An Interview with Olivier Roy

In Globalized Islam, a brilliant exegesis of the movement of Islam beyond traditional borders and its unwitting westernization, Olivier Roy argues that Islamic revival, or “re-Islamization,” results from the efforts of westernized Muslims to assert their identity in a non-Muslim context.

Q: You write that Neo-fundamentalism has been gaining ground. What is meant by the term Neo-fundamentalism?

Olivier Roy: Fundamentalism, meaning a return to the “true” tenets of religion, is as old as Islam itself. The contemporary trend called neo-fundamentalism combines technical modernism, de-culturization, the rejection of both traditional Muslim and modern Western cultures, and globalization.

Q: Who are the people recruited into this movement?

OR: Neo-fundamentalism is particularly appealing to alienated youth because it turns their cultural alienation into a justification for forging a universal Islam stripped of customs and traditions and thus acceptable to all societies. It appeals to the well-educated, and the disenchanted, offering a system for regulating behavior in any situation, from Afghan deserts to American College campuses. Contrary to the Islamists who wanted to build an Islamic State in a given country and thus became embroiled in nationalism, neo-fundamentalists are championing the transnational ummah, they address the universalist yearning of Muslims who cannot identify with any specific place or nation. The constructivist ummah therefore must span the globe, where it battles the Western political, economic and cultural uniformity that, ironically, it requires to sustain itself. Thus McDonald’s and English-as-a-second-language is fought by neo-fundamentalists wearing white robes and beards who also speak English-as-a-second-language and go for halal fast food.

Q: What has been the impact of the West upon the East?

OR: The East is Westernized, and Islam is in the West. Most, not all, but most of the young terrorists of the bin Laden organization, where did they become born-again Muslims? In the West, not in the East. Many of them were born in the East. Some of them were born and raised in the West. But all of them became born-again Muslims in Marseilles, in London, in Paris or in New Jersey. So radical Islam now is not a spillover of the Middle Eastern conflict into the West. It is a consequence of the mixing of the West and the East. Middle Eastern societies are Westernized. They are urban, modern societies. The problem is not with a traditional society; we have no problem with traditional people. We have problems with the people who have been Westernized. And under their hand, now, Islam is definitively rooted in the West.

Q: You have written that the Neo-fundamentalists strive to create an imaginary ummah, a universal Muslim community not bound to any particular society or nation. What makes this vision imaginary?

OR: In this Imaginary Islam, there is no endeavor to create a real Islamic state. There is no blue-print for forging a new society. This project of creating an Islamic state using the modern concept of revolution, institutions, constitutions, ideology and so on, doesn’t work, not because of Islam, but simply because there is no such thing as a religious state. You can have states using religion. You can have states using religious legitimacy, but you cannot have a state solely based on religion, whatever the religion.

Q: How do these movements differ from the Militant Movements of the past?

OR: These organizations in the movement, like Al-Qaeda and Hizb ut-Tahrir, are not linked to or used by any Middle Eastern state, intelligence service or radical movement, as had been the case in the 1980s. They are part of the de-territorialized Islamic networks that operate in the West and at the periphery of the Middle East. Their background has nothing to do with Middle Eastern conflicts or traditional religious education. On the contrary, they are educated, alienated, often second and third-generation migrants to the West. A mix of educated middle-class leaders and working-class dropouts, a pattern common to most of the West European radicals of the 1970s and 1980s. They’re a mix between modern Marxism, if I can say that, and religion. Twenty years ago such individuals would have joined radical leftist movements, which have now disappeared. Now only two Western movements of radical protest claim to be “internationalist”: the anti-globalization movement and the radical Islamists.

Q: You have written that there is a paradox in these Militant Islamist movements of the past. What is that paradox and what affect does it have?

OR: The paradox of Islamism is that these movements have been shaped by the state they want to conquer, instead of shaping the states.

Q: Do the recent attacks of Al-Qaeda on Saudi soil represent a shift in the thinking of Islamic terrorists?

OR: I don’t think so. The militants who are active in Saudi Arabia are Saudis, they are not internationalists. They target mainly foreigners in Saudi Arabia and thus play as much on Saudi nationalism than on Islam. Even if many of their leaders went to Afghanistan and know Bin laden, this does not mean that they are just a local subsidiary of Al Qaeda.

Q: What can we expect next? What trends are emerging among the Muslims of Europe and their relations with EU states, especially in the newly admitted countries of Eastern Europe?

OR: Radical Muslims are only a minority and I show in my book that there are many other forms of Islam which tend to make of Islam a religion among others in the West. There is a liberal Islam and a moderate conservative brand of Islam which is much more aligned with conservative Christians and Jews on social issues (abortion, homosexuality, prayers at school etc.). But for me the central issue is that all forms of re-islamization, including neo-fundamentalism, are based in fact on some sort of process of westernization: individualization, generation gap, crisis of social authority, emotional religiosity versus intellectualism and delinking between faith and culture. There is a convergence of all the modern fundamentalisms. As far as eastern Europe is concerned Islam is part of ethnic culture and nationalism: it is why neo-fundamentalism is not taking root in Bosnia nor in Kosovo.