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Globalized Islam

How has the movement of Muslims for economic reasons caused Islam to be a global religion?

August 17, 2005

How has the movement of Muslims for economic reasons caused Islam to be a global religion?

Muslims, like other immigrants, have come to the West in search of better economic opportunities. But are they bound to clash with their Western counterparts? In this Globalist Interview, Olivier Roy — author of "Globalized Islam: The Search For a New Ummah" — explains that, due to globalization, these two groups actually have much more in common today than ever before.

Is there any true separation between Islam and the West?

“The frontier between Islam and the West is no longer geographical — and is less and less civilizational.”

How did this come about?

“Islam is a Western religion, not through military conquest or mass conversions, but as a consequence of the rapid and voluntary displacement of millions of people looking for jobs in Europe or a better life in the United States.”

What happened when these Muslims settled in the West?

“Look at France. The Islamization of the French suburbs is largely a myth. Youngsters are fascinated by Western urban youth subculture — baseball caps, hamburgers, rap or hip-hop, fashionable dress, consumerism — and they speak an old French slang (verlan).”

To what extent does that apply to other countries?

“Such an urban youth culture can be found in most of Western Europe’s big cities, but in countries where multiculturalism has been an official policy — such as the UK or the Netherlands — there are more pockets of traditional ways of life.”

Which larger trend has driven this development?

“Globalization has blurred the connection between a religion, a pristine culture, a specific society and a territory.”

How has this affected traditionally Muslim regions?

“Globalization means that Islam has less and less to do with a given territory. The historical Muslim space of the Middle East is now reshaped by nationalisms — and too often authoritarian states appear to offer a better defense than democracy against Western encroachments.”

In what ways is the global Muslim community reacting to globalization?

“Globalization can be accommodated through a liberal reformist view of Islam, a charismatic and spiritual approach — like Christian evangelical movements — or a neofundamentalist stress on sharia (laws) and ibadat (rituals).”

Are Islamic fundamentalists threatened by globalization?

“For many neofundamentalists, globalization is an opportunity — not a loss. When Muslims are cut off from pristine cultures that were for them largely influenced by non-Islamic customs and traditions, an opportunity presents itself to reconstruct a Muslim community based solely on Islamic tenets.”

Does globalization thus feed pan-Islamic puritanism?

“Globalization is a good opportunity to dissociate Islam from any given culture — and to provide a model that could work beyond any culture.”

In what ways, if any, does globalization strengthen the hand of secular and moderate Muslims?

“To the extent that they can offer more than just a compromise with Western societies, globalization offers reformers the opportunity to provide a discourse of legitimatization for the secularization of Islam.”

How does militant Islam fit in with the wider debate on globalization?

“Radical Islam is part of — and heir to — the modern Third Worldist anti-U.S. movement, but has been unable to create a grand alliance.”

What was a consequence of this global movement of radical Islamists?

“The militants who went to Afghanistan were called ‘Arabs’ by the Afghans and the ‘Afghans’ by their compatriots after they had returned to their country of origin.”

How are militants who go to Iraq to fight the United States viewed in the Muslim world?

“It depends of the political views of the different people. But I think that, while Iraqi insurgents are perceived as nationalist fighters, foreign volunteers are seen with more suspicion.”

And finally, why is radical Islam still mainly a fringe movement within the religion?

Jihad is not one of the five pillars of Islam — profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage. Most radical militants are engaged in action as individuals, cutting links with their ‘natural’ community — such as family, ethnic group and nation — to fight beyond the sphere of any real collective identity.”