Olivier Roy Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Globalization and Islam: Conversation with Olivier Roy, Professor, School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris; January 25, 2007, by Harry Kreisler

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Religion and Culture

I want to read two quotes to you from your book. You say, "The basic dimension of contemporary globalization [is] that of turning human behavior into codes and patters of consumption and communication delinked from any specific culture," and then as you address the problem of the impact of this on religion you write, "the social life of things depends on the meaning bestowed on them by consumer actors. The religious market is part of the global market." Talk a little about the impact of globalization on religion generally.

There is a basic assumption that religions and cultures are linked. In the concept of the "clash of civilizations," or dialogue of civilizations, the basic idea is that any culture has some sort of religious roots and any religion is embodied in a specific culture. What is happening now is a disconnect between religion and culture.

Let's take diets, for instance. In Islam the food should be halal. It's a way to kill animals and to prepare meals. By definition halal has been associated with traditional cuisines, but now if you look, for example, at young Muslims living in Europe, they're not interested in traditional Moroccan cuisine, traditional Turkish cuisine, and things like that. When they operate restaurants, they usually create fast food, but it's halal. So, what they have is halal fast food. We have, for example, near Paris a fast food called in English "Muslim Macburger." They're playing on terms, playing on languages, and what they're offering is a traditional American fast food but with religious markers, as the food is halal and a female waitress may have a veil, for example, or a scarf.

Another example: Muslim businessmen in France launched on the market Mecca-Cola. So, it's exactly like Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola but it's called Mecca in deference to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It's supposed to be something fashionable for Muslims. It has nothing Islamic in it at all, except the brand, "Mecca." This cola was very successful among young Muslims who both want to affirm, to put on the public space, a religious marker to show that they are Muslim, but at the same time they are totally Westernized, not interested in drinking camel milk, or even drinking tea. So, they are happy to have a global product with a religious marker on it.

As you talk, and as I read your book, I'm reminded of the history of Islam where as it spread, there was an interaction with the local cultures and traditions, and those in turn interacted on the faith and the way it was practiced. From what you're saying I get this sense that there is now a new space and a similar kind of interface is occurring. The question is, as you quoted someone, "Can we Islamicize modernity?"

Yes, in history all religions did encounter different cultures and adapted to these different cultures. It's the process of acculturation. Christianity also has been acculturated, when, for example, rooting itself in Africa or Latin America. When Islam, for instance, reached the Persians it gave birth to a new culture, the Islamic Persian culture, which is still very vivid.

What is new now is that, in fact, to some extent we are not in the process of creating a new culture. The religious markers don't root themselves in a specific culture. They remain autonomous. And not only in Islam, but for me in some parts of Christianity; for example, I'm specifically referring to evangelicalism. We have this same autonomization of the religious marker. The faith is no [longer] embodied in a specific culture. Of course, it's a way to become modern, and we can even say it's a way to become Western. So, this disconnect between the Islamic religious markers and traditional Arab or Persian culture is a prerequisite for modernization and Westernization. But this doesn't mean that it's to become a liberal religion. So for me, the condition for modernization is this autonomization of the religious, not necessarily liberalization or adaptation to values of freedom, things like that. You can be fundamentalist and modern.

You make the distinction, in order to get a handle on this, between religiosity and commitment to a religion. Explain that.

Religion is a corpus. It's books, a text, a tradition, a theology, interpretation, and things like that. Religiosity is the way an individual experiences his or her religion. So, religiosity is really a personal relation to religion. What [interests] me now is that we have convergence of religiosities between the different religions, while in terms of theology, the interfaith dialogue is not working now. So, we do not have a convergence among theologians, but we have a convergence about believers on what it means to be a believer, even if they, of course, consider that they have their own proof and that the other guy is wrong.

So, in a way, this is an issue of comparative religious studies. The same thing is happening to all faiths in confronting globalization. You're developing the idea of the individuation of religion with the context of globalization, and you say, "The self and hence the individual is at the core of religiosity. Faith is personal, faith is the truth, faith is not religion." This is a phenomenon that's happening in all religions to some degree.

Yes. Specifically it's the cause of what we call the "born again" phenomenon. Suddenly an individual meets the truth, and not after studying religion for years, after graduating in theology; the truth is an encounter between an individual and the sacred, and the sacred could be Jesus Christ, it could be God, it could be Mohammed, it could be different things. But it's an individual experience. It's not the consequence of some sort of teaching or of a culture. So by definition, this encounter goes along with a break: a break with your family; a break with the past, your individual past but also the past of your society; a break with history. Suddenly the individual is new and one with the truth. He has the truth. So, this process of individuation is forming the core of the modern forms of religiosity.

And to repeat, the other phenomenon here is the de-territorialization of the individual, so they not only are dissociated from social and family ties but also from the land that they originally came from, often.

Yes. They don't consider themselves strictly as a diaspora. They refer to a faith community, and the faith community is not something which is territorial.

It's going on in every religion. For instance, before, for the Christians a parish was a territorial thing. The parish was a place where you were living. Now your religious congregation is not necessarily on the territory you are living on. You can go by car, or some different means, far to meet the people you consider as being your brothers in religion. You can go through the internet, you can chat or even pray through the internet, to meet your "real" brothers and fellows.

So, we have this de-territorialization of the faith communities, and it goes very far, including in political terms. For example, if we look at radicals, like al Qaeda's people, contrary to what many people think, they are not fighting to recreate an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. They are fighting at the global level against what they perceive as a global enemy, and they don't care about territory. So, this phenomena of de-territorialization is, I would say, at the core of most of the forms of religiosity now, including the most politically oriented.

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