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Friday, April 10, 2020

Muslims in the West and the polarising impact of terrorism

by Mashaal Gauhar

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The surreal proximity between the recent Daesh-inspired shootings in the US and the terrorist attacks in Paris has raised sinister implications for the West’s significant Muslim community. Fanning the flames of racial and religious tension in an already febrile atmosphere, front-running Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US has provoked widespread consternation. Mashaal Gauhar reports.

Deflecting popular anxieties onto convenient scapegoats, Donald Trump’s statements demonstrate a complete disregard of the fact that endemic gun violence in the US is overwhelmingly perpetrated by non-Muslims. Trump’s stance has drawn trenchant criticism for his wholesale demonisation of a largely peaceful and productive community while conveniently precluding debate on the fundamental issue: the country’s controversial gun ownership laws enshrined in the US Constitution.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, cautions against a sweeping condemnation of the Muslim community based on the actions of a few who claim to represent religion, “Yes, Islamist extremism is a genuine threat to world peace. But those who lump all Muslims together, and dismiss as meaningless the courageous stand of the moderate majority against extremism, aren’t helping to win that battle. Rather, they’re strengthening extremism by perpetuating a false narrative of perpetual conflict between Islam and the West. That is something which we must fight with all our might.”

This danger of alienating Muslim communities has been emphasised by Shamsi Ali, chairman of the Al-Hikmah mosque in the US who cautions against the omission of Muslim voices from the mainstream narrative. This exclusion only further compounds the sense of isolation and misrepresentation, exacerbating divisions and thwarting social cohesion. “… Muslims often find themselves in the untenable position of being targets of deep suspicion from law enforcement and society simply because of their faith. Unable to mourn and heal with their fellow citizens, many find themselves excluded from the national dialogue, and are then later criticised for not condemning the attacks forcefully enough, or staying silent in the wake of the violence,” he explains.

In his 6th December address to the nation, President Barrack Obama called for introspection among the Muslim community to stamp out radicalism but also stressed the need for tolerance, compassion and humanity, “Just as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalisation, it is the responsibility of all Americans - of every faith - to reject discrimination.… Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL.”

Describing parts of London as “so radicalised the police are afraid for their lives,” Trump has dangerously extended his invective against Muslims in Europe. A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister David Cameron said he completely disagrees with Trump’s remarks while London Mayor Boris Johnson dismissed the comments as “ill-informed” and “complete and utter nonsense.”

However, Trump’s disturbing rhetoric finds an ominous symmetry in France where in the wake of the deadly Paris massacre, the far-right National Front gained unprecedented ascendancy in the polls. This may have significant implications for the country’s immigrant population as the party has gained notoriety for searing community divisions with its authoritarian stance and xenophobic rhetoric.

Europe convulsed with agony and horror in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks which claimed 130 lives on November 13th. The repercussions have been profound. The fact that the suspected mastermind of the attacks, 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is a Belgian national of Moroccan origin raises further challenges for Europe’s sizeable Muslim community.

Muslims from across the world expressed their revulsion at Daesh brutality, inundating social media with messages of condolences and outrage at Daesh savagery. Religious representatives also unequivocally denounced the violence in Paris. Emphasising solidarity with France and a way forward for the Muslim community, Dalil Boubakeur, Chairman of the Grand Mosque of Paris stated the importance for French Muslims to “express their French nationality, their French taste, their French values, their French [rejection] of what is the danger for them, France, and for our religion also.”

Speaking to Al Shindagah, internationally renowned scholar and Sheikh Zayed lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University Abdal Hakim Murad highlights the precarious position of European Muslims in a climate where Islam is much misunderstood, “The Paris attacks have strengthened the enemies of Europe’s Muslims, and provided rhetorical ammunition for those who attack the monotheistic principle in general. The event was a step forward for secularity and scepticism in a country where religion is already significantly weakened.”

These attacks signaled a sinister rise in violence against Muslim in Western Europe. For example, figures released by London’s Metropolitan Police reported an almost 47 per cent rise in hate crimes against Muslims following the attacks in Paris. This rise in hostility against the Muslim community is indicative of a European wide trend.

Though the vast majority of Muslims denounce terrorism, the challenging question remains: why are some young European Muslims gravitating towards intransigent radical groups like Daesh? Several academics have cited economic marginalisation, a sense of isolation and social exclusion as factors which create easy prey for manipulation by terrorist groups.

Efforts are underway by Muslim communities to promote integration and economic empowerment. As Abdal Hakim Murad points out, “For Muslims themselves the events seem to have triggered a stronger determination to integrate with wider society, as the best guarantee against ghettoisation and the stigmatisation that results. The Salafi communities are feeling defensive and are under significant pressure, while more mainstream Sunni groups are starting to take the initiative in a more active way.”

At a time of heightened tension, European governments have strengthened security and surveillance measures. Governments are also implementing deradicalisation programmes to prevent the recruitment of vulnerable young people towards terrorism. In October, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced new measures including moves to block radical material from being posted online and to bar anyone who expresses conviction to commit terrorist crimes or extremist activities from working with children. “We know that extremism is really a symptom; ideology is the root cause. But the stakes are rising, and that demands a new approach,” he asserted.

Several other European countries have launched deradicalisation programmes with varying levels of success. However, staunchly secular France was initially slow to address the spread of terrorist ideology as the state generally forbids any incursion into citizens’ religious affairs. France has now launched its own deradicalisaton scheme, Imloul, based on rehabilitation and reintegration. The French government has also established a phone line for parents concerned about their children being vulnerable to radicalisation and has enacted stringent measures to prevent minors from leaving the country to join terrorist groups.

Germany’s Exit programme, based on its strategy to help rehabilitate neo-Nazis back into society, has attracted praise for its effectiveness. Similarly, Denmark’s Aarhus programme which employs a combination of psychological help, counselling and mentoring, has won recognition for providing citizens with opportunities to reintegrate rather than face punishment.

The corrosive impact of terrorism on Muslims in the West can only be addressed through a combined focus by communities to prevent impressionable young minds from being subject to terrorist indoctrination, as well as government-led policies to promote education, social and economic mobility, integration and inclusiveness.

However, the politics of hate and fear as witnessed in recent days will only exacerbate divisions across communities, chillingly reminiscent of the darkest chapters in history: apartheid, fascism, McCarthyism. In these fraught times, leadership and civil society must find articulate voices to craft a narrative based on peace, interfaith harmony and a celebration of diversity in an increasingly globalised world.

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