Edward Said Lecture Series: "Islamic Political Identity in Europe" Ari D. Varon - Tuesday April 27 • The Multicultural center
Islamic Political Identity in Europe by Ari Varon
Reviewed by Sheena Sharma
International Studies, Portland State University
On Tuesday, April 27 Science Po PhD candidate Ari D. Varon visited Portland State University to share his dissertation on Islamic Political Identity in Europe. While Varon prefaced his lecture by saying that he would not try to get too technical in his discussion, I do not believe he succeeded in doing so. The title of his presentation was “4 Muslim Perspectives on Islamic Political Identity in Europe.”
Varon began by making general observations of Muslim populations in Western society. He stated that while secular identity in Europe has developed overtime and become institutionalized, there has been a gradual increase of religion in political affairs. Following such observations, Varon provided some much need historical commentary relating to Muslims in Western Europe. He noted that roughly 20 million Muslims are currently living in Europe from over 30 different countries of origin. “There are significant differences between Muslim communities in each European country,” stated Varon. Without getting too specific, Varon explained how the first mass migration of Muslims to Europe began in the years following the end of World War II. “After the war, lots of Muslims were brought into Europe as a migrant labor force. These Muslims never left.”
Unfortunately from this point forward Varon’s discussion became much more technical, focusing more on methodology than on general observations and conclusions. He dove into the core of his research by commenting on two commonalities among Muslims across Europe. Firstly, he notes that they share a religion. Secondly, they share the fact that they are European. Seeing as how the topic of his presentation was Islamic Political Identity in Europe, the audience was clearly already aware of these two shared characteristics and did not need Varon to point them out. It would have been helpful to see how these commonalities that Varon “discovered” tie in to his research questions [1. how does the internal European Islamic discourse interpret and define Islamic political identity? 2. In what ways are Muslims in Europe integrating Islamic principles into their definition of political identity?] but unfortunately if any such answer was given, it became muddled in Varon’s procedural lecture.
Varon continues by presenting four different scholars he chose to answer the above questions. The first scholar Varon discusses is Bassam Tibi, who he characterizes as representing the “de-politization of Islam.” According to Varon, Tibi promotes Islamic pluralism by introducing concepts of secular Islam into Europe while de-constructing political Islam. Varon characterizes Tibi as a self-proclaimed reformed Muslim who believes secular Islam is possible if and when European Muslims see themselves as European first and foremost, while simultaneously maintaining a private religious identity.
The second scholar presented is Tariq Ramadan. According to Varon, Ramadan “suggests that an independent Western Islam, anchored in the cultural reality of the West (and not traditions of Islamic countries) allows one to create a duel Islamic and Western identity.” Following his discussion of Ramadan is Amr Khaled. Khaled saw “Islam as a Middle nation, paving a golden road in Europe.” Varon described Khaled as believing that Muslims should integrate in a positive way without losing themselves entirely. The last scholar is Yusuf Qaradawi, whom Varon characterizes as representing “Islamic Exceptionalism” best. Qaradawi believes that one should always be Muslim first, and can practice ‘democratic actions’ if and only if it benefits Islam in some way or other. Varon also points out that Qaradawi is the only one of his four scholars who does not live in Europe.
This picture was taken by Ibtisam Ahmad Ali
Thus, these four scholars combined create what Varon describes as a Spectrum of Identity, which ranges from religious identity to secular identity. He then goes on to discuss his Concentric Circles of Political Identity which progresses as follows:
Local à National à Transnational à Civilizational
As Varon believes that the local level is the most significant when discussing Islamic political identity, he begins by briefly describing the civilizational level and works his way backwards. The primary questions at this level include whether one should have a religious or secular starting point and whether one should follow divine law or man-made law. This type of identity also questions whether the Western model should serve as the only model, the best model, or as a mere model for civilizational identity. The third model is transnational identity, which essentially seeks to link one’s country of residence with their country of origin. Here, Varon introduces the notion of the Ummah, or unified community of Muslims, which he describes as an Islamic nation. The national identity or nationalism model is best described as the state creating a collective political identity for its citizens, thereby unifying the diverse populace into one. In this identity form, civil society defines the identity of each individual. Finally, the last identity type is the local/communal, which is relates to the existence of personal preferences in the private sphere. It might also be described as the idea that there are different ways of implementing religiosity. Seeing as how he believes this level to be the most significant, Varon could have personalized his lecture a bit more by elaborating on this point; instead, he continues to discuss his methodology by commenting that each level affects the other and different people place varying importance on each. He then gives brief examples of each identity type, such as how Muslims mobilized and protested against the banning of minarets in Switzerland (which illustrates the transnational identity), thereby demonstrating how Muslims sometimes seek state institutions to secure their democratic rights.
While I felt that Varon’s lecture was very well-informed, I do not believe that I left the lecture with a stronger grasp of Islamic political identity in Europe. Varon himself stated that he did not attempt to define what Islamic political identity is per se. He also asserted that all Muslims choose their own level of identity integration, whether this is done passively or actively. While I agreed with the former part of this statement prior to attending Varon’s lecture, I found his assertion that Muslims level of integration into their host culture as being both a passive and active process intriguing – partly because this isn’t something that I had given much thought to before. I do wish he would have elaborated a little bit more on this point in his presentation though.
While Varon’s discussion started off strong and felt very engaging, his discussion become too methodological too quickly. While I have a vague understanding of his approach to studying Muslim political identity, I felt that there were some loose ends that he did not address in his conclusion. The jump from his discussion of Tibi, Ramadan, Khaled and Qaradawi to his approach of examining the different identity levels felt a bit disconnected to me. In my mind, it almost felt as if I were listening to two different presentations (because the connection between the presentations of his four chosen scholars to discussion of his approach seemed to lack a proper transition). I do see how Varon’s presentations of his four scholars attempt to answer his first question (how does the internal European Islamic discourse interpret and define Islamic political identity?). Likewise, his discussion of the four different identity levels works to address his second question (In what ways are Muslims in Europe integrating Islamic principles into their definition of political identity?), but again there appears to be a lack of connection here. While both questions do deal with the idea of Islamic political identity in a broader context, Varon’s ambiguous presentation makes it difficult for his audience to make the connection between his first and second question. However, his case study presentation (i.e. examples for the different identity levels he introduced in the latter half of his lecture) was very helpful in understanding how he defined each level.
"Islamic Political Identity in Europe" Ari D. Varon - Tel Aviv University - Tuesday April 27 - Portland, OR
Overall, I thought that Varon was a very engaging speaker. I hadn’t even noticed the Palestinian protesters in the back of the room till the Q&A session, and was thus surprised to see how composed and articulate Varon had been throughout the course of his presentation, despite seeing certain un-welcoming members in the audience. I do agree with our lecturer, that integration is a two-way process. It cannot rest completely on European Muslims, but must also involve the efforts of their counterparts throughout European society. It’s no wonder why Varon did not seek to define Islamic political identity in his research and presentation – doing so would have been a mistake. Nonetheless, it would have been helpful if his presentation had been more fluid, rather than a somewhat choppy and loose arrangement of his research findings and assumptions.
Speaking as a student and not on expert on the subject matter, Varon’s presentation started off strong with the quick historical overview of Muslim populations in Western Europe and continued to progress with interesting research findings. Somewhere in the middle of his presentation, Varon advised his younger audience members who might be considering a PhD to make sure they ‘absolutely love’ whatever they are studying. I am sure that any of Varon’s listeners could see just how passionate he is about this subject as he spoke with such energy and alacrity – yet unfortunately, as he had reached the conclusion of his lecture, the lack of organization and cohesion could not be missed in spite of of his enthusiasm for the subject.
EDWARD SAID LECTURE SERIES
Portland State University
"Islamic Political Identity in Europe"
Ari D. Varon
Tel Aviv University
Tuesday April 27 • The Multicultural center
The Smith Memorial Student Union • 12-1:30
Ari Varon is currently a Ph.D. student in Political Science co advised from two institutions: the University of Sciences Po located in Paris France as well as at Tel Aviv University in Israel. His Dissertation focuses on the formation of an Islamic political identity in contemporary Europe. Ari served as the Deputy Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel from April 2005 through April 2009. His responsibilities included assisting to prepare the Prime Minister for all matters relating to Israeli foreign policy. Before working at the Prime Minister's office Ari received his Masters degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington DC with a dual concentration in strategic studies and international law and a specialization in quantitative international economics. In conjunction with his studies in Washington he worked part time at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He obtained his Bachelors degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley.
Co-sponsored by International Studies - Sociology - Religious Studies
History - Judaic studies - Political Science - Center for Turkish Studies