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

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You suggest that the end result here is a focus in many of these Islamicist groups on virtue, on a Puritanical zeal to achieve personal salvation. As they react to this global culture of Walkmans and videos and so on, they fail to overcome it, but, in addition, they destroy whatever alternative culture exists. That Puritanical zeal creates a sterility between the family on the one hand, and the state on the other. Explain that.

There are two issues here. The first issue is virtue as a political virtue. We know since the French revolution that once virtue is in charge, it leads to terror, for a simple reason: nobody is virtuous enough. So one is always trying to expel the devil, the evil in us, and this leads to terror. It's why a good political system can work only on institutions and not a presupposed virtue of the leader. Any system based on the idea that our leaders are the most virtuous of everybody is doomed to failure.

The second problem is, how do we deal with traditions, culture, anthropological society -- the way people are living, doing, working, marrying, and so on? The Islamicists, in fact, never endeavored to destroy their own society. In Iran, for example, the problem was opened just at the [end] of the revolution: what should we do with the traditional Persian culture? Fardhousi for example: Fardhousi is not an Islamic poet, not at all. And the music, and so and so. After some meditation, Khomeini said, "Okay, let's keep the Persian cultural legacy." And then, it's done. It means that they do recognize the existence of pre-Islamic Persian culture. They do recognize that they are Iranians, Persians, and so on. So, they give up the idea of creating a purely Islamic state.

Let's take the Taliban. For me, the Afghan Taliban are not Islamicists. They are what I call neo-fundamentalists. The problem of the Taliban is not of creating an Islamic state. They want a true Islamic society. They don't necessarily think that one should take the state to have an Islamic society. They think the society will be Islamic the day that every Muslim will behave like a true Muslim. For the Taliban and for all the neo-fundamentalists and the Wahhabi, what is a true Muslim? It is somebody who refers exclusively to Islam. Somebody who has no other interest than Islam. It means somebody who has no culture.

Very explicitly, the Taliban warred on culture. They destroyed the Buddhist statues. They obliged every man to have the same kind of beard. They forbade anything which has a relation with culture -- movies, singing, music, dances, novels, poetry. All these things, including to have singing birds at home, and things like that. Because for them it was either negative or useless. For them, they had a very good argument for destroying the Buddhist statues. They said, "These Buddhas are religious statues. We have no Buddhists in Afghanistan, so nobody needs them, let's destroy them."

But here we are no more with Islamism. We are no more with people who try to build a state and manage a real society. We are dealing with people who dream of recreating a universal Muslim community cut from all existing societies, including Muslim society. This is why these neo-fundamentalists have some appeal among many second-generation Muslims in the West. These second-generation Muslims -- some of them, of course, not all of them -- feel alienated from a pristine culture of their grandfathers. They don't care about how does one live in a Moroccan village, and so on. They feel so alienated with the modern Western culture. And by not reverting, but by joining a neo-fundamentalist movement, which tells them, "Don't care about society, any kind of society; don't care about culture; don't care about politics; just try to be a good Muslim and to recreate the true Muslim community," they feel at home. They would say, this is an identity for me.

So the failure of the Islamic political project leads to a fantasy based on Islam. Is that right?

It leads to two things. First, for the Islamicists themselves, to a banalization of Islam. It leads to something they call the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democratic [parties]. Like in Turkey. For example, for me, the recent Turkish so-called Islamic Party, the ACT party, which is a successor of the Refah, is the Turkish equivalent of the Christian Democrats. A party which accepts democracy, very partisan, which puts stress on values and religious symbols, but accepts diversity and pluralism. But this is going on, I would say, in most of the Muslim countries.

The second trend is neo-fundamentalism. The guys who say, we don't want to become Christian Democrats. We don't want to recognize pluralism. We still think that Islam is the only true religion, and for this reason, we cannot accept compromise on cultural or political issues. So these guys, they have no choice, yes, but to live in a sort of an imaginary world, a virtual Muslim community.

Now, where does Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda fit into this equation? They're clearly not of the neo-fundamentalist kind, because they seem to be more focused on raw power. Is that correct?

No, for me, bin Laden is a typical representative of the radical branch of neo-fundamentalism -- what they call the jihadi, the people who say "we have to do jihad." Osama bin Laden, for some reason, has been very critical for the Islamic movements of national liberation. He has been critical of the Palestinians, saying, "What use is it to create a Palestinian state? If you create a Palestinian state, it will be like many other states. You should try to mobilize the umma, the Muslim community, for your cause, but not for creating a Palestinian state." He is opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state. Bin Laden is a man who wants to unify all the Muslim population in the world against the world power, the United States of America. He doesn't care about Palestine. He doesn't care about Cairo, he doesn't care about Istanbul, and so on. If one looks at the favorite jihad, holy world, of bin Laden, it's not Palestine, it's not Egypt, it's not Saudi. Where is he fighting? New York, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Philippines, East Africa. For the periphery of the Middle East, and not at all at the core of the Middle East. Bin Laden is a man of global values. He is a product, a child of world values. He is not some kind of crazy man from the Middle East, coming from the desert to fight the crusaders. No, his battlefield is the modern world.

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