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Islam in its new Habitus

Suddenly, women in veils seem to be everywhere. Muslims are pushing their way into the public sphere by emphasising their religious identity. A study explains why. By Moritz Behrendt

Suddenly, women in veils seem to be everywhere. In the past few months, almost every political magazine has printed a young veiled Muslim woman on its cover. It is the veil itself – actually a symbol of banishment from the public view – that makes Muslim women in Europe more visible than ever before. But it's not only thanks to the media that Muslims are increasingly in the spotlight. Muslims, both men and women, are pushing their way into the public sphere by emphasising their religious identity.

The Parisian sociologist Nilüfer Göle refers to a "voluntary adoption of stigmatising symbols". "These Muslims, considered 'unwanted' by modern society, elect not to pursue a strategy of assimilation, but rather to emphasise their unsettling differentness." Göle, together with the Freiburg-based Islamic scholar Ludwig Ammann, has published "Islam in Sicht" (Islam in View), a collection of essays on the presence of Muslims in public space. The book analyses the "coming out" of Muslims in four countries: France, Germany, the strictly secular Turkey and Iran, where the public sphere is under strict religious influence and control. The work is the result of a research project at the Cultural Studies Institute in Essen, and its cultural studies approach is evident. The studies confine themselves to non-discursive strategies of "public relations". Under investigation are, for instance, a new Islamic cafe in Istanbul, the Tabligh wandering preachers in France and the practice of wearing of veils for show.

According to Göle, these phenomena are all signs of a second phase of Islamism in which the religion's cultural orientation has become more important than its political standpoint. How these groups appropriate public space is admirably analysed in the essays. By contrast, points of contact with, or demarcations from political Islam are vague in reality, and here the collection contributes little to a clearer understanding.

It is no surprise that these new performative practices cause irritation particularly in Europe. Where there is no programmatic text and no central contact person, the old European understanding of the public reaches its limits. In the introductory theoretical capital, Göle, Ammann and Christian Geulen make clear that the Habermassian concept of a rational discourse as the core of a modern public – whether a European immigration society or an Islamic space – does not suffice. Not because there was no Islamic Enlightenment and therefore no rational public arena, but because the forms of appropriation of public space are manifold and faith cannot be driven out of public life. Modernisation does not necessarily take place when the religious retreats into the private realm, as is evident in secular states like France and Turkey.

The contributions also demonstrate that the new forms of religiousness are irrefutably modern. In his article on Islamic cafes in Istanbul, Ugur Kömecoglu writes that the owner of these hangouts for young, urbane Islamists are consciously turning away from the tradition of Ottoman coffee houses (kahvehanes).These used to be the sites of hot political and literary debate. But that's a long time ago. Today the kahvehanes have become dirty gin palaces, where unemployed old men play cards or Halma. European-style cafes on the other hand symbolise an urban lifestyle. Although the owners of the new Islamic cafes want to distinguish their establishments from the chic western cafes – veils required, flirting not – they can't avoid echoing them in their names.

This hybridism is particular to all the Islamic movements described, in Turkey, France and Germany: Muslims reflect Muslim values but also employ western forms of self-representation. In their desire to be individuals, they break from tradition; in emphasising their piety, they distinguish themselves from the secular mainstream. For modern Islamists, it's no contradiction for Muslim women to wear stylish, flamboyant veils. Even in Iran, where the public sphere is monopolised by religion, Islamic women are articulating a new feminine self-image.

Elham Gheytanchi portrays the women, at once modern and demure, and describes how they are changing their public image through their novels, theological articles for women's magazines or film roles and thus creating broader access to jobs and positions traditionally not available to them. Gheytanchi succeeds in presenting the women as independent and self-confident, and describes their participation in public life in exciting and varied ways. The contributions from Iran are pale and imprecise in comparison: Farhad Khosroskhavar and Mahnaz Shirali seem to view the control mechanisms of the religious teachers and moral observers as insurmountable obstacles to the creation of a critical public sphere.

The great accomplishment of "Islam in Sicht" is its nuanced presentation and analysis of the various forms of religiosity in public space. The book raises further questions: How can the Western public respond to this new Islamism? How will the traditional powers in Islamic countries meet these new challenges? This book demonstrates that the cultural Islamic movements have become too significant to be ignored.

Nilüfer Göle, Ludwig Ammann (Eds.): "Islam in Sicht. Der Auftritt von Muslimen im öffentlichen Raum". Transcript-Verlag, Bielefeld 2004. 384 p., € 26.80.


The article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 15 March, 2005.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european