Olivier Roy: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

Thoughtful  commentary:

In most European countries, violent radicalisation is usually understood as a consequence of religious radicalisation.

Consequently, policies for countering or preventing radicalism assume that the key is to regulate the practice of Islam, in particular, either by promoting moderate or liberal interpretations of it or by pushing for secularisation in order to reduce faith to the private sphere.

The issue I would like to raise here is not so much whether such a policy stigmatises Muslims, rather whether such a policy is relevant.

First, from a purely statistical point of view, the link between religious and violent radicalisation is very weak. There have been some hundreds of terrorists in Western Europe in the last 25 years, while we can conclude that the number of believers in ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim schools of thought are in the hundreds of thousands if we consider the percentage of mosques defined as ‘Salafist’ or ‘Tablighi’ by the authorities (in France fewer than 300 out of a total of more than 2,000).

Moreover, if we look at the profile of the actual terrorists (people who committed deadly attacks in Europe during the last 25 years), few of them have belonged to a fundamentalist faith community or regularly attended a mosque considered fundamentalist.

More specifically, if we take into consideration the terrorist attacks perpetrated since the Bataclan attack in 2015 in Paris, we are confronted with lone wolves who have never been part of a fundamentalist network. That is not to say that these radicals have nothing to do with Islam: they consider themselves Muslims; they hope to become martyrs and go to paradise; they claim to avenge the sufferings of the Muslim Ummah. But they have almost never been trained for years in a fundamentalist theological school.

Nevertheless, in all countries involved in counter radicalisation efforts, the dominant doctrine has been to target religious practices, and, as I will demonstrate, this is not confined to Islam.

Secularisation vs liberalisation

This policy has been developed with two apparently opposed strategies. One promotes the reformation of Islam or the adoption of liberal forms of the religion, the other the extension of secularism. The apparent contradiction between the two approaches (the first acknowledging that religion has its place in social life and public space, the other confining religion to the private sphere) led to tensions between the so-called French model (laïcité) and the so called Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism. In fact, they both imply a reshaping of the traditional relationship between state and religion.

The first issue is how to define ‘religious radicalisation’? To do this you need a concept of ‘religious moderation’; but what is a ‘moderate religion’? The dominant religions in Europe are ‘revealed’ religions that believe in a transcendent God, creator and lawmaker. In this sense, the Abrahamic religions are not ‘moderate’ because they believe in an absolute truth and consider that the word of God is above human laws, even if the faithful citizen is supposed to obey and respect the laws of the state.

In any case, the debate is shifting from ‘truth’ to values, from ‘moderate’ to ‘liberal’: religions are requested to accept women and LGBTIQ+ rights, and this, of course, does not only apply to Islam. Should this move to promote liberal values go as far as to pressure the Catholic Church to have female priests, and ultra-orthodox Jews to adopt co-education in the yeshiva?

In addition, aside from its objectives, the simple move from the states to promote ‘good’ religion is upsetting the trend that has characterised the democratisation process since the 18th century: separation of church and state.

What remains of the mixing of both are just symbolic remnants (like the position of the British queen as head of the Anglican Church, for example). For the state, to interfere with religion means to ignore the separation principle and to run up against another pillar of the state of law: human rights. Freedom of religion is a human right and ensures the believer that the state will not interfere with faith and theology, even if it can limit some religious practices in the public space.

Far from ensuring religious freedom, any state intervention in the religious field will, on the contrary, contribute to the politicisation of the practice of religion and eviscerate the autonomy of religion, leading to a new form of state secularisation.

The French state steps in

Nevertheless, French policy is not shy about imposing secularisation on Islam. And this policy is popular in the country. But there is a side effect that is rarely perceived. The policy is more than an anti-Islam or Islamophobic stance: it is an anti-religious one. And the Catholic Church is feeling this cold wind, especially at a time when the scandal of paedophilia has undermined its prestige in society, with the trials of priests and cardinals widely covered by the media, and the pope being forced to acknowledge the issue.

A string of laws, from the 2004 act banning ‘religious signs’ in schools to the law against ‘separatism’ approved by the French parliament this February, have been passed to fight ‘Islamism’ or ‘Islamist separatism’. Explicitly, they target religious practices across the board: all religious symbols are banned from schools; any kind of home schooling (practised by Catholics or progressive supporters of alternative education, but not by Muslims) is severely restricted; and associations that receive public funding are supposed to sign a ‘charter of republican values’ that bans any gender segregated activities or rejection of gay rights.

Curbing religious practices to undermine radicalisation simply does not work. On the contrary, it contributes to a process of strict secularisation of the religious space, targeting first of all mainstream, ordinary believers who are the best bulwark against any kind of radicalisation.

Source: Religion and the state: unintended effects of anti-radicalisation policies

‘That Ignoramus’: 2 French Scholars of Radical Islam Turn Bitter Rivals – The New York Times

Personally, I think it is a mix of the two elements – the individual and the structural:

What propels Islamist terrorism and attacks against France is more than an academic debate: The answer shapes policy toward blunting the threat.

So it is no inconsequential matter in a culture under attack, and one that so cherishes its intellectual debates, that France’s two leading scholars of radical Islam — former friends — have turned bitter rivals over their differing views.

“Madman,” “thug,” “illiterate,” “paranoid,” “ass,” “not a thinker” — these are just some of the choicer insults the two men have hurled at each other in a peculiarly personal quarrel with far larger stakes that has reverberated through the French news media and society for months.

The two distinguished academics, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, have long lists of books to their name, and years of field work in the Middle East, Central Asia and the troubled French suburbs. They are both eagerly consulted by the French news media and government officials.

But with France on edge and the continued target of terrorist attacks, their clashing analyses of the origins, development and future of jihadism have broken out of academic circles to present an important question for France and for all of Europe: Which man holds the key to understanding the phenomenon?

Mr. Kepel, 61, a professor at Sciences Po, the prestigious political science institute, finds much of the answer inside France — in its suburbs and their dysfunctional sociology — and in the role of Islam, angering many on the left.

Mr. Roy, 66, who as a bearded young man roamed Afghanistan with the mujahedeen in the 1980s and now teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, places greater emphasis on individual behavior and psychology in a jihadism he considers strictly marginal to Islam.

Mr. Kepel sees individuals as cogs in a system — part of a classically French, structuralist tradition that minimizes the role of individual human agency.

Mr. Roy, on the other hand, sees mostly troubled people in the jihadist ranks who act out their fantasies of violence and cruelty.

The terrorists who have carried out recent attacks were mostly marginalized young men and petty criminals, he says, adding that they have used Islam as a cover to pursue extreme violence.

“They haven’t had a militant past,” Mr. Roy said of many of these terrorists, in a telephone interview. The problem they represent, he says, is the “Islamicization of radicalism.”

It is a signature phrase that enrages Mr. Kepel, who leans toward its opposite: the radicalization of Islam.

“That ignoramus,” Mr. Kepel grumbled in an interview this month in his book-lined office, offering some choice gibes about his onetime friend’s lack of Arabic.

Mr. Kepel testified for an influential 2015 parliamentary report, wrote a best seller on terrorism after the attacks in Paris in November, and has been omnipresent in television and radio studios.

“At the ministry, they tell me, ‘I saw Kepel yesterday,’ ” said Mr. Roy, himself a favorite of the country’s dominant left-leaning news media. His arguments, for the moment at least, appear to be winning in government circles.

As the jockeying has intensified in official circles, so has the falling-out between the old friends.

Today they cannot stand each other, and, with the passion that typifies intellectual fights in a country where nothing short of war is more serious, they contemptuously dismiss each other’s views.

“The King Is Naked,” read the headline on Mr. Kepel’s attack on Mr. Roy this spring in the newspaper Libération, in a play on the French meaning of Mr. Roy’s name.

In turn, while acknowledging a long and now broken friendship, Mr. Roy today offers his own less-than-friendly critique of Mr. Kepel as a kind of cloistered intellectual.

 “We were friends for 20 years,” Mr. Roy said in the interview. “I traveled with him in Istanbul. But I was very struck by his incapacity to talk to anybody.”

“He’s sincere the way a madman is,” he added. “He’s not a thinker. He’s not a philosopher.”

The French debate has echoes of Republican criticism in the United States of President Obama for his reluctance to use the word Islam in connection with terrorism.

But as is so often the case in contemporary France, the heart of the dispute here is a disagreement about the country’s relationship with Islam.

Mr. Roy sees a Muslim population that is relatively well-integrated.

But for Mr. Kepel, the murderous jihadism that struck France in 2015 is the expression of a slow-burning Islamist radicalization that took shape over decades because of a failure of integration.

Source: ‘That Ignoramus’: 2 French Scholars of Radical Islam Turn Bitter Rivals – The New York Times

Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic

A really good interview with Olivier Roy,  Head of the Mediterranean Program at the European University Institute, on French laïcité and how it has become transformed from a judicial principle to an ideology.

Well worth reading given the parallels in Quebec and how French debates migrate across the Atlantic.

Thanks to Arun with a View for bringing this interview (and many others) to my attention:

In the beginning, the law of 1905 was simply a judicial principle, it was not understood as a set of norms and values. Why? Because at the time, the believers and non-believers shared the same values—on family, on homosexuality, morality, modesty, etc.—there was a common set of ethics, culture. As Jules Ferry said, a laic teacher was not meant to say anything which might shock a religious head of family.

What’s different today is the moral cleavage which emerged in the 1960s, that is not related to Islam but to religion in general. From the 1960s, there is a secular ethic which diverges significantly from the religious ethic – sexual freedom, gay marriage, IVF, etc.—this is why the laicite, which was a principle of neutrality turned into an ideology affirming values – under the principle of tolerance, the idea that one must accept blasphemy, homosexuality, feminism, etc., which has never been central to the Catholic Church.

There is a disconnect between the dominant culture and religion, which means that communities of faith feel themselves minorities in the contemporary western world and that’s why they ask to be protected from the majority—there are two tendencies among people of faith.

The first is “reconquer,” demanding that the state take into account Christian values, such as forbidding abortion, or if deemed impossible, requesting an exemption, such as a believer not being made to perform a gay marriage, undertake abortion, etc.—today there is a clear disassociation between secularized culture and religions, and when I say laicite has become an ideology, rather than accept this diversity, laicite is demanding that the believer share in these secular values—this is the tension.

For example, take the Charlie Hebdo affair. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” can have two meanings: one of solidarity, opposing the attacks and terrorism, but the second meaning refers to an approval of Charlie—and many believers cannot say that they approve Charlie. They condemn the killings but cannot necessarily approve of Charlie’s images—it is what the Pope said, he was very clear, when he said he was against blasphemy, not that it was a question of law, but he opposed blasphemy, especially gratuitously.

There was a very strong reaction in France among secularists who thought it scandalous that the Pope speak in this fashion. Today there is a laic intolerance. From the principle of the separation of state and religion, we have moved to the idea that everyone must share the ideals of the Republic but which are in fact very recent values and which are a consequence of profound social changes since the 1960s. Laicite no longer accepts diversity.

… It is a model which is essentially French, because even in countries which have adopted it officially, such as Mexico or Turkey. In Turkey although everyone speaks of laicite, the constitution is not secular because religion is organized by the department for religious affairs. Kemalist Turkey preserved the Department of Religious Affairs to control religion, specifically Islam—it is not laicite. Similarly in Mexico, there is a “French style” laicite, but it is clear that religion, especially Catholicism, plays a much bigger part in society than it can in France, so in all countries there is a national dimension, a historical dimension, there is a national question over the issue of religion and the state. If you take a country like Denmark where less than ten percent of people practice a religion, Danes will tell you they are Lutherans because it is the religion of the state—but they do not practice, they do not care at all. So it is an extremely secular country although officially there is no separation between state and society so each country in my view invents its compromise to manage the relations between the church, state, and society.

I do not think in particular that laicite in its current version, as an ideology, can be positive for any country, I think it has gone too far–but we can conceive of a secular constitution, in the sense of distinguishing religion and politics, which works well in a religious society. Take the example of the United States. There you have a total separation, but no president can be elected if he does not believe in God. Look at Bosnia, created specifically to be a Muslim state for the Muslims of Yugoslavia, is totally secular—which does not mean that there is a Muslim community which functions very well in laicite, which is blossoming in a secular framework. The issue is not the laicite as a constitutional principle of separation, I think this can function very well, the problem is when laicite constructs itself as an anti-religious ideology.

Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic.

After Attacks, Denmark Hesitates to Blame Islam – NYTimes.com

The debates in Denmark regarding the role Islam played in the recent attacks and the sophisticated response by the Danish Minister for Integration and Social Affairs, Manu Sareen:

Mr. Mann [a former Copenhagen gang member], who is now studying law and works part-time as a counselor to troubled Muslim youths, said Denmark and other European countries needed to defend, not stigmatize, Islam, as only this can combat “street Islam,” a toxic jumble of half-digested lines from the Quran and political passions plucked from the Internet.

Olivier Roy, a leading French expert on Islam, has taken a similar line, telling Information, a Danish newspaper, that Denmark should counter wild strains of Islam imported from the Middle East by building up a “national version of Islam” through state funding for mosques and preachers, just as it funds Denmark’s state church.

But Mr. Sareen, the integration minister, said such an approach would do nothing to “prevent scenes like we saw at the weekend” because young people were just as likely to get radicalized in jail or sitting at home watching videos on YouTube. “The state could finance dozens of mosques, but you would still see people getting radicalized,” he said.

The trigger for extremist violence, added Mr. Sareen, a self-declared atheist and former social worker, is rarely the result of a single cause. “You have a part that is social, part that is psychiatric, part that is brainwashing and part that comes from messages in the mosque or from radical preachers.”

Mehdi Mozaffari, an Iranian-born Danish political science professor, complained that mainstream Muslims and Western governments often play down the powerful pull of Islamist ideology, which mixes piety and politics.

“It is very evident that this ideology is playing a major role,” he said. “Without it we are facing just hooligans. But these people have an ideology that is very strong. It justifies their behavior and identifies their enemy.”

Sharp contrast to the rhetoric and pandering in Canada.

After Attacks, Denmark Hesitates to Blame Islam – NYTimes.com.