The Myth of Muslim Conquest

Less Threatening Than Imagined

By Patrick Haenni and Sami Amghar

(January 14, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) A question worries Europe: is Islam inherently expansionist and out to conquer the world? Yes, say those Swiss who voted against the construction of minarets. They see this expansionism underpinned by a desire for political control, sometimes imputed to the nature of Islamic ideology (pro-birth, proselytising, invasive), sometimes to the tactics of its main players (the Islamists and their agendas). Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a well-known moderate Sunni cleric, seemed to endorse this in his Al Jazeera broadcast of December 6, “Sharia and life,” on the Swiss referendum. He confirmed that conquest would happen and that all humans would be united by the word of God.

Questions about the nature of Islam are fair: like Christianity, Islam sets out to save humanity, a message implicit in the history of its prophecies. But what does religious expansionism mean in concrete terms? From a sociological point of view it can involve an aggressive move (political, propagandist, armed), increased religiosity (conversion or revivalism), or demographics.

In continental Europe the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish Milli Gorus (founded in the 1970s by a former Turkish prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and strong among Europe’s Turkish population) are groups with a political agenda. They seek the creation of an Islamic state, built not on universalist beliefs (Islam represents a religion for everyone) but aiming at domination, following the goal of guiding the world assumed by Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. They did not settle in Europe in the 1950s for those reasons, but because it provided a base for their fight in North Africa and the Middle East. That Muslim populations made their homes in Europe took them by surprise and caused them problems.

Being a minority community in Europe counters all the strategic plans of the agents of political Islam, trapping them in a dilemma: should they preach or lobby? The first option would put them in territory already occupied by the Salafist movement and the Tabligh organization. Salafism is a reformist branch of Islam which grew up during the 19th century and bases itself on the prophet Muhammad’s teachings and the first generation of Muslims (the word salaf means ancestor). The Tablighi organisation, created in India during the 1920s but now scattered round the world, believes its principal task is to proclaim Islam’s message through proselytising to other Muslims.

These are both both groups that the political scientist Olivier Roy calls neo-fundamentalist. The second option would put the onus on them to find enough activists in a European context; pushing to become figures of authority can reduce their appeal to fellow Muslims suspicious of compromise with the powers that be.

The Brotherhood’s predicament illustrates this well: by playing the institutional card they have, over time, lost their revolutionary verve, abandoned major causes and turned their backs on sensitive issues such as Palestine or, in France, wearing the hijab. Young Muslims criticize them and sometimes distance themselves from the Brothers because of their middle-class ways and their accommodation with the authorities. Even the charismatic Tariq Ramadan (whose appeal to young French Muslims was high) was disowned by former supporters when, in 2005, he put together a working party commissioned by the UK’s government (under Tony Blair) to investigate religious extremism.

That the proponents of political Islam find it hard to adopt credible strategies in the West benefits neo-fundamentalist movements, which reject conventional political involvement. These form a nebulous grouping of which the most important is Wahhabi or “scientific” Salafism (salafiyya ilmiyya); originating in Saudi Arabia, its characteristics are sectarian rigor and dogmatic radicalism – although remote from any idea of jihad or holy war. This variety of Salafism recruits from people disappointed in political Islam and in long-established neo-fundamentalist groups such as the Tablighis.

Far from proposing a fresh program aimed at political control, this type of Salafism offers the bitter fruit of a depoliticized Islam and an ideological narrative that argues for withdrawing from western society, avoiding it: a community based on faith replaces one based on culture (Tunisian, Moroccan) and is very critical of the traditional Islam practiced by ordinary families. In this way Salafism builds its own sectarian logic. Silent on the issue of the hijab, its protagonists offer no help when imams are expelled and they do not take part in demonstrations of solidarity with Palestine.

This call for withdrawal operates less in normal family or community life than among the numbers of newly Islamized young (known as the firqa najiyya). Salafism challenges the role of traditional imams, setting itself up in opposition to the real-life Muslim world and successful with those in distress, particularly the young. It does very little recruiting in strongly nationalistic communities like those from the Comoros or the Turks.

Its aim is not to conquer the West or establish Islamic ghettoes, but hijra (exodus), a return to Islamic countries – or failing that, to countries like the UK or Canada that are thought to be more tolerant to Muslims. So the young whom it attracts find themselves stuck, simply waiting, as their parents before them, instead of becoming involved in western society. But where their parents lived with the myth of returning to their land of origin, these young Salafists desire to leave their country of birth.

The formulation of any credible political program is blocked because they are a minority and because evangelical initiatives (the call for da’wa and the desire to return to Islam) now take place independently of any political design. Nor is armed jihad. In Europe, jihadism is lived as a quest for sacrifice, not as politics by other means. Militant groups, like al-Qaida or the Metin Kaplan movement (a radical movement founded in Germany in 1984, accused of many terrorist attempts), share the same sectarian mindset as non-combatant Salafists. Jihadists accuse of apostasy (takfir) all those adversaries they would like to fight: Jews and Christians, Muslims claimed not to practice properly – even the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no attempt to create a West of ghetto counter-cultures. On the contrary, the radical nature of jihadism, and Salafism drives them to break ties with the community and local area where people live, and with the mosque – which it sees as too easily controlled by the authorities, compromised because it is a place for community dialogue. Jihadist recruiting takes place in internet cafés, sports clubs, prisons.

The new jihadists have pushed hatred to the limits. They have no precise objective (a land or state to liberate or win over, or political party to reform, or regime to bring down); their aim is restricted to armed struggle and its media impact, along with the destruction of the symbols of political imperialism (the US and its allies).

If the militant dynamic of the Islamists no longer pushes for conquest, can it still use the back door of religious renewal and so tip European societies’ political balance or create Islamized spaces within them?

It’s easy to mistake the high visibility of Islam in the West for a massive return to piety in Muslim communities. But for the last 20 years religious observance has stagnated, even slightly waned. Its reappearance is at an individual level, not as part of a shared project, even if it stems from a desire for communal solidarity, and corresponds most of all to the need to rediscover identity and roots.

Two wide currents are found in the present religious revival. First, marketplace Islam: religiosity freed from the Islamist obsession with politics, and distinguished by a search for cultural normalization of the Muslim identity. Fashionable Islamic streetwear (combining jeans, trainers and the hijab), halal pop and Muslim Up (a French soft drink like cola) all express an affirmation of Islam rooted in mass culture. Religion does not offer a complete solution but it does represent a concern for ethics in a globally accepted western culture. (Whereas neo-fundamentalism seeks to break with the western way but has no expansionist aims because its followers are waiting to leave.)

Choices are individual

As for converts, they exist only in small numbers and work both ways, though the balance favors Islam. In France, according to the interior ministry, about 800 Muslims become Christians each year (usually evangelical), against 4,000 converts to Islam. Religious returnees are very visible, particularly in the physical appearance and clothes of born again Muslims and converts – men with beards, veiled women – but they are hardly institutionalized. Choices are individual, not those of organizations, and they have no wider meaning.

So this new kind of religiosity is both more public and less political. It poses an ideological problem in a country as strongly secular as France but it does not constitute a political threat or a security risk – except when jihadists are involved.

The fairy stories about ghettos being Muslim enclaves about to be hijacked by Islamist agents hatching plans of collective rupture with society are equally wrong. Even if the concentration of Muslim population in some areas may show signs of social control, it doesn’t amount to a politically driven, communitarian strategy. It seems, rather, the consequence of complex economic, social and political processes, combined with the attitude of the powers that be – not only in countries like Holland and the UK where multiculturalism is encouraged, but also in France. The race for the Muslim vote, the occasional allocation of social housing on ethnic criteria, the search for local community figures to keep an eye on the deprived French suburbs, and the desire to control Islam through the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) created in 2003 – all smack of multicultural behavior.

However the Muslim Brotherhood, whose power base lies in the middle classes, has not made its mark in the French suburbs. The complete failure of the fatwa calling for calm issued by the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF, an organisation with links to the Brotherhood) during the 2005 riots in France proved that, and not for the first time. And if the Salafists are present in the suburbs, they are not in control either. Their influence remains limited; they have no experience of structuring a strong social movement in such a way as to acquire a leadership role; and their objective remains not to create Islamized or rebel urban spaces but a return to the dar al-Islam (lands of Islam).

In the areas where most Muslims live, individual values are emerging today in a strong way alongside consumer society. Witness the growth of mixed marriages, including those of immigrant women, the problems of the Muslim associations, weakened parental authority and the very few religion-based schools. (Emmanuel Todd also shows in Le destin des immigrés that the rate of mixed marriages for Algerian women grew from 6.2 per cent to 27.5 per cent between 1975 and 1990. For Moroccan women it increased from 4 per cent to 13 per cent.) There are also the setbacks suffered when activists have tried to put together multicultural lists for local elections.

Twenty years ago, when there was no such thing as a Muslim part of town, any return to religion always took place within the context of an organization. In contrast, today, a Muslim environment – with all its social and religious customs, bookshops, places of worship, halal butchers – has made for re-Islamization on a highly individualistic basis, even for the first generation of immigrants.

The European context of a modern nation state and democracy, and Islam’s minority status, are not conducive to establishing a dialogue between religion and politics. And within the Islamist circles authorized to take part in the political game, there is a desire to separate the da’wa (preaching) from the politics. Meanwhile, because the Islamists have proved unable to formulate a coherent project, forms of neo-fundamentalism such as Salafism have emerged, banishing politics to the distant realms of millennial dreams.

However, many Muslims who seek to play a public role now see this in terms of pure (secular) politics. Some Muslim Brothers make themselves heard within traditional political parties, both on the left and right. And Muslims (for instance, the Muslim Brothers who dominated the scene in the 1990s, and the Indigenes de la République (a French movement calling for an end to discrimination) in the 2000s are presenting their demand for rights for a population of immigrant origin as a matter of cultural, and secular, identity.

These diverse processes of rupture between religion and politics reveal an implicit recognition that the idea of conquest is illusory. Whether old dreams of expansionism linger on is immaterial. What is important is that such a possibility has been ruled out by the transformations that have taken place at the heart of Muslim society.

Translated by Robert Waterhouse

Patrick Haenni is senior researcher at the Fondation Religioscope and co-author, with Stéphane Lathion, of Les Minarets de la discorde. Eclairage sur un débat suisse et européen (Infolio, Paris, 2009).

Sami Amghar is a sociologist at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales, Paris.

This article appears in the January edition of this excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.