A Kinder, Gentler Islam?

Are the Muslim communities living in the Mediterranean basin different or less threatening than those elsewhere in the world? And what will be the fate of the West's attempt to create a kind of European Middle East?

President Nicholas Sarkozy of France has an idea: to establish a bloc of Mediterranean countries that will function within a single framework, like the European Union, a kind of "Europe without Europeans." In this way, Sarkozy assumes, Europe will be able to build up a defense system for itself against Muslim immigrants and, above all, to sideline an ambitious country like Turkey from its midst.

According to the French plan, the Muslim world will be divided up according to a new reference point. Not an American one, like that which created the political-Islamic axis of evil, and not an Arab one that distinguishes the Arab countries from the aggregate of Islamic countries. This is a Middle East as defined by Europe, which itself chooses the entities that will be close to it.

As defined by Sarkozy, there will be 15 countries in Mediterranean bloc, seven of them Muslim - Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco - and eight of them, among them Israel, non-Arab. This is a bloc that will in effect ensure the European definition of "correct Islam," not the kind that prevails in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states, and not Iranian, Pakistani or Malaysian Islam. France, of course, has no problem maintaining extensive trade relations with those countries, but when it comes to proximity to Europe, it is better to keep this Islam at arm's length.

Five years ago Egyptian intellectual Mustafa Fiqi, who is also the chairman of the Egyptian Parliament foreign relations committee, published an important article in which he mourned the fact that Arab countries in general and Arab intellectuals in particular have left the definition of the nature of Islam to non-Arab Muslim thinkers. He was referring, of course, to the Taliban, but did not mention that the definition of extremist Islam has been accepted by Saudi thinkers - that is to say, pure Arabs. However, at the basis of the article was anxiety about the positive reputation that "correct" Islam has.

It is doubtful that Sarkozy has read Fiqi's article, but the creation of a Mediterranean sieve through which will pass only proper Muslim states - "proper" according to a European or French definition of Muslim correctness - is a kind of attempt to sketch a new enclave on the map of the civilizations that Samuel Huntington spoke of in his book "The Clash of Civilizations." Another Eastern civilization that is a creation of the West.

The question is whether there indeed exists a "Mediterranean Islam" that is different from Islam that is not Mediterranean. Why have Turkey, Morocco and even Egypt, never mind non-Muslim Lebanon and secular Tunisia, produced a "different" Islam, while the countries that are beyond the Mediterranean basin represent to the West an Islam that is threatening? The answer is apparently not inherent in Islam as a religion per se, but rather in the states and the regimes that determine the place of religion - not faith - in a country.

'Like Christian Democrats'

In the elections for the Moroccan parliament that were held last weekend, one forecast proved true and another was overturned: The electorate indeed stayed away from the polling stations - only 37 percent of those who have the right to vote did so, apparently because voters do not believe that change will come from the parliament, rather, if at all, it will come from King Mohammed VI. However, the religious party, the Justice and the Development Party (which incidentally has the same name as the ruling religious party in Turkey), did not win. Nevertheless, it is possible that this party will, for the first time, enter the government.

Therefore it is worth examining how the Islamic political establishment, as distinct from the radical and terrorist groups, is trying to depict itself in Morocco. In an interview to the newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, Saad Eddine Othmani, the secretary general of the Justice and Development Party, made it clear that "we do not like the term 'Islamist.' We always insist that we have 'an Islamic affiliation,' like the 'Christian' Democrats."

Othmani is interested in economic, legal and especially administrative reforms; he does not talk about a religious revolution, but rather about an orientation toward certain values, like that talked about by the neoconservatives in the United States, for example. This is also a party in which the number of female members of parliament is greater than in any other. Thus this party is conducting its dialogue not only with the regime, but also with those who now determine the "proper" and "correct" scale of values: the West.

If in Morocco the religious party has not yet come into power, in Turkey the situation is different. The symbol of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party is a lantern that radiates faint beams of light. By way of comparison, the symbol of the Turkish party is a bright electric light bulb, and there is good reason for this. At the end of August this party completed its takeover of the main ruling institutions: the parliament, the government and now the presidency. However, unlike Morocco, Turkey is by definition a secular state and therefore its Justice and Development Party's victory is far greater.

Now, instead of celebrating the victory of religion over the state, in Turkey, too, political Islam prefers to keep its head down and allow itself to be colored by secular definitions: democracy, human rights, a free economy, entry into the European community, and diminished military power. True, the president's wife does wear a head-covering, but she has announced that she will not participate in public appearances and in that way she will not break the law. In Turkey, too, Christian Democrats serve as a role model, and secularism is not subject to criticism; it is only required to adopt a conservative scale of values, like modesty, not drinking alcohol in public or getting rid of street advertisements that show girls in bikinis. But it seems that the element that best characterizes the Turkish religious party is its understanding that its support rests not only on a public of religious believers, and that religion in and of itself is not a guarantee of political victory. The additional 12 percent support in the elections in July, which afforded it a victory of about 47 percent, does not mean that half of the population of Turkey has become devout, but rather that those voters believe in the party's political and economic ability relative to its secular rivals.

An imaginary expanse

If in Western eyes Turkey symbolizes a non-Arab Mediterranean country whose language is written in the Latin alphabet, but is still sufficiently Muslim to upset Europe's white Christian serenity, then for Europe in general and France in particular Morocco, Lebanon Algeria and Tunisia are francophone countries. Their official language is Arabic, their citizens' religion is that same Islam, but the French that reverberates in the streets, in the clubs, on street signs and even in some of the local literature is perceived as a factor that brings those countries closer to Europe. Brings them closer, but does not bring them in, and certainly does not threaten the desire to belong, to which Turkey aspires.

A Moroccan student who was about to marry a young Belgian - or, as she defined him, a "Belgian Belgian," someone whose roots are in Belgium and not in an Arab country - told me that "as far as I'm concerned, being Belgian is to live well, but not to lose my own culture. To achieve a quality of life that doesn't exist in Morocco. But I'm glad that my husband-to-be loves the Moroccan foods that I cook."

Is this the meaning of the Mediterranean-ness that Sarkozy is talking about? Probably not, because the bloc he is talking about is intended, among other things, to regulate, if not to prevent, the immigration of that student and millions like her to the European countries. Sarkozy is talking about Mediterranean-ness as a defensive wall, an intermediate zone, not entirely Arab, but absolutely not European. An imaginary expanse that will subsume only Arab countries that are united not merely by geography, but rather by that certain cultural distance from "Arabism."

If this is indeed Sarkozy's intention, how will he apply it to countries like Egypt or Libya, the first of which sees itself still as the chief arbiter of Arab discourse, and the second of which skips back and forth between Arabism and Africanism? And, more importantly, how will francophone countries like Lebanon and Morocco be able to get along among themselves in the Mediterranean when they are circumscribed by the bonds of their Arabism, and some of them diminish the power of Islam within them to the point that it is reduced to folklore?

It would seem that the broad brush strokes that were aimed at defining regions or uniting cultures in a way that is convenient for someone who used to be a colonialist and is today defined as a neocolonialist, are not being drawn exactly according to the Middle East's own preference.

"Mediterraneanism" is a softened expression, but there isn't anything in it that is different from Middle Easternism or the expression "the Third World." It would perhaps be more correct to say that Mediterraneanism is the French-European version of United States President George W. Bush's "new Middle East" - i.e., a term used for countries that have to be tamed in accordance with Western criteria. The difference lies in which West it is, European or American, that is trying to dictate its conditions, and not in the nature of the countries that are supposed to adopt the dictate.