The overall findings from the three sites reveal that negative framings of Islam prominent in public discourse in the West are at odds with everyday subjective understandings of faith that contribute to ethical acts of generosity, belonging, political engagement, and active citizenship. The ongoing War on Terror since September 11 and the emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ means that Muslims in Western societies like Australia, France, and the USA are under heightened surveillance, and their loyalty to the nation-state questioned. Specifically, official and popular discourses circulating suggest a disconnect between Islamic faith traditions and ‘Western’ norms of democracy, liberty, and individual rights. The empirical findings reported here relating to individual and collective religiosity, however, suggest that Islamic religious and spiritual traditions contribute to resilience and enable a diverse Muslim population to engage in local place-based practices and acts of citizenship. These acts are aimed at addressing social inequality and systemic injustice. Islamic faith-based practices represent a conduit for civic engagement in ways that strengthen a commitment to pluralism, and uphold ideals of democratic citizenship through individual and collective activities in multicultural neighbourhoods.
Many of these local neighbourhoods have historically provided employment and affordable housing for Muslim migrants. With the increasing Muslim population, ethnic restaurants, shops selling halal food, prayer spaces/mosques are important features of the suburban landscape. These are not places of ethnic segregation but multicultural places where Muslims of diverse backgrounds feel welcome. It is in these places where everyday life is underpinned by an Islamic ethics and where Muslims take an active part in the life of the city.
In these multicultural neighbourhoods and cities, Imams are powerful leaders and the mosque is a place of prayer that brings peace and contributes to resilience. Yet, participation in mosque activities varies with age, gender, ethnicity, and place. In France, there is regular participation in mosque activities, among young and old, women and men. This contributes to a strong sense of belonging in a secular nation that fails to value the importance of religious identity.
The findings also show that when Muslim communities feel racialised, socially excluded, or disengaged, religious leaders are under severe pressure to address these everyday experiences. In addition, official discourses predominantly emphasise dominant images of radicalisation among youth that places all young Muslims under scrutiny. This has the effect of producing anger and outrage, which are expressed in different ways in the cities that were the focus of this project.
One of the major outcomes of secularisation in the history of the modern Western state is the removal of religion and faith from the public and political sphere. Religious virtues and ethics, unlike secular modalities of ethical or virtuous citizenship, are considered ‘irrational’; thought to produce tribal differences that prevent social cohesion in societies characterised by diversity and difference. The proper place for religion then, in the minds of secular theorists, is the private space of the home. In most Western societies, therefore the public domain – dominated by the edict of ‘the separation of church and state’ – is seen as the healthiest and most appropriate for a thriving democracy, enabling the functioning of civil society as a pillar of society and politics.
This logic, however, is challenged in the case of Islam; particularly since September 11. With the perceived disloyalty, withdrawal and sometimes ‘self-exclusion’ of Muslims from public affairs and mainstream forms of civic engagement, Islam has emerged as a problem and challenge for the Western state. In the three countries that are the focus of this project, Islamic religious practice and expressions are subject to policing and public inquiry in ways that imbalance the presumed ‘secular’ position of the state and its civic institutions. This in turn has led Muslims living in the West, in many instances, to enter the public realm to defend their rights as citizens and to seek a path to engagement that will define Islam as a legitimate form of religious expression in increasingly multifaith and multicultural Western cities. In contrast to many studies on Muslim religiosity and citizenship, this project clearly shows strong links between Islamic ethics/values/practices and Western democratic forms of citizenship, civic engagement, and political participation. This connection between Muslim religious beliefs and citizenship suggests that everyday actions aim to uphold a common good that is about charity, responsibility, obedience to the rule of law, community service/engagement (described as neighbourliness), equal rights and social justice.
Different approaches to the governance of ethno-religious diversity at national, state, and local government levels and place-based affective experiences of living in the city appear to shape political and social participation and belonging across the three sites. In Australia, the dominant official discourse is multiculturalism/social cohesion; in France it is lacïté and secular republicanism; while in the USA the focus has been on social mobility and individual constitutional rights. The site-specific findings have significant policy implications, highlighting the need to reshape the public discourse on Islamic religiosity and redesign policy attitudes in relation to Islam and its practice. It calls for a re-balancing of public debates and policy approaches that problematise Islamic religiosity. By examining the diverse articulations of Islamic religiosity in Western public spaces, the research findings discern meaning, hope, and a source of renewal for democratic and liberal conceptions of justice. These notions must become more prominent in the public discursive sphere, because they have the potential to promote intercultural understanding and belonging. In conclusion and contrary to widespread misconceptions, notions of Islamic ethics have the potential to contribute meaningfully and productively to inclusive social agendas and to the emancipatory politics of recognition – rather than mere resilience – with a diverse Muslim population in Western cities learning how to thrive rather than just survive!