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 5 of 6

The West and Islam

Now that we have this broad picture, what has been the impact of the West, other than bringing modernization and creating people who want to protest, but are in fact products of what they are protesting? What has been the impact of the West, and is a war between civilizations inevitable?

No, for a very simple reason. Civilizations have no more to hate on a world basis. The East is Westernized, and Islam is in the West. Most, not all, but most of the young terrorists of the bin Laden organization, where did they become born-again Muslims? In the West. Not in the East. Many of them were born in the East. Some of them were born and raised in the West. But all of them became born-again Muslims in Marseilles, in London, in Paris or in New Jersey.

So radical Islam now is not a spillover of the Middle Eastern conflict into the West. It is a consequence of the mixing of the West and the East. Middle Eastern societies are Westernized. They are urban, modern societies. The problem is not with a traditional society; we have no problem with traditional people. We have problems with the people who have been Westernized. And under their hand, now, Islam is definitively rooted in the West. It's now in Europe; it has been acknowledged by different regimes and parliaments in Europe.

In the States, because there are fewer Muslims, and because of recent events, it's still not well understood, but it's clear that we have now a Western Islam. This Western Islam is not different in theological terms from the Eastern Islam; we don't have two Islams. But the Muslims have a different way to experience, to live their faith. In traditional Muslim countries, you can be normal Muslims [because everybody] around you is Muslim, so you can fast because everybody's fasting, you can pray because everybody's praying. But once in the West, you have to reinvent, or at least to reassess your Muslim identity. What does it mean to fast? What does it mean to pray? What does it mean to avoid other religions, let's say, in the West? So we have a sort of re-foundation of Islam, due to normalization.

So you're saying that the possibilities for Islam in the West, that is, the opportunities for being integrated into Western societies, make that a better place than the countries of origin. That leads me to the question: Is part of the problem here the failure of the Islamic world to adopt modern economies that can provide jobs, that can integrate these graduates into a productive economy in society?

Here we have to make a difference between Arab countries and Muslim countries. We have to compare what is comparable. Of course, if we compare Morocco and Spain, okay, I can say in Morocco people have little jobs, and things like that. But if you compare the Philippines and Indonesia, you can see that one is better off in Indonesia than in the Philippines. So, the factor is not Islam as such. We have to compare countries which are comparable.

But it's true that if we take the Arab countries, there is a problem in the Arab countries. And this problem is not linked with Islam, it links with some things which have to do with Wahhabism, if I can say that. But we should not forget that the Arab countries are on the front line between the North and the South. So many conflicts, in fact North - South conflicts, are embodied, rooted in Arab countries, like the Israel - Palestine conflict.

But it's true that there is a disappointment among many Muslims about their own politics, about what is going on in the Middle East. An Algerian living in France -- or somebody with an Algerian accent, a descendent living in France, still an Algerian nationalist because of a legacy of the past -- acknowledges that it is better to live in France now than to live in Algeria. So we have this complex and sometimes schizophrenic attitude: "I prefer to live in the West. I voluntarily left the Middle East to go to the West, but I don't want just to become a Western observer." So, we have a recreation of identities; we do not have importation of identities.

The way they express their faith in the West is, I would say, on an individual basis. They speak of faith, they speak of individual salvation. They speak of ethnic and moral values, because faith, in the West (not only Islamic faith, but any kind of religious faith) is not supported by the social environment. At least in Europe. I know that in the States people go more easily to the church. But not in Europe. Western Europe is secularized, including Ireland. Attendance at church is going down ten percent in every country. Muslims are experiencing an evolution which is also experienced by Catholics from a sort of evident, dominant social religion to a specific community, a religious community, which has to define itself as a minority. And to define its values against a secure environment. So in this sense, we have sometimes more in common between conservative Catholics and conservative Muslims than between conservative Catholics and de-Christianized Europeans.

What does your work suggest for how the West should craft a policy toward the Islamic world?

I am very cautious about policy recommendations, because first, there is the question of timing. If you propose to any government some kind of policy recommendation, they will buy something for the next two or four years. But here we often deal with generational problems. So you cannot have a policy to integrate Islam in the West until the next presidential election. So my view is, don't focus on Islam, focus on individuals. We do not have to compromise on our values; we have to be coherent and cohesive with our values. The law, all the law, and no discrimination. There is a debate in Europe about mosques, but it's not a legal debate, because it's legal [to attend a mosque]. The problem then is to go through red tape, to convince a local mayor to not put up obstacles. So it's not an issue of changing the legal system to make a rule for Islam. The issue is to treat the Muslims as we treat the Catholics and any sort of religions, the Jews or the Protestants.

Next page: Lessons Learned

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