By Maajid Nawaz
Jan. 11, 2015
As France reels following last week’s multiple terror attacks, the most tempting questions to ask have to do with re-establishing control: Should we restrict the press to avoid further provoking those who are prepared to kill? Can we close the security loopholes that allowed these terrorists to arm themselves? What are the terrorists’ demands and how much are we willing to concede? Are the benefits we gain from freedom of expression worth the risks we run upholding them?
These are the wrong questions. By now we ought to know that, however large our intelligence community, however tight our arms restrictions, a determined individual will always find a way to do us harm. Whatever our feelings toward courting religious controversy through caricature—as Charlie Hebdo has done several times in recent history—putting a restraint on media freedom for the sake of security would be implicit to surrender.
The fact is that terror, as a phenomenon, cannot be anticipated or countered without neutralizing the ideas it is built upon. More than a battle of arms or actions, what we have is a battle of ideas, a “clash of civilizations.” The academic rigor of this idea may have been challenged since Samuel Huntington first coined the term, but that matters little to an impressionable public fed with stories of violent political Islam or, on the other side, anti-Western, Muslim-versus-non-Muslim narratives. When these narratives go unchallenged, they render acceptable the acts of violence that occur in either direction. The two cycles feed each other.
We must break the loop by pushing back against the underlying narrative. This will require not just the voice of Muslims but the whole of civil society standing in solidarity with those Muslims brave enough to challenge the extremists in their midst. There must be an open discussion about interpretations of blasphemy codes within Islam. Islam is an idea: Like all other ideas, it is open to scrutiny and satire. This is how we progress.
In Europe there is a great tradition of tolerance for difference and freedom for religion. Far too many citizens, however, become silently complicit when this tolerance and freedom is threatened by jihadist violence. But merely opposing violence is not enough. We must oppose the notion that Islam, or any narrow interpretation of the faith, is above criticism. If we learn to challenge the ideology of those who have hijacked our faith, we will build the resilience that will allow us to prosper in a modern society. Furthermore, to accuse this view of being Islamophobic takes advantage of those in Western society who are desperate not to be considered offensive. It allows extremists to prosper without the checks and balances of critical thinking, returning us to the Dark Ages.
Pushing back also requires a consistent approach across Europe—a fact that has been recognized by the European Union’s counterterrorism chief, Gilles de Kerchove, who has said that a panel of experts will be established in the coming months to advise European governments on countering Islamic State propaganda. Let’s not save our strategizing for Islamic State alone, but develop solutions to tackle the Islamist ideology and narrative in its entirety—a move that would get us ahead of the immediate threat and start setting the agenda.
The civil-society response required to effectively challenge extremism is gaining momentum. The barbaric actions of the jihadist gunmen have prompted French citizens to take to the streets in solidarity with the victims and to defend free speech. This, and other positive responses, must continue beyond the immediate period of mourning. We must choose fight instead of flight, but we must fight smart, with improved integration, with messages of pluralism and the compatibility of Islam and human rights in our education programs, and with the promotion of positive role models.
We must also avoid unhelpful responses to Islamist extremism. Populist far-right organizations gaining traction across Europe are part of the problem. They exacerbate the grievances exploited by those who wish to radicalize, mobilize and mentally colonize European Muslims. We must recall that the first victims of Islamist terror are very often Muslims, and must collectively mourn Ahmed Merabet, the French-Muslim police officer killed at the scene of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
If we are to successfully challenge Islamist extremism, it will be from the center, not from the other extremity of political thought.
This ideological fight will inevitably be a protracted one, at a time when the public, not unreasonably, is anxious for quick solutions to guarantee public safety. But radical Islamists are already fighting a long war of ideas. The real question for everyone else is whether we’re prepared to engage in that fight, too.
Mr. Nawaz, is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, England, and co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank.