STRASBOURG (EMU) – The European Union’s foreign ministers recently summed up their aversion to terrorism: “We are deeply shocked by the horrendous terrorist attacks that have shaken Paris, Dresden, Conflans-Saint-Honorine, Nice, Vienna and elsewhere in the past few weeks and we condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms.”
Indeed, extremism is now abhorred by a broad consensus among European citizens – irrespective of denomination. Muslim organisations are deeply involved in schemes throughout Europe designed to protect Muslims – especially young ones – from the threat of radicalisation. The fight against terrorism offers an opportunity to unite the forces of civil society.
Many articles in the media are critical of Islam and present European Muslims as a problem. Meanwhile, there are few voices talking about how we might reach young Muslims effectively. The problem is, most writers in the feature sections of the press pander to their own readerships while failing to speak to the youth, who should by rights be the focus. It is self-evident that Muslim organisations, and especially their media, should be more closely involved in programmes designed to counter radicalisation.
This is no easy matter, even for Muslims active in civil society. Radical Muslims turned away from these organisations long ago and criticise them for what they see as opportunism and closeness to the state. They also negate the centuries-old practice of adapting Islamic teachings to changed social situations. The large organisations follow the established schools of law in Islam, which allow no leeway for the radicalised application of Islamic sources.
All these recognised schools consistently reject suicide bombing and any other form of terrorism. The teaching of Islam is also subject to rigorous standards. In fact, it is in the state’s interest for established communities to continue their teaching activities, whereas the disintegration of European Muslim communities into innumerable small groups and sects would be a dire outcome, and not just for the Muslims themselves.
A lot of Muslims now glean their misguided beliefs exclusively from the Internet. Recent years have seen the Web become the world’s biggest issuer of fatwas. Unfortunately it is the place where self-proclaimed teachers can successfully spread their radical and personal theses and interpretations.
Muslim organisations set themselves apart from this kind of Internet-based fast-tracking with years of in-depth training. Not only do they teach academics in their mosques, they also educate normal Muslims about the basics of Islam.
Patrycja Sasnal of the ECFR Council provides another argument against a purely state-dominated influence over Muslims. In her view, the dilemma is especially evident in many Muslim countries. She cites the experience of Egypt since the 1950s. “Imams were rigorously trained and licensed, and Friday sermons were dictated. The result has been an almost constant struggle between the state and extremists – leading to a vicious circle of greater authoritarianism provoking increasingly extremist reactions.”
Sasnal therefore prefers schemes that involve Muslim scholars and activists whose credibility is accepted – especially by young Muslims. As things stand, the middle way, which Muslims actually follow, could be lost in the dispute between extreme positions. Many radicals argue that without them, the outcome will be a secularised or state-run Islam. But the fact is, correct Islamic religious practice and teaching do not contradict European values.
Many European countries are spending a lot of money on fighting terrorism, but on closer inspection, the people who ought really to receive it are not. Young Muslims do of course get involved in these schemes, but clearly not the ones at risk of becoming radicalised. Some young Muslims also feel reluctant to talk explicitly and openly about their revulsion for terrorism, which in their eyes is self-evident.
The problem remains: radical Muslims often coalesce in echo chambers away from the Muslim mainstream. Honesty and realism demands that we acknowledge the difficulty of reaching these groupings. But radicals must not be left to themselves. In dealing with radical positions, it is crucial to convey proper religious knowledge to the largest possible number of young Muslims. Muslim organisations oppose the religiously motivated revaluation of all values which the known radical groups propound.
There are many interesting examples of this opposition. At a European level, for example, there is the EU-funded project ‘OPEN’ with the hashtag #openstaywithus, in which Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs with practical experience in European cities work together. The project also deals with the social situation of Muslims in Europe. Radical articles and posts were viewed and analysed in the social media over a period of months. In a campaign, counter-narratives and arguments are presented by young Muslims. The project relies on the voices of young Muslims in social networks and shows their constructive input, but does not deny the influence of Muslim ideologists and criminals.
The Central Council of Muslims in Germany is even involved in a global programme run by the Sawab Centre. This digital communication centre operating jointly in the United Arab Emirates and the USA fights extremist ideologies online and works to promote positive alternatives. Using the hashtag #DaeshLies, the campaign runs in Arabic, English and French on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Its videos decode extremist religious solutions and feature sobering reports of Muslims who have experienced them.
The aim of such projects is clear. A small minority of extremists must not be allowed to shape the public image of European Muslims. A widespread rejection of extremism is the norm in the practice of Islamic religious communities.