Islam and Secularity

The Future of Europe's Public Sphere

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Nilüfer Göle
Public Planet Books
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , October
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In November 2007, the Kunsthalle Museum in Vienna exhibited Turkish-Delight, a life-size bronze sculpture of a woman naked except for a headscarf, by the German artist Olaf Metzel. The sculpture generated much controversy. Many in the German-Turkish community requested its removal, and a few months after its debut, vandals toppled it to the ground. Eventually, a wealthy Turkish businessman bought the statue for his private art museum in Istanbul. Less than a year later, the Kunsthalle Museum hosted “Footnotes on Veiling: Mahrem,” which came to Vienna from the Santralistanbul artspace in Istanbul. Featuring works by female artists from Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Syria, and Portugal, the exhibit sought to initiate a more introspective public debate on veiling.

In Islam and Secularity, sociologist Nilufer Göle takes these two artistic projects, and the implicit public conversation about Islam in/and Europe that they enter into and re-stage, as paradigmatic of the public controversies and transnational circuits that constitute the European public sphere. Göle does not read conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslim or secular Europeans as indicative of a clash of civilizations, but rather as generated by what she calls the “interpenetration” of Islam and Europe. “The synchronic proximity between Muslims and Europeans,” writes Göle, “engenders an antagonistic bond between the two that leads, albeit unintentionally, to the transformation of public culture” (172). Methodologically, then, controversies become an ideal site for studying the interpenetrations of Islam and Europe, Muslims and Europeans.

Göle’s terminology—Islam and Europe, Muslims and Europeans—can seem at first to suggest the existence of separate and incommensurable entities. But one quickly realizes that Göle is using those conventional categories to make an argument that radically undercuts any notion of stable, static, or discrete formations. Interpenetration, Göle argues convincingly, generates frictions that in turn produce new ethical attachments, new political movements, and new publics. Interpenetration is inherently dialogic and, importantly, dialectical: “Muslim migrants are called to (re)think about their religion and faith from the vantage point of their experiences as European citizens. Similarly, European secularism is refashioned in confrontation with issues raised by Muslims” (87). Interpenetration produces conflict, as witnessed in the various headscarf controversies in France and in free speech debates after the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It also produces moments of creativity, as evidenced by the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, a “postsecular” alliance between secular progressives and anti-capitalist Muslims. And the inclusion of the Gezi Park movement as part of the discussion of Islam/Europe is significant: a key part of destabilizing conventional categories lies in Göle’s positioning of Turkey as both integrally of Europe and its constitutive Other.

Anchored by the concept of interpenetration, Islam and Secularity is essentially a series of reflections on cross-cutting topics. Rather than being organized in thematically distinct fashion, its chapters take up many of the same themes, with differing emphases. Göle is particularly interested in rethinking the public sphere as a transnational rather than national space, and as constituted as much by practices as by discourses, practices “ranging from visual art forms (as in the case of the [Turkish Delight] statue, architecture (construction of mosques), fashion (veiling), and the market (leisure and consumption patterns)” (183). Göle’s European public sphere is a space of both dominant norms and agonistic encounters between different constituencies. Moreover, the agonism of the public sphere reveals, challenges, and often reconfigures those norms. Indeed, “confrontations create a new public; they bring together, in unintended and unpredictable ways, dissonant and competing persons, cultures, foreigners in proximity, in assembly. They create a new space, an interstice that affects the meanings of the religious and the secular modern” (70). Thus the public sphere is, for Göle, a constantly shifting assemblage of constituencies and norms that does not follow a linear or predictable path. At the same time, Göle’s interest in unpredictability and creativity in her narrative of interpenetration does not mean she is inattentive to power, to the “unspoken implicit borders and the stigmatizing, exclusionary power structure of the secular public sphere” (142). Unlike many analysts who tend to favor one side of the structure/agency dyad, Göle attends to both, to the dynamism and the asymmetries—and ultimately to the complexity—of the European public sphere.

Other themes figure throughout the book as well. A number of the chapters focus on unsettling and disruption: public Islam’s disruption of secular notions of citizenship and politics; the unsettling nature of veiled women who are simultaneously public, political actors and pious Muslims, and who thereby defy both the norms of secular modernity and of traditional Islam; and the way the study of Islam and/in Europe unsettles conventional disciplinary frames, “blur[ring] the frontiers between the social sciences of the ‘other’ (Orientalism, area studies, anthropology, postcolonial studies) and the social sciences of the (Western) ‘self’ (history, sociology, political science, and feminism)” (52). Other chapters take up the importance of gender as an analytic in thinking about Islam/Europe. As Göle argues, because so many confrontations concern the organization of public and private, and because women so often serve as markers of the distinction between public and private, women have become a focal point in public controversies about Islam. Finally, Göle intervenes in a debate within secularism studies about how to think about the secular across historical time and geographic space. She argues that pluralizing the secular—via a notion of “secularisms”—can occlude the interconnected histories of secularism as a global and civilizational project spread by colonialism and modernism. At the same time, Göle warns, we should not assume that this modernist-colonialist project produced mimetic copies of Western secularism in the non-West. Taking Turkey and India as examples, Göle rightly notes that “instead of reading secularity in the mirror of an ideal Western model and measuring its gaps and deficiencies, we need to depict the ways secularism is semantically adopted, politically reinvented, collectively imagined, and legally institutionalized” (58). Once again, then, Göle attends simultaneously to the asymmetries of power and the dynamics of reinvention—the hallmark more generally of this readable, analytically complex, and timely new book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mayanthi Fernando is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nilüfer Göle is Professor of Sociology at the Centre d'Études Sociologiques et Politiques Raymond Aron and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). She is the author of Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism and editor of Islam and Public Controversy in Europe.



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