When pluralism keeps the West alive

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An interview with Nilüfer Göle, Professor of Sociology at the Centre d’Analyse et d’Intervention Sociologiques, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris by Nicola Missaglia, ResetDoc, Rome.


Do you think that the process of integration of Muslim migrants to European countries has failed?

The presence of Muslims in European public life signals a series of important shifts in our ways of approaching immigration, the place of religion in public life and the definitions of minorities and citizenship rights. The emphasis on Islam points to the fact that we are in a new phase that cannot be framed within the terminology of sociology of immigration and politics of integration and assimilation. During the last five decades the labelling of the minority groups have changed in relation to their different levels of integration in host societies; during the ’60s-’70s the widely used term for immigrant workers was the German term ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest workers); in the ’80s the French slang word ‘beurs’ depicted the young male Arab, and during the last decades the Arabic word ‘hijab’ of young girls and Muslims in general has entered the public idiom across Europe. The various phases of immigration illustrate the emergence of different actors, from the single male worker to the jobless young son, and now the young girls in public schools.

These young girls who have access to education and simultaneously claim the religious right to cover their hair in the public schools, not only stir incomprehension among European feminists, but equally provoke secular reactions and mobilize public passions. However, their trajectories equally prove a deeper level of integration in and belonging to host societies – they have acquired the language skills that their parents lacked, and share the same classrooms with German and French boys. They affirm their religious and cultural singularity, yet claim full citizenship rights. Islam provides a way of distancing themselves from the national origins of their parents. If the claims in the first two periods were framed basically in terms of social housing, legislative rights and access to education, in recent years the religious and cultural claims have come to the forefront. Paradoxically, the claims for religious and cultural uniqueness also emerged during this phase which, contrary to the opinion of many observers for whom religion is a backward sign of non-integration, actually characterize a deeper level of integration.


How is the growing presence of Islam changing Europe’s public sphere?

In this phase of post-immigration and post-integration, pious Muslims seek to overtly and with pride manifest their sense and interpretation of religion in European contexts. By means of performative pious practices, ranging from adopting the Islamic dress codes, to eating halal food and praying, they make visible religious signs and symbols in different European public spheres. The abstract public sphere hence acquires a concrete sense of space, a particular place in which citizens struggle over defining its frontiers and norms. Public schools, cities, parliament and swimming pools come under greater public scrutiny once Muslim actors inhabit these places in conformity with Islamic prescriptions. Public spheres thus become the site for witnessing, albeit reluctantly for many, the presence of Muslims in Europe and their desire to mark out differences while claiming all the privileges of citizenship. The religious signs, symbols and pious practices bring public visibility to Muslims, but also provoke discomfort and resentment among many others. They feel invaded by newcomers who are not restricting themselves to work spaces (as was the case of guest workers in the primary phase of immigration) or living on the margins, in the periphery of the big cities, but share the same classroom in public schools, desire to have a mosque at the centre of the city, take part in public debates, create alternative spaces for leisure, such as women-only swimming pools, and open up new markets and commercial activities, such as halal food eateries. In sum, the Muslim presence has progressively changed the landscape of everyday life in European cities.


What are the kind of debates and issues raised by Islam in Europe?

First of all, the Islamic presence in Europe raises questions related to visibility and invisibility of religious signs and practices in the public sphere. The headscarf worn by young Muslim girls was considered to be an ‘ostentatious’ religious sign and, therefore, banned in French public schools. Similarly, whether the presence of mosques should remain discreet without any external sign of identification, such as a minaret and a dome, or adopt new forms of architecture in harmony with the European cityscape, become new issues in public debate. On the one hand, politicians, for reasons of security and transparency, invite Muslims to ‘come out’ and bring the prayer halls from garages and basements into daylight; on the other hand the visibility of a mosque becomes a source of public anxiety and rejection. The referendum that by a popular vote banned the construction of minarets in Switzerland crystallized these debates and marked a turning point across Europe. Many think that the Swiss have said aloud what others think in private.

Second, the Islamic presence disrupts the consensus in the European public sphere and reveals (the limits of) its secular norms and exclusionary frontiers. Muslims enter public life, public schools, swimming pools, hospitals, parliament, but in discordance with the established norms of private-public distinctions, secular-religious divides, male and female modes of sociability. The agenda of the public debate in Europe undergoes a change: secularism, freedom of expression, gender equality and, in general, issues of sexuality, such as virginity and homosexuality become a concern not only for Muslim populations but for all.

The public debates on the Islamic presence in Europe are not limited to the Muslim minority communities but become a concern for all, urging citizens from different horizons to express their opinions and take a position. Hence, issues of covering, veiling, burka, mosques, halal food are not only debated among the members of Muslim migrant populations, but involve different actors – feminists, secularists, architects and entrepreneurs. Furthermore, these debates blur the political cleavages and cross national borders, entering into circulation in different European publics. Islam becoming public means that it expands the frontiers, sets a new agenda of debate, changes the repertoire of action, and instigates new alliances between actors. Hence, it creates a new dynamic in the making of a European public sphere.


What about minority rights in Europe?

From this perspective, namely from the perspective of ‘publicness created by Islam’, the issues and claims raised by Muslims go beyond the debates on ‘minority rights’ and become a concern as part of a societal debate. Although some Muslims claim their rights as a religious minority, others such as Tariq Ramadan insist on citizenship rights. The veiling, praying or dietary rituals cease to be framed within the domain of religious rights and become part of a larger debate on gender equality, freedom of expression and animal rights. In a way liberal discourse ceases to provide a frame for religious freedom and multiculturalism. On the other hand, the debates over Islam join the contemporary themes and sensibilities over sexuality, secularism and environmentalism. Islamic piety requires a discipline of self and religious awareness that is defined by daily prayer, strict dietary rules and chastity. There is a posture that I term as the ‘forbidden modern’, referring to the principle of (mahrem) sacred, secret and gendered while making oneself ‘public’. It works against the liberal dynamics of emancipation that brings the personal to the public and makes transparent the secret. In a paradoxical way, Islam criss-crosses, albeit from a sacred point of view, the modern secular preoccupations over body, sexuality and nature.


Do you believe there are multiple modernities? How do today’s East-West relations, immigration, the massive encounter with Islam etc. affect the European perception of the once colonized Other?

Reading within a long-term perspective, Islam, from an exogenous reference (not forgetting the centuries of Muslim presence in Spain in the past) is becoming an indigenous one. We are witnessing a period of transition in which Islam becomes part of a shared and lived experience in Europe, not without resentment and fear. The Islamic presence is experienced in proximity without the comfort of distance in time and space. The anthropologist Johannes Fabian has written on the difficulties of being contemporary with the other, the ways that the West denies ‘coevalness’ to the non-western. Islam is becoming a contemporary of Europe but, in appearing anachronistic with its norms and values, raises new issues and dissent in public; it also opens up possibilities for new readings of European modernity from the prism of Islamic criticism. It presents a challenge to the master narrative of European modernity that distances and sets a hierarchy between people, practices and histories. Islam ceases to be referred to as a ‘mediaeval’ ‘backward’ residue from the past expected to disappear in modern secular times and instead appears firmly ensconced on the European stage. Sharing the same ‘space’ and ‘time’ with European people unsettles the hierarchical order between those who are lagging behind in time and situated in the margins, in the periphery of world history. Islam in Europe challenges the meta-narrative of secular modernism as well as Euro-centric sense of modern subject. In this sense it joins the dynamics of the post-colonial and neo-Orientalist critiques.


Does this sort of contemporary colonial-Oriental encounter urge the West to change its self-perception too?

Theories of Orientalism and post-colonialism are primordial; they remind us of the dependence of the West on the ‘subordinate’, the ‘Oriental’ Other to constitute a hegemonic sense of western self, power and history. Furthermore, in the present day, Europe’s post-colonial and Orientalist critiques provide a discursive power for those who seek to question the hegemonic power of the European. Post-colonial readings bring to our attention the memories of the past that had been discarded – and suppressed by national discourses and introduce an alternative politics of memory. For instance, a social movement (called ‘les indigènes de la République’) in France recalls the colonial past of France and situates itself in the post-colonial paradigm challenging the prevalent Republican one. The post-colonial history underpins the history of migration in many national contexts, such as between France and Algerians, Britain and Indians. Yet there are contexts of migration in Europe where colonialism did not play a role; for instance the Turkish migration to Germany is not linked to a colonial past. And in Italy, the migration is from very diverse national origins, making it difficult to identify with a particular country.

The present-day encounter between Europeans and Muslims thus acquires novel features that require a new frame of thinking. While the presence of Muslims in Europe is not a recent phenomenon, and Europeans have had a long relationship with the Islamic world, the way Europeans and Muslims are now becoming aware of each other’s presence, confronting their differences and debating the norms and values of modernity is a contemporary challenge. The political and cultural revival of Islam has furthermore transformed the European perceptions of Islam, putting an end to ‘Orientalist’ perceptions of Muslims, to the extent that they have ceased to be ‘distant’ others. Veiled women create a disruption with the Orientalist representations of the ‘exotic’ and the ‘erotic’. They break away not only from the ‘Orientalist’ fantasies, but also distance themselves from secular feminists. In the present, the European public sphere becomes the site on which a novel play is being acted out, with new actresses and a new script.


But at the same time, increasing xenophobia, violence and political restrictions seem to suggest that most European democracies are experiencing some difficulties in adapting to the actual conditions of multiculturalism and religious diversity.

European politics falls short of including religious differences within the frame of multiculturalism. Many politicians and intellectuals of Europe have in the last decade declared the failure of multiculturalism as a political project to include Muslim migrants and Islamic difference. Instead, populist discourses of right-wing movements gain ground as they refashion their agenda based upon a ‘fear’ of Islam, as they mobilize the resentments of people against Islamic presence, called ‘Islamophobia’. The new public figures of populist movements take over the leftist-feminist agenda of sexual politics in their fight against Islam. In the past if these movements were characterized as ‘extremist’, anti-elite, conservative and anti-Semite movements, today they are able to mobilize values of feminism, sexual preference, freedom of expression and join the mainstream publics. The case of Marine Le Pen who took over the direction of the National Front Party from her father illustrates well the new ‘popularity’ of these public figures, crossing the cleavages between right and left.


Do you think that secularism can give satisfactory answers to those minorities for whom religious identity equals cultural identity? Maybe Europe can learn something from other different national experiences of secularism… What kind of secularism for what kind of modernity?

We need to change our mantras about secularism. Readings from India and Turkey, in very different ways, can offer us a critical distance to introduce some theoretical flexions. First, we need to decouple modernity and the secular. The universalist narrative of modernity is undergoing radical change and criticism. Philosophers like Marcel Gauchet and more recently Charles Taylor in his seminal work A Secular Age, have offered us an alternative narrative, linking the history of secularism to that of Christianity. In unveiling the secular forces emanating within Christianity, they question secularism as a ‘neutral’, religion-free, a look from no-where kind of ideology. However, as Talal Asad has argued critically, the powers of the secular are not limited only to Christendom and extend to other parts of the world by means of colonization or by voluntary modernization. Hence, we need to expand our readings of secularism to non-western contexts and learn from different historical trajectories and forms of the secular.


For example?

In this respect, India and Turkey, as two distinct examples, help us to enrich our approach. One is characterized by pluralistic secularism and the other by authoritarian secularism. The historical conditions under which the secularism developed are very different in each context and this reminds us of the role of state-building and the relationship to the western world. In the Turkish case, secularism was part of the nation-building process and became a vector for the uniformization and westernization of the national culture. The adoption of the Latin alphabet illustrates well the rupture with the Ottoman past and the desire for the secular western. In the case of India, secularism was thought to ensure the plurality of religions and developed in the context of anti-colonial resistance. Cultural heterogeneity and religious pluralism were part of this resistance to the colonial West. The status of the family code captures the differences in the two countries. For Turkey, the abolition of the Sharia law and the adoption of the Swiss family code marked the most important move towards national secularism. In India, we see different family codes for different religious minorities.

The abolishment of Caliphate (the Ottoman emperor as Caliph was the supreme religious and political leader of all Sunni Muslims across the world) in 1924 by the pro-western nationalist movement of Kemal Ataturk connected the histories of the two countries in an unprecedented way. The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the end of Caliphate system evoked sympathy among Indian Muslims, but also led to political and social mobilization on behalf of the Ottoman Caliphate, known as the Khilafat movement in India, among members of the Indian independence movement.


Despite the histories of India and Turkey somehow overlapping with the abolishment of Caliphate, the paths the two countries have followed to realize modern secularism are not quite the same.

This is true. We can give some more examples for our shared and differentiated experiences of the secular. Two figures that incarnated Turkish and Indian independence, both known as the ‘father’ of the nation, namely Kemal Ataturk and Mahatma Gandhi, communicated in their public lives and ways of clothing their commitment to the local and western cultures, traditional and modern, spiritual and secular distinctions. Both in different ways embodied the governance of self and governance of public. Both leaders indicated their clothing preferences publicly and symbolically. Ataturk opted for western style clothes (his wardrobe is exhibited in his mausoleum in Ankara), whereas Gandhi wore the traditional Indian ‘dhoti’ (fabric made from handspun and woven cotton) and shawl, as Chakrabarty has written. Gandhi ate simple vegetarian food and practised fasting as a means of self-purification, while Ataturk avoided any spiritual activity in public, creating thereafter a role-model to be followed by Turkish secular politicians who abstained from using any religious idiom and practice, including fasting, during the month of Ramadan. One marked ‘religious disobedience’ and expressed the desire to belong to the home of ‘civilized (read westernized) nations’, while the other marked ‘civil disobedience’ and resistance to colonial powers of the West. If Gandhi ended the stigmatization of the untouchables in India, Ataturk advocated gender equality and women’s participation in public life.


And what is the situation today?

In the present, however, secularism in both countries, whether pluralistic or authoritarian, is being challenged by fundamentalism, whether it is Hindu fundamentalism or an Islamic one. In my view, Turkey is coming to terms with Muslim identity rather than breaking away from secularism. The test for Turkish democracy is not only the removal of the military from the political sphere, or the recognition of minority rights, the taboos of the past-memories, but also its place in the global order. The resentment of European publics to accept Turkish membership to the European Union instigated some unintended consequences. For some, there is a danger of Turkey turning its back on the western world. For others, it has not only triggered a dynamics of distancing, but also autonomy from the western Middle East politics. Non-participation in the Iraq war and criticism of the Israeli government made Turkey acceptable in the eyes of the Arab world. As we have seen in the recent radical upheavals and political transformations in Tunisia and Egypt, the Turkish experience is referred to as a ‘model’ for combining autonomy, democracy and religion. Turkey is today looked upon as a source of inspiration for many reformists, whether religious or secular, in the countries of the Middle East. The fear of Islam can no longer be used as a powerful argument to legitimize the dictatorships in the Middle East. We can hope that it will have an impact on the European publics as well and stop the neo-populist right-wing movements from gaining more popularity.


To what extent could the changes in contemporary Middle East have an impact on Europe?

In our globalized world, the West cannot remain unaffected by the force of history-making movements that are taking place in other parts of the world. The ‘centres’ of the world-making are changing. For centuries, the non-western world had their minds and historical trajectories shaped in the mirror image of western modernity. In the present, the western world and Europe in particular, is entering a phase of their history in which they are measuring, re-visiting and re-fashioning their principles in their encounter with Islam. Secularism is one such example. The history of western secularism is changing course, leaving Christendom and entering into contact, albeit in confrontational terms, with Islam. Different models and perceptions of secularism might and should provide a source of inspiration for dealing with religious and cultural difference, for learning from non-western experiences.


* Nilüfar Göle is the author of Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe and The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling.