional democracy, its organization is much more opaque than AKP’s and it also commands a paramilitary organization. And, finally, Muslims in Europe are a panoply of barely politically organized individuals and groups who do not even speak the same language. Nevertheless, all three have been accused of secretly wanting to subvert and Islamisize an existing democracy despite public proclamations to the contrary.
There are doubtless many reasons for this tendency. First, there is the fact that many people have interpreted Islam to offer a theory of state or a mode of governance. Then there is also the past of the aforementioned political parties. Although Hizballah’s open letter of 1984 acknowledges people’s liberty to choose the form of government they desire, it also expresses a belief that Islamic governance alone can guarantee justice and liberty for all. As for AKP, some members have a political history in (now banned) parties that openly advocated a religious political agenda and/or “Islamic values.”
Still, it is intriguing that very different categories of Islam and very different relationships between Islam as a religion and Islam as politics elicit similar structural reactions. Not to mention that these accusations of take-over have also been directed at disparate Islamic minorities in Europe, many of them socioeconomically marginalized and politically underrepresented.
An earlier post on this blog deals with some of the issues concerning Islam in Europe — the more interesting part of the post is the discussion, actually. The Dutch anthropologist and scholar of religion Peter van der Veer offers another perspective on the matter. He basically links the phenomenon to a modern form of governance, the state, that renders political activity falling outside its purview as suspect. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Not only are communication and “openness” crucial to civil society, public sphere, and religion, but also, paradoxically, so is publicity’s opposite: secrecy. [Reinhart] Koselleck has argued in a book that appeared three years earlier than that of [Jürgen] Habermas [The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere] that the emergence of secret societies of freemasonry were crucial in the development of Enlightenment critique of the absolutist state. In the mid 18th century masonic lodges saw an immense increase in membership and can be seen as the most important sites for the new sociability of the Enlightenment, besides the more public ones such as coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and literary societies. The important point here is that these lodges were able to erect a wall of protection for their debates and rituals against both intrusion from the state and intrusion from the “profane” world.

Religion is a privileged site for examining an aspect of secrecy that is simultaneously the opposite of the public sphere and foundational for it. Religious movements and religious sites are often suspected of secret conspiracies by the powers that be. And it is precisely the moving away from state institutions and official politics that gives possibilities for fundamental moral critique. It should also be clear that this critique can take an unpleasant and terrorist form, as it did in the Jacobin ideology fo the French revolution. This uncomfortable dialectic is what German theorists like Koselleck and Habermas were interested in after the Nazi period.

(Source: “Secrecy and Publicity in the South Asian Republic Arena,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, edited by Armando Salvatore and Dale F. Eickelman, 31-32. Leiden: Brill, 2004.)

It follows logically from this that the dialectic between the state and political religious movements is more potent the longer the distance between the two. Once they become one and the same, as for example with an Islamist regime, then Islam’s location as a site for the critique of the model of modern state government is weakened. Admittedly, this poses more questions than it answers. But if you have spent too much time dwelling on these issues, then the Van der Veer excerpt can at least offer some food for thought.

The vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland has elicited negative reactions from many non-Muslim quarters. The European press, religious leaders, as well as some politicians have spoken out against it. But it has also given an unexpected boost to the far right in Europe. In Norway, we woke up Monday to a far right politician pondering a ban on the burqa and on the call to prayer (the latter is allowed as long as it is under 64dB). But the scene is gloomy because this goes beyond individual politicians or parties. The Swiss vote has left many wondering whether similar referenda in other European countries would yield similar results.

What is happening in many countries of Europe today when it comes to Islam is a curious and complex phenomenon and relegating it to bigotry does not explain anything. Tariq Ramadan has written one of the most reasonable articles I have come across that tries to make some sense of it. He is right to point out that the minaret is a symbol. The Union Démocratique du Centre, who proposed the ban in Switzerland, first considered targeting halal slaughter of animals but did not want to offend Swiss Jews. Minarets, I might add, work better here precisely because they are visible symbols. But symbols of what? This is the crux of Ramadan’s argument:

[…] while European countries and citizens are going through a real and deep identity crisis, the new visibility of Muslims is problematic – and it is scary. At the very moment Europeans find themselves asking, in a globalising, migratory world, “What are our roots?”, “Who are we?”, “What will our future look like?”, they see around them new citizens, new skin colours, new symbols to which they are unaccustomed.

The part of his article that calls for more Muslim participation as a solution is open to debate (wouldn’t more visibility cause more fear?), but still, he brings attention back to the main issue: this is about Europe as much as it is about Islam in Europe. But Ramadan’s article raises more questions than it answers. Identity crisis, fine. But why Muslims? (This issue predates 9/11, so the answer is not “terrorism”) Why not racism, which offers more visible scapegoats?

In addition, Ramadan points a finger at the “flame-fanning” populists, but what about the liberal politicians? What about, for example, the headscarf debate in France and Jack Straw’s comments on the burqa? Don’t they lend more legitimacy to anti-Islam sentiments than raving right-wingers? And how does this relate to Europe’s current wars in majority Muslim countries? And why should Islam in Europe be perceived as an extension of an external, homogeneous Islam rather than as a European phenomenon? Why is it that in Norway, for example, where things are relatively great, it is perfectly normal to find every once in a while reminders in the main stream press that Muslims are Norwegians too — and one need only make such reminders about Muslims and Jews these days? And as far as identity is concerned, why does Europe have to end where Islam begins? Why is it that despite (because of?) a suppressed shared history, Europe and Islam are assumed by many to be inherently incompatible?

These questions are not exhaustive, some are probably irrelevant, and those that are relevant do not have easy answers. But this debate is at its infancy and if Islam in Europe is to have a normal future, one should at least start by asking the correct questions and reframing the debate on premises not dictated by the right. Premises that bring economy, politics, and history — even anti-Semitic history — back into the picture. It is easy to forget that we are talking about a Muslim minority that in most European countries does not pass the 6% mark. A minority that often finds itself, for internal and external reasons, in a weaker socioeconomic position than average. Yet, precisely because the premises of the debate are being set by the far right, a growing number of citizens choose to succumb to public passions that have little to do with facts.