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Identity and Political Activity in Modern Europe
Oct 1, 2001

The post-communist phenomenon of economic globalization tends to enlarge the economic gap between haves and have-nots. This economic gap assumes a geographical dimension in the form of the First World and the Third World, and threatens the new and vulnerable democracies. Even if economic considerations are more influential than political considerations, promoting democracy may lead to a more just economic situation that can serve to overcome or at least lessen the often negative impact of globalization. Based on my area of expertise, this article addresses mainly non-Muslims and the next generation of Muslim citizens about how citizens and politicians can avoid a collision between Islam and political activities in Europe.

The Need for Balance

Human beings are social creatures with a complicated network of relations. No one can be completely independent of this network, for each person’s survival depends upon it. Given this, a constant search for balance between these relations is necessary to avoid conflict. Classical Greek philosophers considered humanity a zo-on politikon-a political mammal, thus emphasizing the fact that every person is, in some way, a political actor.

For believers and Muslims, belief is an essential component of human existence. Even some agnostic humanists accept the possibility of a spiritual life and recognize its ethical merits. Given this, political and spiritual activities cannot be separated from human life or from each other. In other words, they have a holistic link. This concept also is found in a more specific Christian perspective and in the Islamic tradition. Among its European exponents have been Dag Hammarskjold, Thomas Masaryk, and Vaclav Havel.1 Ms. Salima Ghezali and Prof. Abu Zaid are fine examples of active Muslim as meta-politicians.2

Before delving into this subject further, it is necessary to make the following points clear. First, a distinction must be made between policy and politics, between power plays and party strategy on the one hand and policy as a long-time approach to social problems on the other. As policy conforms better with the classical Greek concept of politeia (the government of the city/society or polis), I shall concentrate upon it.

Second, I use Islam not in the political context of Arabism, political rituals, or self-proclaimed Islamic states, but in its literal meaning of monotheism and belief in Divine Unicity and a coherent creation as explained in the Qur’an. In this spiritual context, every man and woman who reaches a certain age and is mentally competent is entirely and directly responsible for each of his or her acts.

Islam, in the context of this reality, means accepting this responsibility and using one’s God-given intellect and dignity to keep on the “just path” (the Shari‘a). There is no room for any human-made religious hierarchy (e.g., imam, ayatolla, caliph, amir3), or for fatalism or passivity, for personal responsibility means that one has to choose instead of be led by others.

Spirituality and Society

The well-known phrase al-Islam din wa dunya (Islam is spirituality and society) can serve as a starting point in the search for harmony between Muslim identity and political action. Din refers to Islam as a whole. Its most important points are Islam’s pillars, belief, duties, external principles (the Shari‘a), inner experience (Sufism), and striving against the ego (jihad). All of this, taken together, forms Islam-in-society. In this authentic Islam, no religious or secular hierarchy serves as an intermediary between believers and God. This fact, unfortunately, is often overlooked or ignored. Various people and groups have linked it to state structure, national community, political nationalism, tribal society, and even political party. All such attempts are abuses of Islam.

Dunya refers to human society as a whole. It is not a mono-religious community, but rather a society in which several religious and philosophical communities use their status as citizens to contribute to the well-being of all. An example of such a concept is found in European humanist organizations, whose members can be atheists, agnostics, or spiritual-without-specification.

There is no reason for Muslims to be prejudiced against such groups, for their adherents are neither anti-Islamic nor partisans of ignorance. Not being religious does not mean being against religion. These groups work for human dignity and responsibility just as Muslims do, although they approach it from a different perspective. Dunya is holistic, and its aspects (e.g., psychology, politics, art, science, sexuality, and history) interact intensively. Abuses have been just as numerous as corrections throughout the Muslim world’s 1,400-plus years of existence. Authentic Islam has not always been triumphant in the past, but it still carries the promise of a splendid future. It is in the hands of inspired, contemporary Muslims to decide.

Church and State

Europe remains suspicious about any attempt to unify religion and politics. This is quite understandable when one considers the traumatic history that such attempts caused in Europe. The first one involved the Muslim world directly: the Crusades.4 The “liberation of the Holy Land,” according to Roman Catholic scholars, was a nightmare for the Greek and Eastern Christian communities. Given the facts that the independent Crusader kingdoms fought each other and that Muslims lived in Jerusalem for 4 centuries before the Crusades, the official history of the Crusades turns out to be false. All of the involved communities were traumatized and left with feelings of mutual suspicion and hostility. Whatever good relations remained between Muslims and Christians were confined to mercantile elites, for the general populations remained hostile to each other.

Four centuries later, starting with Luther’s declaration in 1517 against the Catholic Church, Europe became a battlefield for Catholic and Protestant armies.5 The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, which raged during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and was a period of incredible cruelty and massacre, lasted until the end of the Thirty Years War (1648). Millions of people were killed by warfare, famine, and disease-and yet nobody “won.” Out of this violence came the emergency measure to separate church and state. Gradually modified, this concept would become known as laicity during the French Revolution (1789-99).

Before laicity took hold, however, the concept of individual freedom of religion was negated by allocating different Christian denominations to different states. At that moment, the Ottoman State applied a more advanced form of multi-religious coexistence in a single state. The church hierarchy weakened throughout the nineteenth century, while the European states become more democratic. There was another chance to harmonize the link between religion and policy, this time in a democratic way.

The twentieth century witnessed the worst crimes against humanity in recorded history. These were carried out by systems and states that rejected all previously influential religious concepts. And so the perception of religion changed again, this time in a positive way. In this new trauma, people complained about the absence of religion as a moderating and peacemaking force. (O God, why were You absent in Auschwitz?) After WWII, laic states could keep their structure and renew their content. Nearly all European nations have adopted some form of laicity. But this does not mean that they are anti-religious or anti-Islam. If laicity and democracy are not yet perfect, they only need to be improved. There is no reason to criticize laicity as such. These governments are the expressions of their own imperfect democracy.

This process is determined by economic as well as cultural factors. Religious communities can contribute to the perfection of democracy if their own intra-religious dynamic is not usurped by any clerical power group. Only such a status will allow them to have democratic ties with other religious and philosophical groups and with society as a whole.

Muslim Communities in Europe

European Muslims live as dispersed minority communities in many European countries, be they constitutional monarchies, republics, or otherwise. Ballot systems differ, as does the size of the Parliament, terms of elections, and so on. Essentially, there is consultancy between the state and the population, as well as between the citizens themselves.

This concept of mutual consultancy (shura) is found in the Qur'an: The believers conduct their affairs in mutual consent (42:39). The Qur’an recommends a method for policy, not a political organization. The Prophet was not told to establish a state or name a successor. From the Traditions, we learn that he knew that his function was only to guide and protect his community. The title of caliph, based upon Qur’an 33:72, applies to all people as spiritual representatives and followers of God. It has no political function in authentic Islam, and this and all other titles are no more than human inventions.

Within the context of European society, shura can-and should-take the form of democratic commitment. European citizens and the Muslim community can reinforce each other during these years of broad general disgust with local and even national political institutions. As such people consider democracy corrupt, inefficient, or obsolete, Muslims can oppose this defection from democracy by pointing out that such a development might acutally make the situation even worse.

According to the Qur’an, Prophethood contains identical elements regardless of the Prophet. So, what was significant for Prophet Muhammad was significant for all other Prophets. Consider the case of Moses who, according to both the Bible and the Qur’an, was sent to guide and inspire his enslaved people. He went to Pharaoh and, accepting the risk of royal anger, called for moderation and justice. Indeed, Pharaoh rejected his demand and became even more cruel. After Divine intervention, Moses led his people on their long and dangerous journey toward the land where, according to God’s Promise, they would find freedom and justice.

The Jewish identity was formed during this journey. Moses did not offer a well-defined territory or become the head of a state. In fact, his authority was even challenged at times. The dynamism of Prophetic action was the main element in this journey, as it was in Prophet Muhammad’s emigration to Madina to establish the Muslim community in a welcoming atmosphere.

From a moral point of view, Vaclav Havel might be one of Europe’s most significant contemporary politicians.6 He represents a religious view in a discrete way, without stating membership in a particular religious community and certainly not claiming leadership. He is democratic in his methods, and considers religion only as a motivation to act. However, it really counts. He resembles his predecessor Masaryk, who was a philosopher and a litterateur before assuming political responsibilities. Although underestimated as a politician when compared with Churchill or de Gaulle, his life has been just as adventurous as theirs despite the much smaller size of his country.

European Muslim intellectuals and would-be politicians would be well advised to study the lives and decisions of Masaryk and Havel, for both escaped from the narrow-minded nationalism that has trapped so many Muslim Arab politicians. To them, nationalism meant preserving the local cultural heritage in order to strengthen the popular identity in face of oppression. This is a valuable gift to humanity, rather than a treasure to be guarded jealously. Havel began his political activity by writing a letter to President Gustav Husak to protest the injustice of the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia. Husak, just like Pharaoh, rejected it. And so we ask: Is there a parallel between the actions of Moses and Havel? How significant is the fact that these two men, one a Prophet and the other a politician-philosopher, had no desire for power? Such questions might inspire Christians and Muslims. Also, didn’t Muslims consider the downfall of communism, to which Havel contributed greatly, a symbolic and even religious fact?


As European Muslims face problems that are usually identical to those of the entire population, isolation is a completely inappropriate solution. Maintaining cultural and linguistic heritages should be done by cultural, as opposed to political, associations. The current trend of Muslim involvement in several political tendencies without forming a Muslim political party needs to be reinforced. The emergence of a self-proclaimed Muslim party is not desirable, for its impact would be negative-other such parties would be formed by those who, for whatever reason, would view that party as not “Muslim” enough. This would engender isolation, quarrels, and maybe even violence. A far better solution would be to increase communication between existing parties and between politicians and citizens. Such an approach is Qur’anic in nature.

Whenever democracy is threatened by a politician or political ideology that pays no respect to internal democracy or promotes discrimination or racism, the best antidote is a good civic policy. Such a negative scenario is now developing in Belgium. Our local Muslim politicians should be the first ones to insist that a policy of justice and honesty be carried out by all democratic parties. This is far more efficient than legal action, ballot reforms or thresholds, alarmist attitudes, or pretending that the problem is not so bad. This does not exclude the possibility of lawsuits against politicians who try to win votes by racist appeals. In addition, exit polls on election day should be forbidden so that false information cannot lead to questionable results


  1. Dag Hammarskjold (1905-61): Swedish economist, statesman, and secretary-general of the UN (1953-61) He is generally thought to have combined great moral force with subtlety in meeting international challenges; Tomaš Masaryk (1850-1937): Chief founder and first president (1918-35) of Czechoslovakia; Vaclav Havel (1936- ): Prominent Czech playwright, poet, and political dissident, who, after the fall of communism, was president of Czechoslovakia (1989-92) and president of the Czech Republic (1993- ).
  2. Ms. Salima Ghezali: Algerian publisher of Al-Watan (The Nation) newspaper, courageous critic of both the Algerian military governnment and the anti-government armed Islamist groups, and recipient of the Sakharov Prize; Prof. Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid: Qur’anic scholar from Cairo whose interpretation of the Qur’an caused him to be prosecuted by Egyptian Islamists. Labelling him an apostate, they divorced him from his wife, Ibtihal Younes. The couple now lives in The Netherlands.
  3. Imam: One who leads Muslims in prayer. Ayatolla: Sign of God, a religious title given to only the most exemplary Shi‘a theologians and religious scholars. Caliph: Successor (to the Prophet). As the Prophet’s spiritual/religious mantle is unique and therefore cannot be inherited, this title has come to mean a ruler. Amir: Leader, mainly in the political and moral sense.
  4. The Crusades: A series of wars undertaken by European Christians between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims.
  5. Martin Luther (1483-1546): German priest and scholar whose questioning of certain Catholic practices led to the Protestant Reformation. He is a pivotal figure in both Western civilization and Christianity.


  • Tariq Ramadan: To Be a European Muslim. The Islamic Foundation: 1999.
  • John Esposito. The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? 3d. ed. Oxford Univ. Press: 1999.
  • Fatima Mernissi. Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry. South Asia Books: 1998.
  • Tomaš G. Masaryk: The Ideals of Humanity and How To Work. Ayer: 1970.