The Muslim Civil War: 'The Most Important Ideological Struggle in the World Today'

Barry Rubin: How does assimilation and acculturation work with Muslim immigrants in the West and how should it work?

Zeyno Baran: Each country has had different policies and different experiences, but  in general, European countries for many decades paid little attention to assimilation; in particular, the UK and the Netherlands followed an openly multiculturalist policy that avoided any mention of  assimilation and/or acculturation. This led to Muslim immigrant enclaves being formed in parts of European cities; when an area becomes heavily Islamic, then Islamists come in with their institutions and mosques, and establish themselves as the interlocutors between the immigrant community and Western authorities. Even after many of these governments decided to change their policies and developed programs for increased acculturation, they continued to work with the Islamists, whose ultimate responsibility is not to  Muslim immigrants, but to the global Muslim umma (community) as they understand it. Since these “representatives” had no interest whatsoever in promoting the integration and assimilation of European Muslims, this led to frustration on the part of Western governments and societies, which began wondering whether Muslims can ever truly become “Western.” In turn, this frustration -- directed towards all Muslims, not just the extremists -- fostered a sense of anger and victimization on the part of the Muslim immigrants, who felt they would never be accepted as long as they remained Muslim. A better way to ensure social cohesion would be to address the pragmatic needs of Muslim immigrants -- jobs, education, equal rights -- in accordance with the social norms of the country, with a sensitivity to different religious/cultural backgrounds. In practice, this would mean allowing the establishment of dignified prayer places for Muslims, while not assuming all Muslims go to the mosque all the time, or that the mosque is the only social place for Muslims. There should be many other places where Muslims can go to socialize with each other and non-Muslims; these will develop naturally if Europeans can move away from characterizing these populations as “Muslim first.”

Barry Rubin: Has the concept of multiculturalism helped or hurt in this struggle?

Zeyno Baran: Despite being born of good intentions, the Western policies of multiculturalism have made it harder for Muslims to become Western. The pendulum of respect for cultural/religious difference has swung too far, and Muslims have been trapped into their Muslim identity as “the other,” instead of being assisted in becoming one of “us.”  One of the recent and most clear examples of this is the wearing of the burqa in the West. For years multiculturalists have looked the other way when seeing women covered from head to toe in a style contrary to most Western norms as well as to Islam itself. Islam simply mandates modesty in dress, which for many women traditionally meant the headscarf, but never the full covering. Yet, until recently, in another unintended consequence of multiculturalism, few Westerners were willing to tackle this issue as they did not want to be seen as intolerant or bigoted.  The few that have spoken out have been silenced with threats of being labeled “racist”; thus, intolerable forms of social behavior have continued to the point where they have become acceptable.

Barry Rubin: How can Western societies “win over” Muslims without losing their own identity or surrendering to the Islamists?

Zeyno Baran: The question is which Muslims? The Islamists would never be won over since their long-term goal is to see a world that is ruled with sharia. If Western societies continue to try to judge their success in “winning over Muslims” by giving into Islamist demands, then they’ll continue to lose their identity and their basic freedoms. But if Western societies were to side with non-Islamist Muslims, and learn from them how best to counter the short- and long-term goals of the Islamists, then I would say there is a great possibility that the West will not only successfully defend its own values and norms, but also help Muslims usher in a desperately-needed Islamic Renaissance.

Barry Rubin: How can moderates justify their interpretations of Islam when they appear to differ with the most important and basic Islamic texts?

Zeyno Baran: Many of these texts have been written centuries ago and in a particular context. Many moderates read them recognizing that what may have been a great social advancement in the 8th century cannot be taken literally in the 21st century. Over the centuries, there were many different voices widely debating how to interpret the Qur’an or the hadiths; moderates follow the tradition of those who have used their rationality and interpreted revelation as well as historic developments within their correct context. There are also many moderates who have not read many of the basic Islamic texts; yet they are no less legitimate, because 1) many of the radicals have never read many of these texts either and 2) Islam is not just about the written text but the living tradition. Indeed, for centuries Muslims learned the basics of their religion orally, passing down teachings from one generation to another. The recent radical trend we see among Muslims is due to radicals picking and choosing certain passages from the Qur’an and other key texts, interpreting them in a way to make their case, and then presenting them as the most legitimate interpretations. Again, I’ll draw an analogy with Christianity -- it is as if saying that only one denomination’s interpretation of basic texts is the correct one. Paraphrasing Bernard Lewis, the situation we face within Islam is as if a KKK-controlled state found major sources of oil, and used the money to spread its own version of Islam as the most correct form and the whole world gradually began seeing them as the most authentic voices.

Barry Rubin: The Islamists are so well financed and well-organized. How can the moderates compete? How can they win?

Zeyno Baran: This is the most difficult question. The moderates have not been able to compete and won’t be able to compete unless there is help from the West. Theoretically some of the Muslim-majority countries that are threatened by Islamists could help, but in practice they are often too afraid to challenge them for fear of being labeled as “apostates.” The West knows from its own history the damage religious extremists cause to societies and the religion itself; they can help the moderates by no longer giving Islamists a free pass while their activists are working to undermine Muslim moderates and Western (or universal) values. They can also help by increasing visibility of the moderates’ work, such as those in The Other Muslims who argue for secular rule using Islam’s own texts and history, or those who push for an Islamic Renaissance, without which I believe we’ll never quite win against the radicals who are increasingly becoming the mainstream.