Muslims are shifting stones in Europe, says Nilüfer Göle

Muslims are shifting stones in Europe, says Nilüfer Göle

Professor of sociology Nilüfer Göle

May 22, 2010, Saturday/ 16:19:00
Islam, and the existence of Islam in Europe, is one of the most complicated issues of the contemporary world, with scholars, journalists and politicians debating the issue more and more every day. A wide range of scholars at the İstanbul Seminars 2010 at İstanbul Bilgi University are considering the issue of Islam in Europe, including one of the most prominent Turkish scholars studying the issue, Nilüfer Göle, professor of sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes (EHESS) in Paris, who calls attention to the fact that Europe is passing through an experience relatively new for itself.

“Europe had confrontations with Islam several times before in history,” says Göle in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “There had been the Crusades, colonization, the Ottoman Empire and so on. Nevertheless, there is something new in today’s confrontation: that is, Muslim immigrants from different countries now exist in their own lands, and Turkey is so near as a candidate. That’s why all these developments have led Europe to re-evaluate itself on the mirror of the Muslims.”

Confrontation of Europe with Islam

Göle indicates that Europe is passing through a similar process of experience through which non-European societies had previously passed. “All the non-European countries and societies have been trying to see themselves in the mirror of the West,” says Göle. “If we check out the history of ideas of the 19th century, almost all the debates are constructed on this. Yet we have coped with these issues from a distance. In this context, I think Europeans are still very new in this area. They have just begun to struggle with such issues. On the other hand, we always consider the West as superior to ourselves, but this experience of the West -- re-evaluating itself in the mirror of someone else, thinking like a colony without being the dominant party -- is a brand new process for the West. Think about Turkey. Turkey is a country that has now begun to receive immigration from several countries. Imagine that these immigrants demand more rights in Turkey. It is not that easy to cope with the ‘other’ while you are close to it. Yet, we cannot even cope with the ‘others’ living in our own society properly -- the Kurds, the [pious] Muslims, and so on. We still manage to construct a scheme of thinking, and we’ve seen that the understanding of the nation state does not ease this. It did it for some time in the 1920s with the claim that we should all be citizens. Today, being a citizen is not sufficient for anybody. Or nobody feels that s/he’s a citizen sufficiently. We are now experiencing the debate of how we can develop this feeling of citizenship. This concerns all societies. And Europe is in a situation of shock since it has failed in this debate.”

Becoming visible

Göle indicates that many problems today arise because of the increasing visibility of Muslims in civil society, claiming citizenship instead of being a minority or immigrant. “Muslims are shifting very important stones,” notes Göle. “Muslims have now become visible. I don’t believe these people do this deliberately in order to display their religion to everybody. But people want to live their religion, either by veiling or by constructing mosques or eating halal meat, and in this way new problems arise for Western societies. This visibility is actually proof of the fact that these Muslims living in Europe belong there. They belong there, not only as a worker but as a citizen. To have a masjid in a factory is not a very big problem, but to construct a huge mosque in the middle of the city may cause big problems. Because it becomes visible and it becomes public, it belongs to everybody. And all in all, this means the right of citizenship. Today’s Muslims are evolving towards the demand of the rights of citizenship. This is no longer an issue of immigrants, but of citizenship. And the best place where we can observe this is the public space. This visibility is the visibility of the differences, and Europe doesn’t accept these differences. And I think multiculturalism is no longer sufficient to understand this case.”

Redefining the public space

In this respect, the question of redefining the public space comes to the agenda. “The West defines the public space in a rather narrow way, and this is not something good for democracy,” says Göle. “Because the more people you include in your definition, the better it is for democracy and openness. The public space is changing, and Muslims are making people remember that there can be different forms of public spaces.”

Of course, this process will develop with the efforts of Europeans as well as Muslims themselves. “Muslims’ responsibility here is in the domain of knowledge and aesthetics,” Göle indicates. “Aesthetics cannot be ignored because in order to solve contradictions at a very high level you need the form. Today, constructing a mosque in Europe brings many dilemmas. What kind of a mosque will it be, what kind of a minaret will it have, will there be a muezzin, in which languages will the sermons be? How will the imams be educated? For instance, Turkey is seeking a solution for this question, and it is now bringing the third generation in Europe to theology departments in Turkey. There has to be new forms, both in the aesthetics and knowledge. And this leads to new solutions.”

Göle points to the fact that there’s no one monolithic Muslim entity in Europe and that there’s a very innovative and creative formation of a new category of Muslims. “There is first of all the issue of ethnicity; many immigrants are from different nations,” emphasizes Göle. “But in the last 10 years, the qualification ‘Muslim’ has been used instead of ‘immigrant,’ and the children of immigrants define themselves more with their religion and less with their nation. Thus, a supra-identity is being formed which no longer looks like the other Muslims in Muslim societies, that is, the European Muslim. And of course, this supra-identity concerns the Europeans because unlike being a worker, it [being Muslim] is not revealed only in working life but in all domains, from constructing mosques to demanding graveyards.”

Reading Turkey

For Göle, Turkey has a very significant place in this process. “Turkey can either be the place where categories such as West and East or secularists and Muslims can be redefined, or the place where this process turns into a dramatic failure,” says Göle. “But I believe that the first one is happening right now. Turkey is finding a new axis. It no longer has the psychology of oppression and thus it is creating its own politics, as in the agreement signed with Iran.”

 However, it is too early to choose one definition of Turkey. “Turkey does not have one image,” says Göle. “Turkey is a multi-layered society. The differences are expressed much too loudly, and even the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] cannot represent this variety. There are so many spaces for transition and polarization. And everybody is watching this process in Turkey.”

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