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Religion and Society

The Forbidden Kite and the Kidnapping of Aldo Moro

The ordeal of Islam /1. Like all fundamentalisms, Islamic fundamentalism, too, expresses not the protest of traditional cultures but rather their disappearance. But its evident and greater involvement in violence is more connected with political-social radicalism than with the Koran. The filming of the trial and murder of hostages in Iraq does not come from some Muslim 'custom' but from the 'invention' of the Italian Red Brigades. A anti-conformist interpretation.

Fundamentalism is identified by European public opinion with a Muslim culture that is said to refuse to become Western. Hence the phrase 'clash of civilisations' or 'clash of cultures'. But in fact religious renewal, whether in the form of fundamentalism or spiritualism, is more the consequence of the separation of religion and culture, that is to say the reformulation of the religious element outside culture because of the weakening of the so-termed 'traditional' cultures under the impact of globalisation. Contemporary fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic, expresses a crisis in culture caused by globalisation, not a desire to restore original cultures. This fundamentalism expresses itself through modern forms of religiosity that are also to be found in Christianity: the phenomenon of the person who is 'born again' is central, that is to say the individual who returns personally to faith, breaking with the traditional religion of his or her family and his or her social context; faith is experienced in an individual way; society is seen as being too secular and thus corrupting, and all the established Churches in their various forms and traditional religious authority as well are viewed with distrust. The person who is 'born again' experiences a faith which most of the time is emotional and anti-intellectual in character, he or she is not in the least interested in speculative theology, and is very rigid at the level of values and norms. The community with which he or she identifies is made up in a voluntary way by people who share the same kind of relationship with faith, and it can at times resemble more a sect than a real and authentic Church. In Islam, as in Christianity, the new forms of religiosity are, therefore, anything but liberal. Even if they are not necessarily violent, they are for the most part very conservative.


This disjuncture between culture and religion is observable in all Muslim countries, but it is much stronger amongst the Muslims of Europe. Immigration has brought with it the loss of the social evidence of religion. It is easy to fast during Ramadan in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Egypt, even if one is not very religious, because social conformism pushes in this direction. But a Muslim who lives in Europe is forced to make a choice: he or she must decide whether religious prescriptions are at the centre of his or her life; he or she must reconstruct the whole of his or her life around constrictions with the risk of making his or her social and professional life more difficult; he or she can, in contrary fashion, ignore religious prescriptions or carry them out in an absolutely symbolic way. In a way, there hangs over him or her the task of defining in the first person what religion must be. The ulema (experts on religion) are of no help to believers who are forced to look for criteria of religious purity which no longer have any link with a given culture. Whatever the solution chosen, the believer must reconstruct and 'objectify' faith, distinguishing it from social conformism and traditions which for him or her no longer have any meaning. The religion of his or her parents is bound up with a culture that is no longer his or hers. The titles of books that have been recently published in the West, for example Qu'est-ce que l'Islam?, Que signifie tre musulman? or Comment faire l'expérience de l'Islam?, are a good expression of this question.


When one raises the question of the relations that exist between Islam and the West, what is important is not the theological content of Islam (given that a debate between Muslims on the subject exists), but the religious practices of Muslims who, even in fundamentalist forms, are much more 'Westernised' than it would appear. The forms of religiosity of contemporary Islam are to be found, in varying degrees, in Catholicism, in Protestantism, and even in Judaism. The believers of today put more emphasis on a personal faith and on an individual spiritual experience. These 'born again' believers reconstruct their identity by rediscovering religion.


But the crisis of traditional Muslim cultures is not only a consequence of the Westernisation of modes of consumption or the expansion of values and products from the West. It is also the result of a fully-fledged attack by Islamic fundamentalism. When the Talibans took power in Afghanistan in 1996, at the outset they had excellent relations with the Americans and from 1996 to 1998 Westerners could travel freely in the country. The Talibans did not fight Western culture but traditional Afghan culture in all its forms (art, games, music, sport). Why was the possession of singing birds forbidden? Why were kites forbidden? The motivations of the Taliban were simple: if you bird begins to sing while you are prayer you will be distracted by it and your prayer will be without value. If you are a good Muslim you will start all over again but given that we are not certain that you are a good Muslim it is easier to forbid the possession of singing birds which could endanger your salvation. In the same way, kites can be lost on trees and if you climb a tree to rescue it you run the risk of seeing a woman without a veil and thus you commit a sin. Why risk roasting in hell on account of a kite? You might as well forbid them. The same kind of thinking is to be found in all forms of fundamentalism: this world exists solely to prepare believers for Salvation. The function of the state is not to assure social justice and respect for the law but to create the desired situation by coercion as well so that believers can attain Salvation.


Everywhere those called Wahabytes or Salaphites, like the followers of Tabligh (translator's note: a neo-Islamic association especially widespread in the Indian sub-continent), condemn traditional forms of popular religion, Sufism, music, poetry, and literature. Novelists and poets, from Egypt to Bangladesh and without forgetting about Salman Rushdie, encounter difficulties in creating freely. And too often supposedly secular regimes, but regimes which are also very authoritarian, from Egypt to Algeria, associate themselves with this attack on culture.


Fundamentalism, therefore, is not an expression of protest on the part of traditional cultures that are threatened but an expression of their disappearance. It is a grave error, therefore, to connect the modern forms of fundamentalism with a clash of civilisations. Young people do not become fundamentalists because Western civilisation has ignored the culture of their parents but because they have lost this traditional culture, which for that matter they tend to despise. The religiosity of fundamentalists is individual and generational; it is a rebellion against the religion of their parents. Many second generation Muslim girls in Europe wear a veil not because of the instructions of their parents but to affirm their individuality: they do not hesitate, for that matter, to take up feminist slogans such as 'my body is my business'. Fundamentalism is at one and the same time both a consequence and a factor of globalisation because the separation of distinctive religious signs (for example halal, that is to say the conditions that make food religiously licit) from culture (that is to say cuisine, whether Moroccan or Turkish), makes possible a synthesis such as Fast Food Halal where Islamic hamburgers are sold. The recent invention in France of Mecca Cola is a good indicator of this reformulation of the religious element in a Westernised cultural field, without a relationship with the culture of origin, in the same way as Islamic rap can be just as violent as its American counterpart.


The contemporary tensions in Europe, when Islam is referred to, do not express, therefore, a conflict between European values and Eastern values; one is dealing here with a debate within Europe about its own values: sexuality, marriage, procreationIn Holland, when Pim Fortuyn decided to launch a campaign against the influence of the Muslims, he did so to defend recently acquired sexual freedom (and in particular the rights of homosexuals) and not traditional Christian values. On the other hand, Rocco Buttiglione had himself censured by the European Parliament because he embodied the rejection of the values of sexual liberation and feminism precisely in the name of Christian tradition. As may be expected, fundamentalists of all kinds often defend norms and values that resemble each other. On this as on other subjects, for example the family and abortion, pious Muslims in Europe and traditionalist Christians share the same position. In Turkey, when the Prime Minister, Erdrogan, proposed a law to criminalise adultery, many saw in it an attempt to reintroduce the shari'a (even more so because the Turkish word for adultery is zinnet). But in fact adultery is here defined in relation to the 'Christian' family (a married couple where the spouses have identical rights and duties). It does not include 'fornication' (which is the real meaning of the Koranic term), that is to say sexual relations outside marriage. Above all it makes illegal the practice which has become of current use amongst numerous Islamist Turks of taking a second wife outside marriage. The law thus punished de facto polygamy, which was previously tolerated. Lastly, a law of this kind does not exist in Saudi Arabia, but it does exist in ten American states (and was applied in West Virginia in 2004). In a few words, the model of virtue for Erdogan in this case is that of the American Christian conservatives and not that of Saudi Arabia.


But all these common traits do not explain political and radical Islam. Why are Islamic fundamentalists more involved than Christians in political violence? The matter is not linked to the Koran but to the fact that forms of Islamic radicalism are spreading today in spaces of social exclusion or political tensions. Today the radical groups recruit where once the extreme left recruited, but the embourgeoisement of the extreme left, the presence of a strong population with Muslim origins in districts that were once working-class districts, and also the fact that anti-imperialist movements are active in Muslim regions, means that the revolt against established order is carried out in the name of Islam. Many young people linked to the radical movements, such as Mohammad Atta, Zacharias Moussaoui and Kamel Daoudi, were 'born again' in Hamburg, Marseilles, London and Montreal, not in Egypt or Morocco (and they have broken with their families). The young radicals went to fight in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Afghanistan or in Kashmir rather than in their countries of origin because they do not regard the Middle East as the heart of a Muslim civilisation besieged by crusaders. They live in a global village and do not draw their identity from their geographical origins. The fact that Islamic radicalism has taken the place of the radicalism of the extreme left explains the growing number of converts in all the radical networks that have been discovered recently. The Beghal network in France had a third of its membership made up of converts. At the time of the inquiry into the attack on the mosques of Djerba in Tunisia the French police arrested a German with a Polish name. Richard Reid, the terrorist who attempted to blow up a British aeroplane; José Padilla, accused of having prepared an attack with a 'dirty bomb' in the United States of America; and John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, were all converts. The radical and violent left has today abandoned these zones of social exclusion. If one considers the bloodthirsty filming of the 'trial' and the execution of the hostages in Iraq, as carried out by the al-Zarqawi group, one can observe that this did not come from some Islamic tradition but from the performance organised by the Italian Red Brigades at the time of the kidnapping and murder of the former Prime Minister of Italy, Aldo Moro. Barbarity has globalised. The request of mythical, messianic and transnational movements remains the same, like the enemy: almighty American imperialism. These movements are not the product of the history of the Western world or of the history of the Middle East but of the fusion of all histories and globalisation. They are at home in a disorientated world.