Moderates are losing the fight to save Islam from racists and extremists

A man attends a memorial gathering near the old stock exchange in Brussels following Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Brussels.
A man attends a memorial gathering near the old stock exchange in Brussels following Tuesday’s bomb attacks in Brussels.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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The alarming exploitation of the Brussels attacks for political purposes shows how urgent it is to take back the discourse around Islam and Muslims from racists and extremist populists like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen.

Instead of leaving the field wide open for the big-mouthed bigots and xenophobes surfing the murderous wave of global Islamist terror to stigmatize refugees and all peoples of Muslim confession, let’s recognize and tackle the important religious dimension to jihadist violence—in order to better overcome it.

Muslim modernizers, reformers, and secularists, intellectuals, theologians, writers, artists, academics, political figures, and ordinary believers, have long been engaged in an intense ideological war with the Islamic fundamentalists—the same fanatics who helped create the breeding ground for today’s terrorists committing atrocities against civilian populations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the US.

They are currently losing the winner-takes-all battle to stop the “confiscation” of Islam, dating back to the 19th century when contemporary Islamism first emerged as a neo-reactionary force in response to modernization. And they need the West’s support, fast, if it is to make any inroads in winning the fight against terrorism.

As French author Jean Birnbaum, the editor of Le Monde’s literary review, declares in his excellent new book Un Silence Religieux (A Religious Silence: The Left confronted by Jihadism), by not standing with the brave souls resisting encroaching religious extremism and fighting to save Islam from its “Islamist perversion,” we have betrayed those who are determined not to watch their cherished religion “degraded before their very eyes, with all its cherished cultural, spiritual, and human richness.” He says:

By repeating that jihadist terrorism has “nothing to do” with Islam, the highest authorities of the state have not only orchestrated a dangerous negation, they have also planted a knife in the back of all the intellectuals and Muslim theologians who refuse to see their religion reduced to these murderous avatars.

(Birnbaum names among other reformers and critical voices the acclaimed Algerian writer-living-under-a-fatwa Kamel Daoud, the late Mohammed Arkoun and Abdelwahab Meddeb, Rachid Benzine, and Abdennour Bidar, as well as past heros like India’s Mohamed Iqbal and Sudan’s Mahmoud Mohammed Taha).

The chiefly Saudi-inspired neo-Salafists reclaiming a so-called “pure Islam” and championing a bloody rupture with Europe and the West have been trying, at an accelerated pace in recent decades, to assume control over Islam worldwide.

With Gulf States’ money and the purchased silence of Western allies, they have brought their deadly politico-theological battles to the heart of Europe via radical mosques and cultural centers, hate-preachers, and media and digital “soft power,” laying the fertile ground for jihadist recruitment by the messianic millenarian apocalyptic behemoth called ISIL.

By fomenting hysteria around the Palestinian cause and deliberately spreading anti-Semitic, women and western-hating propaganda, they have brainwashed entire communities into states of collective resentment, victim mentality, and in the worst case, smoothed the transition to murderous “holy war.”

The phenomenon is nowhere more pronounced than in the Belgian capital, home to the European Commission, and thus the capital of Europe. This, in a shambolically-governed country riven by its own ethnic and linguistic disputes, that has let the Jihadist poison spread virtually unchecked among a vulnerable Moroccan immigrant population. Today Belgium is the number one per capita European exporter of foreign fighters to Syria (almost 400, of which 170 have returned). All Euro-terrorist investigation roads have led to Brussels in recent years (Mehdi Nemmouche’s Jewish Museum killings in 2014, the aborted Verviers attacks, and the AK47 wielding attempted mass murder on the Thalys last year) and particularly to Molenbeek where the November 2015 Paris attacks were planned, until the jihadists made Brussels itself the target.

The rot began decades back. Since the 1960s Saudi Arabia has focused on proselytizing in Brussels, financing a grand Sunni mosque and an Islamic culture center in the Cinquantenaire complex, and laying the foundations for Belgium as the epicenter of  European jihadism. As Liberation reported:

It is against this background that a myriad of extremist organizations began to prosper, taking advantage all at once of the central position of Belgium in European geography, a socially disadvantaged immigrant population, often relegated to living in the same neighborhoods and a certain passivity by the authorities.

Now, according to French philosopher Pascal Bruckner,  the notorious terrorist hotbed of Molenbeek in central Brussels is more like Mossul or Gaza. It’s not a Trump-style “no-go zone,” but a place where, thanks to the election-focused politicians and deals with Imams, religious associations, and community leaders, “other laws” prevail, mixing “sharia with the code of honor of gangsters” with appalling results.

Yet while Trump goes on his Twitter rampages blaming all Muslims for the “horrible” murders in Belgium and Paris, and calling for state-sanctioned torture to extract terrorist confessions, president Obama and the State Department—alongside other world leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and so-called “expert analysts”—only respond by trotting out their trademark neutral language. Implausibly, this is just any old “violent extremism” (whatever you do don’t mention religion or Riyadh!).

TV news reports are filled with interviews with veiled Muslim women declaring “This isn’t Islam,” as the pious—and yes, politically correct—crowd are exhorting right-thinking people to avoid suggesting Molenbeek and similar Salafist-captured districts in Belgium and France are Islamist-sheltering enclaves. Meanwhile, police trying to arrest terrorists—like Paris attacks logistics man Salah Abdeslam—are attacked by young boys. BBC TV trucks are vandalized, and community ‘Omerta’ means families and friends take months before someone informs on the local boy turned jihadi “star.”

It’s time the political establishment in the US and Europe, but particularly the center-left—as exemplified by Obama and French president Francois Hollande—owned up to the profound faith-based motivations underpinning the current wave of ISIL-inspired terrorism.

What Abdelwahab Meddeb titled the “malady of Islam” in his remarkable essay (“If fanaticism is the malady of Catholicism, if Nazism was the malady of Germany, it is certain that fundamentalism is the malady of Islam”) is hitting Europe. But it can and has already spilled over into the US at San Bernardino and Chattanooga—and the much-vaunted American “assimilation” is no bulwark.

This is not just about crushing “barbarism” and random “monsters.” We need to name the enemy, and it is extremist Islamism, whose first victims are of course Muslims, attacked in their homes and countries everywhere.

It is patently irresponsible to continue parroting the hollow received wisdom that “this has nothing to do with Islam” (as Hollande has done since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015). Every man and woman in the street knows these terrorists are shouting Allahu Akhbar—God is Great—and citing their absolutist reading of the Koran in their murders of Christian “crusaders,” “infidels,” Jews and “miscreants”—Muslim or otherwise.

The disconnect is deafening and will only help propel the likes of Trump and Le Pen to power because ordinary voters recognize they are at least telling half-truths amid the scare-mongering, hate, and lies.

Such deliberate obfuscation on the part of otherwise sane world leaders and influential commentators directly plays into the hands of the Trumps and Le Pens and the bigots taking to Twitter to #StopIslam.

The best way to isolate demagogues like Trump and Le Pen is surely to deny them the legitimacy of truth-telling when it comes to Islamist extremism, and take sides in the civil war tearing apart one of the world’s great monotheistic faiths.

However, until religion is acknowledged as one of the key factors driving jihadism—although religion is evidently not the entire story—we can’t begin to grapple with its causes. Focusing purely on smashing ISIL in its stronghold ‘caliphate’—or honing in only on the porous links between drug trafficking syndicates, criminal gangsters, Islamism, and the policing challenge of breaking apart well-hidden terrorist cells—will change little on the ground in Europe and elsewhere, if faith is ignored. Suicide attackers are attracted by a religious fanaticism, and they are engaged in a spiritual war where ideas count.

As the most nuanced analysts show, poverty, social exclusion, alienation, nihilism, or even Western foreign policy cannot be seen as the isolated “causes” of suicide bombings and attacks on civilians. They provide the context in some cases, but why ignore the salient religious—and yes—Islamic element? “Islamization of radicalism” alone will not suffice.

These young men blowing themselves and others up are not simply victims of a “cult” of deranged “radicals.” In his book, Birnbaum recounts how jihadists like the 2015 Paris attackers and their counterparts in Kenya, Australia, and Syria have libraries filled with erudite theological and religious texts providing the spiritual underpinnings for their actions. And they can’t be kept out with walls and better security, because they are within the society—they are homegrown.

Encouragingly, a growing movement of center-left thinkers, academics, writers, politicians, and journalists in France and Belgium are calling for a new approach that takes the Islamic aspect of ISIL-style jihadism seriously. They are standing firm against calculated assaults on universal values—equality, liberty, and fraternity—that make modern Europe the magnet for refugees it is today.

Birnbaum in Un Silence Religieux castigates the Left for going along with the trite, politically-expedient Hollande-style (and by association, though he doesn’t name him, Obama-style) script after every terrorist attack.

In fact, Birnbaum says the Left has proven incapable of grasping the deep-seated religious element (not the only dimension but an important one nonetheless) influencing jihadism, stretching back to the 1979 Iranian revolution when only Michel Foucault picked up on the new fusion of politics and spirituality being touted by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Left is blinded because it has a secular bias that looks down on spiritual belief, or in France’s case, is grounded in a strong anti-clerical tradition.

Even if many of these new jihadists were far from devout—if they were party animals, drug traffickers, users, or even criminals to start—they radicalized very quickly and transformed into murderous religious fanatics. Such a transformation does not occur outside a social, political, and spiritual context—a reality confirmed by researchers like Gilles Kepel, and journalists like Jason Burke and Graeme Wood. And it is precisely the religious element that offers them the justification for turning into suicide bombers and mass murderers of civilians.

The secular agnostic atheistic Left has moved so far from the revolutionary energy of its past, it cannot even understand that religious fervor could be a motivating factor behind such acts, and indeed dismisses the idea, to its peril. Birnbaum even says the Left has misinterpreted Marx, who never dismissed religion as a factor in radicalization when he called it the “Opium of the Masses.” He writes:

The weakening of the internationalist profane Left has left the space open to a radical religious hope. If a certain part of the Left is shocked by this comparison it is because it has forgotten its proper messianic vocation and its religious energy. It is so removed from its revolutionary origins, it isn’t even capable anymore of seeing this in the eyes of others.

Significantly he argues the Left has abandoned the independent voices who are fighting to maintain a definition of Islam that embraces multiple readings of the Koran and equality for women, rejecting the “sexual misery” of the “lands of Allah” so eloquently outlined by writers like Algeria’s Daoud in The New York Times and elsewhere.

Taking Birnbaum’s cue, the Left and the political mainstream needs to reexamine the religious zealotry exciting jihadists. Properly informed, it can then go after the ideas and the hate-preachers online, in mosques, on the streets, and in families and community settings that are spreading this cancer.

In the US, even on the Right, many analysts—like Max Boot at Commentary—say Europe has just done a bad job of “assimilating” migrants, whereas the US has done much better.

Well, buyer beware. These young men are not doing what they are doing because they are all poor, miserable, excluded, alienated-types.

As we know, the Abdeslam family was fully “integrated” with a family income of more than €100,000 ($120,000), even owning bars. Other jihadists have been highly educated, and held down decent jobs.

Bruckner too persuades us to look again at Islamism.

“We keep saying that we mustn’t conflate (the attacks) with Islam without understanding that the jihadists themselves claim they are the only true Muslims,” he says.

“The others, the very large majority are rejected by these fanatics as living in the shadows of miscreants. But these soldiers of the apocalypse are first and foremost believers and we should take them as they are.”