Contrary to expectations, over time, perceptions of Islam and Muslims by their western fellow-citizens have sharply deteriorated. Around us we observe the rise of populist movements and extreme right-wing parties from the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Greece and France (to name but a few European countries) to Australia, Canada and the US, with its neoconservative Tea Party and some Christian evangelist groups.
Campaigns stigmatising Islam and Muslims are now a permanent feature of the political landscape : Populists mobilise their followers and expand their electoral base by criticising the visibility of Muslims, their supposed demands for special treatment and, ultimately, their alleged intention to colonise and to transform western civilization from within.
These “foreign citizens,” these “home-grown foreigners” are depicted as the threat of the age. A politician may be totally incompetent, may offer no solution to the economic crisis, to unemployment and urban violence, but he need only single out the “new Muslim enemy”, need only direct the public’s attention towards controversies created out of the whole cloth to see his political credibility enhanced. We are living in sad times indeed.
Even more worrisome is the impact of these movements and parties (identity-based, populist, xenophobic, Islamophobe and racist) on the political class and on society as a whole. On this issue, the old demarcation lines of elitist rigidity on the Right and humanist openness on the Left have been obliterated. At both ends of the political spectrum we hear populist and Islamophobe rhetoric. Likewise, we encounter courageous women and men (most often in the minority) who resist and refuse to play the identity card.
The fracture between those who envision a common future with Islam and Muslims (having understood that Islam has now become a western religion) and those who rant and rave against the “Islamist threat” transcends traditional political alignments.
Objectively, we must concede that the citizens of western countries (Europe, North America and Australia) are moving towards increasingly right-wing positions on the political spectrum and tend to identify increasingly with the theses of the populists and even with those of the extreme right wing (even though they often distance themselves from the far right parties).
Globalisation, the weakening of cultural references, the crisis of identity, economic recession, unemployment, the impact of new communications technologies and cultural transformation all help explain the popular fear and the success of populism, over and above the presence of Muslims in the West.
As for the Muslims themselves, they function as indicators, concentrating fears with their newfound visibility, their new ways of being westerners, their skin colour, their religious practices, their languages and their cultures of origin.
The more scrupulously they respect the laws of the land, speak the language and feel American, French, Australian or British, the more suspect they become, the more dangerous. They were asked to integrate. Now, lo and behold, their success is seen as a sign of potential “colonisation”, if not subversion. Fears and contradictions abound ; serenity and coherence, nowhere to be found.
According to a recent French opinion poll, these fears and the rejection that comes with them are being expressed ever more overtly. France, among western countries, is home to the largest number of Muslims, who have resided there for the longest time, often as fourth or fifth generation French citizens of Islamic faith (who continue to be perceived, of course, as people of “immigrant origin” unlike other white European immigrants who are perceived entirely “French” after two generations at most).
The figures are alarming : 43 per cent of the French consider the presence of a Muslim community in France as a “threat” to the country’s identity. The same percentage opposes the construction of mosques (as against 39 per cent in 2010) and 63 per cent disagree with the wearing of veils or headscarves in the street (59 per cent in 2010).
Perceptions are increasingly negative and acceptance of Muslim practices increasingly limited. Only 17 per cent of those polled consider the presence of Muslims as a factor of cultural enrichment — a frightening reality, especially considering that France is no more racist or xenophobic than any other country.
The poll points to feelings found in many western societies and the fact must be faced. What it reveals is a concrete danger, not only for Muslims, but also for France and all other Western countries. When populism, extreme right-wing ideas, xenophobia and racism take root, begin to spread and are normalised (going so far as to demand discriminatory laws), societies as a whole are at risk and must take rapid action.
Western Muslim citizens may have long believed that it was sufficient to respect the law and to learn the language of the country to become full-fledged citizens. Over time, they have come to understand that this was not enough. Within the framework of the nation-state, they were expected — justly, in the event — to integrate into the legal structure of the state and to adopt the “cultural” bottom line, which consisted of knowing the national language.
Generations of western Muslim citizens respect the secular law of the land and now speak the language of their countries as well as their fellow-citizens. They have often been asked to demonstrate their loyalty to their respective countries, which they have sometimes done to excess (wishing to please and to satisfy whatever the price) or in a naturally critical manner (civil loyalty must always be critical in nature, supporting one’s country when it is in the right and being vigilant with regard to questionable political decisions).
Here we may apply the three ‘L’s that I have identified as the first step to acquiring citizenship and a sense of belonging — respect for the Law, mastering the Language, and being Loyal to the country. But with every passing day, it becomes clearer that this is only a first step and that we must go farther.
The challenge is not simply to belong to the state, to accept its legal framework or merely to speak the national language. What is essential is to belong to the nation, to the common narrative that binds women and men to a shared history, culture, to a collective psychology and to a future to be built together.
Western Muslim citizens may well have attained citizenship and the rights that accompany it, but they are not yet a part of the “Nation”, of that reference at once formal and informal that feeds into and shapes the deep-seated sense of belonging, of confidence in one’s self and in others (of the same nation), and acquisition of its explicit and implicit codes of behaviour.
The rights and the power that the state devolves upon its citizens are both real and effective, but the recognition and the power of being — and of being “one of us” that underlies belonging to the “Nation” — are no less real and effective. Today, in the West, Muslims are citizens of the state, but foreigners with regard to the Nation.
The coming years will be critical. All the debates over secularism, visibility and the wrong-headed “Islamisation” of socio-economic issues (schools, unemployment, the formation of communitarian or ethnic ghettos, violence, etc.) are nothing but pretexts for avoiding a single, fundamental question : Is Islam a western religion or is it not and as such do Muslims have a role in the future of this civilisation ?
In the West, the question demands full introspection into the questions of history, of identity and evolution towards a new, fully acknowledged pluralism. We must develop, in full confidence, a new, critical view towards ourselves, a new definition of self that is more open and broader and that takes full account of the meaning of history, that turns its back on diffidence and fear.
A new philosophy and a new content must be found for the meaning of the Nation for now its history must be assumed in its entirety : The proud and the shameful experiences of the past and the objective and irreversible development of the future. Time will be needed for Muslim citizens to “integrate” themselves into the common narrative of the Nation in the various western countries.
Inductively, during the next two generations, their intellectual, social, cultural, political and economic contributions will be able to deconstruct the reductive perceptions of the “Nation” from which they are still excluded. Indeed, they face a paradox : The populists and the Islamophobes insist that they disappear in order to “be accepted” while they must be positively visible in order to be respected, recognised and, ultimately, become subjects and actors in the shared narrative of the Nation. To respond to western fears by disappearing, as the expressed opinion of a majority of their fellow citizens suggests, would be an extremely grave historical error.
Instead, they must both learn history and learn from it, be constructively critical of the selective constructions of western memory (particularly, but not only, with regard to Islam) ; study their philosophers, their social dynamics and their policies while stepping into the world of culture, the arts and sports.
Such is the appropriate response to the dilemma of the day : Bring about an intellectual revolution, turn our back on false debates and defensive attitudes, define ourselves as western subjects, as actors in the evolution of our societies by assuming their values and their practices and, finally, as agents of a full-fledged pluralism and of social peace shaped by justice, respect and by the struggle against all forms of racism.
The challenge is great, one that calls for a multi-dimensional commitment. Not a strictly intellectual, political or social commitment, for in human history art, culture, sport and humour have also played a vital and at least complementary role in helping mentalities evolve.
The path is long and arduous, as is everything that touches on human relations — from the struggle for power to fraternity, from friendship to rejection, racism and hatred. The destiny of the West, as does that of all civilisations, can be found at the heart of this risk-fraught equation : The objective unity of a single humanity, enriched by a celebrated human diversity.