The steady flow of jihadist terrorist attacks striking European cities highlight the monumental failure of liberal democracies in opposing the great totalitarian menace of our time: Islamism. Yet, the deadly terrorist attacks are only the bloody tip of the iceberg. Documentaries in Sweden, Denmark, Britain and Germany have exposed that mosques across Europe preach fundamentalist interpretations of Islam stressing the religious obligation to separate from non-Muslims, reject democracy and secular values in favor of religious laws including the death penalty for apostasy and infidelity, and sometimes even the obligation to wage jihad. A 2013 survey of Muslims of Moroccan and Turkish origin in six European countries showed that more than 40% had “fundamentalist” views and some 65% found “religious rules more important than secular laws.”
The survey also found that a majority of those surveyed had ill-feelings towards homosexuals and thought that the West was out to “destroy Islam.” A large minority thought “Jews cannot be trusted.” In other words there is a sizable value-gap between a significant minority of European Muslims and the rest of the population that goes to the core of the most fundamental social and political principles of democratic society. While only a tiny minority of those who favor religiously strict laws are likely to become militant, the spread of Islamist ideas severely threatens the social cohesion of liberal democracies, whose social fabric is much more dependent on the acceptance of basic cultural norms and practices than liberals have thought.
Unchecked this development will ultimately vindicate the essentialist narrative of Islam and Muslims being inherently incompatible with democracy shared by both Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots. This will drown the message of liberal Muslims who often fight both their extremist co-religionists, progressive elites uncomfortable with criticism of a minority religion, and anti-Muslim populists eager to paint all Muslims with the same brush. Democracies dominated by a struggle between religious extremism and increasingly authoritarian counter-reaction may well prove lethal to liberal values and “Putinize” Western democracies. Governments across the West are of course fretting about jihadism and foreign fighters, and some issues must be dealt with through laws and public authorities. But Islamism cannot be defeated by laws alone. In fact, some of the policies adopted are likely to be both counterproductive and corrosive to the values that underpin liberal democracy. In a misguided attempt to ensure social peace European states increasingly police both expressions offensive to minorities as well as speech thought to glorify religious extremism and terror. The result is an erosion of one the values most decisive for fostering tolerance properly understood.
George Orwell warned against the idea that one could “Only combat Communism, Fascism or what not if we develop an equal fanaticism. It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.” So what might a “non-fanatic” response to Islamism consist of? It is unlikely that one simple approach will do the trick. But among the remedies needed is a strong civil society movement including both Muslims and non-Muslims aimed at countering the fundamentalist ideology of Islamism at both the intellectual and practical level. Precisely how such a civil society movement should be organized and what it should do is up for debate. But these 7 elements should be included in some form or shape:
1. An unapologetic defense of secularism, tolerance and freedom of conscience.
2017 marks the 500 hundredth anniversary of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517. We often think of the Reformation as foundational for modernity and secularism. But we often forget how incredibly brutal, bloody and intolerant the conflicts sparked by the Reformation really were. The French Wars of Religion, The Thirty-Year War, The Dutch Revolt and the English Civil Wars were just some of the bloody conflicts in which religious intolerance was among the driving or radicalizing factors. In a fit of rage Martin Luther himself wrote the following in diatribe against the Catholic church in 1520: “[W]hy do we not rather assault these monsters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and the whole swarm of the Roman Sodom, who corrupt youth and the Church of God? Why do we not rather assault them with arms and wash our hands in their blood?” These existential conflicts led to a gradual realization that freedom and tolerance were the prerequisites for peaceful coexistence. The Dutch having suffered through the bloody conflict with Spain led the way. In 1644 the English Leveller William Walwyn wrote “It is more than evident by the prosperity of our neighbors in Holland, that the several ways of our brethren in matters of religion hinder not, but that they may live peaceably one amongst an other, and the Spaniard will witness for them that they unite sufficiently in the defense of their common liberty and opposition of their common enemies.” Spinoza would make a similar point some 30 years later when he hailed Amsterdam “where the fruits of this liberty of thought and opinion are seen in its wonderful increase, and testified to by the admiration of every people. In this most flourishing republic and noble city, men of every nation, and creed, and sect live together in the utmost harmony.”
But even after the dust had settled and religious wars had become a thing of the past, religious intolerance continued for long in many places. Britain did not afford Catholics equal rights until the 19th Century and Denmark was a strictly confessional state that did not introduce religious freedom until 1849. The theological differences that once were a matter of life and death, war and peace, are lost on many modern Europeans who take the values of tolerance for granted. But in truth tolerance, secularism and freedom of conscience are modern values that historically constitute an anomaly rather than the norm and their foundation may well be much more fragile than we imagine. What is particularly crucial to stress is that tolerance, secularism, and freedom of conscience are also the very values upon which the freedom and well-being of European Muslims and other minorities rest. Do away with popular support for these principles and precious little stands in the way of eroding the rights of European Muslims, if and when populist parties on the rise gain decisive power.
How many new terrorist attacks will it take before the calls for “internment” and “deportation” of Muslims migrate from social media to political platforms of new populist parties? To avoid such a disastrous scenario, it is crucial to narrow the value-gap between the group of European Muslims that look to strict religious rules as their guide for the good society and the rest of society. Not by a grand compromise meeting somewhere in the middle, but by persuading those who see tolerance, secularism and freedom of conscience as a threat to their innermost beliefs, that these values constitute the necessary precondition for peaceful coexistence. People like Rashad Ali, Shiraz Maher, Maajid Nawaz and Ahmed Akkari are good examples of people being turned away from extremism through the power of argument — many of them without abandoning their faith, and they in turn serve as models for how Islam and liberal democracy can thrive together.
2. Frank and open debate about religion.
The preface of the Catholic Church’s 1948 version of its Index of prohibited books explains that “Today we face a struggle which is lead by the Devil himself; it is founded on something both insincere and destructive; Malicious publications.”
It went on to insist that “No matter how much true literary and scientific values a book can possess, it cannot legitimate the distribution which opposes the religion and good custom. On the contrary, the more subtle and seductive the evil is, the more it necessitates stronger and more efficient suppression of it”.
Fortunately the tide had then decisively turned against such a role for the Church and in 1966 the Index was consigned to history. But the Index had been allowed to suffocate new ideas challenging Catholic dogma for centuries, and similar methods of censorship took place in many protestant states. When in the 17th Century free speech was properly revived, it had mutated from its Athenian origins as a practice — not an individual right – underpinning direct democracy, and become largely a question of individual conscience in religious matters. And while free speech won new ground it was fiercely contested every step of the way. From primarily a question of religion, free speech would develop further and in a self-reinforcing process free speech would gradually be expanded to include discussion of matters both religious and secular. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the freedom to question and break free from religious dogma, whether in the disciplines of science, art, history, or politics. To most Europeans it is shocking and incomprehensible (or until very recently used to be) that humanists and secularists in Pakistan and Bangladesh — and Paris — are being slaughtered by Islamists. But go back 300–400 years and the death penalty for blasphemy would be on the books throughout Christendom.
Despite the historical importance of challenging blasphemy laws, many Westerners find the idea of openly criticizing Islam deeply uncomfortable, and Muslim reformers and Ex-Muslims are often met with both suspicion and intimidation. Criticism of Islam is therefore too often left to odious blogs and social media commentary, where criticism of Islam morphs into hatred of Muslims. But challenging the most sacred dogmas of islam is as necessary as it was to challenge Christianity when the works of Hobbes were burned at Oxford University in 1683, and when Thomas Aikenhead was executed in 1697. Among the difficult conversations to be had must be the ability to challenge the idea of the supposed infallibility of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed. This includes confronting religious believers with both logical inconsistencies inherent in all revealed religion, as well as with the work of historians, archaeologists, philologists, evolutionary psychologists, etc. that may contradict the supposed word of God. Such conversations are likely to sow the seeds of doubt fatal to totalitarian ideas. This may serve as the catalyst for more benign and heterodox interpretations of religious texts written long before the ideas of religious tolerance, human rights, and secularism made their modern breakthrough.
3. Basic historical awareness.
Orwell rightly remarked that “From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned.” But creating rigid and idealized narratives of a specific culture, nation or religion’s infallibility, inherent superiority or Golden Age, where everything was perfect, rarely survives an encounter with history based on proper research and sources. We often tend to think of Ancient Athens as the birthplace of philosophy and democracy. But in the Peloponnesian War Thucydides shows that the Athenians were also brutal imperialists and their democratic model not only ensured freedom and equality for (male) Athenian citizens, it also served as the vehicle for committing genocide against conquered enemies. In 1552 Spanish bishop Bartolome de Las Casas published a work on Spanish colonialism in the New World: A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Las Casas recounted “that the Spaniards by their barbarous and execrable Actions have absolutely depopulated Ten Kingdoms….during the Forty Years space, wherein they exercised their sanguinary and detestable Tyranny in these Regions, above Twelve Millions (computing Men, Women, and Children) have undeservedly perished.” American slavery and inhumane practices during British colonialism are well known. But Islam too, like Christendom and the West, has a long and brutal history that includes imperialism, slavery, genocide and endless wars against internal and external enemies. From the Arab massacre of 40,000 Persians in Istakhr in 650 AD, to the Ottomans’ bloody conquest and plunder of Constantinople in 1453 and the modern day sectarian conflicts and persecution in the Middle East. Properly understood, this history should serve as a vaccine against the Islamist promise that by turning back the clock of history, society will be perfected through strict religious laws. Spreading a basic level of historical awareness makes it harder to create such false and dangerous narratives.
Winning support in parallel societies many of which may be afflicted by unemployment and social marginalization will not be achieved solely through intellectual debate. That will require visibility in both local communities and online. When an Islamist imam is scheduled to preach, you arrange a public debate countering his message, when Hizb-ut-Tahrir demonstrates you arrange a counter demonstration. Social media strategies should be tailored to target those specific users and online communities most vulnerable to Islamist propaganda with messages, memes, videos, comments etc. that challenge, ridicules and expose Islamist narratives in a convincing and compelling matter.
Humor is the enemy of totalitarianism. The perfect ideology, secular or religious, must necessarily be infallible in theory and practice. Humor, on the other hand, exposes our imperfections, hypocrisy and the gap between ideals and reality, which is a basic condition for all human existence and activity. It is this condition that totalitarianism denies and therefore it must wage relentless war on humor and imperfection through lies, propaganda, repression, and violence. Only when a people can laugh openly at its leaders and the basic ideas on which society is built can we be sure that freedom rests on somewhat safe ground. One of the funniest sketches of the 20th century is Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred,” which ridicules the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception. But the sketch not only savages Catholic doctrine. Viewed through today’s prevailing lens of identity politics one could argue that it also uses a number of age-old negative stereotypes to portray Catholics — a historically persecuted religious minority in the UK. They’re simple-minded, poor and dirty and their predicament stems from the religious doctrines they sheepishly celebrate. Yet no one thinks of Monty Python as anti-Catholic bigots, nor did John Cleese et al. have to live with round the clock security as a precaution against Catholic vigilantes, although many were surely offended. Fast forward to 2017 and it is unthinkable that such a sketch could be made today regarding Islam. No prominent comedian, production company or broadcaster would dare invite the inevitable charge of racism and islamophobia, nor the equally inevitable flood of death threats that would follow suit. One would not have to approve of such an updated sketch today, and it could legitimately be argued that it was in poor taste, gratuitously offensive etc. But the fact that such a sketch is unimaginable, is a damning verdict of how the Jihadist’s Veto has taken a hold of modern day Europe.
6. Social engagement.
A civil society movement delivering a controversial and divisive message likely to disrupt local communities in which it operates, must demonstrate its good faith and civic engagement by contributing positively to those communities. Thus, in addition to confronting Islamist ideas, it should also include initiatives such as charity work, legal aid, after school home-work programmes or similar activities aimed at improving the daily lives of those whose hearts and minds it wants to win.
7. A sense of belonging
Having spoken to a number of both ex-Islamists and people who have simply left Islam and become non-believers, it is striking that one of the common experiences is a sense of loneliness, isolation and loss of identity. In his book “Apostates” academic Simon Cottee shows how a number of ex-Muslims developed suicidal thoughts after leaving their faith and as a consequence thereof, their families and friends as well. A civil society movement countering Islamism must therefore offer help and a sense of community to those it successfully manages to persuade away from extremism or who simply leave their faith and become socially isolated as a result.
There are of course several organizations and individual already engaged in some of the activities described above. Quilliam Foundation, various organizations of Ex-Muslims, Deeyah Khan, Irshad Manji and Ali A. Rivzi to name but a few. Yet the critical mass needed to create a truly transformative movement seems to be lacking still. Until it emerges Islamism will not be defeated.