Olivier Roy Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Political Imagination of Islam: Conversation with Olivier Roy, Senior 
  Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris: 4/16/02 by 
  Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 6

Research on Islam

One of your major books is called The Failure of Political Islam, and that topic has become very important for the United States after the events of 9-11. I'm hoping you can explicate for us that set of problems. book coverWhat is the best way to understand the currents of thinking of Islam in today's world?

Islam is a religion, and as a religion, it could have many political forms. It could fit with many different cultures and societies. Islam, as such, is not an issue. Many people think that one should know what Islam really says, but that's not my aim. What interests me is what the Muslims say what Islam says. So, Islam in practice. Islam in speeches, discourses. But discourses and practices from people, from actors. Either political actors or intellectual actors, or just, sometimes, the guy who demonstrates in the street, or the peasants who rise up in the name of Islam, and things like that.

When I went to Afghanistan to study -- really, to do a book -- it was just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I suddenly realized that the Mujahadeen were sometimes headed by young intellectuals who could have become Marxists in other circumstances. These guys were students. book coverThey were educated in a modern system of education. Sometimes they spoke foreign languages. They were ingenious, for example, like Masud Ahmad Shad. These guys were fighting in the name of Islam, but they used an almost Marxist terminology: revolution, states, ideology, things like that. So, this mixing between modern Marxism, if I can say that, and religion fascinated me. I was wondering to what extent would they achieve their goal, which at that time was to create a true Islamic state.

These guys were not in the same line as the traditional ulama, or religious Islamic scholars. The ulamas usually don't care too much about who is in charge. They just want to have the ula, who is implementing the sharia of Islamic law. But my new friends at the time, these Islamicists, I call them, wanted to create an Islamic state, using an Islamic ideology in order to Islamicize the society, to establish an Islamic economy, and so on and so forth. So in a sense, it's a modern project. It's a modern view of what a society and a state is. I followed them. Then I went to Iran, also, to see. My intention, or my aim, was [to discover] to what extent their project was viable. To what extent could they create an Islamic state? When I visited Iran, about the same time, the late eighties, I suddenly realized how an Islamic state simply doesn't work. Because, sooner or later, politics prevail on religion.

Let's break this apart as we're talking. What is it in Islam itself that creates contradictions that make that result impossible? Is part of this the problem with the religion itself and its major concepts?

No, I think that the problem is not Islam as such. The problem is, first, what I call imaginary Islam. Let's take a very simple sentence. In Islam, there is no separation between religion and politics. You will assert evidence for that. The problem is not, is this sentence really in the Koran? The problem is, what do the other people understand with this sentence? And what do political actors do with such a sentence? How can it be translated into a political program? And, in fact, that's where there are multiple [views]. This project of creating an Islamic state using the modern concept of revolution, institutions, constitutions, ideology and so on, doesn't work, not because of Islam, but simply because there is no such thing as a religious state. You can have states using religion. You can have states using religious legitimacy, but you cannot have a state solely based on religion, whatever the religion.

Why is that what? Why can that not be?

Because, for any religion, of course, the core is faith and virtue, if I can say that. Religions deal with moral concepts of the good, the bad, and so on. But you cannot rule a society just on moral concepts, unless we are all saints. In fact, we are not all saints. So, here, there is a good comparison between this sort of dream and the Puritan utopia.

The American Puritan utopia.

The American Puritan utopia. And, interestingly enough, President Khatami of Iran always speaks very favorably about the American Puritans, because, in fact, it's the same imagery, that you can have a society based on the virtue of the individual. But, sooner or later, of course, corruption is back. I would say that common wisdom is that you need institutions to make a society work. You cannot rely on the virtue of the judge, or the virtue of your leader. You have to build institutions. So that means that sooner or later, the political rationale prevails on religious morality and religious thinking.

So, in a way, modernity and modernization brings a political formula that is inconsistent with a religious basis. Is that what you're saying?

I would say that you have to reformulate the religious views of societies in different terms. You cannot just say, like that, there is no difference between politics and religion. Because you have an autonomous field of politics, which, sooner or later, leads to a having an autonomous field of religion. And for Islam, now, this is a challenge. How to conceive an autonomous religious field. How to accept, to theorize, to make a theory, about the de-linking of religion and politics.

And why can't that be done?

Because in the traditional imagination of Islam, there is no difference. In fact, there has always been a practical difference. The rulers in the whole history of the Muslim world have never been clerics. The ruler were always lay people who took the power. Once they took the power, they used to say, "We are a Muslim society and sharia is the rule of the state," and this law allowed the ulama to say there is no difference. But now, where the Islamicists want to build a state on Islam, they have to rethink the traditional relation between Islam and politics. They cannot use the padding of the sultans and amirs of the past, because this traditional way of statehood doesn't fit with the ideological views of what should be an Islamic state. In an Islamic state, the leader, the head of the state, should be a real Muslim, the best Muslim of all. And here we have a problem. How can we appoint somebody on just Islamic criteria?

Next page: The Islamicists

© Copyright 2002, Regents of the University of California