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Western Muslims: Isolation or Integration?

Can Western Islamic communities ever fully integrate into the wider society?

July 29, 2005

Can Western Islamic communities ever fully integrate into the wider society?

For the first generations of Muslim immigrants, the Western cultural universe was particularly disturbing.

It appeared that no customs or tastes corresponded to those of their cultures of origin — and, even worse, that there was hardly any respect for the traditional rules of Islamic morality.

The prohibition of alcohol and riba (bank interest) was not recognized at all, and everything — or almost everything — seemed to be allowed in the name of freedom.

The first and very natural reaction was to isolate themselves — either as individuals, as families or as communities.

It became a matter of living an almost parallel existence by protecting oneself and one's children from an environment that was considered morally and culturally dangerous.

The equation — itself usually imported — was that less Western culture naturally equals more Islam.

With the arrival of the younger generations, the situation inevitably changed, but the state of mind remained the same. One had first and foremost to protect oneself.

Since the young were more and more in contact with the surrounding society, it became necessary to "prohibit."

Everything that seemed more or less characteristic of the West in manners or style was considered dangerous, even unhealthy, and people contrived to forbid or avoid it as much as possible.

Muslim families and organizations tried as best they could to find solutions, but it was a difficult situation, especially since there were numerous contradictions.

For example, going out was forbidden, but almost free access to television was allowed (people felt themselves to be better protected from what was outside if they stayed at home).

Boys were allowed to try many kinds of activities that were forbidden to girls, while organizations usually provided alternative activities for boys only.

On the whole, the situation was quite bad and remains so. To be a Muslim man or woman in the West, while trying to respect one's values and principles, is not easy.

To maintain a spiritual life, carry out the ritual obligations (prayer, zakat [a tax raised for the poor and elderly] and fasting) and keep to an ethical way of life is a daily test.

All Muslims who are committed to their religion know this and experience it.

People have often been advised that in order to remain themselves, they should distance themselves from society and be not only vigilant, but even radical with regard to the prohibitions.

Some — a small minority — do practice this, while others — after repeated frustrated attempts — either remain deeply divided or have given up after failing to cut themselves off totally from society.

What can be done? If we consider Western Islamic communities, we realize that they are all rather on the margins of society. There is a lot of evidence for this quasi-seclusion in their way of organizing themselves, their way of behaving and even in the way in which they try to emerge from their isolation.

People live within their own circle, and their very approach to inviting their fellow-citizens to meetings or conferences is inappropriate or even completely clumsy.

They do not know how to go about it. It has to be said that they feel better in their isolation. In the end, this is the easiest and safest way.

Confrontation with the other is dangerous and almost always constraining. We enjoy talk that affirms us in these feelings.

In the mosque and at conferences and seminars, speakers vigorously refer to the prohibitions and insist on "our essential difference," "our distinctiveness because of the excellence of our religion" and "our necessary distance." They find an audience that is emotionally receptive and supportive.

To isolate oneself and forbid everything without half-measures is the first reaction of moral awareness when it faces a difficulty. This is initially the emotional reaction of a heart longing for peace. As such, it deserves our deep respect.

However, daily life is not as clear as our speeches, and even though the principles of Islam are essentially simple, our presence in the West reminds us that life is very complicated.

The emotion that naturally results in distancing or rejection is not enough to solve a disturbing moral dilemma.

Sooner or later, it becomes more disturbing and has to be confronted and appropriate solutions found.

This is what all the new generations of Muslims born in the West tell us: We may well be satisfied with clear speeches that make no concessions, but around the mosques, after conferences, young people have school friends, listen to music and go to the cinema.

So who is wrong — parents who delude themselves or young people who simply try to live in reality? It is a matter of urgency that these issues be faced and that we stop being incoherent and evasive.

If the message of Islam is truly universal, if — as we keep claiming — one has to be able to find solutions appropriate for every time and society, then, in this area as in all others, Muslims must accept their responsibilities and put forward some alternatives.

There is still a long way to go, and so far the vast majority of Muslim social structures exist in completely parallel networks.

In the United States and all the European countries, bookshops labeled "Islamic" stock only books written by Muslims (often selected according to the preference of the proprietor) and published by Muslims for a Muslim readership in a place patronized almost exclusively by Muslims.

The universality of the message, its comprehensive nature and the principle of integration are reduced and impoverished in this sad reality.

In mosques and associations, activities are envisaged as being on the margins of society and conducted in a foreign language.

That is a result of the unfortunate tendency to confuse the importance of learning Arabic in order to understand the Qur'an with the need to chant it in Arabic in order to remain Muslim. Cultural activities retain, imperceptibly, a pronounced Eastern flavor.

In order to protect young people, we often suggest leisure activities whose impact should be carefully considered. Offered almost exclusively to boys (Why? In the name of which Islamic principle?), these activities are sometimes totally unrelated to the lived experience of young people.

The words of "Islamic" songs, outings and games and even the organized discussions all have the same orientation — the unnatural hope that adolescents will remain children, impervious to Western culture.

This world "outside the world" is a fiction. The cultural environment, television and their young contemporaries inevitably touch the hearts and minds of those who live in Europe or the United States.

And the answer lies more in learning to manage this impact than in denying or rejecting it. The indications are that more and more parents and organizations have understood the meaning of these factors and are looking for new approaches.

These initiatives are still few and isolated, but there is a good chance that with time the movement will grow and make it possible to reform our way of dealing with questions of culture and entertainment.

From “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” by Tariq Ramadan, copyright © 2003 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.