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An Ethic of Citizenship

The concept of citizenship is fashionable. People want to vindicate it, defend it, promote it, and extend it. It is the banner of the progressives and the badge of “integrated” people. To be honest, the concept of “citizens” is used to speak of everything and nothing with the understanding that, in the end, there must come into being a European/American-born Muslim citizen. Nevertheless, if we look more closely, we find on the level of civic awareness and political participation that the picture, as far as Muslims are concerned, is very variable. For nearly ten years, increasing numbers of Muslim associations, especially in Britain, France, and the United States, have constantly called on their coreligionists to vote and to take part in the political life of their country. More and more young activists and students have certainly understood the important of the political game, but in the poorest areas the level of participation in elections remains much lower than expected. Like all citizens who experience the same objective living conditions, Western Muslims vote rarely, if at all. It must also be said that although the “call to vote” may be simple and clear in itself, the messages that go with it are not always so accessible: some call on people to vote to “take on their responsibilities as citizens,” others in order to show the growing weight of the “community,” still others mainly to “defend the interests” of the community. An observer can no longer tell very what it is that minds and hearts are being mobilized for: principles? which principles? an identity? which identity? interests? what are they? Most Islamic organizations legitimize their appeals by the accepted reference to Islamic principles but sometimes seem to forget in fact the requirements of the body of reference to which they call themselves to be faithful (and which we have just presented in the previous section): so, in practice, they end up by forming the idea of a “community” whose member should think about political participation in the sense that they should get involved above all in order to protect the specific needs and interests of the community. One hears many voices in the United States, Britain, Germany, and France legitimizing this position by insisting on the fact that Muslims are “a minority,” “in a weak (political and financial) position,” “without great means” of influence on the society at large. The universal message of Islam that should move Muslims’ civic conscience to promote justice, right, and goodness everywhere is reduced to this: “since we are a feeble minority”—a defensive, self-pitying discourse, narrowly concerned with the protection of self and “the community.”

On a broader plane, these repeated and almost incantational calls for civic and political participation by Muslims seem to just float in the breeze. There seems to be no awareness of the conditions for bringing people together to make participation possible, unless it be a show or a pageant. There can be no authentic civic involvement if a solid program of citizenship education has not been developed and proposed in advance. Calls and slogans and singing the praises of “the good fortune of being a citizen” will change nothing: understanding one’s society, its history, and its institutions, developing one’s intelligence, and building an independent spirit— these are the things that will teach us, and everyone should be given the means to undergo this training. Without these prerequisites, and others, it is actually impossible to escape from this defensive and self-pitying attitude that in fact prevents us from acquiring a true citizenship ethic that not only proposes protection but makes a commitment to the way of resistance and reform.

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