Not-So-Innocents Abroad

December 1, 1997 Topics: Society Tags: Soft PowerIslam

Not-So-Innocents Abroad

Mini Teaser: Gilles Kepel's internationally respected expertise in Islamic matters simply does not extend to their infusion within Western politics and society.

by Author(s): Herb Greer

Gilles Kepel, Allah in the West (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Gilles Kepel is director of research at the French National Science Research Council and a leading Western authority on the world of Islam. The 1994 English-language version of his most recent opus, The Revenge of God, as well as his 1985 book The Prophet and the Pharaoh, were well received by the best of the American and British Orientalist academies. A new book by Kepel is therefore bound to generate expectations, and let it be said at once that Allah in the West has at least one important merit: His description of the fissiparous Islamic movement in the West is a convincing corrective to media scare-stories that portray Islam as a kind of religious cognate to the defunct Communist Conspiracy, a monolithic threat to the West.

But Allah in the West is not really an extended essay on Islam in the West. Nor is it (claims on the dust jacket notwithstanding) an analysis of the relationship between Islam and the West, a subject around which it delicately skirts. It is instead an extended sociological treatise on what Kepel calls "communalism" (la démarche communautariste) in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Kepel offers a number of definitions, varying in complexity, for this phenomenon. What they amount to is the tendency of certain minorities (usually ethnic, sometimes religious) in Western society to establish a kind of self-protective apartheid. In the book's extreme examples--the American black Muslims, the fundamentalist Muslims of Britain and France--this involves a conscious attempt to denigrate and, where possible, exclude the dominant religious and cultural values of the wider majority society. Kepel's method of analysis, he says,

owes much to Weberian sociology in the importance given to the construction of ideal types which are not necessarily representative of the whole of society, but which reveal underlying patterns and enable us to interpret changes within society.

As to the communalism itself, this is manifested in

assertions of community identity which are taking place within societies which are moving in the opposite direction . . . toward a growing indistinctiveness [l'indifférenciation croissante] of inherited cultural identities.

By this he means that as older sources of identity, and especially of class and the polarities of Right and Left, are weakening in the "post-industrial" consumer societies of America, Britain, and France, forces such as Islam exert themselves as high-profile cultural impulses countering this tendency. This is, in essence, Kepel's guiding thesis, and the bulk of the book's narrative is meant to illustrate it.

The thesis is parsimonious, the book's structure is symmetrical, and on a more or less platonic level the package, taken together, has a superficial plausibility. But when Kepel turns to cases he gets into real trouble, the sort of trouble that shows the difference between being a master of Islam and Islamic societies (which Kepel is) and a master of the fractious sociology of Western societies within which Islamic communities are a small part (which Kepel is not). His internationally respected expertise in Islamic matters simply does not extend to their infusion within Western politics and society.

Once across this boundary, Kepel finds himself writing not as a scholar but as an intellectual--that is, on the basis of aperus rather than data. Even this would be fine if the settings for his argument were in the real world. Unfortunately, he has instead cobbled up a sort of sociological theme-park America, Britain, and France. His "ideal types" do not reveal underlying patterns, but conceal them. This shows up as early as the first page: "[France in 1989] was rent by divisions as it had not been since the Dreyfus Affair, over an apparently trifling incident: could French society allow three Muslim girls . . . to wear an Islamic veil to attend state school?"

Such a statement soars heroically over the traumatic internal conflicts of the Second World War, the Indochina conflict, and especially the Algerian Revolution, which literally brought France to the edge of civil war. It does not inspire much confidence in his method or his political knowledge of his own country--let alone that of the United States or Great Britain.

The first of Kepel's three main cases is devoted to America and the Black Muslims. Here again Kepel's "communalist Islam" thesis has an initial plausibility, except for one factor: he is not talking about the real Islam. Kepel sketches out an admirably detailed history of the curious sect that was founded during the Depression by one W.D. Fard among the blacks of Detroit; but the so-called Black Muslims have nothing to do with Islam save for the expropriation of a vocabulary of catchwords invoking Allah, a borrowed dietary rule or two, and occasional and highly selective quotes from the Quran. It is well known that the sect began as a stunted, ethnically based example of the millenarian groups that have appeared in American society for more than a century. Kepel's interesting description shows, if only inadvertently, that from this beginning the "Nation of Islam" developed into something much more like the chauvinistic Fascist cabals in the Europe of the 1930s, complete with a racist mythology, uniformed storm troopers recruited from an underclass, economic grievances, fake history, and a puritanically moral high horse. Paradoxically, the use of the ritualistic label of "Islam" to mark out their separateness places Black Muslims squarely in the Euro-American mainstream sensibility, which perceives genuine Islam as a fundamental "other", outside and inimical to Western civilization.

Kepel seems to have built his theme-park America out of alternative journalism and opinions of politically correct American academics. He solemnly paraphrases quantities of Louis Farrakhan's paranoid ramblings, apparently taking them seriously, to fit Farrakhan's movement into his communalist thesis; he refers to the Black Muslims as part of an "ideological battle, sparked off in the 1980s, to define the identity of 'multicultural' America." At the same time, he asserts that they represent "a break with 'dominant norms'" in American society. Farrakhan and his followers are in fact firmly attached to dominant American norms: aspiration to political power, to economic success, and to an idiomatic search for spiritual identity and salvation. The "Islamic" label functions as little more than a brand name for an ethnic pressure group which, despite its tribalistic propaganda, fits perfectly into the context of Amero-European culture and, indeed, is working toward a closer rapprochement with the main centers of political power in the United States. Islamic it is not in any proper sense of the word.

Meanwhile, Kepel does not even mention some of the many genuine Muslim groups that do exist in America. There is a real Hanafi Islamic movement among American blacks, and several fairly large expatriate communities of Arab, Iranian, Somali, South Asian, and other groups that live at least semi-organized communal lives in the United States. There are also cells of support for fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been involved at one level or another in U.S. domestic terrorism, such as the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. These do not appear either.

In his treatment of Britain, Kepel gets into even deeper trouble. He describes a country where the word "patrial" has to do with the domestic rights of immigrants, and seems unaware that the term actually defines the qualification of British colonial passport holders to immigrate to the United Kingdom; it does not apply to the civil rights of minorities already settled inside the country. Kepel's Britain also distinguishes legally between nationality and citizenship, while the real Britain does not. Curiously, for a sociological amateur, he seems unaware of the function of much British rhetoric on ethnic and social issues; like the cant of American radical chic (or academic PC), it is meant primarily to display or flag some notional solidarity, usually with an ethnic underdog group, not to define any realistic commitment to political action.

He is interesting on the background of Islam in colonial India, where Muslims as a minority ruling power were deposed by the British. The result was an Islamic spectrum ranging from purists who wished to isolate the faithful from British and Western influence to those who wished to participate in the political life of the British Empire and show that Islam was compatible with modernity. Even the modernizers, however, wished to remain distinct from the non-Muslim world, and Kepel maintains that this tradition, reinforced by the other schismatic sects, was imported by immigrants to Britain, creating a "communalism" new to the U.K. There is a certain truth to this, no doubt, but at this point Kepel returns to the theme-park, telling us that the British government's response "was not to assimilate the immigrants into the dominant society but rather to grant them a parallel status to that of the Welsh and Scottish nations which already existed."

Now, it is true that the newer ethnic minorities are given a kind of special status by Britain's Race Relations Act, but this in no way makes them "parallel" to the Welsh and Scottish nations, both of which are an integral part of the United Kingdom and share its British culture. Unfamiliarity with his subject matter is also evident in Kepel's baffling claim that Chinese, Cypriots, and Italians are regarded by the British as "Black"; this appears to rest on a misunderstanding of the fact that a very few far-Left local councils do give them--along with Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and Africans--favored minority status. Again, Britain's Education Act does not "promote" Christianity to the status of a cultural norm as Kepel claims--it has been such a norm for more than a millennium. These and other solecisms are so frequent and fundamental that they reduce Kepel's analysis of "communalism" to the banal truism that ethnic minorities, like other special interests, tend to form political and cultural pressure groups.

Essay Types: Book Review