Notions of nation and alienation

A Heart Turned East - Allah in the West
April 25, 1997

Gilles Kepel's book, a translation of L'Ouest d'Allah, is written with a secular disdain for the religious culture it explores. Titles with "Allah" create in the western mind an image of a tribal Arab or black deity. "Islam in the West" is better: there is no condescension in the title at least. By contrast, Adam Lebor, of Jewish background, has his heart fully turned east and writes with evident regard for western Muslims as a wounded community deserving condolences.

Kepel explores Islamic communal identity in America, Britain and France. He writes as a French policymaker; the translation is published with the backing of the French ministry of culture. Lebor is a journalist whose journey among the believers begins in Turkey and ends in America. There are chapters on Islam in the Balkans, eastern Europe, Germany, France and Britain. Lebor canvasses the broadest possible range of opinion on every controversial issue.

At one time Lebor is trapped in Sarajevo where death can come any time and luck means everything. "A fog of pain" hangs over the city. Barely 1,000 miles away, lucky, powerful westerners watch an ethnocide on colour television. Lebor is not partisan: the Muslim nations are condemned for their callousness too. Little relief ever arrives; instead someone smart in Zagreb gets funds to publish a glossy magazine about the whole thing, all in Arabic. "Help us", pleads a Bosnian to Lebor, "while we are still sane".

Both Lebor and Kepel discuss Islam in France. Lebor condemns the secular French republic's policies towards North African Muslims who have no jobs and live in poor housing. Kepel however criticises the French Muslims as dangerous extremists who cultivate a confessional identity that sets them apart. His discussion is prefaced with anxious speculation about the Algerian crisis. Kepel admits that the antiracist and integration movements have failed. Meaningless now are the old slogans: "Leave my pal alone" and "French, yes; and Muslim too". Fascist parties are perfectly respectable in France.

In Britain, unlike France, the victims of labour market discrimination can seek legal redress. We have a Commission for Racial Equality empowered by Parliament to penalise racist injustices in employment, education and housing. Kepel sees such legislation as fostering "communalism", the attempt to define and defend a minority group identity in opposition to the majority. For Kepel, Britain's ethnic separatism is a legacy of her colonial method in India. France is as opposed to communalism at home as it was in her former colonies.

Kepel sees the communalism of race and religion as the main threat to national solidarity in the West. It is a demand for a nation within a nation and dilutes the common values created by citizenship. Kepel mocks a British racial politics that allowed a Muslim Parliament to convene, admittedly only in symbolic opposition to the Commons. He commends the French state's tough policy on defiant Muslims: people are deported even for rhetorical violence against French law or culture.

Kepel accuses Muslim leaders of deliberately fragmenting society for their own political benefits. The Muslim communal identity is attained at the expense of an integrated national solidarity. As national identities crumble, the state must school its citizens to practise a single loyalty. But education in a communalist environment prevents assimilation and frustrates the civic and political functions of education. Communal leaders, he continues, denigrate other groups in order to secure undeserved privileges. The proliferation of ritual differences in education, diet, dress, and belief insulates various communities into their own self-righteousness. Kepel defends the French tradition where no group has special rights.

But his argument grants a permanently privileged position to the dominant group that first defined a given culture. Is the national core identity actually so unitary? Should it remain so forever? Surely, national identity should evolve in response to democratic pressures. Otherwise, nothing need prevent a democracy from suffering a fascist reduction to a single will expressed by an oligarchy.

Furthermore, formal citizenship does not guarantee economic, political or intellectual citizenship of a country. Having a passport is only the beginning of equality. Kepel mistakenly thinks that the right to be different implies different communal rights for different groups. Not at all. It implies the same rights for all groups. A humane secularism accommodates all religious identities within a single impartially applied legal framework. The French commitment to laicite (secularism), however, has all the hallmarks of an inquisition. Kepel's book is described as the work of an academic specialist, though its scholarship rarely rises above partisanship.

Both Lebor and Kepel believe that Islam is developing a distinctively western form. Kepel cites the case of Scherazade, the French Moroccan girl who went on hunger strike, a style of protest alien to Islam, to make her point about wearing the veil at school. Lebor interviews many Muslims in London, the intellectual capital of Muslim exiles plotting a revolution in their spare time. All insist that true Islam is, when properly understood, liberal, democratic and progressive. Lebor uncritically accepts these assurances. Yet, in the pre-industrial past when religions were founded, liberal democracy was hardly an option.

Typical of the activists Lebor interviews is the Saudi dissident, Mohammed al-Massari, a physicist by training. Most Islamic radicals are science and mathematics graduates often attracted to the kind of elegant certainties that cannot guide us in the administration of society. Life is not an exact science. The activists' defensive brochures, full of antisemitism and crude apology, convince only the devotees. There is even the hope, expressed by the officials of the Islamic Foundation, of transforming English into "the universal language of Islam". And this despite the fact that Islam's spokesmen in the West often have difficulty expressing their claims in complete declarative sentences.

Is there a future for Islam in the West? Kepel dismisses most western Muslims as poor people in search of social revenge. Discussing the black American sect Nation of Islam, he notes that the black bourgeoisie is indifferent to Islam. Islam, like evangelical Christianity, appeals mainly to the poor and powerless blacks. Kepel condemns the isolationism of the Nation of Islam whose leaders accuse Jews of universal conspiracy. All whites are dismissed as "the blue-eyed devils who white-washed history" robbing blacks of their place. Kepel observes that such a communalist minority is now so segregated and culturally specific that it needs trained intermediaries to negotiate between it and the state.

Lebor also visits America and finds the same resentment against Jews. They are exclusively linked to the slave trade, although Arab Muslims, African chiefs and Christian traders were also implicated in that crime. But Louis Farrakhan receives Arab funds. Behind the resentment is envy of the Jews as an organised community that has finally succeeded. Ironically, many Jews fought for black civil rights, a fact suppressed by the Nation of Islam. If only western Muslims could learn to see Jews as their allies, and end this hankering after a return to a mythical House of Islam. "Home," reflects a Turkish migrant worker in Germany, "is wherever you have a job."

Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher of religion, until recently at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

A Heart Turned East

Author - Adam Lebor
ISBN - 0 316 87803 0
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £18.99
Pages - 322

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