By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The responses to the recent Tunisian terror attack in European politics and media were emblematic of the inability of the West to grapple with or acknowledge the truth behind Islamist extremist mass murder. The Daily Mail gave a typical account, “a crazed gunman massacred 38 holidaymakers including up to 30 Britons.” The attempt was to turn the obviously religious motivations of hatred behind the terror attack into the act of a “crazy” person. The media immediately began focusing on the “real victims” which were “the millions of struggling Tunisian families whose household income would be affected due to the negative effect on their tourism industry.” The UK leader David Cameron claimed, as he always does after these horrific hate crimes, that Islam is a religion of peace. ”
He asserted: “People who do these things sometimes say they do it in the name of Islam. They don’t. Islam is a religion of peace…They do it in the name of a twisted and perverted ideology that we have to confront with everything that we have and have to stop the poisoning of young minds in our country and other European countries and around the world.” It is the same mantra that was repeated in September 2012. “There is a fundamental difference between Islam and extremism, Islam is a great religion, observed peacefully.” Again in September 2014 after the beheading of a British citizen in Syria; “They claim to do this in the name of Islam, that is nonsense, Islam is a religion of peace, they are not Muslims.” And in Australia; “we must continue to celebrate Islam as a great world religion of peace.” There is always a tiny bit of pushback to the “religion of peace” narrative, by those like Douglas Murray, but it is rare and increasingly marginal.
The general rule after a terror attack, whether it is in Sydney or Tunisia or anywhere is to deny the motivations of the attacked and turn Muslims into the victims of the attack. I’ve referred to this practice as “victim shifting.” The same thing happened after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the main concern of many in the media was that “Muslims will pay a price now” and that “it will be used by the right wing.”
But in the Muslim world, terrorism is understood usually for what it is, Islamist extremism. Faisal Abbas wrote at Al-Arabiya “How much terrorism can the world take in 24 hours?” He titled his article, “are we living in Islam’s darkest hour?” There were not “crazed gunmen” in his narrative, not explanation that “these are not real Muslims.” Of course the perpetrators are Muslims. Of course they do it for reasons related to violent hatred preached by Islamists. When Al-Jazeera had an online poll some 80% of those answering supported the depredations of ISIS. If ISIS is not Islamic then why do people convert to Islam in Europe to join ISIS?
Of course it is Islamic. The mantra that it isn’t the “real Islam” is like those who claimed Stalinism wasn’t the “real Communism” or that the Inquisition isn’t the “real Christianity.” The vile acts of Stalinism, the Inquisition or Tunisian Islamists may not represent the ideal peaceful majority of these ideologies, but that doesn’t make them “non-Islamic.” That Nazism was evil, doesn’t make it “non-European” just because you don’t like it. Yes, Nazism was born in Germany; yes, it’s perpetrators were Christians. They don’t all become otherworldly just because you don’t want to “hurt German feelings” by saying that Nazis were Germans.
The thing about Europe and Western civilization is that the West tends to be good at being self-critical. The Crusades, colonialism, imperialism, slavery, genocide, racism; all these things are seen as abuses carried out by the West. Even though every civilization committed acts similar to colonialism, religious holy wars, genocide, racism and slavery; the West tends to be very self-critical in appraising its role in these terrors. This may be related in some way to the Christian concepts of “sin” and “confession” or perhaps the deeper Western roots of inquiry and critical thought embodied in Greek philosophy.
Islamic civilization’s meta-narrative does not feed into self-critique. Mahmud of Ghazni, Suleiman the Magnificent, Saladin, Aurangzeb; or any number of Islamic conquerers are portrayed as “great conquerers,” not slavers, genociders, colonizers or racists. Whereas Columbus, Pizarro or Cortes are interrogated and critiqued for their various crimes; there are no books in Pakistan attacking Ghazni for his lessn-than-glorious Jihads against the non-believers of India, for the Hindu temples he destroyed, the slaves he took. The same is true throughout the Arab world and the greater Middle East. The Sultans are not seen as colonizers of Eastern Europe, but great builders of empire who had wonderful harems of women from all over the world. The history of slavery is not seen as a dark stain on the Middle East, as it is in the United States, but rather taught often as a religious achievement in which “Islamic law improved the lives of slaves.” Racism, which exists in the Middle East, where black people are sometimes called ‘abed‘ (slave) or areas where the descendants of slaves live are called ‘sahnat al-abed‘ (the slaves’ neighborhood), is discounted or entirely denied. Jihad is not seen as something negative like the Crusaders’ concepts of Holy War; but something that is practiced in a regulated and necessary manner, often not meaning “holy war” but “internal struggle.” Quite obviously discriminatory laws against non-Muslims that were the norm in the Middle East up until the present are seen as aspects of a “diverse” society in which minorities were “protected.”
Given all of this history, it is obvious why in the present the West finds itself incapable of critiquing Islamist terrorism, the way it so easily critiques white supremacist racism. If Dylaan Roof, the racist American murderer, had waved and ISIS flag, rather than a confederate flag, no one would be banning the ISIS flag, but instead would be coddling Dylaan as a “crazy person”.
The crutch the West holds is its own guilt over the history of Christian and European misdeeds in the world. It is afraid to stereotype the “other.” It fears “Islamophobia” as the new anti-semitism. It knows that in history the West made terrible mistakes and it wants to tread lightly now. With the massive immigration from Africa, for instance, it feels a need to allow immigrants to arrive and provide asylum to them. No matter what the immigrants do, attacking trucks in Calais, taking over public facilities; they are victims to which no outrage can ever be projected.
But what if the “other” was the self? During the years of the Roman depredations against the Christians there was also a feeling that suppressing the Christians was wrong. Eventually the interplay between the pagan ways and the Christians gave way to a totally Christian Europe. Pagan shrines were uprooted, pagans were put to death, and a Christian zealousness that would make ISIS look palatable, was unleashed on the continent. That zealous massacring of infidels went on for more than 1,000 years up through the Reformation. But the end result was a more tame Christianity, the freeing of the slaves, and eventual provision of rights to minorities, women and others. Modern Europe is a result of that. In short, Europe swallowed up and digested a zealous religion and eventually digested it into a more moderate model.
Those who have embraced this Western narrative of “reformation” for Islam, on a European model, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali made a fundamental mistake. They didn’t realize embracing the West at precisely the point where the West is the most self-critical, would lead them to be labelled right wing and anti-Islamic, at a time when the West views Islam as one of the positive ideologies in the world. Hirsi Ali, despite being born Muslim, is viewed as an Islamophobe par excellence. There is absolutely no possibility that the West can demand reform among Islamists or that it can even confront them as Islamists. It can only confront them as “crazed gunmen”. It would be like the Romans confronting every Christian zealot intent on chopping the faces off Greek statues as a “crazed chopper.” Of course they were not crazed, they had a very clear ideology, based on their view of Christianity, that underpinned the need to deracinate the “pagan” artwork. It is no different than the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas or ISIS hatred for the pre-Islamic history of Iraq. But whereas any Christian burning up “pagan” statues today would be clearly confronted as a Christian extremist, if she just holds an ISIS flag, then she is “crazy.”
There is a concept of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” The Roman emperors and pagan princes of old understood that their only chance with the rise of the Christians was to embrace Christianity, often in an ad-hoc manner, and use it to their own ends. Many of those Christian warrior chiefs of that time took Christianity on, not as the nice “turn the other cheek” and “social justice” mumbo-jumbo of liberal churches today, but rather as a suit to cloth themselves in the coming battles. Whatever things Jesus might have preached at the temple, these illiterate princes didn’t care; they took a Christian wife, probably alongside some other pagan wives, and looked more to their sword than they did the cross. The cross became that easy thing to bring into battle as a rallying standard and their tribal enemies became “infidels” to be hacked down. Clovis, the first king of the Franks, was born a pagan, but converted to Christianity in 496 at the age of thirty after, no surprise here, a victory in battle. His wife was already a Christian. He believed that Jesus had helped him defeat a rival Germanic tribe, the Alamanni.”
Could a more Islamic Europe have a similar affect in defeating radical Islamism? The fact is that if European leaders were Muslim, they could be more honestly confront the crimes of those like the Tunisian killer. They wouldn’t have to worry about “stigmatizing Islam,” because they themselves would be Muslim. Churchill didn’t worry that he might hurt the feelings of Christians in Germany by opposing Hitler. Neither did Queen Elizabeth in fighting the Spanish Armada feel she had to stress that Christianity was a “religion of peace.” Of course it wasn’t peaceful, if she had preached peace where would her admirals, all pirates and scoundrels, have drawn their inspiration to hack down the Spanish? There was no peace. No quarter given. And no quarter can be given in fighting the Inquisition or Nazis. So why is quarter given in fighting ISIS? Because of a timidity. Their timidity and fear of hurting the feelings of the “the other.”
But if the “other” is the self then the timidity vanishes. Many people fear a more islamic Europe. But Christian Europe no longer exists. Christian heritage and history exist. But so does pre-Christian Roman heritage exist in Europe. Europe has been good at absorbing various civilizations and making them into something else. The Romans were savages as well at their birth, but they bloomed into a great civilization. There was little to be admired in the early Christians of the dark ages in Europe. But what it became in the Enlightenment was something to behold. There is little to admire in the current state of Islamic civilization, as Faisal Abbas notes, it is a dark period. But perhaps a European Islam can give it a boost. Cameron speaks often of the “great civilization” of Islam. Why don’t more people take the next step. If it is great, convert to it? Not to the ISIS part of it, but to the part that will end ISIS.
There is little chance of Europe becoming Christian again. No one is going to church anymore. The parishes are empty. Europe holds onto a broken notion of Western civilization. It is not particularly proud of the achievements of that civilization and it doesn’t feel comfortable zealously upholding the values of the enlightenment. It fears to call Islamist terrorism what it is and to admit the truth about its origins. But an Islamic confrontation with Islamism would defeat Islamism. Because radicalism is not defeated simply by dismissing it, or platitudes about “we must not let the terrorists win.” Of course they win when you coddle them. Hitler didn’t have shame everytime someone said “we must not let the Nazis win, we shall continue about our daily lives as if the Nazis do not exist.” Of course the way to defeat Nazism was to destroy it completely. Pull it up by the roots. The West is incapable of waging a battle like that against Islamism, because it has no tools to wage that war. It is not in the same dimension as its enemies. But Western Islam would certainly learn to fashion those tools, much like Clovis fashioned the cross into a sword. The West is defending an empty shell; it has nothing to underpin its defenses; no guiding ideology or passion. It is no surprise so many in the West embrace ISIS and journey to join the Jihad. They aren’t going to wake up one day and want to embrace Voltaire. The right wing parties in the EU are so ridiculous that they are not providing passion to the youth, but merely an outlet for the rage of the elderly and disgruntled poor. No one has some deep passion for them; they vote for them out of desperation and frustration; and it is why they come and go, their fortunes like that of the Northern League, exhausted after a few elections.
Given that state of affairs, the conclusion is in front of Europeans. The road ahead might seem confusing, dark and troubled. But can a European Islam be worse than what is on offer now, namely middling, coddling, and directionless policies on a continent afraid of its own shadow? If it seems ridiculous, consider the alternative?