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Civic Ethics

It is no good to become citizens by any means and at any price. This is where the Islamic principles of human actions and the constitutional principles of civic commitment connect in their universality: they all rest on the dignity of the human being, and they all require an ethical basis. That is why we speak here of promoting a true “civic ethics.” In practice, in addition to a watchful respect for the prerequisites mentioned earlier, we have to find a particular way of becoming committed and acting politically. We have noted that, to our way of thinking, normalizing our presence without trivializing it means insisting, for Muslims, not on sustaining a sense of Otherness but rather on an awareness of their belonging and commitment to society in general. The universal principles of Islam concerning the brotherhood of mankind, the necessity for justice and equality before the law, the need for involvement, and, last, service to others requires that attention be given constantly in society to the evaluation of the moral quality of actions, the motivations and abilities of the significant actors, and the ultimate nature of the dynamics that are set in motion. Quite apart from competence in the use of the tools of citizenship, when these principles feed the individual’s conscience, they lead to a certain way of being, deciding, and acting, whether alone or collectively.

Promoting an ethic to be applied to the citizenry demands first of all that one feel entrusted with a mission that consists in reminding one’s fellow citizens of the demanding responsibility they have, on both the individual and collective levels, to respect their fellows and the creation as a whole: this also means commitment to enforcing the elementary principles of respect for the rights of human persons—their integrity, freedom (of conscience and worship), right to equality, and so on22— for all people in all circumstances. It is true that these rights sometimes have to be defended on behalf of a particular community that is facing discrimination, but, as we have said, that does not mean perverting one’s civic action by reducing it to a mere defense of “my religion,” “my culture,” or “my ethnic group.” The principles that undergird the “community of faith” require that we act against communitarianism and the thinking of the ghetto and sectarianism. The natural isolation that Muslims have endured during the first years of their presence in the West must today give way to a commitment that, if it is inspired and fed by the principles and ethical message of Islam, must be put at the service of all, for the good of all.

Some suggest that Muslims should follow the example of the Jews in the United States. As an extremely well-organized lobby, very active and extremely influential in the corridors of power in Washington, they are characterized by continuous activity, with the aim either of protecting the interests of the Jewish community or of supporting the state of Israel. This should be, some argue, the model of communal political commitment by Muslims in the West: to form a sort of lobby and defend “their” interests. Even if the lobbying tradition is different on the different sides of the Atlantic, it is still true that each national political culture has determined, for the various community, economic, and religious groupings, a particular way in which it can bring pressure to bear and influence the political life of the country. The practices of lobbying and exerting pressure, while they go on in the full light of day in the United States and cause no shock, are employed differently, or simply more discreetly, in European countries. New Muslim citizens should go with the flow and follow suit.

Perhaps we should begin by comparing like with like. Muslims do not have the same history or experience as Jews living in the United States and Europe, and the great majority of Muslims do not know the territory or the political culture and do not have at their disposal the means available to the Jewish community in the West. The idea of acting in the same way or even moving in the same direction is ill considered and has little chance of success. More fundamentally, quite apart from the possibility or impossibility of such a strategy, the crucial question is whether Muslim communities in Europe and the United States should organize themselves into pressure groups or get into lobbying on the political level. Is this the way they should see their role? The whole of our analysis leads to the conclusion that this question must be answered in the negative. The role of Muslim communities in the West is to defend principles, not interests, and if it transpires that it is in their interest to have their universal principles respected, it should be clear that their fight for these principles serves society as a whole. Raising high the standard of right, justice, and ethics cannot stop at the boundaries of the community of faith: the universality of the principles calls us back to the meaning of the brotherhood of mankind, which consists in serving the whole community and all human beings. The “way of faithfulness” compels us not only to respect plurality but also to step outside the ghettos, know each other better and act together for the common good if we are to reach the end of the “way.” If, on the basis of their own specificity, which is well understood, Muslim communities could allow political action to become once again a more noble, worthy, and transparent activity to serve the people rather than to serve itself, their presence would have some use and the would have carried out part of their witness among their fellow citizens.

This is the understanding that must rise from now on in the political consciousness of Western Muslims. It would benefit the whole of society to restore a little morality to political activity. Politicians in contact with Muslims at a local or national level should be able to “feel the difference”: they should notice that the concern of Muslim citizens is to respect certain principles; that their satisfaction lies in justice being applied to everyone, Black and White, “native” citizens and immigrants, and that if they are engaged in a forceful relationship with local authorities, it is with the aim of fighting corruption, discrimination, and violence, or, more fundamentally, social policies that protect the rich and their privileges. They cannot be bought because they refuse to be sold!

At election time, candidates should receive a clear message without political contortions. Some of these elected representatives, or prospective elected representatives, promise the “Muslim communities” a mosque, or a center, or a hall, or a cemetery, or even a place for ritual slaughter or some other privilege in order to get their support and their votes, and unfortunately they find Muslim citizens ready to play their game. These same politicians do not hesitate to criticize ghettos, social separation, and communitarianism even when they have themselves fueled a perverted communitarianism for electoral purposes. Muslim citizens then get only what they deserve: they have to realize that those who are capable of buying them before the elections have no scruples about selling them afterward. Small compromises follow their own rules and their own logic: that has to be accepted.

Voting is too important an action to be negotiated for so mean a price. The ethics of citizenship here comes into its full meaning: it is not about voting for a candidate capable of protecting our interests or of voting only for a Muslim; it is clearly a question of establishing objective criteria for making choices on the basis of conscience. The best candidate, at whatever political level, is the one who brings together the three most essential qualities when it comes to seeking a political mandate (which essentially consists in serving the community): integrity, ability, and willingness to serve. Do such candidates do what they say? Do they have the abilities necessary for the post in question? Are they present on the ground and engaged with and on behalf of their constituents? These are the questions that Western Muslim citizens should ask, and they should make their choices as responsible and independent citizens. It is for them to evaluate, consider, and finally decide, case by case, in favor of the best, or sometimes the “least bad,” candidate. A citizenship that never wants to betray an ethic of life is demanding and depends on a permanently and deliberately critical mind that, on the political level, is the condition for wisdom.

As we have said, we should not necessarily choose a candidate who is a member of “the community”: one can be a Muslim and dishonest, politically incompetent, and more concerned with titles than with serving people. To choose such a person, for example (and such do exist), would be a betrayal of principles. Did not the Prophet say: “Anyone who appoints to a position an individual from a community when there is someone else more competent betrays God, his Prophet, and all Muslims”? The choice should be based on the balance between the three qualities referred to earlier and not on the religion or community membership of the person. In the two situations, the act of electing and the hope of being elected, a civic ethic operates in the same way and makes the same demands: it calls upon responsible and independent individuals to know their principles, ethics, and environment, to decide on the ultimate aim of their commitment, and, in all circumstances, to be responsible for their actions. If politics has a meaning and political action has any worth, they should be found somewhere at the heart of these dilemmas, at the precise moment when each person’s conscience is looking for the point of balance that marks the intersection between means and ends, ethics and effectiveness.

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