Pluralism: Could old Islam build a new bridge to the West?

Giving it a go

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Catholic Church’s department for interfaith contacts, publicly thanked Muslims last year for demanding “space for God in society” in Europe. We are certainly living in interesting times when a senior member of a Church that has been bemoaning the absence of the Divine in the public sphere thanks members of another religious group – particularly the group with which it is in competition for converts in a number of countries.

But he was right. It is the Muslims of Europe who have been calling for a renewed sense of the sacred in the public sphere with more vigour than any other group, although they are not alone. The different Christian churches in Europe have been suggesting this for a long time, but as European secularism developed deliberately in opposition to the existing religious institutions of Europe, their calls lost resonance. Muslim communities, who were simultaneously predominantly of immigrant extraction, were able to call for a re-assessment of secularism within the context of multiculturalism and equal treatment for minorities.

It’s a fascinating development, because traditionally the main proponents of an increased sense of the sacred in the public sphere naturally lay with the right-wing parts of the political spectrum in Europe. Much of that part of the political spectrum has not historically been known for its support of minority groups in Europe, least of all Muslim communities. These politicians believe there is a “hole” in society caused by contemporary secularism.

In the Muslim world, the discussion takes an entirely different form. A sense of the sacred in the public sphere is ever present, and frankly with sometimes rather unsacred consequences, but there is still a call for a different type of politics – Islamisation.

That loaded term is particularly linked to the legacy of colonialism in the Muslim world; this is probably the only thing that all those who call for Islamisation can agree on. When the Muslim world was colonised, their frameworks for working out issues in the public sphere were radically changed, and in the aftermath of that period all things were influenced by a colonial westernisation. The response: Islamise, and so return to a more indigenous way of doing things.

Objectively speaking, it sounds logical. But travelling in the Muslim world I have seen interesting paradoxes. In Egypt, for example, Islamisation is really about trying to make the society more conservative, and the laws on a statutory level more similar to Sharia. The Muslim Brotherhood makes this quite clear: they have no problem with the essential basis of the state in Egypt – a state that is essentially a western construct.

Other groups, such as the Hizb ut Tahrir, active in many parts of the Muslim world, have other ways of looking at Islamisation: they are far more “radical” (not in a violent sense, but in an intellectual one) than the Brotherhood. But in looking at their political manifesto, you see a lot of similarities with western notions of the state, intentionally or not. Again: western ideas are still involved. Other writers point out that bin Laden’s al Qa’eda is a very modern, and essentially western, movement, if you really analyse its structure and how it operates.

Then you can see a different model in the writings that came out of an international coterie of scholars, particularly in the 1990s. Their model, led and formulated by the Muslim philosopher Naquib al Attas, was far more philosophical, and thus deeper, than other models of Islamisation I have seen. In this formulation, Islamisation was supposed to be a reassessment of all the assumptions that went into building post-colonial Muslim societies. Nothing was to be left unturned, whether in education, politics or society as a whole.

There would not be an “Islamic University” –that would essentially be a western-style university with a few Islamic subjects. No, there would be a genuine Islamic University that would derive its entire philosophy of education on the basis of pre-modern Muslim notions of what constituted a culturally sophisticated intellectual – the inclusion of arts, history, philosophy and so forth, before allowing specialisation (British readers might sigh nostalgically: the old grammar schools in the UK were supposed to do part of this before the late 20th century educational reforms). They based all of this on the philosophy of al Ghazali of the medieval Islamdom, or Algazel as he was known in the West – not Marx or Hobbes.

This is rather different from Islamisation activities that simply grafted themselves on to existing structures that were essentially non-Islamic in the first place.

But the students of the neo-Ghazalian school were transformed entirely: they were not resentful of the West, nor did they ape it. Part of their education was to understand the West on its own terms – but they understood the Muslim world on their own terms as well.

I wonder which model is going to be more productive in terms of coming to an understanding between the Muslim world and the West. One is tempted to think that perhaps Islamist political parties might be the best way to go, since they are so essentially western anyway (despite their protestations). But then, the bridges being built will be between the West and “neo-West”, in some ways.

The bridges must be built between differerences, not commonalities. Maybe the neo-Ghazalian approach could score a double goal – healing the rift between the contemporary Muslim world and its past, caused by colonialism and modernity, and also establishing a sophisticated understanding between the Muslim world and the West. We’ve tried so much already – this could not be any worse.

Dr H A Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick and Founder-Director of the Visionary Consultants Group. He is a signatory to the Amman Message and the Common Word. This article was originally published in The National.