Do Muslims Belong in the West? An Interview with Talal Asad


SHAFAQNA - Talal Asad is an anthropologist at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Asad has made important theoretical contributions to post-colonialism, Christianity, Islam, and ritual studies and has recently called for, and initiated, an anthropology of secularism. Using a genealogical method developed by Friedrich Nietzsche and made prominent by Michel Foucault, Asad “complicates terms of comparison that many anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists receive as the un-examined background of thinking, judgment, and action as such. By doing so, he creates clearings, opening new possibilities for communication, connection, and creative invention where opposition or studied indifference prevailed”.

His long-term research concerns the transformation of religious law (the shari’ah) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt with special reference to arguments about what constitutes secular and progressive reform

In this discussion, Talal Asad identifies the problematic ways in which the presence of Muslim communities in Western contexts has been characterized in response to outbreaks of violence such as the recent events in Paris. Asad argues that many of the critiques to which Muslims are subjected, namely their dependence on transcendent forces, also inhabit the intellectual assumptions of secular and atheist commentators.  He further expresses the need to examine Islam as a “tradition” in order to avoid precisely the types of sweeping generalizations and focus instead on the complexities and particularities of the various ways in which Islam is lived. The inability to historicize Islam as a tradition has played into the calls for a “reform” of the religion and resulted in the inability to confront the underlying causes of the recent eruptions of violence.

SHAFAQNA –  Do Muslims belong in the West? This is a question that has been asked for many years, but perhaps with no more force than today. You wrote in your essay “Muslims as a ‘Religious Minority’ in Europe” (2003), over a decade ago, that “Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in Europe.” Is there something almost inevitable in the way “the clash of civilizations” is being set up by certain sectors in the West?

No, I do not think there is such a thing as a “clash of civilizations.” When I said that Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in the West, I was being ironic, and also referring to the fact that ninety percent of the time when people talk about “the problem of Muslims” in the West, it is to complain about the fact that Muslims have not “integrated.” There is very little serious discussion about what it means to be “European,” what it means to be French, or British, or whatever, and what exactly “secularism” in Europe means for religion in general and Islam in particular. The problem is always seen as, either: We must try harder to integrate them, or: It is their fault they do not integrate, and it is because they are attached to an illiberal religion, and so to values that conflict profoundly with our secular, egalitarian society.

In other words, the problem is seen as a matter of why “they” do not fit in to what is thought of as “our” society, rather than: What or who are “we,” as Europe or as France or Britain, and what must we do to change aspects of ourselves in order to make it possible for Muslims (who will also need to change) to be represented in Europe as Muslims? The problem is always seen as one of assimilating Muslims into Europe (whose structure and identity are fixed) if we are well intentioned towards them, and if you are not well intentioned, then making it quite clear that they do not belong with us–that they ought to “go back to where they came from.” Europe in the sixteenth century was not what it is like today–indeed, it was not even “Europe” but “Christendom.” Even after the forces of secularization things did not remain the same–politically, economically, or culturally. This is one of my voices, by the way. I am now speaking as someone who has lived most of his life in the West.

Incidentally, I think the term “West” does have some uses: It is not always to be dismissed as nonsensical (“there’s no such thing as the West”), but nor is it to be used in the slaphappy way many people use it when they say “the West has done this, the West has done that.” But I think the term has legitimate uses. Think of it this way:  if there are governments, if there are generals and politicians and bankers and even ordinary people like us, who talk about “the West”–on the European and North American continent–then there is a West. Because that is what our own activities presuppose. And in presupposing it, they partly create it, for good or for ill.

I say this because I am now talking to some extent to the West, to people in the West, whom one considers to be one’s cultural peers, one’s fellow citizens–regardless of whether they are hostile or friendly. That is part of it. I think it is important for me, certainly, to remember that one cannot or should not talk just as a “Muslim in Europe,” but also as somebody who is making a claim in the West on the West, in European countries and in the United States (as Tariq Ramadan has written). And in those situations I can talk about “we” even without any sense of incongruity.

SHAFAQNA – The recent murders of ten journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris have re-ignited fears vis-à-vis Muslims in Europe. Regarding the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, in your article “Free Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticism” (2009), you point to the problems with our secular rejection of transcendence, and the ways in which the arrogance of such assumptions are rooted in the secularization of the biblical injunction that the truth will free us. Are Muslims seen as blasphemers in relation to the proclamations of secularism?

Let me first of all address the question of transcendence. The irony, it seems to me, is that although self-styled atheists say they reject “transcendence,” they are in fact subject (often willingly subject) to transcendent forces. Such as the transcendence of the market, which is a crucial part of modern capitalist society. And the transcendence of the state–the political form in which everyone lives in our world and makes absolute demands on our loyalty as citizens. And then of course there is the transcendence of “free speech.” In liberal society we claim that it is sacred and therefore has an absolute character. But we know (or should know) that “free speech” inhabits a structured space: not only is “hate speech” legally forbidden in liberal societies, but there are also laws protecting the circulation of copyrighted material, and the reproduction of trademarks and patents without explicit permission. And of course government secrets and commercial secrets cannot be breached without incurring severe penalties, which is an aspect of the transcendence of the modern sovereign state. I have discussed this point elsewhere and argued that there is a crucial distinction in liberal societies between the circulation of representations that are regarded as property and those that are not. Claims to the absoluteness of “free speech” are not very persuasive in this context.

Another, problematic example of “non-religious” transcendence is of course “humanity” and the worship it requires. And very closely connected with it is the modern notion of (cultural and moral) progress, which is assumed to be an open-ended movement that transcends all particularities, and stands over and above particular improvements of some particular state of affairs, the righting of something that is evidently wrong. To reject the transcendent progress of humanity is not necessarily to accept the status quo for what it is. So I think the different forms of transcendence need to be critically examined.

The notion of “humanity” as a form of transcendence derives, I think, from the conviction that intellectuality possesses an absolute power, from the demand that our best behavior depends on our ability to think abstractly, in terms of a universal rule, about something called humanity, that we need to understand humanity abstractly so that we can act responsibly towards those who represent it. But it seems to me perfectly possible to act humanely towards other beings, whether humans or animals or plants. One simply has to learn how to behave. To behave “humanely” it is perfectly possible to do without the notion of “humanity.” Language has multiple uses, and is embedded, as Wittgenstein pointed out, in different forms of life. It is not necessary to have this grand concept of “humanity” in order to behave decently.

I recall, incidentally, a striking expression from al-Ghazali: “Ah, to have the faith of the old women of Nishapur!” which, as I understand it, is really a recognition of the importance of deep everyday faith, of apprehending transcendence not primarily with one’s intellect but in the way one lives one’s daily life.

You do not need intellectuality for deep faith. You do not need it for behaving humanely towards people whether fellow Muslims or non-Muslims. You do not need a concept, a theory, you do not need intellectual arguments for justifying a way of living that is already in place in order for it to proceed. Which is not to say you should never employ your intellect but only that it is not essential to exercise it in order to live a humane life. Language permeates all of life, of course, and one’s mind is essential to it, but that does not meanintellectuality should transcend all of life.

For the law, the clarity of language and the finality of judgment is crucial, because you have to decide a case one way or another–whether it is criminal or civil or whatever. In ordinary life, you do not have to decide things with absolute finality. You do not have to decide on a theory in order to behave in a certain way towards other people. Of course, one needs clarity of language in all sorts of situations. Certainly in order to understand the natural world one needs clarity, logic, and the capacity for theory building. But that understanding tends to improve because and to the extent that it is provisional, hypothetical, when it looks for disconfirmation in the particular rather than final proof as a universal. The propensity to intellectualize is itself both essential and dangerous. I think in our modern world we are much more aware of its essential character than of its dangers, and that is why I think of it as being an expression of transcendence.

So let me turn to the question of blasphemy. People sometimes ask me: Are you willing to criticize religion? I would prefer to answer this question by looking at what people say and what they articulate, at how they live their life, and to the extent that the concept of religion is presented as itself transcendent, I think it is to be looked at critically and carefully.

In other words, I do not criticize religion as such, but I criticize the concept and the definition of “religion”–as I said in Genealogies. I am not looking for a better definition. I’m not criticizing how people experience what they might call spirituality. I am interested in looking critically at something else–at how people use their language to articulate theories about something they call religion, to say, for example, that “in Islam religion and politics necessarily go together,” or to insist that “violence has no place in religion,” to universalize it.

So transcendence is not entirely absent for people who are “nonreligious.” Indeed, I think that most of the things–not all–that such people accept as transcendent are dangerous, because they are damaging to thought and life.

SHAFAQNA – As I see it, part of the problem is the result of a reification of Islam; and I think Muslims are as guilty of this as their counterparts. Your 1986 essay “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” (republished in 2009), has played a significant role in reshaping scholarly discourse on Islam. You write that “Islam as the object of anthropological understanding should be approached as a discursive tradition that connects variously with the formation of moral selves, the manipulation of populations (or resistance to it), and the production of appropriate knowledges (10).” Can you describe for our readers how this approach may help us to de-reify Islam?

First of all, in that paper I am talking about Islam as “an anthropological object,” that is as a way of approaching the question “What is Islam” more productively in anthropology.

Reification? It is worth thinking about why one uses the word “reification.” Reification means making something that was not a thing (but what is “a thing”?) into a thing. There are many philosophical theories of reification–especially Marxist theories of society and economy. When people say that Islam has been reified what do they mean?

I suppose one of the reasons people are suspicious of “reification” is that it implies a certain kind of closure, a certain kind of fixity and unchangeableness. What is one’s concern about the “reification” of Islam? Is it that the notion closes off the possibility of change and generalizes too much? In that case, what are the alternatives? How should one talk about it? This is why I think the approach to Islam as a tradition is helpful. Tradition helps us to focus on questions about authority and temporality, and about the language used in relation to the two. The idea of tradition helps us to understand the questions and arguments held to be important within a tradition, as well us to formulate productive questions about the tradition from outside. “Tradition,” in other words, can be made to yield a double sense: as a theoretical frame for asking questions, and as an empirical phenomenon to be described and analyzed even as it develops.

As I have said, the question is how to approach the object of one’s enquiry. When speaking about Islam as a tradition one is not saying “All people do this, or believe this.” One is not saying that all people who identify themselves as Muslims do follow the Quran and hadith (or must follow them to be real Muslims). One is suggesting that there’s a certain kind of coherence–which may or may not be realized in particular situations–where people are trying to talk about Islam as a distinct intellectual object. I’m thinking about intellectuals, especially anthropologists, for whom this is an important concern. So how should one try to ask interesting questions about Islam as an anthropological object and not confuse that with “the reality” (actual experience) for different Muslims? How should one relate their sense of following or not, having “strong faith” or not, to authority and temporality.

By the way, I have increasingly preferred, for a number of years, to use the term “faithful,” wherever possible, instead of “believers.” This is basically what mu’minin are, “the faithful,” rather than “believers,” a word that has acquired strong but often confusing modern senses. Believers are often thought of as people who have some kind of private conviction or repudiation of something, whereas  “the faithful” refers to a relationship, which was also incidentally the earlier sense of “faith” in premodern, preliberal Christianity. This is not to say, incidentally, that “faith” refers simply to external behavior as opposed to internal belief but that it refers to anact. Thus even if you think of the declaration of niyya when you say your prayers, that is in a sense itself a kind of act, part of the tradition that you have to learn. By this I do not mean that it do not really have to be believed. It’s that one needs to get away from the modern idea of religious belief as something that is “purely private,” something one is entitled to hold–so long as it does not make (political) claims in the public sphere.

So, I think we need to think about Islamic tradition as a way of asking questions that cut across (and transgress) the assumptions of a purely secular world in which we already know how things stand for individual subjects as well as for societies. I think one must try and think of tradition in that way, as well as using it in other ways, as I have been using it, to describe empirically how some people follow such and such a tradition or don’t.

SHAFAQNA – What I am interested in examining in my own research is how competing discursive traditions within Islam (take Salafi and Sufi as two polar examples) interact with one another, thereby reshaping each other, without necessarily altering their core logics. In a similar vein, Islam and secularism (two other polar examples) have been reshaping each other–and continue to do so–for a very long time. Could you speak a little to the inner complexities of Islam as a group of competing “discursive traditions,” together with secularism being thrown into the mix?

Well, I think that MacIntyre’s very fruitful discussion of tradition, which opened a whole new area of thinking about the world, and which I found very helpful in thinking about Islam. He talked about a living tradition being characterized by debate, and I found that crucial. To the extent that a tradition is a living tradition, and there is dispute within it–there is argument also as to what is essential to the tradition, to what belongs essentially to that tradition, to the way an account (whether oral or written) of behavior, attitudes, principles, etc., belongs or does not to that tradition, and to how its context is defined. I think that that notion is absolutely central. Arguments about which texts, accounts–other than founding discourses–belong or do not belong, can be drawn on or not because of the way they affect what the core of the tradition is, all that is absolutely central to what a living tradition is. And part of those arguments is of course over what is “secular” in an acceptable or unacceptable way.

The notion that there is nevertheless something essential about a tradition is precisely what generates argument within a tradition, and it also provides the possibility of having conversations (not just arguments) both within given traditions as well as between them. Traditions such as the different schools (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Hanbali, Maliki and so on) and between Shia and Sunni, salafi and sufi, not only just intellectually to one another but also define themselves by reference to what they are not. (Which is why, incidentally, I find appalling the kind of mutual antagonism and violence that is occurring in so many Muslim countries.) But I am not sure I would describe all this, whether violent or not, as competition. Competition as a metaphor carries too much of a commercial load (accumulating profit, for example) that may misdirect one.

I am also not sure that the stereotypical contrast between salafi and sufi is always useful, if only because each of these terms has covered a number of shifting positions. “Salafis” in the Arabic speaking world at the end of the nineteenth century (such as Abduh) as opposed to “salafis” in early twenty-first century Egypt (influenced by wahhabism) are not the same. So too the different “sufi” brotherhoods. If salafis and sufis are polar opposites, how is one to understand Ibn Taymiyya, say, who is an important inspiration for contemporary salafis, and yet was the member of a tariqa?

Everyone, is to some extent placed, in one way or another, in what I have called a “narrative relation” to a tradition, for whom the continuity or disappearance of that tradition is either of importance or of indifference. So, I would say that “the religious” is involved precisely in attempts at either enriching or reforming a particular tradition in relation to the challenges it faces, or defending–or destroying–it. And those possibilities apply to “the secular” too. The secular is as much a part of the ensemble and the space of the spiritual as anything else–that is, “this world” is important to both in multiple ways. It is the attitude one has to this world, the way one inhabits it, that is sometimes confused with the question of belief (or disbelief) in “another world.”

SHAFAQNA – The issue of being Muslim and being Othered in and by the West is a longstanding one. What I have recently been finding productive to think about is the ways in which Muslims themselves internalize this narrative of Otherness. What is the way forward for Muslims living in the West?

The fact that one is an Other does not mean that no productive relationship can be had with the Other. I don not know that “internalizing” what “the West” says to/about one that is ipso a bad thing; it depends on howthat internalization takes place, what it does to one. The question really is: Whether and if so to what extent and how is the Other connected to oneself.

There is a thought provoking statement, not very well known, by Wittgenstein, where he says: “Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he picks up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors. Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.” Tradition is an aspiration to connect the Self with the Other. One “internalizes” the Other as one acquires a sense of what one’s own tradition is, what one belongs to and what gives valid shape to one’s life.

What is the way forward for Muslims living in the West? I do not think there is a single answer to that question because Muslims in the West are not a single homogeneous group, sociologically or theologically. Nevertheless they are seen, and will continue to be seen, as a minority within the Western nation state. And given the widespread violence perpetrated by heavily armed Western states and lightly armed jihadists (a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one) Muslim minorities in the West will continue to be the object of suspicion and discrimination. Our concern in this matter should not be to find someone to blame but to try to understand the limits of action facing Muslim minorities. The very common suggestion that Muslims should undertake a reform of their own religious tradition to help prevent “Islamic extremist violence” assumes that Muslims constitute a single political subject, that they are entirely self-contained, and that reform has not in fact been continuously undertaken in Islamic history. Those who urge theological reform to enable the effective condemnation of jihadism (especially after the Paris murders at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket) should first inquire into the recency of this phenomenon: the Islamic tradition in all its variety has been around for centuries, and mainstream Muslim authorities have condemned such killing for ages. Why has the phenomenon of jihadism appeared–and proliferated–only now?


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