Since Sept. 11, 2001 European Muslims have been seen as a potential base for a radical, anti-Western ideology founded on a crude misinterpretation of Islam that delights in killing innocents under the banner of “Jihad.” The attack in London on July 7 was just one episode in the chain of violence perpetrated by this death cult.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of the 13 million or more Muslims living in Europe are law-abiding citizens who abhor this barbarism in the name of their faith. Yet, there is a considerable minority that sympathizes with terrorism. In a previous poll taken in the UK, supporters of bin Laden among Muslims numbered 13 percent. I was personally shocked, two years ago at a seminar I gave in London, to meet two modern-looking Muslim youngsters who saw bin Laden as the “Mahdi” — the awaited redeemer of Islam.
What is the problem here?
Some in the West think the problem is Islam itself. They are mistaken. The truth is that the radicalization of young European Muslims is the outcome of many social, political and historical factors that have led to the misinterpretation of Islam.
Strangers in a strange land
Unlike Muslims in the United States, who largely belong to the middle class, most European Muslims are economically disadvantaged, poorly integrated and tend to cluster in closed communities. They are predominantly post-World War II immigrants who arrived as manual laborers. They migrated from poor countries and were among the poorest even in their native societies. Turkish workers in Germany, for example, came from the least-developed areas of Turkey and experienced an enormous cultural shock when faced with a highly modernized, secular German society. The resulting deep cultural isolation is even stronger among many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom, North Africans in France and Spain, and Muslims from the Middle East throughout Europe. This cultural and linguistic isolation is further deepened by racial differences.
Many immigrants tend to accept this separation. Older people try to maintain their traditional lifestyles in a foreign land. Many of their children adopt Western ways, but even they live with a peculiar sense of double alienation: neither the lands of their fathers nor the new countries of residence seem a true home to them. They are, as the French political scientist Oliver Roy says, “culturally uprooted.”
Lack of modern interpretation of Islam
Another reason for this sense of homelessness is that these young European Muslims lack an interpretation of Islam that would be compatible with modern life. Many of them find a middle ground between Islamic traditions and Western lifestyles, but since those attempts do not have a doctrinal basis, they create a sense of guilt in people living at cultural crossroads. This guilt leads some of them to embrace the most radical interpretations — or rather, misinterpretations — of Islam peddled by itinerant imams from Saudi-funded madrassas. Most of the 9/11 conspirators in Europe were such born-again “neo-fundamentalists,” to use a term introduced by Roy. Similarly, the terrorists who attacked London on 7/7 turned out to be such “modern youngsters.”
Roy emphasizes the difference between neo-fundamentalism and what is usually called “traditional” Islam. He points out that neo-fundamentalism (or Jihadism) is based on political slogans, not theological arguments, and defies many established Islamic laws. Traditional Islam, for example, is very outspoken on the need to assure the safety of non-combatants in warfare. Acts of terror against civilians are a clear violation of this principle.
Other scholars have also noted the discrepancy between Jihadism and traditional Islam. Daniel Pipes, an expert on the issue, says: “Traditional Islam seeks to teach human beings how to live in accord with God’s will; militant Islam aspires to create a new order.”
The root causes of radicalism
Why the sudden appeal of Islamic neo-fundamentalism to some young Muslims? Three general answers are usually offered. The first one points to the widespread poverty and desolation of Muslims living in Europe and the Islamic world in general. That claim, however, requires some explanation because it has also been noted that most radicals and terrorists do not come from among the ignorant poor but from educated and prosperous classes. Yet the plight of the Islamic masses is an important factor in the ideological makeup of militant Islamism. Just as leftist intellectuals, who often came from bourgeois families, fought capitalism in the name of the “proletariat,” well-off and educated Islamist militants believe they sacrifice themselves for the sake of the impoverished, oppressed umma, the worldwide Muslim community.
It should be noted that the creators of modern Jihadism — people like Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati and Mawdudi — were very much influenced by Marxism-Leninism. Like the communists, who believe in a global conspiracy of capitalist imperialists aided by native compradors, Jihadists think that the Islamic world’s poverty and weakness are the result of a great conspiracy of the West and their local agents. According to this line of reasoning, to redeem the Islamic world one needs to strike at “the oppressors” rather than work to raise education levels, productivity or health standards in Muslim societies.
This quasi-Marxist worldview of the Jihadists might explain why their ideology appeals to die-hard communists like Carlos the Jackal.
A second source of Islamic radicalism is old and recent political mistakes made by the West. The most obvious root causes of anti-Western feelings are the English and French colonial past and the American backing of Middle Eastern dictatorships during the Cold War. The Palestinian tragedy is another major issue that will not be resolved unless there is a workable two-state solution.
The third explanation of the origins of Islamic militancy has to do with the cultural gap between traditionalist Islam and the modern world. The pre-modern lifestyle practiced by many Islamist traditionalists — and often seen by them as the essence of their faith — creates a perception of an inherent clash between Islam and modernity. The traditionalists themselves may be free of pro-terrorist sentiments, but Jihadists use this alleged incompatibility to fashion themselves as the vanguard in the Islamic struggle.
What is to be done?
The above suggests three important tasks for Muslim leaders and intellectuals in the immediate future:
First, de-legitimize the political ideology of militant Islamism by exposing its departures from the true teachings of Islam; refute its underlying conspiracy theories, its quasi-Marxist blueprint, and its misuse of traditional Islamic sources.
Second, help the Western powers formulate better policies to overcome centuries of distrust and antagonism.
Third, construct a new interpretation of Islam that will help Muslims break free from medieval traditions and develop modern attitudes compatible with the Islamic faith and morality.
This is necessary because some traditional Islamic concepts do not correspond to modern realities. Take, for example, the much-disputed concept of the division of the world into the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” formulated by Muslim jurists in the early centuries of Islam. At that time the world was ruled by empires that imposed their own faith on all subjects. A Muslim could not safely practice and proselytize Islam in foreign lands.
Yet times have changed. Today Muslims are free to practice and proselytize their faith throughout the world — especially in liberal Western democracies. They should embrace such open societies and present their faith by their own good example, by living Islam in the modern world and in peace with other creeds.
This is what reason demands. Moreover, it is what the Koran demands: The differences between people, says the Koran, were not created for conflict but for letting them know each other. (49:13)