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“We need to change the way we look at Muslims”

Sunday, 23 January, 2011 - 22:36

With the Tunisian revolution and increasing unrest in Algeria, it's time to reconsider our vision of islam. In a European context of spreading islamophobia, Marc Cheb Sun, founder and director the French “Respect Mag” magazine and initiator of an appeal refusing violence committed in the name of islam (1), invites us to change our view of Muslims inside and outside of Europe's borders.

Myeurop : The appeal “islam flouted by terrorists” that you sent out two weeks ago has aroused a great interest; since then the Tunisians have overthrown Ben Ali's despotic regime and the Algerians are out on the streets. Do you think the West's ambiguous perception of islam could quickly become positive?

Marc Cheb Sun : Not quickly. The analysis of Tunisian society by many major media and the political class are not deep enough, their comments are not insightful. They tend to use the word “islamist” for very different movements such as the conservative forces of political islam or armed militias like the GIA or even Al-Qaeda and thus create confusion. It's as if you compared the most extreme groups of the Christian far right with parties like Germany's CDU!

In a world where political and religious identities partly merge, it is necessary to study facts in a dispassionate way, without making the assumption that the two sides are already at war. For that, we need to change the way we look at Muslims.

Your appeal caused a great stir in France. Yet isn't it stating the obvious to say that Muslims are not responsible for crimes committed by fanatics acting in the name of islam?

That's the argument put forward by the few people who were reluctant about or opposed to our appeal. Ten years have gone by since the shock of 9/11. As early as September 12, 2001, a few of us came up with the idea of that appeal, but at the time it was not realistic: Muslims were dumbfounded and even somewhat in denial, saying “it is not possible that something like this happens in the name of islam.” So there was a feeling that answering something so unconceivable, even by protesting, would have been a form of complicity.

Today, the will to take position is strongest, facing repeated acts of terrorism, and also thanks to a certain maturity. We are acting as free, responsible, adult citizens, neither obeying orders nor seeking to justify ourselves.

The appeal "L'Islam bafoué par les terroristes" in Libération french newspaper January 12th

What do you answer to those who reproach the signatories for not being representative of French Muslims?

They are representative! Contrary to what certain media said, it is not a call from “moderate Muslims.” First there were intellectuals, then representatives, some conservative, of the faith. The mosque of Paris, the imam of Bordeaux (who belongs to the Union of Islamic Organisations of France), the representative of the French Council of the Muslim Faith as well as representatives of the spiritual branch of islam (sufis, etc.) were all present.

Pretty fast, many others joined the call: Muslim prison chaplains, small neighbourhood mosques, the large mosques of France…We wanted to federate all those who live the faith, think it and keep it alive in the field, each in their own way. 

Would you say your initiative is historic?

Among those who took part, many say there will be a “before the appeal” and an “after the appeal.” This call is unique in the way it brought together, on an emotional subject, people who are overwhelmed by every new terrorist attack. Our appeal gives a voice to the violence of these repeated shocks. The words are voluntarily strong: crying out that “our identity is being stolen” says way more than “we express solidarity.”

France refuses to recognise the concept of community, in the name of equality of citizens (“égalité”); do you think it is an obstacle to the full integration of people of Muslim culture?

What needs to be understood, in France and elsewhere, is that identities are in flux. It is frequently assumed that when one person claims a community as his or her own, they belong only to that one, and lock themselves in it. That is wrong, since all the serious studies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, on the subject show that people belong to multiple communities: communities of belief, communities of lifestyle, communities of ideas and so on… So it would be good to nuance the French and the Anglo-Saxon concepts: it is good neither to deny someone part of their identity, nor to lock them in it. In the French case, I think that rejecting communities is an error.

Firstly, because it means thinking that communities only act in their own interest, whereas they can bring about profound changes in society that benefit all. It's the case of the PACS [the French civil partnership, a form of civil union], which was initially carried by gays wanting equal rights and is now very common among heterosexual couples, because it answer the needs of people's new lifestyles. 

From a totally different angle, I think it is symbolically important that Jews and Israelis take position against a state that claims to act in their name. It is a strong gesture of freedom, which contradicts the idea that belonging to a community alienates liberty. In my opinion, being able to affirm a communitarian position helps foster and advance debates within the community. Or else nothing will ever happen!

By reinforcing a totally invented power struggle between Muslims and others, and by not leaving this community any means to express itself, “absurd solidarity” phenomenons are created, for instance on the issue of the burqa: While most French Muslims refuse the full veil as a symbol of alienation, they have not been vocal on the subject, for fear of cristallising attention on their religion, again. So silence reigns.

Are Muslims better integrated in the UK or in Germany?

In Germany, in spite of the recent change, decades of jus sanguinis [citizenship by blood] cannot be just cast aside. Besides, there are no colonial relations between Germany and its Muslim immigrants or their descendants. This means the communities are a lot more separate in Germany than in France, including among young people.

Yet both in Germany and in France, a recent opinion poll revealed that a third of the population considered Muslims as a “threat” in the country. This result is a lot more serious in France, considering its traditions of jus solis [citizenship by birth] and equality of citizens are supposed to be anchored in the national culture.

In the United Kingdom, there are two aspects. One is positive, it's the way the issues are openly discussed. Using an ethnic angle, particularly for statistics, makes it easier to identify groups, to identify the problems they face, and the dynamics they create. It also means that affirmative action policies can be implemented. On the question of religious identity, I have the impression that a single “Muslim” category is created, which would mean that wearing a full veil is the right (or an expression) of Muslims, whereas I see it as the right given to an extremist fringe. In fact, this Anglo-Saxon communitarian approach creates a Muslim identity that has nothing to do with people's daily lives, and which shuts them in.  

Couverture de Respect Mag n°27

Islamophobic populist political parties are gaining ground across Europe, whereas only 20 million out of the EU's 500 million inhabitants are of Muslim culture. How do you explain it? Is it just the result of fear-mongering?

Let me quote the political analyst Olivier Roy who says: “The European identity tends to define itself negatively with respect to islam.” And he takes the example of Belgium where members of parliament voted unanimously to ban burqas and then dissolved Parliament the next day because they were incapable of defining what Belgium was! He says that nation-states are declining and that we haven't been able to find a substitute European identity yet.

So all this is clashing. Europe is perceived as something that slows and dissolves identities rather than linking them. Failing to define our values, we resort to a negative mirror and claim that they are the opposite of the values that islam carries. When you are obsessed by a presence on your territory that supposedly will hasten your own dissolution, then fear and rejection dominate.

Can't the same be said of Middle Eastern countries that portray themselves as bulwarks against Westernisation?

Absolutely. I believe that no shock of civilisations is inscribed in the world's events, but many are convincing themselves there is, given that they think negatively. At the European level, people are not going to build a European identity – theirs and that of the peoples'- themselves. They need to be nurtured, as you are doing with myeurop. Crises make us incapable of creating a common projection. Therefore, people are creating negatively.

Would the establishment of a free and democratic regime in Tunisia give the lie to the common idea that Muslim culture is if not incompatible at least not very favourable to the affirmation of values of individual freedom and tolerance?

Stephane Hessel [the French author of a best-selling citizen manifesto] who signed our appeal points out that human rights and monotheistic faiths share common values. It is a common basis for the three monotheistic religions. I also encourage you to listen to the Algerian sufi spiritual guide Khaled Bentounes. For him, what creates an obstacle to democracy is not islam, it's history, it's geopolitics, as well as heritages, some colonial.

Besides, by focusing on the islamic peril in Tunisia, we make our analysis of the country simplistic. Tunisia has separated its constitution from its religious identity. And the fact that a conservative religious party is allowed does not threaten democracy. Islam can also be manipulated by the powers that be.

Would you say that islamic regimes that pose as bulwarks against Westernisation and its materialistic individualism use religion as a political instrument? Does anything prevent a Westernised Muslim world?

As I said, many Muslim societies are building themselves negatively, as does Europe. It is no better, maybe even worse. In any case, it's being blind to the fact that identities are in flux, including in the Muslim world. There is a need for emancipation in Muslim societies. It is not necessarily Westernisation, it's just in line with the way societies are moving.

The cross-fertilisation of ideas is necessary not only in our country; it must come into play in Muslim countries. If you say that headscarves threaten the French republic, then you must question the solidity of the state's bases. The same goes for the change in attitudes in Muslim countries.

So nothing in islam contradicts the values of liberty and self-affirmation?

I wouldn't go that far, but that restriction is not valid just for islam. All religions depend on the lenses through which they are viewed. People who claim their belonging both to a Muslim culture and a citizen stance are true bulwarks against what is called islamism. It must be said that many people take part in so-called islamic organisations because it's they only place where they can express themselves on questions other that cultural ones.

Interview conducted by Réjane Ereau and Daniel Vigneron

(1) Marc Cheb Sun has launched the appeal with Ousmane Ndiaye, journalist at Respect Mag.

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