Here we must insist on the absolute necessity of making available to Muslims in each of the Western countries a deep knowledge of their environment. We have already referred to this in the chapter on education, but it is even more important when it comes to access to citizenship. We must profit fully from what is provided by the public (state) school system in these areas—knowledge of history, geography, language, culture, and traditions. All these elements make it possible to comprehend, from within, the frame of reference of the society on the regional, national, and even continental levels. And we must add to all these disciplines a subject on which there is much variation in public education in the different countries—civic education. It is important to reconnect with the tradition in which this training was given, because young people know less and less about the functioning of the institutions and the whole political system of their countries and show a growing disinterest in voting and participation. All citizens need this civic education/citizenship training, which today is full of gaps, and Muslim citizens have to understand it as an integral part of their personal and collective development if they want to remain faithful to their principles and also become actors in their societies.
The world has become complex, and political implications are sometimes not explicit. In order to form an independent and serious opinion requires, beyond a proper civic education/citizenship training, the capacity to listen, understand, express oneself, and engage in dialogue with others. It is of prime importance to cultivate a genuine culture of debate among citizens. To go beyond the very shallow consensus of fashionable ideas and to keep a critical distance from the unhealthy and incessant administration of “opinion polls” and make one’s choices freely requires taking time to admit the complexity of things, to exchange ideas, discuss theories, and meet the other—one’s fellow citizen. This culture of authentic, searching, honest, and guileless debate is a real school for citizenship. Some parents manage to achieve this in the home, and some teachers bring it to life in their courses. It is for all Islamic organizations, both within their own groups and vis-a`-vis the world around them, to develop this attitude and love of exchange and debate, this intelligence that learns to listen and this critical mind that knows how to ask questions,.
The third prerequisite is learning through concrete participation in the life of the city. Citizens must gain, or regain, a taste for public issues. Nothing is more formative than close involvement, in one’s own area or town, in public service projects, social politics’ or, more broadly, human solidarity. A civic awareness begins when we have the feeling that our human and social environment concerns us and that we are active participants in our own lives and our own society, and not the objects of other people’s decisions. Perpetual criticism of political authority or of the police is futile and meaningless when, alongside it, we as citizens do nothing to change things. Posing always as victims is a kind of cowardice. To be up in arms at every police blunder when we have become passive observers of the breakdown of the social fabric and watch silently (without showing any inclination toward concrete involvement) when young people display unspeakable violence and steal and assault and insult adults in their communities (particularly the police) does not make much sense and is, above all, unworthy. Obviously, there are police failures, but they increase in number as public resignation increases. Close involvement is a school for prevention and development: we do not perceive key features of national life in the same way when we find out how people who are really excluded from the system live with us and alongside us. A citizenry whose discourse and commitment forgets these people is a contradiction in terms: it should speak of justice and equal rights and promote social and economic oppression.
It may appear that calling on people to vote is a positive thing and a sign of open and progressive thinking, but to do it without providing for the concrete prerequisites for civic commitment is dangerous. Without education, a culture of debate, and practical involvement, any individual, particularly the young, may be drawn into “fashionable” movements or groups that lobby for or defend special interests rather than putting forward a social policy. Muslim citizens, inspired by their spiritual and ethical message, have a major responsibility to take these prerequisites into account: to be true to their conscience in the Western environment absolutely requires it. This is the way that will lead to the growth of a responsible, active, and intelligent citizenship—three qualities that are already part of their spirituality.