Liberal Rule, or How to discipline Muslims

The Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration composed of senior or retired European and American politics has issued a report this month, “Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in ‘Church-State’ Relations”. Reports come and go and often get ignored but what caught my eye about this particular briefing was an unusual clarity of expression and bluntness.

There was only one British representative on the panel, Sir Trevor Phillips, the new Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but Britain’s approach to this issue is completely disregarded in this report, and is not even deemed worthy of hostile consideration. Perhaps the Londonistan stereotype has rendered the British contribution moot. Instead the report is much more interested in setting up official and legal frameworks for (i) the disciplining of Muslim representation and (ii) the regulation of the community’s chief religious institutions:

Religious discrimination should never be allowed to give succor to extremist recruitment strategies. Dialogue can help tamp down extremism through “trickle-down” effects. Recruiters’ causes rely on an adversarial relationship with the state…. … Religious integration, on the contrary, would lead to the “banalization” of religious practice. In other words, religious practice becomes everyday and routine; instead of forcing Islam out of the public sphere, this approach allows Muslim religious expression to the same degree that other faiths are tolerated and protected. The goal of these consultations, therefore, is not political integration through religion. Rather, the objective is to normalize religious practice in the Member State and European contexts such that everyday matters of faith can no longer be sensationalized as “evidence” of the incompatibility of Islam and Western democracy. [1]

The three approaches promoted here are the French, German and Italian models, all of which are very much works still in progress as the final form of settlement has yet to be achieved. All these three new Mosque-State concordats are post-9/11 initiatives. All this is given an added urgency in the report by invoking the Eurabian motif of the Muslim demographic threat by citing a 2005 report commissioned by the European Parliament: the Muslim population of Europe could grow from 3% in 2005 to 20% in 2050. [2]

The first strand, the regulation of Muslim representational politics, is to be done through the concordatory model, based on the historical settlements between the Churches and the State and modern European nation-states, on the formula of official recognition in exchange for the delimitation of the role of religion to civil society and its confinement to prescribed institutional pastoral roles, e.g. in prisons, hospital and interfaith.

There is an unspoken assumption here that interfaith be made the instrument for the redirection of Muslim politics and that the other Abrahamic faiths, already officially recognised, be the nursemaids. Any true political integration must come through party politics and not through religious lobbies. In this model the state explicitly sets out the nature and parameters of the dialogue in the pursuit of the delimitation of Islamism rather than seeking to mediate between interests (presumably the British mistake). Whom to talk to and why must be strictly regulated. A useful feature of the report is how it so usefully defines “dialogue” as not involving mutual interaction but asymmetric discipline through five features: (i) the state sets the terms of debate; (ii) official Islam platforms must be separated from the political process; (iii) the accommodation of religious practices must seek their banalization, or separation from identity politics; (iv) the selection of Muslim participants must fit in with the state’s agenda, remain “diverse” and, just to double check, be law-abiding; and (v) consider that while local dialogues may focus on institution building and inter-community arbitration, and national dialogues may focus on national regulation and values, the two should be linked together. [3] French Islamists, the report judges, have responded well to “dialogue as discipline”. One note of realism in the report is the admission that the over-represenation of secular or cultural Muslims may vitiate the state’s ability to deal with politicised or overly religious Muslims who are the main targets of this “dialogue as discipline”.

The second strand, the regulation of chief religious institutions, gains additional salience as the means by which to contain Muslim identity politics and redirect Islamism into pastoral provision, mosque management and interfaith dialogue. The provision of local imam training, attached to tertiary education, comes near the top of the agenda, and is linked explicitly with the goals of combating extremism and fostering cultural (note, not political) integration. It plays to the stereotype of the shepherd who directs his flock.

In terms of governmentality theory this is all rather redolent of nineteenth century techniques of disciplinary rule used to create the law-abiding citizen. [4] Throughout there is the assumption that Muslim interlocutors are prone to law-breaking and need to be reminded of the basics of modern society. At the least the British approach contains some strong elements of the regulation of desire (talk of shared national values rather than of rule of law) and the notions of liberal self-discipline (self-regulation of institutions not concordats). If these are the only two choices on the European table, it might be preferable to be charmed into compliance rather than disciplined into it. [5] This just goes to show how far “the Muslim problem” has become removed from the ordinary decencies of normal political processes when there is so little trust, respect or understanding. For the Muslim at least, Europe does feel more nineteenth century than twenty first, more a postcolony than a democratic federation.


[1] Jonathan Laurence, Integrating Islam: A New Chapter in “Church-State” Relations (Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration, October 2007), p. available at

[2] Cited on p. 2 of the report. The original reference is Karoly Lorant, “The demographic challenge in Europe”, Brussels: Euorpean Parliament, 2005), available at

[3] Jonathan Lawrence, ibid.

[4] Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 23, 45-46. Foucault suggests a repetoire of governmentality or “the conduct of conduct” (techniques of governance that direct behaviour). These are developed in the nineteenth through to the twentieth centuries but remain in place as possibilities, should the need arise, as it has in this case. There are three possibilities of governmentality: (i) sovereignty: “a discontinuous exercise of power through display and spectacle, law as command, sanctions as negative and deductive”; (ii) discipline: “the continuous exercise of power through surveillance, individualisation and normalisation”; and (iii) governmentality: “maximizing the forces of the population collectively and individually”. These modes could either be applied to the individual body (“discipline”) or to the collectivity (“bio-politics”). In turn these show how the subject of these techniques is characterised: “the ‘thin’ moral subject of habits…, to the individuated normal subject of constitution, character and condition…to the collectively understood social subject of solidarity or of alienation and anomie…, through the citizen subject of rights and obligations in regimes of social welfare and social insurance to the autonomous ‘deep’ subject of choice and self-identity.”

[5] i.e. to be the subject at least of “governmentality” or “biopolitics” (Anglo-American deregulation) rather than of “discipline” (continental concordatory arrangements), which are more classically nineteenth-century. At least the former more associated with the post-1945 world, and might approximate to the treatment of citizens rather than of postcolonial subjects.


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Filed under Interfaith, Islamism, Religion, Umma

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