This is a discussion of the relationship between Muslims, Islam, and the West. There is an increasing need for both Muslims and people of other faiths (or with no faith) of the West to change the way they perceive Islam. Moving away from the first immigrants generations ago, Muslims are now fully-entitled contributors to Western societies and will remain so in the future. Islam is no longer a foreign religion to the West, and discourse surrounding it should not be solely about immigrants, as if Muslims are foreigners rather than residents and citizens. I propose that the way forward is to jettison the time-worn dialogue of “them and us” which generates its own set of challenges, and instead for each of us to accept our diversity as an asset and consider our shared future together—a shared responsibility towards the new “We.”

Millions of Western citizens are Muslims. Today and for the future, Islam is a Western religion and an irrefutable part of Western identity. This is critical to acknowledge because persistent dialogue about Muslims as immigrants or citizens with immigrant backgrounds perpetuates a distinction between two differing entities. However, this is an erroneous understanding of the current situation. Muslims have been living in some Western countries for decades, with fourth and fifth generations of Muslim citizens now being born
into these countries.

Western society as a whole faces two key challenges in fostering coexistence and allowing all groups to be able to contribute to a better future and have a common narrative. The first relates to Western realities, where it is critical to recognize that the West is dealing with a number of different crises. By acknowledging this, we will begin to understand that Islam is often used as a diversion from some of the true problems. One such example is the identity crisis that the West is now experiencing, created by the contradiction between economic needs and cultural resistance. Immigrants make up a vital part of the workforce in the West, and their presence is an indispensable need, yet at the same time, there is a discourse highlighting tensions between national identity and the entry of new immigrants. The West lacks confidence and vision as to its own future in economic, political, and cultural terms.

Nonetheless, these problems are not justifications for Muslims to ignore their own internal challenges. Islam is a tremendously heterogeneous religion, with Muslims coming from a diversity of cultures, nations, and ethnicities. Muslims have a responsibility to be faithful to their religious principles and to fully and actively participate in their home Western societies while being confident that the flexibility of the Islamic legal principles and the latitude of laws within Western countries are compatible. To be fully and actively participating citizens, Muslims need to nurture a sense of attachment, belonging, respect, pride, and loyalty in “my country,” a feeling that this is “my home” as well as “my children’s future.” With all the recurrent confusion and misinterpretation both within and surrounding Islam, this can sometimes be a demanding undertaking.

The West: The Challenges of a Pluralistic Society

The discourse in the West of multiculturalism, identity, and integration makes it clear that we are facing an identity crisis as to who are we going to be. Some have the perception that the new “global” world is undermining our individual sense of belonging to one nation. Citizens’ loyalties are now scattered, and immigrants have their own, seemingly robust, visibility. This new visibility, mainly that of Muslims whose ancestry is from countries in the Southern hemisphere, is disturbing the very essence of what has been perceived for years as a neutral public sphere. This new cultural and religious presence challenges our societies’ once-homogenous identity. Immigration has evolved into an issue that has become associated with, or used as a sole explanation for, the socioeconomic problems that all our societies are currently facing. Our education systems are in crisis; there are problems concerning social justice, poverty, unemployment, marginalization, corruption, and crime. All these socioeconomic problems can become mixed up with the issue of immigration and the presence of a perceived “other” to create a new kind of populist, unconstructive discourse.

The characteristics of populism include the promotion of very simplistic answers to complex problems by targeting a guilty presence. For example, in my home country of Switzerland, it used to focus on the Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Today, this guilty presence throughout the West centers on “Muslims” as a transnational reality. The second characteristic of populism is the nurturing of a sense of fear and phobia by insinuating that our country is under siege, inciting anxiety associated with the diminution of the identity of our nation, and suggesting that “others” are silently colonizing us. The new Islamophobia has some common characteristics with the old anti-Semitism and Judeophobia: social fears are fostered by a discourse that targets the “other” as being responsible for all problems, because it is easier to target specific communities or minorities than to seek genuine political or economic solutions. The third characteristic of populism is to cultivate a victim mentality—to say that we are not responsible for the current situation, because “they” are the perpetrator, and “we” are the victims.

The consequence of all three characteristics is the fourth feature of binary vision, an “us versus them” attitude. This perception very much exists within our Western society— populist discourse and emotional politics thrive on simplistic answers and a lack of in-depth solutions to complex socioeconomic and political problems. In emotional politics where discourse is centered on that which is visible, emotional, and controversial, the reactions that are generated create rejection rather than a civic sense of belonging. People who were once considered as individual groups of Pakistanis, Turkish, Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians, Africans, Malians, etc. are now bracketed altogether as Muslims. This is a transnational phenomenon which nurtures a sense of fear. We can see this happening in France, Germany, Canada, and the United States—all throughout the West, where people are now targeted as Muslims.

The first immigrants who came to work, settle, and become citizens were asked to abide by the law, and as a consequence were welcomed as part of, and contributors to, their new society. This was an appropriate first step. The problem today is that whilst these people might be citizens with, in theory, the same rights, they still do not belong to the common narrative of the nation. They are citizens by law and yet still alien to the nation’s narrative: citizens of the State, foreigners within the Nation. The entire narrative of their nation ignores their presence as part of the past, part of the present, and a necessary positive part of the future. The West has to face this reality because the resultant discourse of populism is nurturing a perpetual sense that Islam is the other—that all Muslims are foreigners that do not have the same culture, same civilization, or same understanding of values or principles.

Islam: The Challenges from Within

Muslims are also facing problems internally, and as I summarize in my book, What I Believe, we are witnessing a silent revolution within Islam today. The first stages of settlement in the West, particularly in Europe and Australia, were quite difficult for Muslims: they faced a tension between their cultures of origin and Islamic principles. It was as if the Islamic principles were so rooted in the cultures of origin that it was difficult to differentiate between the two. But it is critical to acknowledge that religion and culture are not the same—there is no religion without culture and there are no cultures without religion, but religion is not culture. So for Muslims, according to both the Islamic legal tradition and jurists, whilst the Islamic principles are immutable (the creed, six pillars of faith, the five pillars of practice—praying, fasting, prohibitions, etc.) and must be respected wherever we are, factors such as the way we dress, what we eat, and our way of life can be flexible and are guided by our culture, not our religion. When we settle in a new culture we even need to reassess the way the scriptural sources are read: for example, in terms of the changing relationship between social classes or between men and women, new cultures are pushing Muslims to reassess historical readings and understandings. It might be that some practices that are perceived as Islamic are in fact more cultural than religious.

It is critical for Muslims to acknowledge this cultural projection and to able to adjust and correct such practices so that they are more truthful to the principles of Islam. These were the steps that the first Muslim immigrants undertook, and indeed we continue to strive to resolve these issues today. Many new answers and new visions have been promoted, and these remain rooted in tradition: faithful to scriptural sources but new in their understanding and interpretation. This renewal, tajdeed, is not a new concept, and has been an important part of the Islamic dynamic since the beginning. We are not changing the scriptural texts, but the way the texts are read. Time and space is shifting and this has to be acknowledged. This is the first challenge for Muslims, and it is a work in progress. As it is coming from scholars and Western Muslims, I call it the “silent revolution,” an intellectual revolution and the birth of a new mindset.

The second challenge of equal consequence is to accept and respect the diversity within Islam. There are many trends within Islam and among Western Muslims and such diversity can cause tension and division. There is tension, both in the Middle East and the West, between the two Islamic traditions of Shi’i and Sunni Muslims. Added to this, we can identify many trends: for example, Salafi literalists isolate themselves from the surrounding society. Sufis strive not to be publicly visible Muslims, but rather practice their faith privately, and may not even be known as practicing Muslims. Reformists acknowledge their environment, wanting to be involved in their society and promote a new understanding of the rules, faithful to the principles but adapting and acknowledging their environment (see my proposed categorization in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam).

Muslims are experiencing two further diversities specifically relating to social class and political positioning which in turn leads to further complexities. In the United States for example, African-American Muslims from more challenging, inner city backgrounds are often confronted with racism. While some Muslim immigrants are settling well and experiencing the “American dream”, second, third, and fourth generation US-born, African-American Muslims challenge the myth of this so-called land of opportunity and equality. Some African-American Muslims continue to experience unemployment, lack of recognition, racism, and discrimination—this is no American dream. Yet these Muslims are not migrants—they are as indigenous as most white Americans (lest we forget the true native Americans). This same social class divide exists in Europe, Canada and Australia. Added to this is political positioning, with some people viewing themselves as more left- or right-wing on the political spectrum.

These are added divisions that complicate the religious positioning of Muslims and could contribute to the division of Islamic populations in the West. Muslims are experiencing tensions and divisions and it is critical to acknowledge this as part of Muslim reality in the West in order to be able to move forward.

I have been advocating for Muslims to acknowledge the three L’s: the first is to respect and abide by the law of your country, provided that the two principles of respecting freedom of conscience and freedom of worship are present (which is the case in all the Western countries, at least in legal theory). There is flexibility within Islamic legislation, and together with the latitude of Western legislation it is possible to find a path that is at the same time law-abiding and faithful to our religious principles. To facilitate this, we need a secular legal framework that is implemented equally for all citizens, including Muslims.

The second important consideration is language. Citizenship means power, duties and rights, and you cannot be a true citizen without a good command of the country’s national language. Language should be promoted through education. Whilst Arabic is useful to be able to read scriptural sources, it is important to learn and be comfortable with the language of your country or your nation to be able be to involved, to participate, and to be a witness. I call the West, as well as the globalized world, Dar Shahada, which means “abode of witness,” where you are visible with your values, your behavior, your engagement within society, and your commitment: language is a critical factor and facilitator for this.

Loyalty is the third consideration, where loyalty is not only connected to the state. This loyalty means, as I mention above, that we feel part of the nation in which we live with a sense of belonging—we are involved in society as citizens. However, loyalty is not blind support to the nation, and it is not a statement that “you are with us or against us.” This loyalty must always be a critical loyalty: to be with my nation is to be critical of my government when I think, as a citizen, that my government is doing wrong. Critical loyalty is the only true loyalty.

Guided by these 3 L’s, Muslims can achieve better understanding of and involvement in their societies. Throughout all Western countries, Muslim women and men are now actively involved in this process. They accept the law of their country, they are learning their country’s European language to the same standard as their fellow citizens, and at the same time they are nurturing a sense of loyalty.

Integration will be successful when we stop talking about integration, and instead replace all reference to it with contribution. Contribution is to have a positive, creative presence. As well as cultivating that feeling of belonging to your nation and the common narrative (by taking time to absorb your country’s past and history), one should also be creative in cultural terms, with the arts, entertainment, poetry, literature, sciences, and education. Western Muslims have the means to be more creative. We are less creative when we try to protect ourselves from an environment that we understand as being hostile, so Muslims can relax and acknowledge they are Western by culture.

A Shared Responsibility

This will be a long, evolving process. I think we will need at least two generations to see the effects of the new creative contribution of Muslims. This creativity is already present in sport, culture, journalism, and media, but further contribution is needed in the arts, education, sciences, and social dynamics. Yet this can only be achieved with the understanding that there is a shared responsibility. If Western discourse continues to portray Islam and Muslims as the alien factor and continues to be driven by populism and the “us versus them” mentality, we will not see improvements. Positive progress will come only when we all accept that we are living together and that this situation is not going to go away.

This shared responsibility is a prerequisite for the new “we,” or nation, societies, and narratives belonging to us all. Every citizen and every tradition can make a positive contribution; pluralism is an asset but it takes time, effort, and intellectual humility to understand that whatever your culture, tradition, or memory, you still need others to enrich you and help you to make the best contribution possible to your world. Acknowledging the contribution of the other and that their presence can be positive, that we all have room to learn more and need to open up in order to live together, is the only way to achieve a deep sense of what it means to be a humanist advocating respectful pluralism. Living together does not mean that we should forget ourselves; rather, it is about being true to ourselves and our principles while maintaining positive interaction with those who are different. We may have different paths and have different religions, but we surely have a common future.