Islam is in the midst of rapid growth in France. However, the rise of the puritan and ideological Islam has been specific concern there. Dr. Soheib Bencheikh, the former mufti of Marseille who established French Institute for Islamic Science, said that Islamic dearabization is necessary in order to fit better into French culture during his 10 days visit in Indonesia to Novriantoni from Liberal Islamic Network, Saturday (25/11/2006).
What is your impression about your visit to Indonesia?
I was first impressed by the warm reception from individuals and institutes I visited in Indonesia. I found the jovial face of Islam in Indonesia. I also found the spirit of thinking (at-tafkir) as well as the absence of thinking (‘adamut tafkir) among people I have met. I raised many questions about Islamic challenges in Indonesia and found less answer. It seems that there is lack of knowledge about the basic concept and notion of the modern world, such as the concept of citizenship, secularism, and democracy.
I used to perceive secularism as the state’s “administrative neutrality’ (hiyadatul idarah) toward all religions and beliefs. Democracy is an undeniable system and it needs no additional attribute like Islamic democracy, Christian democracy, or ecological democracy. In the end, these attributes will corrupt and extract the democracy. Democracy has no color, smell or identity because this is an open space for every citizen to express him or herself. The formula is this: the most persuasive and the most rational one will be chosen.
Are you happy with the fact that Indonesia is a democratic state?
I am glad that Indonesia is the first Muslim country that applied democracy and the principle of secular state. This climate will provide every group the opportunity to express their selves. Unfortunately, there are psycho-linguistic barriers for accepting secularism in Indonesia and many other Muslim countries. Psychological barriers exist because secularism originated from the West, and some people are skeptical upon western things. Linguistic barrier happens due to the semantic problem in translating secularism into our languages.
Perhaps the Arab Christians were the first translators of the word secularism into Arabic word, al-‘almaniyyah (refers to the nature, world or le monde), because their holy book, in particular the New Testament, said that Jesus is not part of the nature. Devil is the real ruler of universe. They perceived secularism as the emptiness and the lack of religion.
Others translated secularism as al-‘ilmaniyyah which refers to science. I think this word refers to scientism. The Arabic books that blemish secularism, like Sheikh al-Qardlawi’s book, use to begin with the explanation of the history of secularism from the ancient Greek atomism and materialism, to the 19th century where the influence of scientist (al-ilmawani) strengthened among society.
Scientism claims that science is the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth. Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims, as the truths they proclaim cannot be apprehended by the scientific method. However, this view gradually declined in France where many scientists belonged.
This philosophy developed afterward into positivism, as had been initiated by August Comte. The positivists reached the notion that science will not develop unless we are skeptical upon the used methods. Therefore, science is not absolute, but it reaches particular stage of human reason’s achievement. Science is not definite and final as well. That is why a scientist cannot say that he reached his final conclusion. This attitude will close the gate of science and knowledge.
Later, the scientists focused on the epistemology of knowledge or how knowledge is acquired. This discussion became independent from philosophy. It deals with the means or method of production of knowledge. I think that Muslim thinkers who reject secularism are actually rejecting scientism and its claims. They attack the wrong target.
What is your personal perception in regard secularism?
To me, secularism is not a complicated philosophy. In France, laicite is nor religion neither ideology. This is a simple idea about administrative neutrality in managing relation between state and religion. Once state declares itself as a secular state, it must give every citizen freedom to accept religion or not. In a more concrete way, secularism is separation between state and religious affair. It benefits both religion and state.
Every religion will be under the protection of state, which is neutral, rational, and susceptible to critique, because it is not a part of sacred institution. Every party in the secular state can be criticized, evaluated, reformed, and even substituted by parties that may be able to lead and prove that they are capable of doing better things.
State institution becomes neutral, profane, have no divine mandate or sacred values as the claim of every religion. State is liberated from dogmatism. Besides, religion will be free from political intrigues in order to gain the power. This is the fact in countries where secularism has established.
What about the theocratic or semi-secular countries?
In countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Arab countries, you will find the fact they are not bright and there is no hope for an overhaul. The task of these states seems on one thing, that is safeguarding the sacredness of religion and the power of authority. They only want to preserve the conservative and backward religiosity and utilize it to maintain their power.
On the contrary, political parties that act as oppositions and critics against the government also wanted to gain the power by using religious idioms in order to revive people’s religious sentiment. Religious sentiment of the Muslim majority, for instance, is at stake within political intrigues which sometimes immoral.
Why do you advocate secularism?
I must say that people who raise their voice on the importance of separation between religion and state were sincere in their religiosity. I have particular reason to advocate secularism. As a Muslim, I can practice Islam proudly in France under the authority of secular state. If only the French politic is up to the procedure of democracy which sometimes side with the power of majority (Catholic majority in case of French, ed), definitely we would not be free living there.
Providentially, that shallow understanding of democracy has gone. French constitution guarantees the sustainability of secularism, including protection of the rights of individuals and minorities. Therefore, I suggest anyone who mock secularism to live in France and America for about five years. I believe they will prove that secularism protects them from shallow religious sentiment.
The opponents of secularism perceived it as something more than administrative neutrality. They saw secularism as an ideology that marginalize and eliminate religion out of human life. What do you think?
It’s a big lie to say that secularism will marginalize religion from every aspect of life. Secularism is simply about administration of the state therefore it will not be easily influenced by cheap religious sentiments. In the west, it is up to you to embrace a religion or not. One’s obedience or disobedience is a private matter between him or her and god. It is different with what happens in the Arab countries, the secular as well as the theocratic ones.
In Saudi Arabia or Algeria, I feel that the inquisitional institution is surrounding me. Hence, my prayer, my worship, my life and death is no more for God. Everything I do, I do it for the institution that spies my move and observance. Everything we do is not for God, but for maintaining the authority’s stability or positive image before public.
In France, my little obedience is apart from such motives. I am sincere in my worship despite of the fact that I am not a very obedient person. No one coerces me to apply Islam. This is the essence of Islam; it is offered (yu’radl) and not coerced (yufradl). My consistent Islamic practice is not for gaining Muslims’ favor or for obtaining particular position throughout concoctive clothing.
The Islamic state advocates claimed that the establishment of Islamic state will guarantee minority rights far better than the secular state does. What do you think?
How can we to eliminate the concept of ahlu dzimmah (the protected non-Muslims in Muslim countries with certain concessions, ed)? Frankly speaking, I and most of Muslims in France have never wanted to be ahlu dzimmah of the French Catholic majority. We always want to be French citizens whose rights are equal with any other legal citizen. The advocates of religious state used to forget that religious barriers have melted in many ways. You can find a Christian Indonesian and a Muslim Sweden who live in the modern secular state. If this positive achievement develops, we will find a state where the majority does not claim as majority.
Revolution in science and knowledge, and the modern medium of telecommunication and transportation enable us to interact with others without knowing their primordial identities. Every idea becomes accessible. An Arabic article that discredits Christianity will be read and understood by the Vatican, and vice versa. Therefore, in order to propose Islam as an active participant of the future world revolution that unites us in humanity despite of different language and culture, we must reform our Islamic discourse and prepare ourselves to leave the old conceptions about this religion.
You seemed to dream about the assimilation of cultures rather than clash between civilizations. Is this a realistic idea?
Actually, a clash of civilization does not exist in reality. What happens everywhere is clash between open groups (munfatihin) and closed ones (munghaliq). There is no clash between West and East. We must remember that the first who condemned against the American invasion upon Iraq was the belated Pope John II, while the first who closed his eyes about this tragedy was Sheikh al-Azhar.
The most persistent opponent against the war was France and Germany that bear the consequence up to now. Meanwhile, the facilitator of the invasion and provider of the military base for the US was the Arab countries. Hence, clash between civilizations is a mere imagination of America and it proves that throughout its vicious actions in many parts of the world.
Some Muslims observed that the ban of wearing headscarf, niqab (face veil in which woman’s eyes are visible) or burqa (veil covering the whole face) in several west countries is a form of western secular state’s confrontation against Islam. Is there a clash of value between Muslims in the west and the western culture in general?
My civilization as an Arab-Muslim laid not on the obligatory of wearing headscarf, furthermore niqab and burqa. I had left shallow perception about standard of civilization based on artificial matters. I dream about civilization that preserves morality.
The Qu’ranic prescription to “draw their veils over their bosoms” was for Arab rural and nomadic women who were already veiled in early Islam but left their bosoms open. Hence, we must perceive that the verse commands Muslims to dress in a modest fashion. That is the universal value of the Quranic verses on veil.
So, you do not regard this as primary Islamic teaching.
I do not say that, but Islam does. Everyone knows that this matter is not a primary Islamic teaching because it is not one of the five pillars of Islam or one of six pillars of Iman. It is a branch of Islamic injunctions, namely to behave decently. Furthermore, there are many ways to behave decently in the modern era. For the nomadic Arab women, the way of obtaining respect and honor based on physical aspect. But most of Muslim women in France and England today emphasized on attaining as much knowledge and expertise as possible.
Is there any Islamic organization in France supporting the ban of religious attire like headscarf, mainly niqab and burqa?
Some political leaders want that Muslims do not reveal their religious identity, mainly with niqab and burqa. Nowadays, the security issues arise from the expose of such religious symbols, which are in fact secondary. I think the debate on this subject has coincidentally led Muslims to be busily engaged in artificial matters. There are many serious issues to discuss such as the education, poverty, and job opportunity.
We have to advocate Islam as a religion that exists within every individual’s heart and we should not demand the state to keep the sustainability of our religion. The matter of obedience or disobedience is not the state’s responsibility. This must be our direct relation with god without human intervention. The Islamic development, which is apart from the state’s power, is important because there is no clerical system in Islam.
Do you think that supporters of the wearing of niqab and burqa in western countries have failed to adjust with the Western Islamic culture?
In general, they are not capable to interact positively with the world civilization. A French intellectual who wrote a lot about Islam, Roger Garaudy, has reminded Muslims about the necessity to release their selves from the project of Islamic Saudinization (masyru`us sa’wadatil Islam). He observed that this tendency arises among many Muslims. To me, it would be very miserable if the clash with west is due to the issue of headscarf and niqab, and not because of substantial issues.
I am concerned about debate on this topic in Aljazeera television, moreover when British Muslims determined to hold a World Day of Veil (al-yaumul `alami lil hijab) which is a ineffective battle and stake for me. This religion is more than fourteen centuries old, but it still debates about what one should wear or not. I hardly imagine the Archangel Gabriel will come down to earth back and forth just to teach the Arabs and Muslims on how Muslims should dress, how long beard must be, and other trivial matters. Do not forget that the enemies of Prophet Muhammad were wearing bigger turban and maintaining longer beard than ours today.
Are you frustrated with Muslims’ failure in adjusting Islam with local tradition?
Adjustment is our right. Why do we coerce French Muslims to apply particular prototype of Islam, which will keep them away from French cultural milieu? I think they have the right to determine their own Islam ala French, with minimum requirement like believe in God and the prophecy of Muhammad. Why should they change their names with the Arabic ones or change their dress? Abu Bakr, Omar, Khadija and Ayesha did not change their names when they embraced Islam.
It is not necessary to separate between the Eastern and Western civilization. The boundaries have just determined by European countries in the colonial era, which Edward Said called as the imaginary geographic boundaries. Talking about the roots of Islamic classical thought, we find philosophy that originated from Greek, state administration from Persian tradition, the adoption of ‘urf principle (adat/tradition) from the Roman law. That is civilization, which give and take each other. European civilization would not advance if only they did not develop the Arab-Islamic civilization that nearly collapsed.
Now, we seemed facing the battle for authenticity. Muslims want Islamic authenticity as fundamentalist Christians do. What do you think?
Everywhere, those fundamentalist groups were minorities. However, the revival of Christian fundamentalists in western countries is understandable. They were narrow-minded, and they emerged out of the assumption that their democratic, secular, tolerant, and pluralist state has become a Trojan horse that potentially threats their comfortable lives. They already gave full freedom to Muslim migrants in their country, whom now regarded to disturb their existence. That is why those right wings emerged in Germany, Denmark, Holland and other European countries. But nothing to be worried about because they remain minorities.
Will Muslims be treated like Jews in former Germany or will they have bright future?
I always advice the Muslims to learn from the Jews, who realized about the threat of populism against their existence. Democracy has never detached of populism and even the constitution can change according to the public opinion. If we waste our strength to do pointless things and challenge the West in their home country, they will manipulate the public opinion about the Islamic threat in Europe. Fortunately, secularism protects us, and the liberal climate always gives protection upon minorities. Do not forget that Hitler had used populism and democracy to reach the power and create disaster.
I also suggest Muslims to take the lesson from the Jews on how to influence the centers of authority without noise. The Jews did it in France without denying their French history and identity, and they fight for the rights of minority in general. But it seemed that Muslims did not take it as if they did not have sufficient political awareness.
When Muslims came to France, they did not understand about the history of France. They came with high turbans and shout that they have the right to do this and that in the name of democracy. They did not know that French struggle to achieve secular state was throughout bloody ways. They did not understand that the harmonious interfaith relation in France produced from various bitter experiments.
Initially, the first generations of Muslim in France were welcomed with tolerance and compassion since they were minorities and oppressed in their home countries. But as the Muslims increased and became the extensions of ideological interest in their home countries, like Wahhabism and Ikhwanul Muslimin, the members of French Parliament became concerned on the potential conflict. That is because of the rise of religious intolerance like the excessive condemnation against Jews and Christian in France, and the wearing of religious attire like headscarf and niqab.
Are you concerned on the rising ideological Islam in France?
In general, I am not worried about the future of Muslims in France. But I am worried about the prototype of Islam which most of French young Muslims adhered and developed nowadays. They waste their times by adhering particular understanding of Islam, which impede them for building better social relationship with their neighbors. They waste their time by discussing about the length of beard, the size of trouser etc.
They forget that prophet Muhammad had utilized the best things in his period just like us in the modern era. As a Muslim thinker, I had been mocked for not applying the Prophetic tradition (Sunna) of their version. “You’ve never paid any attention to the Prophetic tradition!” they protested. “How come?” I asked. “Your daily life style and mainly the way you dress do not reflect your concern about the Prophetic tradition.” My answer is this: I perceive that one of the Prophetic traditions is that he had never deviated (syadz) from the culture around him.
In order to honor the Prophetic tradition, we must not act discordantly in the present day, particularly in pointless matters. Muslim must not deviate from the existing social order, a prototype described by the orientalists about Muslims. They portray Muslims’ exotic and weird image as the essence of Islam. I said this: “Those orientalists were describing Islam just as you were showing them.”
That was my experience of dealing with young extreme Muslims. Some dialogues ended at a deadlock, some others succeeded. Therefore, I suggested French decision makers to be wise in dealing with them. I explained that their attitude was not because of their deep understanding of Islam, but their shallow understanding. They were not immune from the virus of fanaticism. They invited fundamentalist Muslims to teach them about Islam and that is why they failed in building the positive social relation with French society and became marginalized.
How is the figure of an ideal French Muslim in your view?
I think a Muslim French will always be Muslim although the others doubt the purity of his Islam. However, God forbid us to judge one’s conscience and religiosity. To me, the ideal French Muslim is an open, brilliant, broad-minded Muslim who has high political sensitivity and observes contemporary thoughts. He or she must understand about the history of French and Europe since France has strategic position within Europe. On the other hand, he or she must learn the Arabic and Islamic thoughts, particularly before its decline phase.
I remember of one Indonesian student who was obsessed in reviving the glory of Islamic science and civilization by reviewing the works of Ibnu Sina (Avicenna), Ibnu Rusyd (Averroes) and Ibnu Khaldun. I said to him: “Do not stop on these figures, who were brilliant in their days. If you really want to seek science and knowledge, you must continue the achievement of modern science and knowledge. You may review the achievements of those Muslim thinkers, but you must add something new!”
Nowadays, the European countries had abandoned the medical books of Ibnu Sina, namely as-Syifa or al-Qanun fit-Thibb. They do not refer any longer to al-Khawarizmi and Abul Hayyan at-Tauhidi in order to understand physic. Indeed, history proves that modern achievement is not revealed from the sky, but it is accumulation of the never-ending achievements of preceding civilizations. I think that relying on Ibnu Sina, Ibnu Rusyd, and ibnu Khaldun is not sufficient at all.
What is your suggestion for the Islamic development in Indonesia?
I wonder why Indonesian Muslims who were hospitable and tolerant with other religions such as Catholic, Protestant, Hinduism and Buddhism, are now prosecuting Ahmadiyah. I think, nobody has the right to expel them out of Islam by monopolizing the Islamic view. Even If they (Ahmadis) were assumed to convert out of Islam, the valid principle will be this: unto them their religion, unto us our religion.
Many Muslims regarded Ahmadiyah as deviant and mislead. What do you think?
It does not matter how deep the different between your Islam and theirs is. Let God judge the differences between us. Some believe that they are defending the Islamic purity by attacking Ahmadiyah. I think that if you want to show the pure face of Islam, you must show it in peaceful way. Let the world know that even there are many differences between us, these are not the reason of conflict.
Dr. Soheib Bencheikh was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1961, studied Islamic theology at Al-Azhar University and received his doctorate from the prestigious Parisian Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE). Formerly the mufti of Marseilles, France, he is a member of the French Council for the Muslim Religion(1) and head of the French Institute for Islamic Science.(2) Recently, he announced his candidacy for the April 2007 French presidential election, and launched his election website (http://www.elanrepublicain.net). In addition, one of his supporters maintains a blog (http://soheib.bencheikh.over-blog.com) that includes interviews he has given to the press, as well as links to other French Muslim reformist websites. URL: http://islamlib.com/en/page.php?page=article&id=1201
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