A War for the Soul of Islam

Another terrorist attack, another 12 people dead, most of them journalists, increasingly a high-risk profession. And another wave of principled, necessary, but in the end rhetorical condemnation. We all are Charlie. We will not bow to murderous terror. We will not compromise on the freedom of speech and expression. We will not be cowed. Until the next attack, which will now surely come, we don’t know when, we don’t know by whom, but we know it will happen. Does that mean we are now condemned to live with terror as a fact of life, something like air crashes, or industrial accidents? And if so, how long will it take before, to lessen the risks, we will unwittingly start mincing words, skirt over issues, and hide our true convictions? And if so, how long can liberal democracy last after that? Is the choice now between a securitized state, in which liberal freedoms will be subordinated to security considerations in the hunt for the fanatics, and a police state, in which freedom of expression is sacrificed in the hope that this might somehow mollify them?

In the early reactions to the Paris attack, two lines of thinking can be discerned. The first views the attack as a watershed moment and calls for an all-out war against militant Islam. The second, while no less resolute in its condemnation, views it as an act of violence of a tiny minority, which contravenes the fundamental moral precepts of the religion and warns against the dangers of Islamophobia ensuing from the all-out war paradigm, a mood that is perceptibly on the rise in a number of European countries.

Which of the two schools of thought turns out to be dominant largely depends on the European Muslims themselves. Some of their first reactions, aiming to condemn the atrocity and at the same time to distance themselves from it by claiming it had nothing to do with Islam, suggest how widespread is the mood of denial in the Muslim community. For like it or not, it had a lot to do with Islam, if only for the fact that the attackers acted in the name of the religion and with the aim to “avenge” its prophet. Without a doubt, there are a number of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and even atheist fanatics around, but there is no getting away from the fact that not only this particular lot were apparently Muslims but most of the recent lethal terror attacks in Europe were carried out in the name of Islam, the horrible Anders Breivik notwithstanding.

The problem with the war on Islamist terror is that it is not our war to wage. The West is not at war with Islam. On the contrary, it provides a liberal, permissive environment in which all religions, including Islam, can flourish. It can and will defend itself against the murderers and cowards without turning it into a crusade. The war, such as it is, is in fact the war for the soul of Islam. For most part, it cannot be waged by non-Muslims, only by the believers themselves. Not until and unless they denounce, excommunicate, and expose the murderers, the hate-preachers, and the enforcers in their midst, before rather than after an attack has been committed, can they truly claim that Islam was not involved. Not until they feel free to say with the others, “Je suis Charlie,” can they really be sure they’re living in a free society and share in its benefits. Not until they are able to show contrition along with the condemnation for the acts committed by other Muslims, will they have demonstrated the shared compassion with their non-Muslim neighbors. It is an incredibly tall order and an unbelievably difficult task, but hence and nowhere else lies the hope for a common European home of different cultures, religions, and traditions. Failing that, its future looks quite bleak.



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