Interview – The West versus Islam paradigm: myth or reality?

SHAFAQNA – Henry Engelke is a Professor  in the Department of Anthropology. He also co-ordinates the School’s Programme for the Study of Religion and Non-Religion. Prof Engelke was educated at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.  

Prof Engelke’s research focuses in the broadest sense on the connections between religion and culture, primarily in Africa and Britain. He has conducted in-depth fieldwork on an African Church in Zimbabwe, evangelical Christians in England, and, most recently, secular humanists in Britain. Throughout this work, he has examined such issues as the importance of textual authority within religious communities; the dynamics of conversion and belief; religion and material culture; religion and media; the role of religion in public life; ritual; and conceptions of the secular and humanism. In addition to these fieldwork-based projects, Prof Engelke has also conducted research in the history of anthropology. His research has been funded by, among other sources, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Fulbright-Hays Commission, the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the LSE’s Annual Fund.

Shafaqna had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Engelke.

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 Europeans 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.



The Charlie Hebdo’s events in Paris have re-ignited fears vis-à-vis Muslims in Europe. Are Muslims seen asblasphemers 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 mean intellectuality 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.

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