Elham Manea (Cairo, 55 years old) greets the other side of the screen, in front of a wall lined with books, from his home in Bern. “It is my home”, confides this Swiss-Yemeni academic, with Egyptian grandparents, who settled in Switzerland in 1995, after her marriage, and has made her multiple identities the axis of her work and of her activism in favor of human rights. Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich and a consultant on Islam and gender issues for governments and international organizations, Manea is a vigorous advocate for the separation of state and religion in Islamic countries, as well as freedom of expression and beliefs, and the rights of women and minorities.
It is concerned that, in Europe, Islamists have assumed the right to speak on behalf of Muslims, ignoring their diversity, as stated in the latest book that it has recently published in English, The Perils of Nonviolent Islamism (The Dangers of Nonviolent Islamism, not published in Spanish). But he also blames Western politicians, too complacent with an ideology that he does not hesitate to call totalitarian. Although with the rigor of academic work, Manea uses an accessible language in which he does not hesitate to share his personal experiences, such as the process of radicalization that he suffered as a teenager. “Islamic laws violate women’s rights with impunity,” she stresses.
Question. Why is non-violent Islamism a problem for Western societies?
Answer. For the same reason that extreme right-wing groups are a problem. Islamism is a far-right religious ideology, which we must take seriously because it has consequences. I am not just referring to the fact that it facilitates a cognitive radicalization that can lead to violence. My interest is in how it changes societies, how it affects Muslim communities, how it is reflected in social cohesion.
Q. In your book you say that Islamists promote “closed communities”, is the French president correct in framing the problem as “fighting against separatism”?
R. There is always a political dimension to the actions of the rulers. That said, the expression it uses is very accurate. The ideology [islamista] pushes that separatism. It pushes you to separate yourself even from Muslims who do not share your vision of God. There are different forms of Islamism: Salafist Islam, for example, promotes separatism without dissimulation. Others, like the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or Milli Görös, promote participation in the democratic system, but insist that they be treated as a separate community. And that separatism actually sets them apart. The problem is that many Western politicians accept that form of existentialize which reduces us to our religious identity. That leads to segregation, impacts on social cohesion.
Q. How can European governments make Muslim citizens feel part of their countries and not fall into the “narrative of victimhood” promoted by Islamists?
R. That is the key. Treat Muslims as citizens, address their situation through educational policies that promote a sense of belonging. The teaching of religion, the education of the teachers who teach it, and the training of imams must be professionalized, rather than imported; end foreign funding, and make it clear that Islam is part of Europe’s religious diversity. The religious needs of Muslims cannot be left in the hands of transnational Islamist movements or countries like Qatar and Turkey, which currently spearhead support for Islamist groups. I am not saying that they should be banned, but accepting that a radical group represents all Muslims is offensive.
P. Does Europe sin Islamophobia as the Islamists denounce?
R. I prefer to use “I hate the Muslim”, because it exists. There is a certain sector of the population that is afraid and others that are prejudiced, but it is not generalized. Also, I have a problem with the term “Islamophobia” because it has become an instrument to curb criticism of Islamists and religion in general. Both are important for a free society. I have every right to criticize Islamists, their ideology, their treatment of women, of minorities, just as I have every right to criticize any totalitarian ideology. It cannot be limited on the pretext of protecting Muslims. And I also have every right to criticize my religion.
Q. Even if it offends Muslim believers?
R. Freedom of expression implies the right to offend. Artists have every right to make vignettes of Muhammad, just as they do of Jesus, Moses, or any subject.
P. Another controversial issue is the treatment of women. Is Islam, as a religion, as misogynistic as its critics say, or can it accommodate women’s rights?
R. Islam is what we make of it. At the same time, religious laws that address relationships within the family or gender issues violate human rights and women’s rights with impunity. There is no other way to put it. I have argued it in the book Women and Sharia Law (Women and Islamic Law). They are laws enacted between the 7th and 10th centuries. I find it extraordinary that we are expected to put them into practice in the 21st century as if nothing were happening. They pose a big problem. It is time to introduce civil laws in the family statute that reflect the dignity and equal rights of the members of the marriage. It is time for women to be considered equal citizens.
P. One of the most visible aspects in this regard is the veil. In Europe the scarf is being accepted, but the full veil that completely covers the face is repulsive. Switzerland has just voted on its ban, is that the way?
R. Although I supported the ban on the facial veil, I don’t think that is the way to deal with these issues. There are different reasons why a woman covers herself with a scarf. Schools must strengthen the capacity of female students so that no one forces them to cover up. But it is also possible that a 14- or 15-year-old girl looking for her place in the world finds refuge in religion and the version of it she finds is shaped by Islam that says “cover your hair.” The Islamists’ first target is the female body. Covering it is the base on which they work to create their political and social order.
Q. Have they been the left and those who consider themselves progressives too accommodating to Islamists?
R. Yes, and it saddens me because of those who promote a progressive agenda, especially on the left, I would expect them to be consistent with their cultural heritage, universal human rights, women’s rights. However, in these matters they accept the Islamist arguments. I understand that they fear stigmatizing or discriminating against Muslims, but they do not help them by assuming the views of the most reactionary among them.
Q. Can the West avoid the Islamist trap while in the Arab world there are authoritarian regimes that serve as an alibi for their promoters?
R. That’s the problem. As I mention in The Arab State and Women’s Rights (The Arab state and women’s rights), the lack of legitimacy of many of these authoritarian regimes has led them to ally with groups [religiosos] traditional or Islamists who reject women’s rights. And not just the Arab regimes. You see the same in Pakistan or Indonesia, what I call “survival politics.” It also occurs in the European context. In the book I mention the case of Sweden, where the Social Democratic Party tries to compensate for its weight loss among its traditional fishing ground of migrant workers and turning that group into the Muslim bloc, which is controlled by the Islamists. Something similar has happened in the UK. These are democracies where such alliances can be exposed, and yet some people are afraid to speak out for fear of being branded Islamophobic or racist.
P. Impossible to end the conversation without asking for Yemen, your country of origin and about which you are writing your next book. It is a complex conflict, but what are the basic conditions for achieving sustainable peace?
R. Sustainable peace requires that we understand the roots of the problems in Yemen. It is often posed as either a binary confrontation between the Huthi militia and the Government of [Abdrabbo Mansur] Hadi or as a conflict between regional actors, a war by intermediation. Of course this dimension is very important, but it is not the cause. If we consider the history of state formation in Yemen, the fact that political instability and civil wars have been a feature of its history, it is understood that the idea of a ceasefire and a peace based on the sharing of power It will not work. Complaints from different groups must be addressed, be they regional, religious, etc. Simplifying, you need to take three steps: first, you have to put an end to the violence, then form a transitional government and, once a minimum stability is achieved, discuss the future of Yemen, ask if we are talking about a united, federal or from separate countries.