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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Countering the rising tide of extremism in Europe

by Mashaal Gauhar

In a climate where questions over Islam, immigration and asylum loom large on the agenda, the horrific Paris terrorist attacks have thrown Europe’s significant Muslim population into sharp focus. Mashaal Gauhar reports.

The Paris unity march in the wake of these attacks represented a defining moment in setting a precedent to tackle extremism. Heads of state from across the world took part in the march for peace including UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, asserting the Islamic world’s solidarity with France.

While the official slogan for solidarity was ‘Je Suis Charlie’ as a tribute to the 12 victims killed at the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France ensured that this reprehensible assault on humanity was in no way linked to its Muslim community. In fact, the heroic sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet, who was killed alongside the Charlie Hebdo magazine staffers, was widely acknowledged and honoured. Placards emblazoned with ‘Je Suis Ahmed’ were held aloft by several of the 1.6 million people marching for peace.

Similarly, the granting of French citizenship to Lassana Bathily who saved hostages during the deadly assault on a kosher supermarket represents France’s recognition of the fact that terrorism can in no way be conflated to representing Islam.

In spite of this, diaspora Muslims are viewed with increasing suspicion, often resulting in a wholesale condemnation of an overwhelmingly peaceful and productive community. More recently, the surge in Islamophobia in Europe was witnessed in Dresden with the growing popularity of anti-Islamic right-wing groups like Pegida, signaling the onset of a darkly polarised society.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the attack as “despicable” and participated in a Muslim community rally in Berlin to promote tolerance, sending a strong message in defiance of Germany’s growing anti-Islamic movement. “Hatred, racism and extremism have no place in this country,” she stated. “We are a country based on democracy, tolerance and openness to the world.”

In the UK David Cameron has vowed to work closely with the Muslim community to tackle extremism. He has also pledged to implement new anti-terror legislation allowing intelligence agencies to break into the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists to help prevent any Paris-style attacks.

The spirit of unity engendered by France must not dissipate: the Islamic world must capitalize on this momentum to craft an articulate and sustained response to these deplorable acts of violence. The Grand Mosque of Paris issued a statement of unequivocal condemnation as did Islamic leaders, academics and institutions from around the world including Al Azhar University and the Arab League. However, thwarted attacks by French security forces continue to be reported with alarming frequency, raising tensions in an already febrile environment.

With previous attacks in Madrid and London, such disturbing trends underscore the need for the Islamic world to join together to launch an unflinching campaign promoting a global message of peace, tolerance and interfaith harmony. Islamic leaders and policy makers can no longer work in silos but must come together to develop a comprehensive strategy for interfaith dialogue, leveraging an array of platforms including international conferences, workshops and social media. Fears and misconceptions surrounding Islam must be addressed. In particular, the focus of digital and print media must be shifted away from the hate-filled invective of an extremist, unrepresentative minority towards the mainstream majority who form part of Europe’s rich cultural diversity.

Islamic scholars must assist European policy makers in distinguishing between authentic Islamic values and terrorist propaganda. Moreover, the innumerable victims of terrorism in the Islamic world must no longer be reduced to easily forgotten statistics as they continue to remain the primary target for extremist violence.

Highlighting the universalism inherent within Islam, Muslims in Europe can play a vital role in stanching the tide of accelerating anti-Islamic sentiment including identifying and addressing causes of radicalization.

As the Qur'an states, “O mankind, we have created you of male and female, and have made you peoples and tribes, that you might come to know one another,” (Surat Al Hujurat:13) Muslim leaders can pave the way in forging the harmonious integration of Europe’s diverse diaspora communities, creating a Europe predicated upon dynamism, energy, innovation and diversity.

The theme of interfaith harmony resonated at the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos. Speaking at the Forum, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee underlined how recent terrorist violence had no religious basis whatsoever, “Religion is essentially a vehicle for the upliftment of humanity,” he stated. This was echoed by US Vice President John Kerry, “There is no room for sectarian division. There is no room for anti- Semitism or Islamophobia.”

Orwell prize-winning journalist and policy analyst Anatol Lieven highlights the difficulty of economic integration particularly in today’s recessionary environment, “Better integration of Muslim communities requires on the one hand the creation of much better employment opportunities. This is however exceptionally difficult, given both the stagnation of the European economies and the surrender of economic power by states to the EU and international markets.”

However, in spite of formidable economic challenges, Europe’s young Muslim communities can play a key role in developing an expansive vision for the future. Director of Studies in Theology at Cambridge University, Timothy Winter explains how Europe’s current state of flux presents an invaluable opportunity: “With the unstoppable erosion of regional difference, and its replacement with new alignments based on political persuasion or an ever-proliferating rainbow of lifestyle choices, coupled with the freedom of movement guaranteed under the Amsterdam Treaty, Islam can easily define itself as another trans-national strand in the tapestry of the changing and broadening European reality.”

Extremism can no longer be allowed to dominate the narrative of contemporary Islam. As the future of Europe hangs precariously in the balance and the European Union continues in its struggle to evolve as a fragile new entity, Muslim leaders must seize the opportunity in helping to redefine a new European future.

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