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Essays on Society: Islam in Europe and the Techniques of Exclusion

I want to take this opportunity to think about Islam in Europe and draw from postcolonial scholarship to understand the reasons why and the techniques by which Islam is rendered foreign and inferior. In particular, I am interested in how exclusion takes place at the level of politico-intellectual discourse. In thinking about this matter, my essay will showcase how a postcolonial geographical approach enables us to problematise vocabularies and rewrite the present. First, I discuss postcolonial scholarship an sich and orient it towards my discussion of Islam. Second, applying postcolonial critique as a method, I critically analyse a set of terms by which Islam is excluded. Third, I propose two strategic lines along which postcolonial theory can be mobilised to rewrite the present and re-place Islam in Europe.


Postcolonial scholarship does not merely aim to articulate the unsaid and mend a history shattered by colonialism. In addition, it locates the presence and effect of that history and enables us to problematise the terminologies, categories, dichotomies and logic that make up the text itself. As such, in summoning uncertainty it unsettles thought. Departing from the notion that colonisation is still at work, perhaps in more insidious ways than during colonial times, it proceeds to decolonise and opens up pathways for imaginative innovation (Venn 2006:1-4). For the sake of consistency, instead of conceiving of postcolonialism as a body of theory it ought to be regarded as a method that assists in thinking against the colonial and a strategy geared towards the achievement of certain ‘politico-intellectual goals’ (Jazeel 2013:20).

In my view, postcolonial scholarship must be attentive to the geographical. This is not only because power relations are played out spatially, but also because the language used to produce the Other and naturalise the Other’s exclusion draws legitimacy from a performatively forceful, historicised geographical imagination (Nash 2002; Said 1978:50; Gregory 2001:84-87). The Other’s otherness is, so to speak, firmly woven into the fabric of space and time. This comes out clearly when considering Islam in Europe. Although historically Islam is implicated in Europe’s development in various ways, Muslims in Europe remain quintessentially foreign, external to European history, geography and politics (Kumar 2002; Göle 2012). Islam as a whole continues to be regarded in monolithic terms as fundamentally incompatible with ‘Western’ values (Huntington 1996; March 2009). In this sense, Said’s (1997 [1981]) words still ring true today when he writes that Occidental thinking about Islam is utterly simplistic and firmly rooted in an imaginative, polarised geographical division between the so-called ‘East’ and ‘West’ (p.4).

At an obvious level, in mass media and populist political rhetoric, the exclusion of Muslims is realised through a repetitious display of cliché images, accompanied by such terms as ‘backward’ or ‘fundamentalist’ (Said 1997). However, what interests me is how exclusion takes place at the level of thought and politico-intellectual discourse through the invocation of such terms as ‘modernity’, ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ and the concomitant gesture of accommodation. In the next section, by applying postcolonial critique as a method I problematise these terms, historicise them and demonstrate how they imprint a hierarchy into the politics and geographies of space and time.


The division between Islam and Europe is based on a conception of Islam as a timeless and sacred referent embodied by a religious community and Europe as a geographically delineated site of secular modernity. They appear to constitute two distinct, mutually exclusive life-worlds that operate according to a different logic. In this regard, it is not strange that the presence of Muslims in European spaces may be experienced as disruptive by ‘native Europeans’ who lay claim to anteriority. As I understand from Göle (2012:668-669), it is within this agitated encounter that we can see the contours of a certain ‘time-space matrix’ –one which grounds European superiority and, as I argue, is continuously reaffirmed through a particular vocabulary.

A useful starting point to understand this time-space matrix and the manners in which terms such as modernity, religion and secularism establish hierarchy, lies in the work of Fabian (2002). He argues that colonialism transformed our understanding of time and space and explains the implications this has had for the production of the Other. Prior to the Age of Exploration, for Christian Europe, Jerusalem and Rome constituted the centre of the world. There was only Sacred Time denoting an all-encompassing circular flow of time, salvaged only through conversion to Christendom. In the colonial era, however, as travel to places of religious knowledge (e.g. Jerusalem) became travel from places of scientific knowledge (e.g. England) (p.7), and under the influence of the Enlightenment and colonial encounters, time became secularised and space reorganised. It was no longer salvation but liberation from history that was required to save the future –that is, Man had to rid himself of tradition and strive for progress along a now linear timeline (p.10-11). In this process, and in its marriage to Darwinian evolutionary theory, time became spatialised. Whereas European imperial powers assumed their place at the centre of the world in keeping with time, all Others –marked by their peripheral position– were depicted as primitives and savages (p.14-18). They were not up-to-date, or as Fabian formulates it: they were denied ‘coevalness’ (p.31).

Although at present this geography of time no longer holds, its legacy still reverberates in contemporary discourse. Not only at the global level, where terms such as the developed and developing world are still invoked, but also at the local level where we find similar techniques that render the Other temporal-spatially different. Muslims in Europe who occupy the same spaces as Europeans are still denied coevalness. This is evident from such depictions of Muslims as backward or unable to adapt (Göle 2012:670).

Following Said (1978:60) this prolonged antagonistic attitude towards Muslims is rooted in pre-colonial frictions between Christian Europe and the Islamic empire. From its rapid ascendance in the 6th century at least until the late 1400s, Islam posed a significant threat to Christian theologies and self-esteem. However, it was arguably as a result of that fateful moment when Muslims were banished from Spain and Europeans –through their technological advancements– were able to reach the New World, circumvent the Islamic stronghold and penetrate the Orient, that the idea of Europe arose as constituting the pinnacle of modernity (Gregory 2004:5). This is substantiated by Masuzawa (2005:184-186), who understands that moment as marking a fundamental shift that rendered Europe inseparable from modernity, science, mobility and freedom and simultaneously worked to solidify the idea of Islam as that archaic Other.

It may be argued that these early frictions and colonising enterprises belong to a bygone age. However, from a postcolonial perspective, I argue that certain terms that rehearse this historical mindset are still invoked to affect the present. Specifically, in seeking to manage the Islamic presence in Europe in terms of a ‘religion’ that is ‘accommodated’ by the ‘secular modern’, colonisation is still at work. This relates to Said’s (1978) statement that while ‘manifest’ Orientalism may be subject to change, its ‘latent’ form remains intact (p.206). More precisely, while discussions of Islam may have become secularised through their adoption of more ‘neutral’ terminologies, the ‘existential paradigms’ of old are still in operation (p.120-121).

This is exemplified by the term ‘religion’. Particularly in the literature that propagates multiculturalism the term is invoked in a seemingly neutral manner (e.g. Kymlicka 1995). Its usage situates Islam alongside other religions and qualifies it as an object of ‘accommodation’ –a technique that draws boundaries between capability and passivity, host and guest, and a policy that can arguably be read as camouflaged containment (Brown 2006:29; Winter 2011:32; Rosello 2001). Yet, we should bear in mind that ‘religion’ as a category is an existentially biased, ideologically prescriptive product of a particular history (Sidaway et al 2014:6; Jazeel 2014:96). It has a profound geo-political effect in that it serves to separate the West from the Rest (Masuzawa 2005:2). One need only think of Huntington (1996), who argues that the world is divided into civilisations, each bearing a distinct religious essence. Beyond such global ramifications, I find that even within Europe, through its contrast with secularity (Burchardt 2013:614), the term ‘religion’ works to exclude Islam as something inimical to modernity and unfit for full participation. At most, the religious label allows Muslims to take on a minority status and be the object of either European hostility or hospitality, both of which reaffirm the recipient’s position as essentially foreign (Derrida 2000).

To elaborate: The term religion, in its current meaning, was devised in conjunction with the rise of the comparative science of religion. Its construction was not merely to make sense of Others but more importantly to establish a hierarchy (Scott 1999:58). Following evolutionary theory, Christianity, as the most recent of religions, was depicted as the most developed, scientifically sound and morally superior religion (van der Veer 2012:721-722). Islam, which escaped this temporal scheme, was dismissed as a belated archaic religion, successful only for a while due to the retarded context in which it emerged (Masuzawa 2005:82-83). In establishing this hierarchy, religions with a scriptural corpus were privileged over non-literary religions. This is important, as it was in this privileging that the meaning of religion changed from a consciousness and something that was done, to a set of doctrines and propositions or something that was thought. This novel understanding arguably set the scene for the problem of ‘conflicting truth claims’ (Scott 1999:58-67).

It was within this shift in thought, moreover, that the idea emerged of a so-called religious essence, a quality unique to religion. This essence, as Asad (1993) argues, allowed for religion to be separated from ‘secular’ spheres of social life. It rendered religion optional (in contrast to science and secularity) and turned it into something to be conditionally accommodated. This comes out clearly when reading contemporary political philosophy, where religion as a set of propositions is encapsulated in Rawls’ (1993) concept of a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ and secularism carries with it notions of progress, liberty, tolerance and democracy (Robbins 2013:246). As a distinct category, cognitive by nature and fit for intellectual scrutiny, a comprehensive doctrine such as Islam is barred from politics unless its adherents formulate their perspectives in reasonable terms, adapted to a secular logic acceptable to the general public (Rawls 1993; Habermas 2006).

It may be argued that this demand excludes Christianity just as much as it does Islam. However, we should bear in mind that Europe’s identity is grounded in a particular historicised geographical imagination that accords Judeo-Christian traditions a degree of indigeneity (Bulliet 2004); that secularism is historically rooted in Christian theology and may therefore still bear its traces (Asad 2003:192-193; Taylor 2007); and that although European nations may be formally secular, a number of them continue to be tied to particular Christian denominations (Casanova 2008; Oosterbaan 2014). In my view, the usage of the term religion as an optional set of doctrines, separable from other spheres of social life and bereft of the same degree of validity and public appeal as secularism, reduces Islam into something it is not. By ascribing an essence unto Islam, denying it coevalness and reducing it to a mere object to be accommodated by ‘Christo-secular’ modernity, it is rendered static, foreign and inferior. This is peculiar, since its inclusion seems to be conditioned upon its very capacity to undergo transformation. It seems thus that Islam in Europe is caught in a state of limbo, locked in by dead-end choices: either it remains as it is and continues to be excluded, or it enters (European) modernity and ceases to be itself.

What I have tried to show is that postcolonial geographical critique as a method can assist in problematising a vocabulary and exposing its violence. Specifically, by locating history in such terms as modernity, religion and secularism and showing how they impinge upon politics and geographies of space and time, I have sought to illuminate how imaginative and existential paradigms of old still operate to produce and contain the Other. Although this deconstructive exercise primarily constitutes an intellectual intervention, I believe its socio-political relevance is to be found in the discursive space it clears and the subsequent interventions it enables. In the next section, I propose two lines of further intervention along which postcolonial theory can be mobilised to achieve particular socio-political goals.


In order to rewrite the present and re-place Islam in Europe in both social and political terms, I believe two strategic lines of intervention are worth exploring. Perhaps, any such attempt should be preceded by decolonising our own minds. This involves being tactically cognisant of the theoretical vocabulary we invoke and sidetracking colonialism –and the understandings of privilege to which it subscribes– as the primary historical reference (Robinson 2003). The first line entails revisiting history, with the express aim to dissolve boundaries and re-imagine geographies of power and knowledge. The second line entails rendering space, time and identity complex to enable for multiplicity, fluidity and ambiguity. Although presented as two distinct lines, they constitute a single intervention.

As I have argued, it is not merely Islam’s position as a ‘religion’ in ‘secular modernity’ that complicates its inclusion. Its foreignness simultaneously traces through the imaginary. This corresponds to Asad’s (2003:159-166) argument that one of the main obstacles towards understanding the Islamic presence in Europe lies in European notions of itself as a delineated civilisation, in which the majority is believed to trace its roots to Greco-Roman and Christian thought, whereas Muslim minorities (or ‘immigrants’ in general) supposedly do not. Perhaps we do not need to go as far a Bulliet (2004), who makes the case for an ‘Islamo-Christian Civilisation’, which in my view only serves to redraw boundaries elsewhere. I do believe that there is great merit, however, in revisiting history as Bulliet does and drawing out the ways in which historical trajectories have intertwined and re-imagining geographies of knowledge and power that such connectivity allows for.

With regard to my case, a deep recognition has to take place of the manners in which Muslims’ translations of Greek, Persian and Sanskrit works affected intellectual life in Christian Europe and influenced the Enlightenment (Tolan et al 2013:88-89), and how these philosophical engagements fed into the conceptual frameworks of Islamic theologies and political theory (Akhavi 2003:546-549). Historical revision should also be attentive to other notions of privilege, honour and attainment. One could recognise, for example, that while European powers expanded their territory and acquired earthly riches, the colonial era also witnessed vast populations across South-Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa adopting the Islamic faith (Bulliet 2004:40-41). In my view, as part of Chakrabarty’s (2000) project of ‘provincialising Europe’, we ought to acknowledge that there is nothing commonsensical about privileging the acquisition of earthly power and wealth in narrating history. In fact, I believe that through tracing ideas, spiritual concepts and the advancement of consciousness –without falling prey to the notion of ‘cultural borrowing’– boundaries can be blurred and our notion of progress can be expanded.

This brings us to the second line, which ought to be applied to both past and present. It entails stepping away from the singular time-space matrix, not so much in favour of a borderless world but, as Asad (2003) argues, in search of ‘complex space’ and ‘heterogeneous time’. Just as medieval Christendom and Islam did, it means recognising the multiplicity of overlapping loyalties and identities and that it is a variety of traditions that simultaneously impinge upon embodied practices. It means allowing autonomous individuals to live a collective life beyond borders and developing the conditions for everyone to live ‘as a minority among minorities’ (p.179-180).

In the European context, we have to see how in its encounter with Islam, Europe has become a site for a new narrative to be articulated. One in which the modern worship of the present mingles with references to a prophetic past and both Islam and Europe can ascend to new heights from where novel notions of piety and civic virtue can be brought into view (Göle 2012:668-674). Although such a conceptualisation of the Euro-Islamic encounter does suggest that the Islamic presence in Europe can be productively thought about through Bhabha’s (1994) ‘Third Space’, or the interstitial, where cultural production takes place, we have to be cautious not to settle too easily for ‘hybridity’ as some ultimate panacea.

In this regard, I take heed of Thomas’ (1996) warning, that the hybrid –although somewhat redemptive– still allows for essentialism to creep in and reproduce hierarchy. Instead, we have to see culture as being in a continuous state of flux. Although certain pivotal texts, such as the Qur’an or Aristotle’s Nichomean Ethics, are fixed, they are constantly re-written through translations, commentaries and dialogues. Let us agree that in the realms of ideas and practice there is never a single author, cultural source or exemplary form to be embodied. Rather, dictated by a variety of experiences, divine interventions, human failings and epiphanies, the pens of imagination continue to write, rewrite and overwrite the present.


By way of thinking through the Islamic presence in Europe, I have sought to showcase the types of interventions enabled by postcolonial geographical approaches. Through an application of postcolonial critique as a method, I have shown how it can assist in problematising a vocabulary and exposing its violence. Specifically, I argued that terms such as ‘modernity’, ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ and the gesture of accommodation, through their attachment to a particular history and geographical imagination, contrive to imprint a certain hierarchy into the politics and geographies of space and time. Problematising these terms, as I understand it, renders us cognisant of our language and clears the space for further strategic interventions. I proposed two such interventions: revisiting history and rendering time, space and identity complex. By decentering certain notions of privilege and attainment, narrating the continuous intermingling of ideas, bringing multiplicity, ambiguity and fluidity into focus and destabilising human subjectivities, I believe a postcolonial approach could assist in rewriting the present and re-placing Islam in Europe as a moment of imaginative emergence.


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