Kirsti Westphalen: Introduction

Religion as a social force seemed to be weakening in the world after World War II. The situation has, however, changed since the 1980s, and again since the fall of the Communist block. Religion has increasingly become both a political force and a source of identity. The development has also been noted globally, and common examples of it are the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979, the rise of the Christian Right in the US in the 1980s and Islamist terrorism in the West, especially 9/11.

One of the reasons why there seems to be so much anger amongst the Muslims in the world is the perception by many Muslims that after to the spectacular and violent events of 9/11 many Western observers and policy makers have tended to lump Islam and all forms of Islamism together, and brand them as hostile.

Indeed, Western policy makers have been unable to see that as with other religions Islam and such political movements which consider religion – Islam – to be a part of politics – has a number of very different streams, only a few of them violent and only a small minority justifying a confrontational response. I believe that we need a discriminating strategy that takes account of the diversity of outlooks within political Islamism. Many of these movements have a strong anti-western agenda, particularly with regard to the present conflicts in the Middle-East and how the “war against terror” is being conducted. Taking a critical view on these issues does not make these movements anti-democratic. Indeed, there is a diversity of movements that are non-violent and which subscribe to democratic processes and methods in politics. They advocate their policies by taking part in elections, where possible.

Because religious identities in general and, especially, Muslim identities have become politicized, it is clear that religion becomes one of the most important arenas for social negotiations regarding integration and social inclusion. This means that religious activities become forums of wider importance, where all kinds of issues are discussed, with, or without, the use of religious language. European secular states have had large difficulties in accepting religious demands as legitimate, even though they might eventually not be so different, were those claims “translated” to secular language. Claims by ethnic and “racial” groups are more easily accepted.

Dr. Olivier Roy, the world known authority on political Islam, has underlined the fact that those political forces within the Muslim world which wish to have leverage on European politics underline the interdependence between such issues as Middle East conflicts, terrorism and the immigration issues. According to Dr. Roy it would be in the interest of Europe to try and create a disconnect between these issues so as to avoid the implantation of interest of Arab/Muslim Governments, their religious institutions etc. who wish to see the European Muslim population be forever politically nourished from their previous motherlands.

Dr. Roy underlined the importance of creating national conditions for the emergence of European Islam. Here it is important to underline that it is not the business of governments to master religious affairs, not is it the task of Brussels to manage Islam. European governments should create conditions propitious for the growth of Muslim thinking which would reflect the realities of European democratic and egalitarian societies. To achieve this, governments should focus on creating conditions for the Muslims to build their human and organisational capacities to represent their own interests democratically and effectively in civil society. European governments should encourage moderate Muslim voices by engaging especially with democratically elected bodies that represent faith and minority groups. In other words, European Muslims should be empowered and anchored in the European reality.

Lähetystöneuvos Kirsti Westphalen on poliittisen islamin asiantuntija ulkoministeriön Lähi-idän ja Pohjois-Afrikan yksikkössä.

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