By Ishtiaq Ahmed
January 22, 2015
For extremist Muslim outfits, subverting the West’s secularism, pluralism and multiculturalism is top priority. It is important that Europe does not let the notion of multiculturalism serve as a means for Muslims or any other community to obtain exemptions that conflict with its overall inclusive and equal citizenship
The French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo is known for its irreverent approach to religion. In the past it has published cartoons of the Prophet. A cartoon controversy has raged for quite some time in Western Europe, which has resulted in similar violent assaults by incensed Muslims determined to mete out extreme punishment on the offenders.
In a speech to the nation, the French President, François Hollande, described the events as “a tragedy for the nation, an obligation for us to confront terrorists.” He added, “We are a free nation that does not give in.” He further asserted, “We carry an ideal that is greater than us.” However, he emphasised that such pathological behaviour was by no means to be associated with most French Muslims who were loyal, law-abiding citizens. Leaders of other western countries have rallied around France. The U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, described French democracy as the paragon, which inspired others to follow it. Others paid similar tributes and pledged support to France in the fight against terrorism. French Muslim clerics and lay leaders have been quick to denounce the Charlie Hebdo attackers as renegades to Islam and expressed sympathy for the victims of the terrorist outrage.
Of the 66-million strong population in France, five million are Muslims, mainly Algerians but also from other former French colonies in the Maghreb. Less than two million say they are interested in religion. Consequently, France has the biggest Muslim population, a majority of whom are secularised and virtually integrated in French society. Such a situation is typically unacceptable to the extremists who thrive on polarising Muslims and non-Muslims. They deliberately seek opportunities to corroborate “The Clash of Civilizations”, the thesis of the American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington. Huntington had famously argued that ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilisations were incompatible. As compared to the liberal, rule-oriented and law-abiding West, the Islamic civilisation was an aggressive and expansionist global force with a pronounced zeal and proclivity towards violence and warfare, he asserted. He warned against Muslim immigration to the West, and declared multiculturalism to be a failed and doomed ideal.
Such thinking has been brewing since a long time among anti-immigration parties and movements in Western Europe. For example, a Conservative member of the British Parliament and Minister of Health (1960-63), Enoch Powell delivered in Birmingham on April 20, 1968, the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech against immigration. In it he warned that the British people were worried about being swamped by non-whites who would multiply by leaps and bounds and become a source of disturbance and instability. Such developments would culminate in rivers of blood as a result of race wars. The British National Front, the French National Front, and the German Neo-Nazis were the earliest parties that took a stand against non-white immigrants. Holland, Belgium, Germany and Scandinavian groups too began to air similar views. Over time, the emphasis changed from racial terminology to explicitly religious jargon about the Islamic threat to Europe.
Personal Law and Justice Systems
The activities and demands of some individuals and organisations among Muslims inadvertently confirmed that a grand Trojan horse conspiracy was under way to take full advantage of liberal immigration laws and enter Western Europe in large numbers and then set in motion the Islamicisation of Western Europe. For example in 1975, Sheikh Syed Darsh, the head cleric of London’s main Regent’s Park Mosque demanded that Islamic law, the Sharia, should be allowed to regulate Muslim personal affairs. He asserted that both British law and Sharia aimed at establishing justice, but Islamic justice derived from Quranic injunctions and its application to personal matters of Muslims would only complement British justice, not subvert it. This was of course not true because Sharia laws pertaining to family matters differ radically from western family law systems. Sharia law pertaining to marriage, divorce and inheritance confers greater rights on males whereas in the secularised western family law system, differential rights have more or less been eliminated. Demands for application of Sharia law to personal matters have been raised in other countries as well.
A Pakistani journalist, Kalim Siddiqui, greatly emboldened by the Iranian revolution, floated the notion of a Muslim parliament of Great Britain. In 1990, a “Muslim Manifesto: a Strategy For Survival,” was launched by Siddiqui. It advocated practically the establishment of an alternative legal system. The Muslim parliament never took off as a representative body of British Muslims, as very few Muslims evinced interest in it. However, such developments were indicative of cultural tensions and serious disagreement on values that were coming to the surface. In the background of the Arab-Israeli wars and the constant humiliation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, anti-Westernism attracted sections of Muslim society all over the world. Moreover, from the early 1980s, the Iranian-Saudi competition to influence Muslims and their funding of some organisations widened the radical Islam constituency internationally and in Western Europe.
Mounting tensions were greatly exacerbated when in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against writer Salman Rushdie for his The Satanic Verses (1988), alleging that it grievously insulted Islam. Suddenly, the Muslim presence in a secularised, Christian society, where freedom of expression and opinion was firmly entrenched, drew attention not only of the authorities who were keen to maintain law and order but also the general public. The public debate polarised around those on the left who thought Rushdie had played into the hands of the West by writing a book scurrilous of the Prophet of Islam while mainstream politicians and media denounced the fatwa and the death sentence as being illegitimate.
A Trigger for Terror
However, in the aftermath of 9/11, and the U.S.-NATO reprisals against Afghanistan, which resulted in thousands of troops being stationed in that country, followed by President George W. Bush ordering the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, terrorism as the means to express Muslim antipathy and fury against the West gained worldwide adherents. Consequently, terrorist attacks happened in Western Europe in 2004.
While the reaction to 9/11 was no doubt the trigger that set in motion concerns for security in Europe, such fears were compounded by related issues that generated tension. For a long time the French National Front had been calling for the repatriation of Muslims to their home countries. On the other hand, among Muslim immigrants, despite a secularised majority, the trend to adhere more strictly to Islamic attire and other symbols had been gaining ground. Girls had begun to use headscarves in schools, which were deemed as a violation of the rules that required religion being kept out of educational institutions. A public debate took place which generated consensus against the Hijab. On March 15, 2004, President Jacques Chirac signed into law the Bill passed by the French national legislature which came into effect on September 2, 2004. However, some women began donning an extreme form of dress, the Burqa or Niqab, to mark their social isolation when in public. It was considered as an extremist provocation. It meant covering the whole face and all other parts of the body. The Burqa was also banned in April 2011. The Dutch and Belgian Parliaments have also passed Bills banning the Niqab in public; the completion of the legal procedure is expected to be completed soon. Elsewhere governments have either openly rejected such legislation or adopted a policy of non-action.
It is quite clear that relations between Muslim immigrants and host societies in the West are ridden with tensions. Concerns for identity and collective identification are deeply ingrained in people. Immigrants invariably carry many ties and loyalties in their cultural and emotional baggage. There is no doubt that contemporary Muslims and Westerners have been socialised and groomed in very different ideals and values. Such socialisation is not absolute; change and transformation are possible, but such processes are very slow and never quite complete. No doubt terrorist activities among Muslims are up until now confined only to some individuals and a few organisations, but extremist Muslims including the al-Qaeda pursue a determined policy to polarise Muslims and non-Muslims across the world. Therefore, subverting secularism, pluralism and multiculturalism in the West enjoys top priority in their strategy to gain power and influence. It is important that the European state should not let the notion of multiculturalism serve as a means for Muslims or any other community to obtain legal exemptions and exemptions that conflict with the overall inclusive and equal citizenship that applies to most of Europe. Equally, it is important that vigilance and surveillance of extremist Muslims is maintained and improved upon but without jeopardising the rights of Muslims in general to equal treatment under the law. Immigrant communities need to be properly informed about not only their rights but also obligations. Without such a dialogue and understanding, the future of multiculturalism and pluralism is bleak in Western Europe.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is visiting professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Professor Emeritus, Stockholm University, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.