Western democracy and Islam must find ways to exist together peacefully -- especially in France.
The dust may have settled since the Paris attacks of January 7-9, but the in the aftermath of the horrific murders, one key issue remains: freedom of expression vs. religious conservatism. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were not the first time that Islamist extremists have taken innocent lives in the name of blasphemy. So, is Islam at odds with Western liberalism?
The politics of religion
The objective of a dogmatic religion, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is primarily to bind a society in a moral fabric. When a religious thought or ideology attains the intellectual underpinning of binding a society through a moral thread, it develops the authority to dictate a law over its ruled people. Any idea that rules over people naturally becomes political. A religion that rules over its believers can be likened to a political force that aims to expand its influence, to conquer new territory. Much as a political entity views another as a threat, a dogmatic religion guards its sovereignty very fiercely vis-à-vis any other belief system.
The strength and resilience of religion is beyond imagination: nation-states can rise and fall, but religion remains unaltered and unharmed. But modern societies are governed through the model of the nation-state.
Especially in the West, this concept has matured with democracy. It does not mean that during the Middle Ages religion was not an influencing force in Western society. In fact, the significance of religion in the West continued to be vilified by many political and social movements. Western civilisation became enriched by movements, revolutions and ideologies like the Italian renaissance, French enlightenment and British Magna Carta. It took the West centuries to prepare a ground where an individual was considered the centre of all imagination rather than the church.
"In democracy the citizen is made the custodian of power, not any 'divine' agency represented by a priest, rabbi or sheikh."
If you analyse the political and economic history of Europe, it will lead you to think that two geniuses, Karl Marx and Adam Smith, changed Western thought forever when it came to dealing with the influence of religion on the human mind. Marx unequivocally criticised religion as an unaccountable authority interfering in society. Smith relied on individual power for wealth creation as opposed to a centralised state. Either way, the logic of democracy coupled with socialism or capitalism convinced Westerners that in order to lead a happy and meaningful life, one does not need to take an appointment with a priest.
But the West is not the only part of the world. In Muslim-majority countries, Islam as a faith plays a huge role in society. Islam is probably the only religion that has the ability to resist democracy. What makes it so powerful is that it can stand as an antagonistic force vis-à-vis the idea of democracy, which rests on values like tolerance and freedom of expression.
Political Islam refuses democracy
In Christianity, Jesus was only a preacher, while in Buddhism, Gautam Buddha was a teacher and philosopher. A historical analysis of Islam tells us that Prophet Muhammad was not just a spiritual teacher, but also a ruler of his tribal community, which means he acted as a head of state as well. Unlike the leaders of other religions, the warrior-prophet himself conquered territory and set out to convert neighbouring communities. History tells that all that converting other communities into Islam was through sheer bloodshed, not peaceful preaching -- particularly in northern India.
"These two antagonistic ideas -- democracy and Islam -- have been in closer contact since the 20th century. With mass immigration following World War II due to a labour deficit, the staging ground of this became Western Europe."
Observers note that Islam sees itself as the only pure faith. Anything that is not Islamic is considered impure. Further, it is the duty of Muslims to convert others of impure faith into Islam. From the early phase of its birth, Islam developed a unipolar, subconscious, prejudiced view of the world -- in other words, you're either with us or against us.
Although there are differences across the world, Muslim countries often flirt with the theocratic nature of the state. On one hand, Saudi Arabia is the representative state of theocracy. On the other, there are several countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia where religion runs the show of power under the veil of farcical democracy or even so-called secularism.
In such states, the religious heads get legitimate right to rule. Sharia, or Islamic law, becomes the pivot of all political and social institutions. As per Sharia, it is Allah who is the supreme sovereign rather than the people. Whether in public or private, Islamic law encompasses all aspects of life: from politics and finance to health and hygiene.
So, a religious tradition of this nature will remain firmly antagonistic to democracy. After all, in democracy the citizen is made the custodian of power, not any "divine" agency represented by a priest, rabbi or sheikh.
These two antagonistic ideas -- democracy and Islam -- have been in closer contact since the 20th century. With mass immigration following World War II due to a labour deficit, the staging ground of this became Western Europe. The aim of multiculturalism tested the established value system of secularism in those developed democracies. Among other Western countries, France presents a curious example of democracy with non-reformist Islam.
Is France in conflict with Islam?
France holds its democratic values of liberty, equality and fraternity close to its heart. But when it comes to the interaction of religion with society, France's position is quite unique from its European neighbors. It is not like Italy where Catholicism plays an important role due to the Pope, nor is it like Britain where the Church of England enjoys an affiliation with the crown.
"If French democracy wants to win, then it has to show flexibility, accommodation and inclusion... French intellectuals should realize that the republican form of the French state has failed to make France a truly multicultural society. "
Since Enlightenment, French thinkers advocated for a total separation of the State and Church, resulting in the brand of secularism known as laïcité. Religion was considered an obstacle in building a modern society. Thus, faith was reduced to a personal matter. The French consider the quasi extinction of religion from their society as a symbol of the triumph of individualism and modernity.
Christianity was accommodated and pacified within French society over the years. This assimilation can be attributed to the intellectual enlightenment, industrialisation and colonisation. The politics of Christianity were tempered by the politics of European nationalism, socialism and capitalism.
But Islam, which travelled to France though the people of former colonies, could not create a place of peaceful cohabitation for three reasons. First, because it came from a foreign land external to Europe. Second, France's rigid culture of secularism sees Islam in a negative light. And third, whether people believe it or not, the seeds of France's turbulent relations with Islam lie in its colonial past.
According to Michele Tribalat, a researcher at INED, people of Maghrebi origin in France represent 82% of the Muslim population (43.2% from Algeria, 27.5% from Morocco and 11.4% from Tunisia).
That means to say that the majority of French Muslims living in France are of Algerian origin. French history is scarred with the Algerian War of 1954-62. The wounds of that infamous conflict may have healed, but the distrust and hatred still remain in the minds of the French Algerian toward the State. In fact, despite living for so many years in France, citizens of Algerian origin often identify themselves as Muslims first, then Algerian; the French identity does not offer any emotional connection to them.
Let's remind ourselves that in the case of the Paris attacks two out of the three terrorists were French citizens of Algerian origin. Relations between France and Algeria still remain strained. Surprisingly, not many efforts have been made to mend ties between the former coloniser and the colonised.
It is true that the presence of Islam challenges the fundamentals of democracy. This challenge could become a crisis as the Charlie Hebdo case shows. If French democracy wants to win, then it has to show flexibility, accommodation and inclusion of those who were left behind on the path of progress. French intellectuals should realize that the republican form of the French state has failed to make France a truly multicultural society.
This article was originally published in a slightly different form in Fair Observer.