The Paradoxes of the Re-Islamization of Muslim Societies

The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West, fueled by the fate of the Palestinians and by Western encroachments in the Middle East; and if this wrath, which has pervaded the contemporary history of the Middle East, has been cast in Islamic terms, it is because Islam is allegedly the main, if not the only, reference that has shaped Muslim minds and societies since the Prophet. This vertical genealogy obscured all the transversal connections (the fact, for instance, that Al-Qaeda systematized a concept of terrorism that was first developed by the Western European ultra-left of the seventies or the fact that most Al-Qaeda terrorists do not come from traditional Muslim societies but are recruited from among global, uprooted youth, with a huge proportion of converts).1

The consequence was that the struggle against terrorism was systematically associated with a religious perspective based on the theory of a clash of civilizations: Islam was at the core of Middle East politics, culture, and identity. This led to two possibilities: either acknowledge the “clash of civilizations” and head toward a global confrontation between the West and Islam or try to mend fences through a “dialogue of civilizations,” enhancing multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Both attitudes shared the same premises: Islam is both a religion and a culture and is at the core of the Arab identity. They differed on one essential point: for the “clashists,” there is no “moderate” Islam; for the “dialogists,” one should favor and support “moderate” Islam, with the recurring question, what is a good Muslim?

Then came, just ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring, in which Islam did not play a role, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, whose death went almost unnoticed among Muslim public opinion. What about the “Muslim wrath”? Suddenly, the issue of Islam and jihad being at the core of the political mobilization in Muslim societies seemed to become, at least for a time, irrelevant. So what went wrong with the perception of the Western media, leaders, and public opinion? Was the West wrong about the role of Islam in shaping political mobilization in Muslim societies? Yes. The essentialist and culturalist approach, common to both the clash of and dialogue of civilizations theories, missed three elements: society, politics, and more astonishingly . . . religion.

In fact, three paradigms—social, political, and religious—have changed in Muslim societies over the last twenty years:

1.  A new global generation — As Philippe Fargues showed some time ago, there has been a profound demographic change in the Arab world: the fertility rate has fallen dramatically (in Tunisia, it fell below the French rate after 20002), women have entered universities and the job market, young people marry later, there is more equality in couples (in terms of age and education), they have fewer children and are better educated than their parents, and nuclear families are replacing extended households.3 Cell phones, satellite TV, and the Internet have allowed these new generations to connect and debate on a “peer” basis rather than through a top-down authoritarian system of knowledge transmission. The younger generation is a peer generation and does not want to be strongly bound to a patriarchal society that has been unable to cope with the challenges of contemporary Middle Eastern societies.

2.  A shift in the political culture — Being more individualistic, the members of this new generation are less attracted to holistic ideologies, whether Islamist or nationalist, and there is a sharp decline of interest in the patriarchal model embodied by charismatic leaders. The failure of political Islam that I pointed to twenty years ago4 is obvious; it does not mean that Islamist parties are no longer present on the political field—to the contrary—but that their Utopian conception of an “Islamic state” has lost credibility. The Islamist ideology is challenged either by a call for democracy, which rejects the claim of any party or ideology to have a monopoly on power, or by the “neo-fundamentalists,” or Salafis, who claim that only a strict personal return to the true tenets of religious practices could help to establish an “Islamic society.” Even among the Muslim Brotherhood, young members reject blind obedience to the leadership. The new generation calls for debate, freedom, democracy, and good governance. They are more patriotic than nationalist, and while the Palestinian issue still has an emotional impact, it is no longer at the core of political mobilization (a fact, by the way, that undermines the well-established cliché stating that, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unsettled, there will be no peace or democracy in the Middle East). The appeal of democracy is not a consequence of the exportation of the concept of Western democracy, as fancied by the supporters of the US military intervention in Iraq. It is the political consequence of a process of social and cultural changes in Arab societies, which, of course, is part of the globalization process. It is precisely because the Arab Spring is a succession of indigenous upheavals, centered on the nation and unlinked from Western encroachments (which, when they happen, come after and not before the movement, as in Libya), that democracy is seen as both acceptable and desirable. Consequently, the ritual anti-imperialist mottos and chants have disappeared from demonstrations (including the usual condemnation of Zionism as the source of all the problems of the Arab world). This explains why Al-Qaeda is out of the picture: the uprooted global jihadist is no longer a model and fails to germinate when he comes to enlist local militants for the global cause (Al-Qaeda has been expelled from Iraq by the local fighters), with the exception of the geographic fringes of the Arab world (Sahel, Somalia, Yemen). Al-Qaeda was part and parcel of the old anti-imperialist Middle East political culture: fighting the West first and never caring about real societies. It disappears with the dictators because they are two sides of the same coin.

3.  A new religiosity — This is probably the least understood mutation. There were two recurrent premises underlying the debate on Islam: that democratization is linked with secularization and that this secularization process should go with a rise of a “liberal Islam.” So began the search for reformers, liberals, not to speak of a Muslim Martin Luther (the people who advocate a reformation of Islam in order to free it from fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, and gender prejudices apparently never read Luther). The visible re-Islamization of Muslim societies during the last thirty years (spreading of the veil, growing mosque attendance, Islamization of daily life, and so forth) seemed at odds with this supposed prerequisite, but in fact, it is far more congruent with a process of democratization than expected. Why? This wave of re-Islamization hides a very important fact: it has contributed to the diversification and the individualization of the religious field. Religion (theological corpus) did not change, but religiosity (the way the believer experiences his or her faith) did, and this new religiosity, liberal or not, is compatible with democratization because it unlinks personal faith from collective identity, traditions, and external authority. The usual religious authorities (ulema, or Islamist leaders) have largely lost their legitimacy in favor of self-appointed, and often self-taught, religious entrepreneurs. Young born-agains have found their own way by surfing on the Internet or joining local groups of peers: very critical of the cultural Islam of their parents, they have tried to construct their own brand of Islam. Religion has become more and more a matter of personal choice, ranging from Salafism to any sort of syncretism, not to mention conversions to other religions (see, for instance, the growth of an evangelical Protestant church among former Muslims in Morocco and Algeria). This individualization and diversification has had the unexpected consequence of disconnecting religion from daily politics, of bringing it back to the private, and of excluding it from the sphere of government management. As I tried to show in Holy Ignorance, fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society (hence the bitter belief of any fundamentalist, from born-again Christian evangelicals to Salafi Muslims, that true believers are a minority, even if the surrounding society is nominally sharing the same religion).5

All these changes gave way to what I called “post-Islamism” (the expression was first used by Asef Bayat6)—it does not mean that the Islamists disappeared, but that their Utopia did not block social, political, or even geo-strategic realities. They have no blueprint for an “Islamic economy,” and although they run many charities in deprived neighborhoods, they tend to become socially conservative, opposing strikes and approving of the rescinding of agrarian reform in Egypt; they have never been able to articulate a coherent supranational program of mobilizing the “ummah” (the Islamic world), leaving the concept in the bloody hands of Al-Qaeda and standing in the Middle East in an uneasy status quo between the strategic ambitions of a supposedly Islamic, but Shia, Iran and Arab dictators (from Saddam Hussein to the Saudis) who claim to protect the Sunnis from the “Shia threat.” They favor elections because they do not support armed struggle even when unable to strike a deal with authoritarian regimes, but they are uneasy about sharing power with non-Islamic groups and turning their “brotherhood” kind of an organization into a modern political party. They have not given up formal support for sharia (except in Tunisia and Morocco) but are unable to define a concrete ruling program that would go beyond banning alcohol and promoting the veil or some other petty forms of shariatization.

After the Arab Spring, which started outside their ranks, the Islamists have choices to make. The first option would be the “Turkish model” (the AK Party): turning the “brotherhood” into a true modern political party, trying to rally a larger constituency than hard-core devout Muslims, recasting religious norms as more vague conservative values (family, property, work ethic, honesty), adopting a neoliberal approach to the economy, and endorsing a constitution, a parliament, and regular elections. Another option would be to ally with “counterrevolution” forces for fear of a real democracy that they are not sure to control, but they thereby risk losing their remaining legitimacy, as in Egypt, where they might be instrumentalized by the army. They may also side with the Salafis by calling for an Islamization that would center on certain isolated issues (veil, family law), the same way Christian conservatives in the West are focusing on abortion and gay marriage while ignoring other social and economic issues.

Whatever the political ups and downs, the diversity of the national cases, the foreseeable fragmentation of both “democrats” and “Islamists” into various trends and parties, the main issue will be to redefine the role of, and the reference to, Islam in politics. The de facto autonomization of the religious field from political and ideological control does not mean, once again, that secularism is necessarily gaining ground. What is at stake is the reformulation of religious reference in the public sphere. There is large agreement on inscribing in constitutions the “Muslim” identity of society and of the state; there is also large agreement on the fact that sharia is not an autonomous practical system of law that could be implemented from above and replace “secular” law.

As I’ve described, modern forms of religiosity tend to stress individual faith and choices over conformity to any sort of institutionalized Islam. The old motto “in Islam, no separation between religion (din) and worldly issues (dunya)” already turned a long time ago from an academic statement to mere wishful thinking, but it has been definitively undermined by the Arab Spring. What we see, more than secularization, is a deconstruction of Islam, torn between some sort of a cultural identity (there could be, in this sense, “atheist Muslims”), a faith that could be shared only by born-again believers (Salafis) in the confines of self-centered faith communities, or a “horizon of meaning” where references to sharia are more virtual than real.

The recasting of religious norms as values helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around specific causes—opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, for example, secular populists tend to stress more and more the Christian identity of Europe, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance of believers to defend shared values. In so doing, many of them tend to adopt an evangelical Protestant agenda, fighting abortion and Darwinism, both issues that have never been relevant in traditional Islamic debates.7 In this sense, modern neo-fundamentalists are trying to recast Islam as a kind of Western-compatible religious conservatism, a fact that is obvious in Turkey, where, in 2004, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tried to promote an anti-adultery law that defined adultery not in terms of sharia but by reference to the modern Western family (a monogamous marriage of a man and a woman with equal rights and duties, thus making the custom of polygamy, not uncommon among traditional AK local cadres, although illegal since 1926, more clearly a crime). Islam is thus part of the recasting of a religious global market disconnected from local cultures.8

Such an evolution is completely inconsistent with the image of Islam that is constructed and spread by populist movements in the West. In fact, as far as the West is concerned, the main legacy of 9/11, which will survive the “War on Terror” and the death of Bin Laden, is the rooting of Islamophobic populist movements in Western Europe and the United States. These movements have fully borrowed and legitimized the clashist theory: Islam is construed as the enemy of an otherwise elusive “Western” identity. Even populist movements born of a different set of grievances (Lega Nord in Italy, the Tea Party in the United States, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) have endorsed Islamophobia as one of their main battle cries. It is no surprise that they all dismissed the Arab Spring as irrelevant9 and don’t acknowledge the way Muslims, both in their native societies and in the West, are recasting their faith into global forms of religiosity. Interestingly, the debate on Islam in the West raised the same questions as in the Middle East: Is religion first a faith or first an identity? Is the crucifix in Italian classrooms just a cultural symbol of national identity or the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ for sinners? The debate about the role of religion in the public sphere should be conducted beyond the clichés of Orientalist essentialism by acknowledging the transversal dimension that connects all the great world religions in their endeavor to find a balance between faith and identity, religion and culture, individual quest and collective belonging, and territorialization and globalization. In this sense, there is neither an Arab nor an Islamic exceptionalism.


Olivier Roy is presently professor at the European University Institute (Florence) and heads there both the Mediterranean Programme and the ReligioWest project at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He is author of The Failure of Political Islam (Harvard University Press 1994), Globalized Islam (Columbia University Press 2004), and Holy Ignorance (Columbia University Press 2010) .

  1. Olivier Roy, “Al Qaeda in the West as a Youth Movement: The Power of Narrative,” CEPS Policy Brief 168, Centre for European Policy Studies, August 28, 2008.
  2. Index Mundi, www.indexmundi.com/tunisia/birth_rate.html.
  3. Philippe Fargues, Générations arabes: L’Alchimie du nombre (Paris: Fayard, 2000).
  4. Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), originally published as L’Echec de l’Islam politique (Paris: Seuil, 1992).
  5. Olivier Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, trans. Ros Schwartz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
  6. Asef Bayat, “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society,” Critique: Critical Middle East Studies, no. 9 (Fall 1996): 43–52, https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/9768.
  7. For instance, Atlas of Creation, by Harun Yahya (Istanbul: Global Publishing, 2006/7), which has been widely distributed in the West, presents all the arguments and some of the iconography of American anti-Darwinist literature.
  8. See Roy, Holy Ignorance.
  9. See, for example, a Newt Gingrich interview with Haaretz.com, “The Arab Spring Is a Fantasy,” July 29, 2011, http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/focus-u-s-a/the-arab-spring-is-a-fantasy-1.375914.