May 9, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 350

Reformist Thinker Abdennour Bidar Makes the Case for Individual Islam and Poses Questions to France's 2007 Presidential Candidates

May 9, 2007 | By N. Szerman*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 350

Abdennour Bidar is a French Muslim author and a philosopher [1] who has been interviewed in a number of French and North African newspapers about his vision of a reformed European Islam. In one of his articles, an article originally titled "Self Islam," Bidar aims to promote an individualized form of Islam. [2]

"Self Islam" later became the title of a short book that Bidar published in 2006, in which he related his experience of individual Islam as the child of a Muslim mother, with a French atheist grandfather. [3]

Abdennour believes that Islam should be reformed under European influence to make room for individual approaches. Below is the article.

In addition, in a February 2, 2007 article published in the French daily Le Monde, Abdennour Bidar posed four questions to the candidates in the upcoming French presidential election, presenting himself as "a Muslim intellectual engaged in the debate over the identity and the future of Islam in France". His questions and comments follow the article. [4]

"Is There Really a Muslim Community in Europe?"; "European Muslims Do Not Live in Seclusion, and Their Way of Life Is Not Fundamentally Different From That of Other Europeans"

According to Bidar, there is no such thing as a Muslim community, but only Muslim individuals who pick and choose in Islam what suits their individual, modern needs:

"At the beginning of this Ramadan, we are hearing a lot about the 'Muslim community.' As always at this time of year, the media work hard to nurture the idea in the collective imagination that there is such a thing as a 'Muslim community,' which has 'gathered' on this 'sacred month' in a collective endeavor of fasting and in a collective atmosphere of togetherness, sharing and celebration. Thus, this is the right moment to ask the disturbing question: Is there really a Muslim community in Europe?

"The word 'community' designates a group of people who live, to a greater or lesser degree, apart from the rest of society, both in physical terms and in terms of culture and lifestyle. In this respect, it is already clear that the European Muslims form, at best, a virtual community rather than a real one. Even if they do share common cultural references, and even if they do gather on certain occasions, they do not live in seclusion, and their way of life is not fundamentally different from that of other Europeans. Contrary to what most people, including politicians, think, Muslims do not always live in the suburbs or in Londonistan, and even if they live there, their Western identity largely prevails over their Islamic identity. The veil or the beard usually hides a Westerner like any other: a person who values his rights and is an… [ordinary] consumer."

"It Is Through Affirmative Action and By Allowing a Multicultural Society… That We Will Create an Insular Islamic Community"

Bidar stands against affirmative action, which, he writes, reinforces the feeling that Muslims are different from other French citizens, and isolates them even more:

"There is a pressing need to uproot from the collective imagination the image of the 'Muslim community' as a state within a state, or at best as a 'closed group' out of step with the main body of society. It is from this profound sociological prejudice that the theme of 'affirmative action' arises. Since Muslims are believed to form a distinct social entity that is bound together into a homogenous bloc by their shared beliefs and way of life, it is felt to be obligatory - out of respect for such complete difference - to grant them special rights that fit their lifestyle. However, it is precisely through affirmative action - and by allowing the development of a multicultural society in which social groups are considered to be too different to be included under identical rules - that we will inevitably create an insular Islamic community!"

"Let Us Leave Behind the Colonialist Outlook Which Assumes That the Muslims in Europe Remain 'Imported Natives' Who Must Be Provided with Special Living Conditions"

Bidar points out the condescending implications of affirmative action, which sees all Muslims as being identical and therefore as having the same "special rights":

"We must also understand that the concept of a 'European Muslim community' is an empty one, from a sociological point of view. If politicians are looking for Muslims to talk to, and if sociologists and journalists want to conduct a field study, then they must stop looking for a marginalized 'community' living according to strange customs, a tribe headed by 'caliph-representatives'… This political 'solicitude,' which aims to provide Muslims with a 'separate space' and 'special rights,' assumes that all the differences boil down to only one difference - as if there is only one type of Muslim difference. Let us then leave behind this kind of colonialist outlook which assumes that the Muslims in Europe remain 'imported natives' who must be provided with special living conditions, since their 'Islamicity' - understood as an impalpable essence, one single form - supposedly demands it! It is only in Tintin in the Land of Black Gold, and not in the real world of today, that we find Bedouins pitching their tents right on the grounds of Moulinsart Chateau, reproducing here the way they used to live 'there.'"

"Today in Europe, Nobody is So Dissimilar from a Muslim as His Fellow Muslim; There Is No Such Thing as a Typical Muslim; We Have All Become Atypical Muslims"

Bidar explains that there are different Muslim behaviors: Some consider themselves to be religious, others as sharing a common cultural heritage with other Muslims:

"This caricature, which is unfortunately very strongly rooted in our minds, should be left behind, and it is time we began to perceive the Muslims as they really are. Their predominant characteristic is what I have called 'individual Islam': a culture of autonomy and personal choice, and therefore a culture of diversity and differentiated identities - an Islam composed of individuals rather than a community! Today in Europe nobody is so dissimilar from a Muslim as his fellow Muslim. There are those who consider themselves Muslims based on their religion, which may for some take the form of a simple creed or hope, and for others the form of active observance, which may itself be more or less regular, depending on the individual. But others - in great numbers - feel themselves to be Muslim on the basis of a cultural heritage in the widest possible sense of the word, and not at all in a religious sense. Islam is important to them not only as faith or prayer, but also as an ethical system (traditional values of togetherness and family), as [a set of] customs (diet, cuisine, holidays), and also as their own way of taking part in Western consumer culture (choosing products with an 'Islamic' label, halal meat, Mecca Cola, etc.) There is no such thing as a typical Muslim. We have all become atypical Muslims."

"The European Muslim Is an Individual Who Wants to Define Himself, And Not to Be Defined by His Belonging to a Group"

According to Bidar, the characteristic shared by European Muslims is their autonomous approach to religious practices:

"The sociologists of religious phenomena (in particular Nilüfer Göle) persistently underscore this point: what I call 'individual Islam' is the prevalent trend in the vast majority of empirically observable behaviors. The European Muslim is an individual who wants to exist in and of himself, to define himself, and not to be defined primarily by his belonging to a group. Even wearing the veil is the result of a personal choice and not an act of passive obedience to tradition. In philosophical terms, we can state that, in European Islam - as in modern society as a whole - existence precedes essence. In other words, it is man that makes Islam, and not Islam that makes the man. There is no single predetermined [creed of] Islam that dictates to all how they must live and think. Instead, there are individuals who try, according to their own individual conscience, to find their own way of relating to Islam, and thus create 'Islams' in the plural - many ways of being Muslim, multiple modes of taking part in Muslim culture. All of European society, as well as the Muslims themselves, must realize that we have entered the era of Muslim existentialism."

European Muslims Are Culturally Conditioned to Retain the Myth of One True Islam - Even When They See Individual Islam Before Their Eyes

"What prevents us from seeing this? First, as I have already said, our Western view of Islam is still tainted with dreadful colonialist essentialism: We have not abandoned our former imperialist image of oriental Muslim societies, practicing a monolithic Islam in which everyone prays, fasts and wears a veil, living and dying according to the same rules (we may wonder whether these societies were in fact so uniform [in the first place]). We retain the prejudiced [view] that Islam is, by nature, a total system - a communal religion imposing a common law. That is why even though we see Individual Islam right before our eyes, we retain our culturally conditioned inability to recognize it and to take it into consideration.

"Second, Muslims themselves, despite the changes that are taking place in their relationship with Islam, help to mask the sociologically established fact of 'Individual Islam,' since they too have internalized this image of a homogenous community, governed by the same rules and united around the same religious images. Most of them insist on retaining the founding myth of 'one true Islam.' When someone dares to breathe the possibility that an individual might question shari'a [religious law], or that there may be multiple interpretations of the Koran, everybody rises against him and says: 'You cannot pick and choose whatever you want in Islam,' and 'There cannot be more than one Islam; it is the same for everyone - one single creed given by the One God.' Even Muslims who have in practice a very free approach to the prescriptions of traditional Islam often remain convinced that, in principle, one may not tamper with the sacred. For most Muslims, there is a total dissociation between their (dogmatic) way of thinking and their (liberal) observance […]"

"Given this state of affairs, the role of the Muslim intellectual is clear. Not only must he denounce this twofold essentialist illusion in order to avoid the major political danger of creating a Muslim cultural ghetto - which would provide fertile ground for fundamentalism and terrorism - he must also think in a positive way about the phenomenon of individual Islam in order to bring it to a state of full awareness. The question is: What is the human, moral, social, political and spiritual value of this Individual Islam that Muslims in Europe are currently developing?"

The Lack of Legitimacy for Individual Islam Promotes Such "Answer Peddlers" as Tariq Ramadan or the Self-Proclaimed European Council for Fatwa and Research, Headed by Sheikh Dr. Yousef Al-Al-Qaradhawi

Bidar compares Individual Islam to the act of cobbling together ("bricolage") - adopting and discarding practices in order to build one's own personal Muslim identity. The negative side of such an attitude, he points out, is the feeling of loneliness and confusion it entails. This accounts for the attraction exerted by such spiritual guides as Tariq Ramadan who show firm, comforting stances. In order to avoid such harmful attraction, Bidar suggests this bricolage be given full recognition:

"This construction of a Muslim identity is often described as 'bricolage.' This word is often used by sociologists [to describe the situation in which] Muslims cobble together a personal Islam, each in his own way and according to his own personal state, keeping certain cultural practices (notably fasting during Ramadan or dietary prohibitions) while discarding others (such as praying five times a day or wearing the veil). This word ['bricolage'] implies a state of detachment: Every European Muslim is now left to his own devices in a society where the behavioral norms of the past are no longer in use. Each Muslim has to invent, improvise, and find his own way without any objective point of reference. Such desolation and loneliness inevitably create a state of confusion that attracts all those who 'peddle answers,' like Tariq Ramadan and his ilk, or the self-proclaimed European Council for Fatwa [and Research, headed by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, a prominent spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood] and similar groups - [who provide] answers saying 'Islam is like that' or 'in Islam you do thus and such and in this kind of situation.' And here we are back to essentialism."

"European Muslims Are Forging Their Moral, Social and Spiritual Personality"; Individual Islam is Built on Autonomy, Dignity, Responsibility and the Right to Legitimacy

"Therefore, the role of the intellectual is not to restore this 'personal bricolage' to the traditional path of a single Islam: [his role] is simply to give meaning and confidence to this exercise in 'bricolage,' first of all by ceasing to label it 'bricolage' - a derogatory term that completely deprecates the phenomenon it purports to describe. This must be said loud and clear: These Muslims who are building their personal identity are not engaging in 'bricolage'; they are forging their moral, social and spiritual personality, and that is something completely different. In order to do justice to the noble [nature] of this project of self-construction, I will now grant it all the comprehensibility, dignity and legitimacy it deserves.

"Comprehensibility: In the pantheon of universal values, there is a term for this process whereby each individual constructs his own Muslim identity: It is called autonomy - the ability and obligation of every man to determine his own rules of action and his own principles of achievement. Dignity: to choose one's own Islamic identity is to fulfill the loftiest responsibility a human being can have: the responsibility for building his own identity. Such a person undertakes the [task] which Michel Foucault called 'le souci de soi' (caring for one's self), that same independent construction of one's own self that Epictetus and Cicero already regarded as the sign which marks a man as truly cultured. Legitimacy: It is imperative that this process become a right. That is to say, [it is imperative that] this personal choice - the selection of a personal kind of observance, belief, religion, and lifestyle - receive true and full recognition in Muslim culture, which has not been the case [up to now]. No true legitimacy was ever accorded to the individual decision of those who chose not to honor some given injunction of shari'a."

"Individual Islam Is the Reflection of a Culture That Has Undergone a Radical Shift from Its Original Authoritarian Form, and Which Has Become Democratic"

Answering those who wonder whether Islam is compatible with democracy, Bidar writes that democracy has already infiltrated European Islam. In contact with European and Western values, most Muslims have naturally given up the authoritarian form of Islam:

"Nowadays, people often wonder whether European Islam can be admitted into our democratic societies. Everything mentioned above demonstrates that it is actually democracy that is entering Islam. Individual Islam is, in effect, the reflection of a culture that has undergone a radical shift from its original authoritarian form, and which has become democratic through a process in which the individual - each individual European Muslim - shaped it for himself. Let us then finally acknowledge this change and adapt our understanding of European Islam, both by working to dismantle the phantasm of a 'community,' and also by no longer reducing the democratic shift in European Islam to a mere case of 'bricolage.'"

Lagging Behind a More Developed European Islam, Islamic Leaders Like Al-Qaradhawi Try to Enter Europe in a "Very Offensive Manner"

In his article, Bidar stands against authoritarian bodies aiming at deciding what is right and wrong is Islam, saying this does not suit the individual kind of Islam which has become prevalent in Europe:

Question No. 1: "Do you aim to maintain the French Council for Muslim Cult (CFMC)? [5] The studies of sociologists show that the notion of worship has evolved in a drastic way among European Muslims. They do not give up their faith, but adapt it [to modern life] by adding to it the Western values of personal choice, autonomy and responsibility… Every Muslim intends to be his own master and judge regarding his relationship to the dogma and the religious law, therefore defining by themselves the form of their own spiritual life…

"Can we ignore such evolution and go on accepting, here in France, that the CFMC functions like a 'religious authority'…? Lagging behind a more developed European [kind of] Islam, these 'religious leaders' want to enter Europe today, in a very offensive manner, notably through the self-proclaimed European Council for Fatwa [and Research, headed by Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi.] based in London, whose aim is to define the religious rights of European Muslims."

"The Training of Imams in France Should Include the Teaching of Western Values"

Bidar insists that imams should be trained in France and that Western values should be part of their curriculum, pointing out the danger entailed by "imported imams":

Question No. 2: "Do you intend to create an institute for training imams? We agree… that it is preferable to avoid 'importing' imams who know nothing of our [French Western] culture and who spread values and interests which are not those of European Muslims. Three aims must be achieved: [a)] protecting ourselves from conservative proselytism which corrupts the Muslim world; [b)] refraining from fitna - i.e. from the fight that tears the Islamic world into various [Islamic groups], each of which interprets the religion in a different way, according to various obscure political and economic interests, which enters Europe through imams representing such and such a stream (the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, Al-Qaeda on the other, etc); [and c)] finally, enabling the emergence of an autonomous kind of Islam, truly European.

"But how can this be achieved? What should the training of these future imams be so as to ensure that they will accomplish their religious duty in accordance with the values and laws of the Republic? What will we teach them, in addition to knowledge of the Koran and the Sunna of the Prophet (…) [The future imams] will need other tools of judgment in order to fulfill their role of 'spiritual council.' The course should largely include Western culture, through the teaching of humanities, the study of which is a necessary condition to a thorough understanding of the standards of our civilization."

"Asking for Special Rights in the Name of Religion Is a Tactic of the Muslim Brotherhood"

According to Bidar, granting special rights to Muslims means yielding to Islamism, termed "conservative Islam":

Question No. 3: "Do you intend to give special rights to observing Muslims? The issue of these Muslim women who refuse to be examined by male physicians in hospitals is a warning against a conservative kind of Islam which demands that Muslims enjoy special rights - and be 'treated differently.' In the name of what? The right to earn recognition in public areas. The demands are of all kinds: the right to wear a scarf in the workplace, the right for [Muslim] children to receive halal meals at lunchtime in school, the right for [Muslim] women to have separate hours for women in swimming pools, the right for [Muslim] children not to go to school on Muslim feast days and on Fridays.

"Two trends are actively promoting these rights. First, the multi-culturalist school, according to which the French Republic treats unequally its citizens, persistently denying cultural differences in the name of a formal understanding of [the meaning of] equality and of an extremist understanding of [the meaning of] secularism. [The second trend] is [composed of] conservative Muslims - followers of Tariq Ramadan: their strategy is to ask for these special rights in the name of 'religious freedom,' which is a component of the freedom of conscience. This is a repetition of the worn out tactic of the Muslim Brotherhood, which directs against the West its own weapons: 'freedom of conscience' is used against true freedom, since it is a means to maintain the domination of an intolerant kind of Islam.

"We must make it clear that the right [to display] 'showy signs' of Islamic identity is not a demand of all French [citizens] of Muslim origin - only of those who favor a fundamental implementation of the dogma [i.e. the law]."

"The French Culture Ministry Could Help Finance the Building of Mosques" Which Would In Exchange "Commit to Hiring Only French-Trained Imams"

Bidar addresses the issue of the state sponsoring of mosques in France, pointing out that this could turn into a questioning of the secular principles of the French Republic. However he suggests such sponsoring could take place if in exchange the mosques committed to hiring only French-trained imams:

Question No. 4: "Do you think that the [French] Republic should pay for the construction of places of prayer? Should the secular Republic help financing the building of mosques? Obviously, this question raises again the debate over a possible 'review of the 1905 law' [on secularism]: Should we reexamine the understanding and the wording of the secular principle - separation between the state and the religious groups? Should the Republic partly let go of its principle of 'non-intervention' in religious matters? One thing could encourage it to do so: the fact that Islam has become the No. 2 religion in France, and has therefore become much more visible in public areas - which seems to justify the fact that the state 'gives it space' or 'sets limits to it.'

"'Giving it space' could mean partly financing [the construction] of places of worship. This seems only fair, since most Muslims were born to poor immigrants. If we want to avoid Saudi Arabia - with its conservative [approach to] Islam - financing French Islam, the choice is easily made. Setting limits for it means - as with the law banning the veil in schools - that the state gives up understanding secularism as 'non-interventionist' and, if necessary, calls on Muslims to honor republican values in particular, and humanist values in general.

"Regarding the construction of mosques, I believe it is useless to turn this into an ideological issue. Without impinging upon the principle of separation between the state and the religious groups, it should be possible for the culture ministry - or for local groups - to help Muslim associations build places of worship, in the name of cultural plurality. [In exchange,] these places of worship should commit themselves to only hiring imams trained in France (according to the conditions stated in the above) and to function as 'cultural centers' where the social aspect of religion can express itself…

"Regarding principles, it is clear that as far as the Muslim difference is concerned - in our country with a Christian tradition - the state must launch a debate with Muslims and stop being neutral. This does not mean that any kind of difference should be acknowledged […]."

* N. Szerman is the Director of MEMRI's North African Reformists Project.


[1] Abdennour Bidar is best known for his book Un Islam pour notre temps (Islam for Our Time), (Seuil, 2004).

[2] Reformist site Middle-East Transparent July 24, 2005,

[3] Self Islam, Seuil, 2006.

[4] The 2007 presidential elections in France are to take place on April 22 (first round) and on May 6 (second round).

[5] The CFCM (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) was created in 2003. This "French Council for Muslim Cult" aims to represent all Islamic groups in France. It is also in charge of dealing with such issues as the building of mosques, space for Muslims in cemeteries, organizing Muslim celebrations, etc.

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