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A "European" School of Thought - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Sarkozy, the most youthful candidate in comparison to the ‘Gaullist heavyweights’, is quite an interesting character in many ways. The most compelling aspect of his fleeting but rich life in French politics is his bold – or rather his attacking – stands on immigration and migrant issues.

He is the man who launched the term “French Islam” by which he meant the Muslims of France should create their own model of Islam that is not subjected to foreign readings and interpretations of the religion. Sarkozy proposed this during his post as Minister of Interior while attending a meeting of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France in April 2003. For this reason, he had created the Council of the Muslim Religion in France, endeavoring to centralize the religious source of guidance for French Muslims in one single entity.

His relationship with Muslim immigrants was good. The steps he adopted were regarded as benign efforts towards serving justice to Muslims and normalizing their presence in France – especially since he is the son of an Austrian immigrant.

However the image of Sarkozy began to deteriorate, particularly after he made the famous statement following the riots that had taken place in the Parisian suburbs (autumn 2005) in which he spoke about the “scum of France”. This was in addition to the previous problem of banning hijab in schools.

The status of French Muslims, the number of whom is officially estimated at approximately 6 million and is estimated by Muslims to be around 10 million, is a heated issue. Furthermore, their problems represent competitive ground between candidates running for the French presidency. It is expected that the Arabs and Muslims in France will vote in favor of the leftist Segolene Royal; an advantage that her party was mindful of and accordingly began to pay court to Muslims and immigrants. Still, Royal was not spared criticism and resentment following her statements in which she too voiced objections about the hijab recently.

What concerns us in this context is not only the fate of the French presidential election but also to address the problem of “French Islam”, or “European Islam” in general. “European Islam” is a term that was promoted for by the Swiss intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, who is of Egyptian origin and the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna.

Sarkozy was not the first European politician who called for the creation of an Islamic paradigm for Europe’s Muslims, especially that third generation Muslim immigrants are now considered Europeans and constitute a large proportion of the European population. There are estimates that state that there are 24 million Muslim citizens in Western European countries alone, let alone in the whole of Europe.

Does the existence of these Muslims, who perhaps today make up the third or even fourth generation [of migrant Muslims], affect their understanding of Islam? Could the ability to understand Islam be influenced by location and temporal circumstances?

These questions are real issues. I do not think that anyone says that Europe’s Muslims, France’s for example, should seek the application of Islamic Shariah and the imposition of necessary restrictions regarding dress codes and societal norms. All Islamists (except Al-Qaeda) and other non-Muslims, state that it is not compulsory for the Muslims of Europe to seek to implement Islamic Shariah law. We know that the demand for the establishment of an Islamic state and the implementation of Shariah is the essence of the Islamic political rhetoric – so why have the conditions of the European Muslims become neglected and excluded?! Simply stated: It’s because they are Muslims in Europe!

This introduction came about after watching an episode of Sheikh Youssef al Qaradawi’s program ‘Shariah and Life’ on Al Jazeera channel. He had an enthusiastic response to the idea of European or French Islam. He justified his argument by maintaining the universality of Islam and its Ummah [Islamic nation] characteristic and said that such separations go against the universal nature of Islam. He added that there were differences within the uniformity of Islam, but only in the details and that the comprehensive fundamentals are unified.

I believe that the problem of the Muslims of Europe lies in the details. Sheikh Qaradawi himself believes that the issue of ‘niqab’ (the full face cover) is a subsidiary issue. He does not see a significant number of women wearing niqab anyway, as he said during his Friday sermon at the Omar Ibn al Khattab Mosque in Doha (3rd November 2006): “I do not support niqab but I support freedom.”

If this Sheikh Qaradawi’s view pertaining to niqab, which he considers to be a marginal issue, then I must assert that this is not the case elsewhere. According to a recent poll issued by the Gallup Organization concerning the conditions of Muslims in Britain, which was published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on 19 April 2007, the issue of Muslim women wearing niqab had become a distinguishing factor between British Muslims and non-Muslims. While 87 percent of Muslims believed that wearing niqab does not affect integration in society, over 50 percent of British people believed that niqab poses an obstacle to integration.

And here we are faced with the “minor detail” as Qaradawi put it. However, it is a very important issue with regards to its social indicators and the impact upon integration opportunities for British Muslims.

The devil lies in the details, so goes the saying. Theories on “the unification of Islamic fundamentals” and the “unification of sources and concepts” are all general statements that when implemented create problems on the ground.

We should not underestimate some issues on the pretext that they are secondary or minor issues, such as the case with niqab. The entire obscurity of a woman’s face in a society like that of France or Britain is not simply a minor issue in terms of its impact on the idea of the integration of Muslims into society and in attempting to dispel concerns. This garb is a message in itself – and what a message it is!

This is but one example of ‘detail’ in Sheikh Qaradawi’s rhetoric. However, he himself knows the impact that factors such as time, place, politics and economics can have on the interpretation of Islam and which can arise from such circumstances.

He scoffed the idea of “Egyptization” of Islam in reference to Egypt and the idea of “Moroccanization” of Islam in reference to Morocco and in the same manner he scorned the idea of French Islam or others like it. This is inappropriate contempt since there are differences between the interpretations of Islam among Muslims themselves and as such, there are different Islamic doctrines and sects which were created owing to certain circumstances as well as the culture and interests of each party. In light of this fact and given that present circumstances are ever growing and that interests are more conflicting than ever before, what is stopping the emergence of an “Islam based on a European doctrine” or even a European sect [of Islam] for example?!

Sheikh Qaradawi is the head of the European Council of Fatwa and Research. I do not understand why he designed a specific fatwa and juristic discourse especially for the Muslims of Europe. Couldn’t this be the same reason for the emergence of the very idea that was ridiculed by the Sheikh?! Then we can have European, African and Asian religious rulings and so on and so forth. Will it then be held that such ideas had emerged out of consideration for the peculiar conditions of European Muslims? It would be difficult to apply the same religious rulings that are implemented in Riyadh or Tanta.

In the same vein, saying that the civil discourse of Muslims and their presence in Europe as well as their assimilation to become complete European citizens demands a comprehensive renewal of the judicial and rational approaches that can answer all the central questions and which are inevitably different from the Islamic discourse prevalent in our Islamic world.

In other words, the concept of the Islamic state should be put forward on a fundamental level; only then can the Muslims of Europe have an eternal faith in the civil state. This shift into a civil state should not be a ‘temporary’ idea until God changes the status quo, but rather it needs to become a fundamental endeavor and a final idea, owing to the political philosophy upon which states and Western European communities were established. Thus the idea of a secular civil state would then become one of the connotations of the European Islam that we discuss.

It is true that this conclusion might be bold and drastic. But the reality of Muslims is also complex, dangerous and thought-provoking. It is only natural that such exceptional circumstances would generate exceptional ideas, just as precious diamonds are created in the heart of a deep rock and under exceptional pressure!

In all cases, the universality of Islam which Sheikh Qaradawi fears for is just fine. It is more evident in the fact that Islam, because of its comprehensiveness and inherent potentials of flexibility, has the ability to exist in the depths of Najd, Upper Egypt and the Atlas mountains, as well as on the streets of Paris and parks and universities of London simultaneously and in a strong, attractive, and effective manner. This is the true universality of Islam and not just an interpretation that believes that it is the sole correct interpretation of Islam. Who knows?! The children of immigrants may be of great benefit to their parents and could provide them with an example of real salvation after the parents as well the children have endured many years of suffering!

Ultimately, we are not concerned about Sarkozy or his competitor Royal. Certainly, both candidates tackle the issue of Islam in France from a perspective of political interest. We are tackling a more important issue which is: opening the blocked path for the sake of extracting the potentials of development, progress and interaction within Islam itself so that Islam and Muslims could become a positive force for change rather than a source of fear and controversy. I know that there are many examples that spread hope and joy among Muslim ‘citizens’ in the West, forming positive and pleasant images based on the type of Islam they want. Protect us from politics and keep the fate of people away from the gladiatorial struggle between right-wingers and leftists and between the ruler and the imam of Friday sermons so as to allow breathing space for the ordinary people.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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