Europe must empower moderate voices to change the story on Islam


Picture of Nurul Izzah Anwar
Nurul Izzah Anwar

Nurul Izzah Anwar is a Member of the Malaysian parliament

We watch in despair as one terror attack after another kills and maims innocent people in the name of Islam. The self-styled ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, which has ostensibly established an Islamic caliphate, often claims responsibility without shame. No wonder Europe has a crippling affliction of Islamophobia.

A growing number of European countries are electing far-right nationalists into various positions of power. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which states that ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’, attracted up to one in four voters in state elections last year. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has likened the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, leads the polls ahead of the general elections. Marine Le Pen, tried and acquitted of anti-Islam hate speech last year, dominates France’s presidential election.

Islamophobic rhetoric has transcended the extreme right and made its way into private and public institutions. For example, cities across France are clutching onto bans on the ‘burkini’, a body-covering swimsuit, despite adverse court rulings. At the European level, the European Court of Justice has issued a non-binding ruling that a workplace ban on headscarves is not religious discrimination.

The 2015 European Islamophobia Report states that “the refugee-migration-Islam-terrorism nexus became the standard argument justifying a number of domestic and international measures”. But it is a flawed argument, one that brings us no closer to mitigating the real problem of violence and one that risks tearing apart the social fabric that binds Europe. For example, in 2016 we saw the near-breakdown of the Schengen system following the refugee influx, threatening the freedom of movement that so defines Europe.

Muslim refugees and Muslims living in Europe are often victims of both Islamophobia and terrorism

But we must not misdiagnose Islam as the root cause of the EU’s problems; the Schengen problem is more likely a symptom of a much deeper breakdown, and should lead Europeans to ask themselves a more fundamental question about whether Islam is just a bogeyman for an already-disintegrating Europe.

The fact is that Muslim refugees, and Muslims living in Europe, are not causes of strife but often victims, of both Islamophobia and terrorism. With the number of Muslims growing (in 2010 Muslims made up six per cent of Europe’s population; by 2030 this proportion is predicted to reach a formidable 30%), Europe needs to address both issues and look for a new approach to religious diversity.

To do so, Europe — its leaders, religious institutions, and people — must neither ignore nor vilify adherents of the religion. It must engage with progressive Islamic scholars (ulama) who fully support religious coexistence: a meaningful dialogue with the Muslim world is a crucial first step in ending the scourge of terrorism.

Daesh is a media leviathan, churning out slick videos, sophisticated graphics and round-the-clock tweets. Some critics argue that traditional scholars are ill-equipped to compete with Daesh’s social media-savvy ways.

But Islam has influential and respected thought leaders who can trigger change. One is Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, renowned for his denunciation of Daesh’s religious extremism. The Mauritanian professor of Islamic Studies caught the world’s attention when former United States president Barack Obama quoted him in an attempt to advocate moderate Islam: “We must declare war on war, so the outcome will be peace upon peace”.

Sheikh Bin Bayyah’s ‘war’ is not a literal one, but a contest of ideologies. He argues that today scholars are necessary, albeit incapacitated. They lack not the message, but the means of communicating it. Europe can help, such as by inviting moderate ulamas to deliver Friday sermons or public lectures.

These scholars can also help change the current Western narrative, which disproportionately portrays terrorism as the hallmark of Islam. This has denied everyone — Muslims and non-Muslims alike – the opportunity to objectively appraise contextual interpretations of Islam as well as perversions of Islamic belief.

If Europe instead chooses to tolerate (or even celebrate) the presence of Islamic scholars, both sides of Islam’s conflict on extremism can be directly compared. The ideological faultlines of extremism can be confronted and quashed. To quote Bin Bayyah, “[Daesh’s brutality] is challenging [Islam’s] existence, and its treatment has to come from Islam itself, using the same language that the extremists understand.”

The notion of letting thought leaders be heard is shared by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an American Islamic scholar who argues that religious literacy and knowledge will inoculate young people against extremist ideologies. Over the years the media has reported story after story of Muslims (and non-Muslims) who fall prey to the dangerous ideologies of radical Islamists on the internet. These terrorists poison the minds of young, naïve, alienated people, creating ‘foreign fighters’ in Syria and elsewhere. 30% of these foreign fighters are estimated to return to their home countries. The very least Europe can do is lend a voice to the moderates as an early intervention measure.

Today’s Islamic scholars lack not the message, but the means of communicating it

For non-Muslims the presence of rational, moderate scholars will begin to erase misperceptions of Islam as inherently violent. Like people of all faiths, Muslims need guidance and support, not victimisation. Expulsions of Muslims from Europe will not solve terrorism but instead feed the conviction of a minority that Europe is not their home. Bans and discrimination play directly into the hands of terrorist groups.

While it is clear that Muslims face Islamophobia, they also bear the brunt of terrorism. Several studies show that most of Daesh’s victims are moderate and peaceful Muslims. The US State Department found that between 2007 and 2011 Muslims suffered between 82% and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities in attacks where the religious affiliation of casualties could be identified. More recently, Daesh has attacked many Muslim-majority countries: Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia. Muslims are equally – if not more – vulnerable to terrorism.

So we have a paradox, as identified by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan: the victims of terrorism – helpless refugees, mainly Muslims, are seeking salvation in Europe; the people of Europe, safely within its embrace, are increasingly considering breaking away. Indeed, according to the Spring 2016 Global Attitude Survey by Pew Research Centre conducted across ten EU nations, nearly half of the respondents have unfavourable opinions towards the EU. As Annan noted, “Europe is a symbol of freedom, prosperity and justice that attracts immigrants. At a time when the EU is not popular within its own borders, Europeans should reflect on the significance of their popularity abroad.”

Even in troubled and fearful times, Europe and Europeans must remember that among the 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, terrorists are an exception rather than the rule. There is much expertise in the Muslim world for Europe to leverage, and so many Muslim hearts and minds that Europe is capable of influencing for the better.

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