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the Complete Review
the complete review - politics / religion

Secularism Confronts Islam

Olivier Roy

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To purchase Secularism Confronts Islam

Title: Secularism Confronts Islam
Author: Olivier Roy
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 109 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Secularism Confronts Islam - US
Secularism Confronts Islam - UK
Secularism Confronts Islam - Canada
La laïcité face à l'islam - Canada
La laïcité face à l'islam - France
  • French title: La laïcité face à l'islam
  • Translated by George Holoch

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Our Assessment:

B : useful observations, but strong French focus

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 9/8/2007 .
Foreign Affairs . 9-10/2007 Philip Gordon
The Globe & Mail . 8/12/2007
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/11/2007 Malise Ruthven
The New York Sun . 19/9/2007 Claire Berlinski
The Telegraph . 8/12/2007 Edward Skidelsky

  From the Reviews:
  • "In a work of sustained deconstruction, he takes apart the myths, clichés and prejudices which characterise the current conversation about Islam. () The relevance of all this goes well beyond France. Many in Europe, believing that multiculturalism in Britain and the Netherlands has failed, are wondering whether the stricter French were right after all. Olivier Roy's cogent little book may give them pause." - The Economist

  • "Roy is not Pollyannaish about the challenges of Islam in Europe, but his highly informed exploration of those challenges is an important contribution to an often emotional debate." - Philip Gordon, Foreign Affairs

  • "Though Roy maintains correctly that any functioning civil society must demand that groups and individuals keep to the agreed-upon rules, he thinks it excessive to demand the same consensus for values, though I don't see how they're easily separable." - Martin Levin, The Globe & Mail

  • "One of the most astute observers of Islam writing today, Roy believes that strong enforcement of the policy of laïcité distorts the complex evolution toward secularization that is occurring in the Islamic world as in other faith systems. Disembedded from its various regional cultures, Islam is evolving into a distinctive faith system comparable to Christianity and other religions. The counterpart of the intensified religiosity that is found in fundamentalist movements of all traditions is a de facto acknowledgment of secularization that can be observed, for example, in the behavior of Muslim youth. Self-assertiveness among young Muslims should not just be attributed to 'Islam'." - Malise Ruthven, The New York Review of Books

  • "It is a remarkable book: articulate, original, lucid, without a paragraph that fails to contain an interesting thought. It is clearly the product of a wide-ranging intelligence in possession of a refined analytic sensibility, a first-rate historical education and a generous spirit. And one wonders how someone who knows so much could have written it. (...) Does he really think the reader will fail to notice what he has left out ? There is one concern absolutely common to all Western countries threatened by radical Islam, and it is the main concern. That concern is violence committed in the name of Islam and committed on a mass scale. That concern is an ideology whose express aim is to destroy Western civilization in an age of asymmetrical warfare. (...) This is the issue around which this debate truly revolves -- not hallal meat, not arranged marriage, not even the veil. The West, I expect, could make its peace with all of those practices. But it cannot make peace, quite literally, with those who would make war against it." - Claire Berlinski, The New York Sun

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The French title of Olivier Roy's book is La laïcité face à l'islam, and, as he points out, "laïcité" is not quite the same thing as secularization. Indeed, the heading of the opening section of the first chapter states: 'Secularization Is Not the Same Thing as Laïcité', and, perhaps a little more worryingly for English-speaking readers, he soon points out that:

We know that laïcité is a characteristically French phenomenon, incomprehensible in Great Britain [...] as well as in the United States.
       But the term appears -- often several times -- on nearly every page of this slim volume, and the concept is central to Roy's point(s). Fortunately, while it remains peculiarly foreign to those outside the French system, it isn't entirely incomprehensible. Roy explains that the French laïcité is a particular form of secularization, a separation of church and state that specifically keeps religion out of government in a way that has not been done elsewhere. The French set out to do this in 1905, when they fully established the separation of church and state; as he notes:
At the time, the enemy was the Catholic Church ("clericalism, that's the enemy"), and Islam has now taken the place of Catholicism.
       The French experience, though specific to the country, proves instructive. As Roy points out, laïcité resulted from a confrontation of two institutions , the French state and the Catholic Church, and was a way to establish and clarify their roles. On the other hand:
Laïcité à la française was unable to find a footing in the Muslim world for lack of the two agents that engendered it: a sanctified state and an ecclesiastical institution in competition not for temporal power but for the hierarchical organization of the temporal world according to the terms of a sacred space.
       This also gets to the heart of his argument about why the Western (and specifically the French) approaches to 'the Muslim problem' (however they see that) is flawed (indeed doomed -- at least from this angle -- to failure): Islam is treated as a monolithic behemoth -- with a focus on its fundamentalist (or neofundamentalist) side -- even though Islam is in no way organised like, say, the Catholic Church.
       Roy also argues:
A religious dogma never has a direct effect in politics. It operates only if it is adopted, expressed, and redefined by a political ideology, a legal operation, or a mechanism of power, all of which depend on a precise political situation
       Roy notes the rise (and spread) of religions that have managed to: "separate religion from any particular cultural roots and can therefore respond to the needs of populations that have experienced a loss of cultural identity". Islam is obviously one that fits the bill -- as are many of the very successful Christian-evangelical sects -- while "traditional churches [...] closely tied to particular cultures, sometimes to nation states" can't as readily make converts and are the ones most like to be considered 'in crisis' (the Catholic or Anglican churches, for example). It is also a change that, for example, the French, used to dealing with an entity like the Church, seem to have difficulty in accepting.
       Essentially, Roy finds that the way the questions have been framed (of how to deal with 'the Muslim problem') have been a basic failure, because the premises are wrong, with Islam for example being held up to secular demands that are not, in fact, demanded of other faiths (though they could be). He argues that most Muslims do adapt to local conditions -- at least to the extent that is required of any other faith. As he points out:
Laïcité in this sense does not have to do with shared values but, as I have noted, with the acceptance of shared rules of the game, which is not the same thing.
       With Islam there has been some concern about an unwillingness to follow 'the rules of the game', most notably as it manifests itself in the form of violent extremism. Similar out-of-bounds extremism has and continues to exist in other forms, but here the religious connexion obviously makes it more ticklish than most other variations. Violent extremism remains the exception; nevertheless, that and the apparently widespread belief that fundamentalist absolutism is representative of Islam seem to be what are driving the debate.
       Roy notes that: "Muslim dogma is thought to pose a problem that Christianity does not", even when its practitioners adapt themselves to the requirements of the 'public space'. It's a useful reminder of what is, ultimately, important: the priority in civil society has to be a willingness to play by the agreed upon rules, rather than demand adherence to the same values. As he notes, Catholic opposition to abortion, for example, isn't very different from some of the requirements of sharia-law. Nevertheless, in a secular society these are not values that can be imposed on the community as a whole (unless the community agrees to them); as long as Muslims do not seek to impose them -- and by and large they have not -- their faith should be treated no differently than other faiths.
       Roy's essay is specific to France, though also illuminating in the contrasts to other secular countries it presents. He is particularly concerned with the French approach to the perceived 'Muslim problem' and sees the ingrained laïcité as more hindrance than guide: useful when dealing with the once overwhelming Catholic Church, it must be re-considered in light of very different circumstances and conditions. In discussing the Islam-specific concerns he also points out some significant issues that any nation dealing with a growing Muslim population should consider; in that it is certainly also of interest beyond French borders.
       An interesting addition to the (European) discussion of the 'Muslim problem', and a welcome perspective in arguing that many of the current approaches are fundamentally flawed.

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Secularism Confronts Islam: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       French professor Olivier Roy was born in 1949 and has written widely on Islam.

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