Secularism Confronts Islam.
By Olivier Roy
New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 128 pp., ISBN 9780231141024.
Debates on the position and reaction of Muslim societies towards secularism and democracy have considerably increased in recent years. Contextual factors have left their imprints on such discussions; in the post 9/11 period, the number of those who argue that Islam inherently contradicts secularism and democracy has increased. Adherents to this view tend to have a monolithic and essentialist perception of Islam, clustering all Muslim communities into one category by attributing to them a single and fixed identity. On the opposite side, there are those who persistently assert that Islam is compatible with secularism and democracy. For the most part, however, they do so without articulating the relations of Muslims to such contested concepts. They also tend to ignore the policies and practices pursued by that several Muslim countries for decades--that contradict the very principles of democratic governance.
In Secularism Confronts Islam, Olivier Roy focuses on the question of the compatibility of Islam with Western secularism. He takes as his point of departure an analysis of the origins of French laicite, which he defines as an exacerbated, politicized and ideological form of secularism in the West that projects its own identity crisis on Islam in a postculturalist era marked by religious revivalism. Roi examines the French case in detail. There Islam is construed in the midst of a particular mode of securitization and perceived threat coined as Islamophobia; this construction has sparked heated debates on "republican values" and "laicite" as the foundations of French cultural identity. Roi notes that today, "France is experiencing a crisis of its identity through Islam" (p. 16). Public debate on Islam in France and many other Western countries primarily revolves around Muslim migrant communities, their religious differences from the majority of the population, and their resistance to integrate in secular societies. Roi argues that in 1905, when church and state were separated, the enemy was the Catholic Church. Today, he remarks, Islam is situated in its place by a "holy secular alliance" comprising the Christian Right, the Extremist Right and those representing the republic and laicite.
Roi makes a distinction between the concepts of secularization and laicite: he describes the first concept as a social process that requires no political implementation, whereas the latter refers to legal principles decreed by the state to organize the public domain on the basis of a political choice, i.e. state over and against church. Roi argues that presenting the French laicite as a model and a prerequisite for secularization would be an ethnocentric claim, as many European countries as well as some Muslim societies experience secularization without laicite. Roi shows that there are different histories of laicite and multiple forms of secularization and thus suggests that there is no definitive model.
Using lucid language, Roi demonstrates that the French laicite has its own character which provides a road map to relate to Muslims in France, who mostly live in ghetto-like banlieues. Since Islam is seen as an obstacle to integration, or more accurately assimilation, many actors from all political spectrums demand that the French republic nationalize and secularize Islam, or at least de-Islamize immigration. This outcry indicates that instead of addressing social and economic problems such as racism, discrimination, segregation, lack of political representation, unemployment, poverty and crime, French society is led to re-focus on laicite, thus evading a comprehensive debate on the root causes of conflict between Muslim immigrants and French society at large. While laicite is politicized and instrumentalized to domesticate religion in this process, Islam is made a scapegoat for social disorders in the banlieues. Drawing upon these observations, Roi argues that "there is in the French laicite a specific fear of Islam" (p. 33). Yet he rightly notes that the French laicite is an exception in Europe rather than the rule; therefore, debates on the place and future of Islam in the West should concentrate on the question of the compatibility of Islam and Western secularism.
As far as relations between Islam and secularism are concerned, several schools of thought have emerged, and varying Muslim responses to secularism have been widely discussed over the past several years. Roi identifies two major approaches among Muslim intellectuals: the essentialist position argues concisely that Islamic dogma opposes secularism; the moderate position claims that anything not explicitly anti-Islam is acceptable, meaning that there may be room for Islamic compromise with and absorption of modernity and secularism. The author refers to the findings of historians and anthropologists to show that Muslims societies have, de facto, experienced social and political secularization because laicite is not a pre-condition for such social change. One need not become irreligious in order to acknowledge secular authority. In other words, as Roi notes, Muslims have "come to terms with laicite though political steps, not through theological reformation" (91).
One noteworthy contribution Roi's analysis brings to the debate over Islam and secularism has to do with the reconfiguration of religion in Europe, which is usually either taken for granted or underestimated. In Roi's view, religion, in the ongoing reconfiguration of state and society, has become more visible because new believers want to be recognized as religious actors in the public domain rather than confining their faith to the private sphere. The rise of the market economy, globalization, mobility, education and development of civil society empower religious individuals to articulate their views in national and transnational contexts. This process, Roi believes, poses a difficulty for states, as they find themselves challenged to deal "with the revival of religious sentiments with the classic tool of laicite" at a time when the ground on which laicite itself stands is in crisis (p. 69). Roi thus calls upon his readers to think more deeply on Islam and its relations with Western values.
The title of Roi's book is somewhat misleading. The reader expects it to be all about Islam and Muslims societies, which is far from the case. Therefore, French Laicite Confronts Muslims would have been a fitting subtitle to the book, given the scope and length of the discussions regarding France. Indeed, Secularism Confronts Islam provides an insightful analysis of the trajectories of French laicite in particular and the contours of Western secularism in general, as well as their intriguing relations with Muslims in Europe at the intersections of religion and politics. Roi's concise but masterful volume will appeal to a broad range of readers, especially students and scholars of comparative secularism, politics, and Islam in Europe.
Talip Kucukcan, SETA