The murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands triggered a European-wide debate about radical Islamism in Europe. Aspen's Julian Knapp asked three prominent experts to share their thoughts on the issue: Canadian journalist and author Irshad Manji, American investigative journalist Steven Emerson, and French professor Gilles Kepel.
1. Did the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands change Europe's debate about radical Islam and terrorism?
(Emerson): I believe that in future years, the assassination of van Gogh may prove to be the most pivotal incident on European soil which instigated societal debates about the traditional European policies on multiculturalism. This incident has provoked more debate about the role of Islamic communities in Europe than either the 9/11 attacks or even the 3/11 attacks in Madrid. Suddenly, there has been a release of pent-up frustration and angst at the prospect that European societies have, wittingly and unwittingly, allowed Islamic extremist culture to insinuate itself for years in mosques and Islamic religious schools, resulting in the acculturation, not of pluralist values, but of cultural jihadism.
The event triggered not only a debate about immigration and the imposition of possible restrictions on Islamic institutions, but also the attention and focus of European cultural elites, who had only fleetingly danced around the issue of Islamic extremism in Europe. To be sure, the events of 9/11 and the subsequent arrests or investigations of dozens of terrorist cells on European soil had long been much discussed and investigated. But to a certain extent, the clear ability to focus on actual terrorist cells was juxtaposed against the far more complex and politically charged issue of cultural jihadism that was impervious to quantification, concealed by being subsumed under larger religious - and thus protected - icons, protected by civil rights and rendered almost invulnerable by the fear of being charged with racism. Thus the problem of cultural jihadism was largely put on the back-burner.
(Manji): Many Dutch consider this their 9/11, a wake-up call if you will. The debate has thus become louder. But has it become deeper? I don't think so. That is, throughout Western Europe, the old divisions remain pronounced. Non-Muslim Europeans are increasingly convinced that strident secularism is the only way to tame Islam. Muslims, in turn, increasingly feel that they are second-class citizens - if they are citizens at all - precisely because they choose to practice an organized religion. Based on this choice, they believe that mainstream Europeans regard them weak or brainwashed at best - and dangerous at worst. Young European Muslims have often confided to me that they are made to feel inadequate. "Do you see why so many of our friends are driven into the arms of fundamentalists?" I keep hearing from them. To be sure, I don't buy that argument. Each of us must take personal responsibility for whom we align ourselves with. Still, the reality of this division cannot be denied, if only because it's becoming more profound.
(Kepel): Van Gogh's murder is a blend between the Rushdie affair of 1989, the Mohammed Atta schizophrenic type and the Madrid bombings of March 11. Radical Islamist ideology provides for such individuals who refuse to identify with European social norms and consider the Salafist understanding of Islam to be the only way to behave - including launching what they consider jihad. This kind of behavior is especially problematic in societies where multiculturalism is an accepted social system - as is the case in the Netherlands - because young people from immigrant descent were encouraged to have a separate cultural development, which, at the end of the day, boosted deviant behavior.
2. How widespread is Muslim extremism in European Muslim communities and mosques?
(Kepel): I don't think extremist views are very widespread, but they have gained steam recently. This is a paradoxical consequence of 9/11, which was seen by some as an example to follow.
Additionally, others who wouldn't identify with 9/11 then looked for ways to define their Islamic identity in order to answer critics from European society, and they turned to Muslim Brotherhood or Islamist literature, sermons, tapes, etc, which are dominant on the religious market. The large majority of European citizens from Muslim descent share core European values, but they are not spreading their views on the religious market of ideas as such. This leaves that field rather open to people with a more radical vision.
(Manji): It mostly depends on how you define extremism. If you mean "literalism," then it is more than widespread - it is mainstream. If you mean the overt preaching of violence, then it percolates on the margins. The key here is to recognize that because literalism is mainstream in Islam today, the thin minority of Muslims who have any intention of engaging in terror are nonetheless protected by the vast majority of moderate Muslims who don't know how to debate and dissent with that proclivity.
Let me explain why. We Muslims, even in the West, are routinely raised to believe that because the Koran comes after the Torah and the Bible (historically and chronologically), it is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will. The Koran, we are taught, does not lend itself to the inconsistencies and ambiguities and outright contradictions and, God forbid, human editing like those earlier scriptures. Mainstream Muslims believe, as an article of faith, that the Koran is not like any other scripture. It is the summit of the holy books. This is a supremacy complex, which even moderate Muslims share. And this supremacy complex is dangerous because when abuse happens under the banner of Islam, most Muslims do not yet know how to debate, dissent, revise or reform. That's because we have not yet been introduced to the possibility, let alone the virtue, of asking questions about our holy book. The same cannot be said today for "moderate" Christians and Jews.
In that sense, I subscribe to Ayaan Hirsi Ali's point that "Islamic terrorism, both in the Netherlands and abroad, is able to thrive because it is embedded in a wider circle of fellow Muslims." This is a reality that most Western security experts have yet to grasp.
(Emerson): It would be of great value if we could empirically quantify the number of radical Islamic institutions or the number of actual believers in extremism. But we simply don't know. Obviously, those that believe in or identify with extremism do not view their attitudes as extremist in the same way that they do not view Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood as extremist organizations. I prefer to believe that the vast majority of the Muslim population is neither radical nor tethered to an extremist ideology. But then again, looking at various public opinion polls - such as one taken by the BBC in England after 9/11 showing that more than 50% of the British Muslim population in the UK did not believe that Osama Bin Laden carried out 9/11, or the recent Pew polls showing that vast popular majorities of Muslim countries respect Bin Laden, - then we need to seriously ask ourselves whether cultural jihadism is far more rampant than we want to believe.
As for Islamic institutions in the West, such as mosques and religious schools, again we do not have empirical data to scientifically designate the exact number of extremist institutions. However, the reality is that a majority of mosques and, to a lesser extent Islamic schools in the West, have been paid for by Saudi donors, with a clear intent to establish Wahabist institutions. My institute now has a project underway to analyze the curricula being taught in Islamic schools in the United States, and, frankly, the hatred being disseminated against Christians and Jews in a good number of text books we have seen is not dissimilar to what is being taught in the madrassats in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
3. Why is it so difficult for many Muslims and their communities to speak out clearly and decisively against extremism and fundamentalism within their own ranks?
(Kepel): One should keep in mind that French citizens from Muslim descent spoke out very explicitly against Islamic terrorists in September, when an obscure Iraqi jihadist group abducted two French journalists and threatened to slaughter them unless the law on secularism in schools (ie. banning religious attire, including hijab) be rescinded. There was a mass movement of French citizens and residents from Muslim descent denying the kidnappers the right to speak in their name, or take them hostage of their jihadist view. French people from Muslim descent actually identified en masse with the two journalists - much to the dismay of Islamist radicals who had to backpedal. I guess this might be easier in a country which promotes a strong sense of belonging and adhesion to the same set of core values than it is in a multicultural society where what people have in common culturally remains minimal.
(Manji): One reason I referred to in my answer to the previous question: because most Muslims have never been given the permission to interpret the Koran freely, they feel it is not their place to denounce those who "know better." Islamist terrorists are expert in quoting the Koran for their purposes. To question them, it is widely felt, is to question the Koran itself, and that is off-limits.
A second reason is the sheer fear of persecution from fellow Muslims, even in open societies such as Western Europe and North America. Let me illustrate. Despite the anger, venom and death threats I receive for having written a book called "The Trouble with Islam," I'm much more surprised by the support, affection and even love I hear from fellow Muslims. But most of the Muslims who write to me in support, or who whisper "thank-you" in my ear after a public event, tell me that they can't be public about that support. Nor do they feel that they can be vocal about their own struggles with the faith today. That's because they fear "persecution." I have engaged enough of the people who use this word to report that they mean more than ostracism. They mean physical reprisal against themselves and their families. The challenge is to give reform-minded Muslims the confidence to say what needs to be said.
(Emerson): The absence of large cadre of moderates willing to speak out stems from several factors including the absence of a reformist class of Muslim theologians (owing to the lack of a reformation in Islam) the lack of funds (Muslim nations do not support moderate movements), and the domination of established Muslim organizations (religious and political) in the West by Wahabist, Muslim Brotherhood or other Ja'amat groups. Given the religious legitimacy conferred upon by Muslim religious leaders and political legitimacy (dangerously but largely unwittingly) extended by western countries, Islamic leaders and institutions have been dominated by militants, who often pretend to preach moderation but in fact speak entirely differently behind closed doors.
Yet there are increasing numbers of genuine moderates willing to speak out. In Italy, Sheik Abdul Hadi Palazzi of Rome has emerged as one of the most courageous Muslim leaders in the world today willing to confront the extremists. In the United States, Sheik Hisham Kabbani and other leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council have demonstrated unparalleled bravery in condemning the extremism of the "mainstream" Islamic groups. And most significantly, we are now seeing an increasing number of Muslim commentators, intellectuals and writers in the heart of the Muslim world willing to challenge the extremists. For example, recently there was a petition signed by more than 200 Saudi intellectuals protesting Islamic extremism, in particular that of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Yousef Al Qardawi, whose fatwas in support of suicide bombings probably had more of an influence on Osama bin Laden than any other Islamic theologian.
4. What are the main differences between Muslim communities in Europe and those in the United States?
(Manji): For starters, ethnic make-up. In most of Western Europe, a majority of the Muslims are Arab. (Germany, with its huge Turkish population, is an obvious exception.) In North America, most Muslims to this day are of non-Arab extraction - African-American, Pakistani, Indian, Iranian, Turkish, etc. That's important to note because the more rigid strains of Islam tend to be found in the Arab world, where cultural traditions such as honor seep into the practice of Islam to calcify the faith. By contrast, in non-Arab parts of the world, Islam has historically been more flexible, allowing a greater role for women, for example. In the last 15-20 years, even the tolerant strains of Islam have struggled to survive under the onslaught of Saudi money and influence. Still, this difference in ethnicity is part of the reason that American Muslims are more willing to integrate than European Muslims are.
But that's not the whole story. Part two of the tale has to do with how faith is treated in Western Europe versus North America. I alluded to this difference in my answer to the first question. Let me now go further. To a lot of Europeans, still steeped in a backlash against the Catholic Church's intellectual repression, religion is an irrational force. So women who wear the hijab set off bells of suspicion as well as of contempt. That is much less the case in North America. Because North America has long been a society of settlers ready to receive those who flee their homelands for religious tolerance, religion is not viewed as irrational even if what some people do with it might be, as in the case of terror. Which means Muslims in North America enjoy more fluid choices. Unlike European Muslims, North American Muslims tend not to be judged by what we wear. We tend to be judged by what we do - or don't do, such as speak out against Islamist violence. This difference influences Muslim communities on each continent.
Finally, through countless conversations with Muslims in Europe and North America, I get the sense that they are affected by the way in which each continent treats the question of "status." Given their hunger to achieve, Americans are disposed to jostling with the "other," and they expect the "other" to jostle right back. What makes someone a real American is not so much his skin color as his willingness to compete. In Western Europe, by contrast, heredity, hierarchy and entitlement trump achievement as guiding aspirations. No wonder so many Muslim laborers who have been living in Europe for two or three generations continue to be referred to as immigrants, even when they are bona fide citizens. This difference feeds into the perception that Muslim communities have about whether they can ever be good enough for their host societies. And that, in turn, can only influence how hard - or not - they try to integrate.
(Emerson): The Islamic communities in Europe are proportionally larger and older than those in the United States. Further, the US-based Islamic community is not dominated by an Islamic underclass as it is in Germany or France. Additionally, the established Islamic organized hierarchy in the US is much more cognizant of the need to acquire political power through political influence and as such, is always trying to acquire external legitimacy with other religious institutions and the US government. This, however, is not reflective of a genuine moderate agenda; nearly every major terrorist indictment, prosecution and asset forfeiture of terrorist front groups since 9/11 has been condemned by these "mainstream" Islamic groups and leaders as part of a "war against Islam." Since 9/11, American-based groups have tried to hide their radical agenda, which stands in contrast to the public views expressed and promoted by various European based Islamic groups in support of Islamic extremism - especially those in the United Kingdom.
(Kepel): One must also note that European Muslims have become part and parcel of the European fabric. Their majority is now "native," whereas US Muslim populations are still relatively recent. Also, geographically Europe is near the core Muslim world, which means that North Africa or Turkey are tantamount to a domestic political issue. The US is far away, which means that Islam is mainly a foreign policy issue.
5. What do you advise governments to do in order to tackle the problem of parallel societies and Muslim extremism? Which are the right measures to promote integration?
(Emerson): The solution is neither going to be easy nor fast. In general, I believe that it is essential for Western governments to assist in legitimizing genuine moderate Islamic beliefs while at the same time discrediting and delegitimizing radicalism. How to do this is a question for which there is no right set of answers. But let me suggest some ideas that I think would begin to reverse the radicalism:
(A) Stop granting political legitimacy to the western incarnations of derivative groups of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jam'aat which have deceptively re-created themselves in the West under the false patina of being "human rights" groups.
(B) Conversely, western governments should be granting legitimacy and funding to genuine moderates.
(C) Exercise oversight over what is being taught in religious schools.
(D) Set up or sponsor genuine moderate Middle Eastern and Muslim centers of higher education in the West, Middle East, Asia and Africa. This is more easily said than done with a particular need to reverse the contemporary center of intellectual gravity in the US and European academia that has converged a traditional leftist anti-westernism with a petrodollar-dictated curriculum.
(E) Clamp down much more stringently on the continuing Saudi sponsorship in the export of incendiary and extremist publications, broadcasts, books and propaganda.(Manji): I believe European governments have a lot to learn from the experiences of North America. Canada, in particular, exhibits a genius for broad and inclusive citizenship. Over the years, Canadian governments have learned how to use immigrants as ambassadors for the next wave of newcomers, so that the teaching of integration comes from the bottom up (ie. peers) rather than the top down (ie. authorities).
Another measure would focus on youth. Something that all Western governments would do well to try is incorporating Muslim history into public education. Public schools should teach their students about how Muslim civilization acted as the mid-wife of the European enlightenment. To mention just one example, Muslims preserved Greek manuscripts by translating them into Arabic. The point of this exercise is to show that Islam and the West are not irredeemably divided. Rather, they are interdependent. Muslim students would learn that there is no shame in admiring the progressive, pluralistic values of the West. And non-Muslims would learn that those values took inspiration from Islamic civilization.
Nonetheless, I realize that in much of Europe, the situation is almost desperate and the focus must be on immediate measures. I can only advise that governments step out of their comfort zones and launch public discussions between Muslims and non-Muslims. A key question for Muslims: Why are you here in Europe? A key question for non-Muslims: Do you believe that Muslims are capable of contributing to European society? Governments need to foster public discussion on these thorny questions so that assumptions are brought out into the open, festering resentments are given a chance to breathe, and people have the opportunity to hold each other accountable. It's the kind of catharsis that Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have cultivated in post-war regions. Europe may need a pre-war version of such commissions, exactly to help avert war.
(Kepel): The focus on youth is indeed crucial. The French were lambasted amongst radical Islamist circles and US or British liberals alike when they banned religious garb in schools. But such measures are necessary in order to inculcate to all children in a class the feeling that they belong to the same community, that what they have in common is more important than what is divisive. More thought should be given to this, beyond polemics and caricatures.
6. What can be done to limit the influence of Wahabi money? How do you assess, for example, the proposal currently being debated in France, to provide government financing for Mosques?
(Kepel): Providing government funding for mosques would infringe on the separation of church and state. However, European Muslim citizens, who are interested in religion (not the majority in Europe) should be helped to take the building of mosques in their own hands, so that it would become their own project.
(Manji): I agree that state financing of mosques may offend, even violate, the secular ideal of Western Europe. But on the other hand it would give governments the right to scrutinize mosques for illegal activity. Crucially, it would also give the state the right to demand that only Muslims who meet a certain standard become imams. Above all, state financing would help government officials develop "informed" relationships with Muslim leaders.
Informed relationships cannot be underestimated. Let's take a lesson from Germany. Turks in Germany approached the German government to ask for religious education. (The German constitution permits religious instruction for those who voluntarily take it.) The German government agreed. However, it turned down Turkey's offer to provide textbooks and teachers. So where did the Islamic instruction come from? Arab radicals. To this day, all the Turks who have been arrested in relation to 9/11 have come from Germany, not Turkey.
(Emerson): This is probably the most vexing problem we face, not only because of the fact that democratic societies can only block monies if they are found to be funding illegal activities (a threshold of evidence is not easily obtained) but also because there is so much money already in the pipeline through indirect and hard to detect conduits.
I think the French proposal is a step in the right direction. It follows the French experiment in promoting and nurturing a French Islam by appointing the Islamic clerics and members of the French Islamic council. In the end, this experiment has largely failed because of the lack of controls over non-participating mosques. But this experience teaches us one very fundamental fact: That because religion and money are fungible, there can be no effective barrier to the spread of radical Islam or the proliferation of Wahabi money unless there is a near total agreement by all of Western Europe. That means truly integrated efforts at blocking Saudi money, collective forfeitures of all jihadist monies - and not the political cowardice shown by some European governments (e.g. Great Britain) that has allowed Hamas and other jihadist groups funding terrorism to flourish without any impediment or control.
7. What is your position on the decision by US authorities to withhold a visa for Tariq Ramadan? Do you consider him to be dangerous?
(Emerson): I fully support and applaud this decision. Here is a clear case where the US government can implement a policy of trying to withhold legitimacy to someone who is a soft jihadist. Ramadan is someone who has made anti-Semitic statements, has rationalized Islamist violence, and speaks a double talk depending upon who the audience is.
Radical Islamists seek to expand their influence and control in part through violent jihad as seen in the operations of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, but also through population expansion into Europe and the United States through immigration, followed by assimilation into the political process through naturalization and ultimately the conversion of those "new lands" to Islamic nations by exerting ever increasing influence over that political process, finally resulting in those countries abandoning Western law and adopting Islamic Sharia law. For anyone who disbelieves this process is already well underway, they only need to look at the demographics of Western Europe, Canada, and the United States over the past two decades relative to the Muslim populations and related political events in those countries.
The act of "rewarding" Ramadan with a visa would send exactly the wrong message to extremists and moderates alike. For the extremists, it would show that they can continue to fool the West and it would also help to further solidify their legitimacy. At the same time, it would undermine genuine moderates.
(Kepel): What stunned academics in Europe was that Notre Dame University offered a significant academic position to Tariq Ramadan. He is not considered a scholar but rather an Islamist thinker who built a constituency for himself amongst young European Muslims. It is as if a major European University had offered a tenured chair to an American televangelist. Having debated Tariq Ramadan myself many times, and even though we disagree strongly on many issues and he issued a very harsh critical statement against my last book "The War for Muslim Minds", I never saw any leaning towards violence or terrorism in his views.
(Manji): Tariq Ramadan has indeed mastered the art of double-speak, as I have come to see from reading his books and an endless stream of interviews. He cannot bring himself to denounce suicide bombings. He couldn't even condemn the stoning of women, asking instead for a moratorium on that question. And yet, I haven't read any evidence that he is connected to terrorists, and those who support the decision to withhold Ramadan's visa have based their arguments on his positions - not on his connections. But Ramadan is free to have these positions, as much as I or anybody else disagrees with them. What he needs is vigorous counter-argument, and in the United States, there are plenty of Muslim academics who could have provided that - in person.
The only thing achieved by denying Ramadan a visa is that he can now play the victim card even more loudly. That's the real danger, for the cry of the victim is what resonates with angry Muslim youth and their non-Muslim sympathizers. It speaks volumes that Ramadan is now teaching his classes at Notre Dame via videoconferencing. The visa denial didn't make him a loser. If anything, it made him a martyr.
Irshad Manji is a Toronto-based journalist and author of the The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. It has been published throughout North America and Europe. An Urdu-language edition will be released in Pakistan by the end of 2004. An Arabic-language translation can be downloaded, free of charge, from her website (www.muslim-refusenik.com). Currently, Irshad is working with other young Muslims to launch Project Ijtihad, an initiative to revive Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking.
Steven Emerson is Executive Director of The Investigative Project, the largest intelligence and data-gathering center in the world on militant Islamic activities. He is also an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in Islamic terrorism. His 1994 documentary, "Jihad in America," won the George Polk Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Investigative Reporters and Editors' Award for best national investigation into criminal activity. His most recent book, American Jihad: The Terrorists living Among Us, appeared in 2003.
Gilles Kepel is a French political analyst and sociologist. He is one of Europe's leading specialists on Middle-Eastern societies. He is a member of the research facility of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Professor at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris where he heads the post-graduate program on Arab and Muslim worlds. His latest book, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West, appeared in September.