This is a brief exploration of some keys to understand the uneasy, aggrieved and confrontational relationship between Muslim minorities and state and society in non-Islamic states particularly democracies.
It is rare to see a substantial Muslim minority in a non-Muslim state existing peacefully and using the opportunities available particularly in vibrant democracies to develop themselves and flourish. The reality most often is that Muslim minorities feel aggrieved, oppressed, misunderstood and marginalized. The majority retreat into ghettoes and relate to others, particularly the majority communities with suspicion and even confrontation. Integration beyond the economic field is hardly attempted and even in the economic area it is marked by grievances.
Jocelyne Cesari of the Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at George Town University writes in the New York Times on August 28 on “Integration of Muslims beyond socio economic opportunity”. She suggests three reasons for attraction among European Muslims to violent groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). She suggests that counter to common interpretation voiced often by liberal politicians and activists the appeal to groups like ISIS is not driven by socio economic deprivation. She identifies three factors that are most significant. One, the growing presence of a Salafi version of Islam; two, the radicalization of Muslim youth due to increase in discriminatory policies, particularly in relation to Islamic practices and three, the collapse of all major ideologies in Europe- nationalism, communism and liberalism.
I identify another key factor and will also examine more closely why the Salafi version of Islam is becoming attractive to youth with modern education and growing up in modern democracies not only in Europe but also beyond it.
Another key factor attracting Muslim youth to a violent Islam is the spread of the teaching of Islamic eschatology. The belief that the establishment of the Universal Caliphate is imminent when all Islam’s enemies will be defeated and a pure Islamic State reborn is preached and talked about more widely and optimistically among both rural and urban educated Muslims. This is evident in the messages of Muslim preachers and teachers speaking in English on Islamic TV channels.
The attraction to ISIS is not primarily the beliefs of Salafi Islam but the sense that ISIS and groups that follow a militaristic Jihadi tradition are more capable and closer to establishing the universal caliphate. While the Salafi vision of a purified Islam is significant what appears to draw Muslim youth to groups like ISIS is the vision of the universal caliphate.
Attributing the sense of alienation and grievance of Muslim youth to “ increase in discriminatory policies” is a popular explanation. This needs to be examined carefully. Any regulation of Islamic practices like height of mosque minarets, public calls to prayer from mosques, Halal food and medical standards of circumcision are made in contexts of plurality where Islam is one religious community. Colonial administrators in India set a pattern by avoiding any regulations for such practices. All religious practices and personal laws for Muslims were allowed to be wholly Islamic and sharia based. The rest of the country with its majority Hindu communities was brought under a uniform legal code that was projected as modern. This approach continues to be seen as contentious in modern independent India. A vast majority of Muslims assume that personal law codes that apply to all other communities in India cannot be applied to Muslims. They will live as religious minorities in some peace if they can live as if they are in an Islamic state governed by Sharia as far as their religious practices are concerned.
Any attempt to ensure that religious particularity does not lead to social exclusion in a plural state and to ensure that uniform laws can apply in most areas across religions is interpreted as discrimination, oppression and even racism. The non-Muslim majority state cannot win peace without conceding the demand for a state within a state by Islamic activists. Many Muslim moderates find it difficult to resist such activity.
The collapse of European ideologies has not necessarily created a wasteland. An aggressively anti religious secularism is filling that space. It is understandable that Radical Muslim groups equate the west with irreligion and anti religion.
However, several carefully conducted surveys confirm that religion has not disappeared from the west. In most western countries a majority consider religion as important in shaping social values even if a majority may not practice a religion regularly. The narrative of the “ungodly west” is used by some Salafists to justify violence against the atheist west. There is no effort to show evidence for such a narrative except anecdotes of immoral behavior by some westerners. This supposedly atheistic godless state of the west continues to fuel the centuries old hatred of the west.
Unless Islam develops its theologies of plurality of human society it will be difficult to believe that Muslims will integrate and live peacefully in majority non-Muslim societies. The challenge lies not with outsiders to Islam but its own leaders and theologians. If they do not produce a robust theology that identifies ways to live peacefully as Muslims in non-Muslim states the only option for many young Muslims will be the universal caliphate and the prospect of perpetual war with the rest of the world.