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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Islam and the Ummah

The subtitle of your book, which I will show again, is "The Search for the New Ummah." Help us understand what the ummah is and what the search for a new one is.

The ummah is the community of all Muslim believers. Traditionally in Muslim history the ummah was identified with a territory, the territory of Islam, and a Muslim was not supposed to stay long in a country which was not part of this territorial ummah. What we have now is a situation where it's no longer possible to speak in terms of territory of Islam, not only because many Muslim millions are living as a minority in non-Muslim countries, but also because many believers consider that their own supposedly Muslim country is no longer Muslim.

We have the same phenomenon among many Protestants and many Muslims, who consider that, in fact, they are a small minority of true believers surrounded by people who don't really believe, even if they are nominal Muslims or Christians. The true believers now tend to consider themselves being a non-territorial minority. The endeavor is to construct a virtual faith community which is not linked with a specific territory. So, the community of the saints, the community of the believers, both in Protestantism and, for instance, Salafi Islam are de-territorialized, but also are global precisely because they are not territorial.

You are a scholar of Islam and in your earlier works you traced the conflicts within Islam. In this book you focus on the evolution of two groups, the Islamicists and the fundamentalists. Let's talk about those groups, one at a time, and understand who they are and how they're being affected by globalization and by their own actions. Who are the Islamicists and what is their take on their faith?

The Islamicists are people who consider that Islam is, first of all, a political ideology. So, the founders of Islamism, like Hassan al-Benar, Maldoudi, and to an extent Halbani, have been influenced by the Western political ideologies of the twentieth century -- Marxism, for instance. (Of course, they are not Marxists.) But they came to the conclusion that Islam is not just a religion, it's not just a legal system, it has to become a real political system. For the Islamicist, the state is the key to the re-Islamization of the society. So, they insist on political action, on taking the power at the state level, of building a true Islamic constitution, a true Islamic economy, Islamic social justice, and in a sense they are very interested in social sciences and in all the aspects of a modern society, including women, for example. The Islamicists did promote women's organizations, the women's movement, and usually they consider that women can work and should work, and [solidified] some political positions, as in Iran now.

So, in this sense we can compare Islamicism with communism. First, it created a true Islamic or socialist state in a different country, then it tried to unite all these Islamist/socialist countries in a global political system of Islam or of communism. But the same thing happened to the Islamicists as to the communists. They were, in fact, taken by the state they wanted to take, and in fact, they became ordinary politicians, if I can say that, and nationalists.

A typical example is the Iranian revolution. The Iranian revolution didn't fulfill its promises of a social equality, of a just economy, and so on. It's a classical third-world state economy with oil lands, cronyism, patronage, clientalism, and corruption, like any other society of this kind. So, in a sense it was what I call the failure of political Islam. They failed to build a truly Islamic state.

Now they have the choice between two directions. One is to say, "We should not concentrate on the state, we should go global," like the Trotskyists in the history of communism. "We should go global and we should become a professional, worldwide, de-territorialized organization," [which is] al Qaeda.

Or, they can say, "We cannot establish our ideological state, but if we want to manage the state, if we want to be politicians, then we have to make coalitions with other people, we have to go for elections, and we have to accept democracy." This way is embodied, for instance, by the prime minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, who was an Islamicist when he was a student and even a junior militant. But after ten years of political experience of having been the mayor of Istanbul, he came to the conclusion that ideology doesn't help. Of course, he wants to promote specific values; he's a man of conviction. But he's becoming something like the equivalent of a Muslim "Christian Democrat,” if I can say that: promoting values, conservative and religious values, but fully accepting the rules of the democratic game.

So, the Islamicists have a choice, if I can say that, between the present Turkey or the Afghan Taliban. If we are able to integrate the Islamicists in the political field, then we are helping to promote democracy and we have something which could be close to what Turkey is now. If we reject the Islamicists from the political field, then we push them into the arms of the Taliban.

Talk a little about that Taliban experiment. What was there relationship to the state? Did they seize it and then do nothing with it?

Exactly. Exactly. It’s very interesting, for example, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Taliban, never went to Kabul, the capitol of the country. He never chaired the cabinet in the government. He refused to meet any ambassador who was not a Muslim. It's interesting, because in a sense the Taliban were in favor of the free market. They did not impose anything in terms of taxation or customs. They didn't care. That's why they were quite popular among the merchant class, for instance. They just took the religious tax on everybody and then it was a free market, absolute free market. They didn’t edict any regulation except religious regulations, concerning, for example, the dress codes, the [restrictions on] women, and things like that. These religious regulations were very tough, of course, by definition. It’s why the Taliban are not democratic. But it's not a totalitarian state.

Let’s take an example, house searching. When you are heading a totalitarian state you, of course, perform house searching at any time. In Iran, an ayatollah (not Khomeni), declared that house searchings are not halal, so do not conform to the religious law, because if you send a local policeman at night into a private house he may see a woman with no veil, or maybe no clothing at all, and so he will become a sinner by performing his duty. He may put his salvation into danger by performing a state duty, so it's better to prohibit house searching. Khomeni became furious and said no, the law of the state is superior to the sharia, because the state is Islamic. But the Taliban did forbid house searching for religious reasons.

So, you see that, in fact, the Taliban were not interested in building a state. For them the goal as political leaders was not only to rule but to force people to think about their personal salvation. In this sense it was a very religious regime but not an ideological state. In fact, it's why they lost, because when Mullah Omar was confronted with a choice, [when] the Americans on the evening of 9/11 issued an ultimatum, “You have 24 hours to give us bin Laden or we attack,” any rational statesman would have accepted extraditing a foreigner and a terrorist instead of enjoining the whole state, the whole nation. But Mullah Omar didn’t hesitate, no. He sided with bin Laden and he lost his state, and from his point of view, his country.

Help us understand the destruction of the Buddhas, because this actually demonstrates your point about faith being dissociated from any [valuation of] culture.

Yes, it's interesting to see that Afghanistan has always been a very strong and conservative Muslim society, but during the fifteen centuries of Muslim rule in Afghanistan, the Buddhas were not destroyed. It's something which is totally new. The Buddhas have been accepted by the Afghan society and by the Afghan rulers for fifteen centuries, and suddenly the Taliban came and destroyed them. There are two dimensions in that. One was the political [motivation] to show the Westerner that they will not hesitate to fight. But the second motivation was very interesting. Mullah Omar stated, "Look, these Buddhas: either it's culture or it's religion. If it's culture we are not interested. Culture is something we should not [place] in front of religion. If it's religion it's Buddhism. Do we have Buddhists in Afghanistan? No, we don't have Buddhists, so in this case these Buddhas are totally useless." So, it's a clear example of this disconnect between culture and religion. "We care about religion, we don't care about culture."

Now the second stream of thought, or group within Islam, that you focus on is what you call the neo-fundamentalists. Talk a little about them and what they represent.

The neo-fundamentalists -- we can call them salafi, wahabi , tabhili, and so on -- there are different groups, movements, I will not enter into details. But what I call the neo-fundamentalists are people who think that a society will become entirely Islamic only when its members become entirely Muslim. They think that Islamization is first an issue of individuals, so they insist on salvation and the afterlife. For the Islamists, the real salvation was the establishment of a good Islamic state; for the neo-fundamentalists it doesn't matter. The issue is individual salvation, and in this sense they are quite pessimistic, like many evangelists. They think that only a minority of people will be saved, and they think, of course, that they are in this minority. So, for them it's useless to fight, to clear the specific state or society. "The day is coming, we have to be ready, and we have to change our personal life." That's the first point.

The second point is that for them religiosity is largely a matter of norms: we have to do this and that, we have to dress this way, we have to eat that way. They're obsessed by norms instead of values, so they try to impose a very normative way of life. The Taliban by definition fit into this category. For example, their religious police used to oblige the people to pray at a fixed time. In a sense, they are trying to force the people to think about their salvation but they are not sure of the reasons.

The third point is that the neo-fundamentalists, like all modern fundamentalists, consider that they are living as a minority in a society which is secularized, which is corrupt, even if it's supposed to be a Muslim society. They see culture as antagonistic to religion. For example, it's very striking to see that some salafis in Saudi Arabia are speaking like many evangelist preachers in the States. They say, "We might be nominal believers, our society might be a Christian or a Muslim society, but in fact, our society is culturally secular, culturally corrupt, even if the majority of the people pretend to believers." So, they consider, once again, that religion and culture are antagonists and that we have to give up culture in order to remain true believers.

They are, in a sense, actors in the process of globalization because they contribute to de-culturizing religion, and hence the religions they are promoting are, I would say, fit for the world market. It can be marketed, if I can say that, as a global product with success everywhere.

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