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Shifting the gaze: A plea for other questions
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A few days ago I received a request from a newspaper. The editor wrote that contemporary events had prompted plans for a special issue, with 'Islam' as its theme. I was supposed to be able to explain why 'Islamic culture has never become as secularised as European Christian culture.'


I would like to respond that this question about secularisation 'in Islamic culture' can hardly be answered if we do not dismantle its numerous preconceptions. For the question repeats the idea that there is a unique European Christian entity, and simply presumes the thesis of secularisation that has, often enough, itself been criticised.





  • The overwhelming majority of Europeans appear to accept state control and regulation of religion in the public realm unreservedly
  • Muslims are asked on the one hand to adopt the norms of values of European liberties; but on the other, are constantly rejected as deviant and suspect
  • Muslims are on probation, and have yet to prove their loyalty to the European order. But who is going to decide that the test is passed?



All the same, these questions are posed on a daily basis in Europe's public space; each and every media outlet churns out items examining the degree to which Islam might be compatible with liberal and secular norms. Can Islam be reformed? Can it fit in with the secular orders of European societies? Are Muslims integrated into Europe? Can't Muslims take a joke?


These are however the wrong questions, since they fail to recognise, let alone break down, the hegemonic framework within which they are posed; a framework that measures the compatibility, or lack of it, of Muslims with a liberal and secular order.


They are the wrong questions because they obscure the numerous social, political, economic and cultural contexts within which Muslims interpret and live Islam. And they are also the wrong questions because they provoke answers that either 'exceptionalise' or 'normalise' Muslims.


What I would like to tell the editor is more or less banal, and has already been said so many times before. But since it is exactly these kinds of questions that have and do, directly or indirectly, shape public discussion about Muslims in Europe, it is important to look carefully at their function and effects.


Islam always appears to be an actor who has more or less the status of a subject. This actor can be treated as a complete and finished being, and as such to be symbolically excluded. Such questions have only one direction; they depoliticise structural questions and make unilateral accusations: what is wrong with Islam?


Even if our response is a benign one, that Muslims in Europe are already well on the way to secularisation, and that the majority fit very well into liberal and secular orders, the way in which these issues are raised goes unquestioned.


While politicians enthusiastically proclaim that “Islam is part of Europe”, this often has the paternalistic ring characteristic of contemporary Islamic policy in Europe. This welcoming generosity carries the implicit and traditional idea that migrants should be treated as guests, who while being welcome remain in the status of being a guest.


Above all, this idea that Islam is a part of Europe is usually linked with a number of conditions – Muslims are on probation, and have yet to prove their loyalty to the foundations of the European order. But how can one show loyalty to something that is essentially ambivalent, fragile and dynamic? And who is going to decide that the test of loyalty has been passed? This identifies quite clearly those that make decisions about who can join, when, and how.


After the attacks in Paris this became clear. First there was the sense of togetherness, when both organised and unorganised Muslims publicly distanced themselves from terrorism in the name of Islam. But in the next breath came the demand that one recognise the liberal foundations of secular order.


Distancing oneself from terror and violence seemed to be insufficient if one wanted to be recognised as a full member of society. It seems that Muslims can only be treated as full members of society if their religious practice coincides with particular ideas about secularised religiosity, and make this public by, for example, shouting “I am Charlie”.


It is also problematic that Muslims are asked on the one hand to adopt the norms of values of European liberties; but then, on the other, are constantly treated and rejected as deviant, suspect, and desperately in need of reform. This is the traditional paradox of assimilation, reconfigured in Europe's 'Muslim question'.


This kind of rejection, combined with social degradation, is felt physically on a day-to-day basis, especially by those Muslims who openly practice Islam.


So long as these frequently structurally-conditioned mechanisms of exclusion remain unquestioned, the principles of integration remain elements of a civilizational project: 'Be a Muslim, but stay out of sight'.


Even the recently revitalised talk of “Euro-Islam” turns out on closer examination to be just a milder version of the same thing: 'Be a Muslim, but become like us' means: 'Become as we would like ourselves to be.'


There is another side to this unilateral interpellation of Muslims: it makes it possible to refurbish a universalism that had become mired in crisis. It should be clear enough that the relationship between politics and religion in Europe is much more complex than the idea of secularisation suggests.


Secularity as an official instrument, separating state and religion is and remains ambivalent, since it depends on a line being drawn between the domains of the political and the religious. Lines drawn in this way are not neutral, nor static, nor without hierarchy; they are full of assumptions, and they are dynamic.


And so we should also ask why the story of a tamed, secularised Christianity – which is now supposed to be a model for Islam – is heard especially strongly where the Other is involved, when there is after all such vigorous dispute about the foundations and values of Europe.


Gil Anidjar's argument that Europe mainly gained shape and definition by identifying Jews or Muslim others as external and domestic enemies seems especially relevant here.


Criticism of the virulence of these question should therefore go further. We should redirect the question and consider how far the 'Muslim question' is indicative of other questions. What contingencies and gaps can we find in the norms and values represented in Europe?


What function does the interpellation of Muslims who are asked again and again to answer the same questions perform; how do the questions structure the conditions in which speaking is possible?


What forms of political and epistemic violence are associated with such calls and the mechanisms of exclusion inherent to them? How far does simple repetition serve to obscure these forms of power?


It would then not only be a question of establishing the social and economic conditions under which Muslims have migrated to Europe – the colonial past is salient here and cannot be left out of this. We should also ask how much affective allegiance there is to the liberal and secular norms that are assumed to provide a neutral matrix when Muslims are asked about their potential for integration.


However often the justifiable question is raised of why people commit murder in the name of their religion, so should we look more seriously at this relationship to secularism bound up, to a great extent, with affect and embodiment.


It is certainly true that very many practising Muslims felt offended by the cartoons. But we should also think more seriously about the emotional compounds bound up with secular ideas and their realisation in Europe.


The secular is, no matter how contradictory it might be, embodied to such a degree that the overwhelming majority of Europeans appear to accept state control and regulation of religion in the public realm unreservedly.


This can be seen in the recurring debate about Islamic bodily practices in the public or state space of Europe. Again and again a considerable degree of mixed feeling is aroused and mobilised, ranging from derision and aversion to open hatred of deviant forms of religiosity.


This question of a complex secular compound forces us to widen our perspective, and no longer ask of Muslims unilaterally what they think of religion in a secular state based on the rule of law, but also treat secular manifestations as learned or prescribed dispositions, as practices and affects which, precisely because of their embodied character, often go unrecognised.


The broadening of perspective does not involve a shifting of blame. It does however make any reflection and response more complicated, because the questions become more complex.


It can no longer be a question of whether Muslims can adapt to an imaginary Europe. We also need to ask whether the institutions, norms and values of Europe are capable of adapting to the reality that is an inescapable part of religious and cultural plurality.


Translated by Keith Tribe


© Eutopia Magazine – creative commons


Further reading:
Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab. A History of the Enemy, Stanford, Stanford University Press 2003.
Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular, Stanford, Stanford University Press 2003.