We Have to Accept Islam

An Interview with Olivier Roy by Maciej Nowicki

Barack Obama’s policy is very good: The West should not meddle in setting new borders in the Middle East—says Olivier Roy in an interview with Maciej Nowicki.

Why does Europe have such a problem with Islam?

Because Europe has a problem with religion. The whole continent is undergoing accelerated secularization, as was the case in France in the early 20th century. We treat a religious fact as an anomaly, something which should be eradicated. This can be seen very clearly in France: The same media which fight against Islam, seize every opportunity to wage a war against the Catholic Church.

All this results from a completely warped concept of secularism, which in today’s edition does not accept diversity. In its former version, secularism was based on the belief that all citizens, religious and nonreligious alike, have the same rights. Today, secularism has a completely different meaning—we want the believer to disappear from public space, we want his or her faith to become a private secret. The state pursues an ethical homogenization, imposing the same norm on everyone. Our society prides itself in its individualism and diversity. And at the same time, we demand of everyone that they profess exactly the same values. This is simply absurd. Today’s secularism is not based on compromise. It is an antireligious secularism, a kind of religious phobia.

Marcel Gauchet, one of the greatest experts on religion, claims that a situation where faith becomes a private choice allows us to avoid social conflicts. You can be a Catholic in the same way that you are, for example, a vegetarian…

Secularists such as Gauchet misunderstand the position of the Catholic Church. It is true that after centuries of struggle the Church got used to secularism, accepted it as part of the landscape. But at the same time it has never subscribed to the idea that Catholicism should become only a private religion. Even in France, the Church led a public campaign against same-sex marriages, demonstrated in the streets. John Paul II or Benedict XVI said very clearly that religious values applied to everyone and that we were dealing with the conflict between the values of life and the “civilization of death”—as the Polish Pope once put it.

So in your opinion the distinction between Islam and Catholicism which we use today is false?

Yes. It is a lie. You cannot claim that the Catholic Church accepts privatization of faith, while Islam rejects it. Catholicism is not a religion of secularism or an “exiting religion,” as Gauchet has been trying to convince us for many years. The only Church which accepts secularization is the Lutheran Church in Germany and Scandinavia. The Tea Party in the US is the antithesis of the idea that faith should be private. Also the PiS politicians in Poland have a different stance in this matter. They think that Christian values must be reflected in legal norms.

Since you mention it… Does the current situation in Poland not contradict your claim about accelerated secularization in Europe?

No, Poland will experience what the rest of Europe has already gone through. Let us look at Iran—the mullahs succeeded in creating the most secularized society in the whole region. In the longer term, the effects of today’s actions of PiS will be very similar.

Something does not seem quite right here: From what you say, there is no fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity, between their functioning in society.

Of course, these religions do not have the same definitions and will never find the same forms of compromise. Some argue that the only solution is a theological reform leading to the emergence of a “good” Islam—a liberal religion, perhaps even friendly to gays. It is nonsense. You might as well demand of the Pope to proclaim that secularism is enshrined in the Gospels. The Church has never carried out any theological reform. It all took place in a completely different way: Catholics got used to the new reality after centuries of struggle. They profess different values, but they do not question secularism as such. And this is what we can demand of individual Muslims—that they accept secularism as a practice. And indeed it is happening before our eyes. During the Rushdie affair representatives of Islam in Europe wanted his book to be at least censored. Today many imams say: “We do not like the Charlie Hebdo caricatures, but you have to live with them. So let us pretend we do not see them…”

Many people perceive Islam as a religion of violence. Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently even compared Islam to Nazism.

I spoke once to a high-ranking EU official in Brussels. He started to quote the Quran—fragments which recommend killing people. I asked him then: “Do you remember how many times the Bible recommends killing?”

In the last 25 years, the number of Protestants in Brazil grew from 2% to almost 40%— and nothing happened. Although it means a huge transformation of society. Why nothing happened? Because no geopolitical conflicts were involved. But in the Middle East great geopolitical changes are occurring today. The side-effect is violence. It has nothing to do with Islam itself…

So we simply have to accept Islam?

Yes. So far, Europe had two models of assimilating Muslims, both of them wrong. The first model, British, was based on multiculturalism. It says that you have to accept all differences, for there are different cultures out there. This has brought disastrous results—in this way we support the most reactionary forms of Islam, based on the assumption that “they simply are like that” and it is not our business. Besides, this is completely untrue—Islam is not a culture. When we observe the second and especially the third generation of Muslims in Europe, we see that these people have kept their faith, but they usually have nothing to do with Muslim culture. They behave and dress like everyone else.

Then there was the French model, in which the whole evil comes from religion. But we have to accept Islam, for otherwise we are faced with yet another religious war in Europe.

We do not want to accept Islam– also because we are afraid of terrorism…

Let us start with the fact that Muslims in Europe also have no liking at all for terrorists. European Muslims are shocked by terrorism. Also when you speak to terrorists parents, you see that these people not only do not support, but also do not understand the motivations of their children. There is a huge gap between slogans which could mobilize Muslims in Europe (for example Palestine) and what terrorists do – shooting blindly at the crowd and killing also Muslims in the process, as it was in Paris. What fascinates a small section of young people, that is the cult of violence, repels Muslim masses. In fact, this can be seen not only in Europe. In Jordan people turned back from the Islamic State, when jihadists burnt a Jordanian pilot alive.

Are you an optimist or pessimist when it comes to the future of Islam in Europe?

In the long run I am an optimist. Terrorism of course does pose a threat. And it is not surprising that people want to feel secure. But we also have to recognize the scale of the problem. It is not a prelude to the destruction of our civilization, as some media see it. We are at war against a small group of people. The attacks in Paris and Brussels were planned by the same terrorist network. It is not an announcement of a Muslim revolt in Europe, an avant-garde of some movement for religious radicalization. In fact, as I have been saying for a long time—so far in vain—terrorists are never a product of a “religious maturing.” The jihadists discovered Islam in the same moment they discovered violence. Before they never prayed, never participated in the life of the local mosque. This is not about radicalization of Islam. For the jihadists, Islam is only an instrument for expressing their own radicalism.

And one more thing… in truth, contrary to the cliché we constantly use, today we are not dealing with a choice between “radicalization” and “integration” of Muslims. These two processes occur simultaneously. There is a small group of radicals, but we also have a growing integration of Muslim masses. And as the integration progresses, the contrast between assimilated Muslims and radicals grows. Compared to the situation in Germany or France 20 years ago, the number of middle- class Muslims has hugely increased. People often do not notice that, because they sign up to the false stereotype of the “clash of civilizations.” And when they speak about “European Muslims,” they use such language as if these people belonged to a completely different world and professed a completely different system of values. They don’t remember that they meet them in their everyday lives—it is their doctor or high school teacher of their child… Another reason they don’t see it is because Islam has a very bad press today, these doctors or teachers do not want to be labelled as “Muslims.”

The extremists have the support of the Islamic State. What should we do about it? Is there any good model here? As an American official put it recently: “In Iraq, we intervened and we stayed—and it came to nothing. In Libya, we intervened and did not stay—and it came to nothing. In Syria, we did not do anything. And it also came to nothing.”

I will start with comparing Al Qaeda to the Islamic State. Bin Laden was a kind of Trotsky for Jihad: Islamism in one country is not possible. He proclaimed the global revolution and believed that territorialism was a trap. In contrast to that, the Islamic state decided that territorialism was necessary. That led to the emergence of this huge military training ground where you can drive your SUVs and fire your Kalashnikovs, known as the Islamic State. But their prospects are not too good. Although nobody wants to launch a large land offensive against the jihadists, Assad took over Palmyra, and the Kurds are attacking Raqqa. The very fact that the Islamic State is not moving forward is tantamount to defeat. Because deep down these people remained internationalists of Jihad. They are not interested in building a state within defined borders. They need constant expansion. Otherwise their myth will collapse. And this will soon happen. The Islamic State will vanish like a desert mirage.

The West should not do very much. Barack Obama’s policy is very good, although often criticized. And we also should not meddle into setting new borders in the Middle East.

Are you not afraid that this would lead to an even greater chaos, with disastrous consequences for Europe?

Everything depends on local actors. There will be no peace in the Middle East as long as there is no agreement between the Iranians and the Saudis, the greatest regional powers. An international conference with the participation of Western powers will not move things forward. Such a solution does not work—it is enough to recall the Oslo agreements, which were supposed to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, or the Dayton accords setting new borders in the former Yugoslavia. Today, Bosnia-Herzegovina functions only thanks to German money, while the Oslo agreements are only a distant memory. The West has a history of setting borders in the Middle East… Let’s not repeat this mistake.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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