With the questions of social commitment and political participation, we embark in this chapter on some thinking that is central for at least two reasons. The first is that the treatment of these subjects in the West is beset by a number of recurrent confusions that result in a false representation as much of Islam as of the motivations of Western Muslims. The second is that the Islamic scriptural sources contain an extremely vigorous and demanding social message that inspires believers wherever they are on earth. It is therefore important to build our study on concrete realities, without forgetting the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunna concerning these two areas of social commitment and political participation. However, presenting things in this way runs the risk of confirming in the minds of some observers and enquirers that Muslims, even in the West, merge the categories of the religious and the political, private and public, and that, in the last analysis, they have not understood and cannot adapt to the principle of separation between Church and State, which is the foundation of the constitutional framework of secularized societies. It is therefore necessary to begin by clarifying the terms of the argument before putting forward concrete suggestions.
Leaving Confusion Behind
The theoretical elements presented in part I will be a great help in clarifying our position regarding the idea that Islam maintains a confusion of categories when it comes to the religious, social, and political aspects of life. Two of the principles we have considered should be recalled here: (a) There is a difference in nature between the Islamic principles related to religious ritual and those that concern the affairs of the world and society: the first are very detailed and precise, while the second are, with very rare exceptions, general and give guidance in a certain direction, rather than fixing a restricting framework; (b) The methodologies in these two areas are the complete opposites of each other: only the text is to be relied on for deciding what is allowed in terms of ritual practice, while the scope for reason and creativity is very wide when it comes to social affairs, which are limited only by the prohibitions found in the scriptural sources, and these are in fact not numerous. Having differentiated the principles and the methodologies, we may take a step toward clarification by stating that although, on the level of ritual, the Islamic message provides a clear, fixed, and, so to speak, unchangeable framework, it is not at all the same on the social and political level, where principles and an awareness of the prohibitions inspire the type of commitment that individuals make in these two areas. They must decide what this should be individually and independently, using their reason, their freedom, and, more broadly, their imagination. There is in fact no confusion between the restraining authority of the religious and the civic independence of the individual, between the realm of dogma and that of reason, between the private and the public. Contrary to the widely held idea, Muslims have no particular problem with the principle of distinguishing the various orders of things, even within their sources, because they find these distinctions articulated in the first works of categorization of orders carried out by the ulama as early as the eighth to ninth centuries. In the history of Christianity, arriving at this “distinction of orders” led to the necessary establishment of a clear “separation” between the two spheres of authority (Church and State). This structuring, and the use of space that it assumes, is very accessible to Muslims because it is close to their way of conceiving of the nature of their relationship with God and the modalities of their acting in the world.
What appears to differ, however, is that for Muslims the source of reference remains the same, even if it speaks differently to the heart and mind. With regard to the first, it recalls the dimension of one’s dependence on God; with regard to the second, it sketches the paths to independence and freedom in relation to human beings. The original and natural principle of distinction in Islam has not had to go as far as separation, even divorce, as in the Christian era, in order to provide humankind with rational autonomy and the ability to confront the temporal evolution of societies. So Muslims continue to find in their scriptural sources principles that inspire their social and political commitment without ever imposing a definitive model, a timeless code, or, more broadly, a dogma for action. In fact, these principles form the body of an ethic that their constantly active reason must seek to respect as much as possible. On thinking about it, we realize that this approach, apparently particular to Muslims, is in fact not so: many Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists are inspired in their social and political commitments by their religious, humanist, and ethical convictions and try to act in a coherent manner. They may quote their sources less often, or less directly, than Muslims, but they are perhaps inspired by them just as much.
The difficulties Muslims encounter in social debates in the West arise most with people who confuse “separation” and “conflict” or “mutual rejection” and project onto the secular space a militant ideology opposed to any form of religious expression. There really is a great difference between the normative constitutional order of laicity, or secularism, and the very tendentious and ideologically oriented reading of it that certain radicals, even extremists, would like to impose. To them, in order to be completely “integrated,” people should not express their faith at all and should become religiously invisible: any reference to Islam should completely disappear from the public arena, “Islamic” associations should not be so called, and essentially the exercise of one’s citizenship should never be inspired by religious convictions. Those who hold these extreme views justify them on the basis of fear of creating religious ghettoes, sectarianism, and the possible return of religious conflicts to the West. These fears are understandable, but we have the right to question the proposed remedies: Western societies have so changed and become so unhomogeneous that wiping out all allegiances in the name of national unity is a measure that maintains only a pretense, or hangs on an illusion. Moreover, the feeling of belonging to a community of faith, for example, is not necessarily a withdrawal or an intellectual and/or ethnic isolation and, on the contrary, depending on how it is conceived, may produce extra spiritual energy available to the society as a whole. This is what we will try to demonstrate in what follows. It should provide some answers for those who maintain and nourish distrust of the real intentions of Muslims, which they think are hidden behind deceitful double talk.
The second confusion that must be removed is directly connected with this discussion. It exists as much among Muslims as among their fellowcitizens and concerns the understanding of what Muslims mean by “the community of faith.” The overall consideration we gave in part I to the principle of loyalty is needed here to distinguish among the various kinds of belonging and the way in which they are structured. Without repeating the whole idea, let us remember that the community of faith imprints the heart of believers with the collective dimension of their belonging with regard to spirituality, practice, and solidarity; it does not justify taking up a passionate, chauvinistic, or blind stance. Higher ethical principles should inspire the behavior of individuals, sometimes even against their own coreligionists if they are untruthful, treacherous, unjust, or oppressive. Spiritual community is an allegiance to a body of principles and a morality, not to a community united by blood or self-interest. One gets involved in politics not in the name of “my people” but before God and in conscience, in the name of inalienable principles. As a result, the community of faith is essentially opposed to any form of communitarianism.
Something must also be said about a confusion that is in its nature clearly sociological but that often arises in discussion about Islam and causes a disturbance in the debate concerning Muslims in the West. This debate often focuses on a mixture of vague considerations related to the problems of immigration, marginalization, violence, and drugs. First of all, the question of Islam has nothing to do with immigration as such, and many Muslims are now American or European citizens: Islam is a Western religion in the full sense of the word. If these social problems do touch many Muslims, this is obviously not intrinsically because of their religious allegiance. It is a matter of urgency to establish a clear distinction between the nature of the problems, their causes, and their consequences in order not to fuel the simplistic equations: Muslim immigrant violence. What should be called into question are the immigration policies of Western countries and their social and urban policies, which have catastrophic effects, spreading very negative images of the Other and giving rise to vexatious, discriminatory, and unjust administrative measures.
These are complex problems, and there are many areas of overlap. They should therefore be dealt with as clearly as possible, and we should work toward reform not as “Muslims” but as citizens, inspired of course by a message and a morality, but above all aware of our responsibilities and determined that the right of every person to be treated justly and fairly (as the common law guarantees) should prevail. Partners are needed in this venture and should become more and more numerous. After all, this will be the best proof that the caricatures lie and that Muslim citizens are today among the men and women who are working against social breakdown and violence. As for those among them who are victims, like all other victims, they suffer the consequences of deficient social policies that become increasingly tight and restrictive the more they refuse to act against the causes of injustice.