In recent weeks, European nations have been developing a renewed vigour in tackling what they see as “Islamic separatism” within their borders, with France’s President Emmanuel Macron in October speaking on the dangers of this alleged separatism and the need to tackle it.
Then came the shutting down of businesses and organisations set up by the French Muslim community, of which even some Muslim-owned cafes were not exempt from and were seen as centres of Islamist contention. One of those non-governmental organisations that were shut down and dissolved was that of Barakacity, after French anti-terror police raided the home of its head Idriss Sihamedi and his family.
Following France’s outburst against its Muslim community, Austria then joined in after a Daesh-linked terror attack took place in its capital Vienna. As expected, it used such an attack to pin the blame on “Islamists” rather than a lone extremist who was in fact deported back to Austrian authorities by Turkey after it arrested him for attempting to enter Syrian in 2018.
Despite further suspicions that the Austrian security services overlooked him and ignored the warnings of Turkish and Slovak authorities, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced plans to criminalise “political Islam” in efforts to prevent the “breeding ground” for terrorism.
The issue of political Islam and “Islamism” is a difficult one, because it has never truly or accurately been defined. Is it the concept of randomly attacking civilians and security services in European states? Is it the aim to establish Sharia law in non-Muslim-majority countries? Is it the blatant disobedience towards the law of the land and the attempt to break off the community from the rest of the country? Or is it simply the formulation of Islamic political thought with the aim of bettering the state of the Muslim world and allowing at least a measure of Islamic family law to be rightfully practiced by the Muslim community?
Such definitions are hardly ever discussed, and the boundaries of Islamic political thought within the West have not yet been set. Western states have so far been unable to see the issue as a complex balance of the coexistence of different cultures, the religious practices of the community, and the possibility of living by the law of the land while also practicing Islamic family law such as marriage and divorce. Instead, they view their Muslim communities and their struggles as a monolith which has the frightening potential to either take over non-Muslim societies or break away to create separate entities entirely.
States within states?
This brings us to the much propagated concept of Muslims creating “states within states,” which is a strange one. Why are Muslim communities singled out within countries while other, often much larger, non-native communities are not questioned and seen as separatist?
Take, for example, the numerous Russian communities living in eastern European and central Asian nations formerly in the Soviet bloc. Or another example would be the settled German migrant communities living in South America and Russia. Why are those communities never viewed as potentially separatist and a danger for the nation-states in which they reside?
In fact, they should be viewed as more dangerous than Muslim communities, as they have states to back them up and to intervene on their behalf. This was seen when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 on the pretext of protecting the Russian community there which President Vladimir Putin claimed were under threat. Muslims, on the other hand, have no home state to support them or to launch an invasion on their behalf, meaning they are essentially individual, separate, harmless entities who pose no such threat.
In efforts to counter the attacks by extremist and to pacify this vague concept known as political Islam, both France and Austria are setting up their individual plans to create a sort of national version of Islam. The desire to create an Islam of France rather than an Islam in France is nothing new, and successive leaders have for decades been attempting to do so.
As part of Macron’s new bill, for example, imams will be required to be trained within France and in line with standards set by the government. In Austria, too, imams would be legally required to be listed in a national register.
Islam was not like Christendom
This idea of centralising the religion of Islam and institutionalising it, however, has never worked and it will not begin to work even with European intervention. Throughout Islamic history a centralised Muslim authority has never truly existed, as the numerous Muslim empires and caliphates represented a territorial and political unity rather than a religious one. Even then, they did not have authority over the entire Muslim world, but only large masses of it, with smaller emirates and caliphates in regions further away from Damascus, Baghdad, or Istanbul.
Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the last time the Islamic world was truly united and centralised as a whole, both territorially and religiously, was during the Caliphate of the immediate successors to the Prophet in the first three decades following his death.
In the most influential of the following empires and caliphates, there was no single religious figure who dictated their interpretation of the authentic Islamic sources. Rather, there was the model of the unchangeable and incorruptible revelation known as the Quran, then the Prophet’s teachings known as the Sunnah, and the numerous imams and scholars who travelled and spread their interpretations throughout the Muslim world. Hence why the four main schools of thought – Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’I – exist as they do today.
Christendom under the West was different. The Roman Catholic Church ruled from the Vatican — a city-state in its own right — and dictated to the Kings and Queens of Europe what they should and should not do. Then as the nation state emerged as a political entity, the Church’s influence and control over the European states gradually reduced until today, in which the Catholic Church remains influential only over its followers, but not the states in which they live.
Islam’s long tradition of a decentralised and regional structure of governance, as well as the conciliatory relationship between religion and state, is therefore entirely alien to the history of religion in the West and its rough struggle to divorce church from state. European states suffer from the trauma the acquired from their long struggle with centralised Christianity, and are now forcing that trauma onto the Muslim communities living within their borders.
Their attempts to create smaller, individual, and institutionalised Islamic entities comes from their model of Christian reform movements which separated themselves from Rome. This is why the calls for Islam’s own “reform” movement and “enlightenment” period have gained so much traction amongst Western intellectuals in recent years.
The Muslim world was not like Christendom – we have no Pope, no Vatican, and not even a Caliph anymore – and the European states would do well to quickly learn that.