A) What are some of the myths about Muslims in Europe that Justin Vaisse discusses?
One of the myths that Vaisse touches on is the fact that the being Muslim is seen as an identity that is all encompassing. Religion becomes a person’s main characteristic despite their gender, race or nationality. In 2005, popular media outlets like The Washington Times described riots that broke out in France as “Muslim riots” when the conflict has nothing to do with the religion of Islam at all. They were simply using Muslim nomenclature as a way to describe this group of individuals who happen to share this part of their identity. You would not see the type of treatment among a group of Catholic individuals. Usually the group would be characterized on their nationality before their religion.
Another myth that Vaisse brought up was the idea that Muslims in Europe for a distinct, cohesive group. There is no Muslim community per se because there is profound variation throughout Islam. Either based on region or sect, Muslims cannot be grouped together because this is misleading and not representative of Islam in any way. In the United States and around the world, people often generalize Muslim extremism to mean all Muslims when this is far from the truth. This is often propagated by rhetoric we hear from politicians and from certain media sources that don’t understand Islam as a religion.
B) Why is it important to make a distinction between the religious and political dimensions of Islam?
I think this is an interesting question and if I were to phrase it differently, I would ask if it is possible to make a distinction between religion and politics when it comes to Islam. Islamism or political Islam is the idea that Islamic law and values should play a central role in public life. In the past, there was virtually no distinction between religion and politics, thus no distinction had to be made, but in the modern area, Islamism has become a word that is very controversial, especially from a Western point of view.
For non-Muslim individuals, it can be difficult to understand why people like suicide bombers exist and why they would, in our eyes, do something so irrational just for the possibility of an afterlife. To me, this seems completely crazy because this is not something that I believe in. Even if I were religious, I don’t think that I would be able to trust completely in this idea of an afterlife so much so that I would give up my life in the hopes of reaching it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a completely irrational way of thinking, it is just much different from my own. When religion is less prevalent in your life, it is hard to wrap your head around something that feels almost archaic.
We think of democracy as a remedy to political strife, but what if a majority of your country wants to pass legislation that separates the sexes and puts religion at the center of all education? As Westerners, we don’t have to accept that women are forced to wear traditional clothing and while can discuss the ethical issues, we cannot question whether these types of actions are democratic because in some cases they are.
Overall, I think in the West, it is important to draw a distinction between Islam as a religion and Islamism because this term often breeds hate and Islamophobia, but in Islamic states, I think there is virtually no way to separate religion and law. Again, the question was posed within a Western framework as it perpetuates this idea of a dichotomy between religion and politics. In Western nations like the United States, dichotomies exist among most social constructs including gender and race relations. We create these dichotomies in order to synthesize information in a more digestible manner. In the United States and other Western nations, a somewhat contentious dichotomy exists between religion and politics. Separation of church and state is a phrase that was engrained in us from the moment we began studying history in elementary school. So, the question of whether a dichotomy exists at all is something that is far more relevant to discuss because it calls into question Western values whereas the question of why it is important to create these distinctions assumes that such a distinction exists in the first place. In my opinion, we can never truly understand the form of Islam that is practiced in the Middle East if we look at it from this point of view.
C) What kind of challenges do education and social rifts in Europe bring to Muslim communities in Europe? What does Ramadan suggest Muslims should do in face of such challenges?
In 2004, France was the first to impose a ban on headscarves in state schools. Then in 2011, the niqab, which is a full face veil, was banned from all public places. Individuals who are not compliant with this ban can be fined up to 150 Euros. France believes that wearing this full veil is a violation of individual liberties. Now, the French PM Manuel Valls, has brought up a debate regarding headscarves in universities. Universities have long been seen as a place where adults go to learn and therefore has been left out of the state school ban because as adults, one should be able to make these decisions on one’s own. This suggested ban has been very controversial as many in France already see Islam as incompatible with life in France. Other countries around Europe have been facing similar questions when it comes to banning full veils in public.
This is an example of a social rift that Muslim communities have had to deal with in Europe. It isn’t difficult to understand how this could further isolate many Muslim communities. In France, most Muslims do feel like they are French citizens, but when part of your identity has to be subdued, it is difficult to fully embrace who you are. Ramadan is a month long period of fasting and prayer as well as introspection. During this time, they are supposed to avoid impure thoughts and bad behavior, such as drinking and sexual activity. Fasting helps to cleanse the soul and is a time where Muslims are supposed to have empathy for those that are less fortunate. Because Ramadan is all about turning over a new leaf, Muslims are supposed to be more devout during this holy month, which includes wearing a hijab. This obviously puts French Muslims in an awkward position because these are often banned in places like schools. However, Ramadan is a time where little conflict should be discussed. Fighting and use of false speech is something that is looked down upon. Ramadan teaches virtues of healing and acceptance, so while this directly conflicts with things like the headscarf ban, it is something that many Muslims have learned to deal with.