8 November

Islam: Friend or Foe?

2016 was in many respects an atypical year. In the political arena, two events confounded and unnerved the grandees of establishment media: Brexit, and, in the U.S.A., the Republican nomination for the US presidential election. Donald Trump made headlines with his brash style, irascible temperament and often controversial statements – among which his denouncing of Islam stands out. To ‘make America safe again’, and in connection with policies of economic and political nativism, the tycoon proposed to eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ by calling a halt to Muslim migration, but he has since softened his stance.

Assorted media outlets and establishment commentators from all sides of the political spectrum responded swiftly. Branding him as a ‘Fascist demagogue’, the billionaire’s remarks were said to manifest Islamophobia and religious bigotry. Some identified his position with a broader rise of anti-Muslim hate in 2016. Such reactions sadly typify the rhetorical strategy of Western elites confronted with polemics relating to Islam. The standard narrative of political correctness dissociates a so-called religion of peace from terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims, drawing attention to the individual natures of specific crimes, or to structural conditions of poverty, or social and political alienation. All criticism of this line of argument is repudiated and sneered at.

Let us allow that Trump’s plan is both radical and indefensible. To ban Muslim migration would be both illegal and morally evil insofar as resulting in unjust discrimination on account of religious beliefs. But, as Carly Fiorina rightly declared, ‘Trump’s over-reaction is as dangerous as Obama’s under-reaction’. The hegemony of a political discourse that fails to address Islamic terrorism is, in some degree, responsible for the rise of extremist populist movements in the West. When public opinion is concerned with security and shocked by attacks in the U.S.A. as well as in France (even though – it must be said – such attacks result in fewer casualties per year than car accidents), politicians and decision-makers cannot just ignore the issue and silence opponents with haughty taunts and gibes. In so doing, they antagonise an electorate which ends up embracing ever more radical anti-establishment ideas.

There is a need today for a sensible, moderate and profound public debate on the nature of the relationship between Islamic theology and bellicose jihadism. Very varied elements of civil society should take part, being seen to contribute to future policy-making. It is first of all necessary to make clear that talking about, and making value-judgements on, Islamic principles is fully acceptable in a free society. If the media are so keen to explore the ideological affiliations of ‘far-right’ terrorists like Anders Breivik (he who carried out the 2011 Norway attacks) and Thomas Mair (who assassinated Jo Cox, M.P.), there can be no acceptable a priori reason why investigation into the religious convictions of Muslim terrorists should be discarded. However the media incongruously and deliberately refuse to face even the possibility of such a connection between radical Islam and terrorism. Instead, they conceal it, describing the Charlie Hebdo outrage in Paris (January 2015) as an attack on the free press, the bombings in Brussels (March 2016) as actions against the European project, and the shootings in Orlando (June 2016) as the result of homophobia.

Ignoring reality, or what many take for it, will produce nefarious consequences. By rejecting all consideration of the long list of terror attacks perpetrated by Islamists (approximately 18,000 in the last ten years), the media and political authorities in Europe and America are discrediting themselves in the eyes of the public and shaking the very foundations of Western political structures. Instability and populism capitalise on the disconnect between electorate and elites. The proper role of opinion-makers is to aid deep understanding of the rationale behind terror attacks and to examine the motivations of Islamist radicals. Whether by exploring Muslim teachings about jihad, sharia, women and modernity, or by accounting for the multifarious nature of Islamic religious authority (as David Rahimi has done exceptionally and persuasively), or even by probing the structural causes of failed Muslim integration in the Western world, the relationship between Islam and violence must be clarified – and that out in the open. A serious public debate about Islam might produce some reasonable policy suggestions, while assuaging popular discontent and helping Western societies to manage these aspects of our peculiar modernity.

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