Last Monday, European Council President Charles Michel advocated for the swift creation of an EU body responsible for training imams: local Islamic leaders responsible for guiding prayer in local mosques and instructing Muslims on how to live a religious life. Given the recent rise in European terrorist attacks linked to extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, Michel’s statement reflects growing concern within Europe centered on the Islamic community. In light of the Vienna jihadist terror attack which killed four and injured twenty-three, Michel called for a unified European response to this violence, telling Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that he wanted to ensure Islamic leaders were not encouraging “an ideology of hatred.” Kurz responded with his own call for collective European action against what he called “political Islam.” In a similar fashion, French President Emmanuel Macron has been vilified in recent weeks for his decrying of “Islamist separatism” and apparent Islamophobic legislation following two October terrorist attacks in France. As tensions rise, the heads of the European Union are discussing how Europe should respond to increased terrorism and, likely, Islam as a whole.
Europe’s current charge against Islam has been met with significant backlash by the international community. France, specifically, has been leading the way in rapid reforms and rules, opening it up to widespread criticism. In response to Macron’s announced crack-down on Islamic fundamentalists, many Muslim countries have condemned his prejudice and sought political revenge. Turkey’s leaders called for a complete ban on French goods, Qatar and Kuwait stopped selling any French products, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly accused Macron of instigating Muslim reproach and explicitly discriminating against the French Islamic population. Further, in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg requesting censorship of Islamic hate speech, Khan included the concern that continued attacks on the Islamic community which attempt to curb radicalization may actually create more of it saying, “marginalization inevitably leads to extremism.”
Although this year’s attacks have sparked a global battle, neither the actions nor the accusations are new. Islamophobia and its justification as a response to terrorism has been rampant throughout Europe for years. Within the last decade, Islamophobia and anti-Islamic legislation have grown along with simultaneous rises in terrorist attacks linked to Muslim extremist groups. In 2015, two Muslim brothers murdered 12 employees of the satirical French Magazine Charlie Hebdo for their offensive portrayal of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. That same week, a French police officer was killed, and four others died during a hostage crisis at a local supermarket in Paris. Later that year, another group of attacks took place around France, claiming the lives of over 130 victims. The violence was not exclusive to France. The next year in 2016, two coordinated suicide bombings in Brussels killed over 34 people and wounded almost 200. Four months later, a young Tunisian radical drove a car through the streets of Nice, France on its Independence Day, murdering 84 civilians, according to Time. Although these attacks were some of the most fatal, the middle of the decade was full of killings throughout Europe, almost all of them linked to ISIS or other Islamic extremist groups.
Amidst growing safety concerns, many European leaders have expanded government and police authority under the promise of greater civilian protection. Although the EU has tightened border patrol and firearm regulations, they continually assert that states hold the primary responsibility to protect themselves against terrorism, opening the door for local governments to take whatever action they deem necessary, no matter how extreme. Following the 2016 attacks, Macron declared a state of emergency, allowing police to enact unwarranted raids or profiled stops in the name of safety. Furthering this power, in 2017 France created the Strengthening Homeland Security and the Fight Against Terrorism law which essentially made these emergency provisions permanent. While many citizens appear willing to accept such regulations after national tragedies—such as the enactment of the Patriot Act in the United States following 9/11—has this simply become a mechanism for thinly-veiled xenophobia?
Various countries passed laws which appear to target Muslims specifically, even before the 2015-2016 attacks. In 2004, France led the way on these regulations, banning headscarves and then becoming the first European country to extend this ban to niqābs and other veils covering the entire face. A 2012 report by Al Jazeera listed continued limitations with the Netherlands banning burqas, and Germany forbidding public schools from allowing Islamic prayer. This fear of Islam extended to the United States where certain states attempted to legalize punishment for any individual found adhering to Sharia law.
These sentiments are not only present within governmental and legal structures, but in social life as well. Just two months ago, a member of France’s Republican party walked out of a National Assembly in protest of a visiting student wearing a hijab. Middle East Eye reports that the member later tweeted: “I cannot accept that someone comes to participate in our work at the National Assembly wearing a hijab, which remains for me, a symbol of submission.” This recent comment perfectly highlights both the ongoing presence of Islamophobia within Western Europe and the blatant misunderstandings of its principles which allows discrimination to continue.
While small now, the Muslim population within Europe is growing rapidly. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Muslims living in Europe could double to over 11.2% by 2050. Increasing violence in the Middle East is causing refugee movement into Europe as well as opportunity-based immigration which continually attracts foreigners to Western nations. One thing that may explain France’s response to recent terrorism—and also underlines why it is so disturbing—is the fact that France has the largest Muslim population of any European Union country at about 8%. Despite the significant portion of its citizens who proclaim Islamic faith, France has continually failed to treat these Muslim individuals with the same respect and rights as other French citizens, a trend followed by the rest of the world. A significant amount of this Muslim population are descendants of France’s former colony of Algeria. Although Algeria officially gained its independence in 1962, the colonial mindset and legacy is ever-present in calls for this new governing body.
The wording of the EU body request which seeks “training” for imams already carries a paternalistic tone. France, a Catholic country largely responsible for these new reforms, does not have full knowledge of the Islamic religion, which is evident in its response to the recent attacks. The new petition fails to address many important questions: Who would be doing the training? What exactly would the training consist of? And, perhaps more importantly, would it be true to Islamic values or reflect a watered-down Westernized version of these ideals?
The irony of these anti-terror solutions, especially those in France, is astounding. After the French schoolteacher was murdered in early October for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students, Macron defended him and each French citizen’s right to freedom of speech. However, at the same time one freedom is defended, Macron and other European leaders are slowly eroding the freedom of a significant portion of their populations to express their religious views. The Intercept reports that Macron’s 2019 plan to form a “French Islam” would include an iteration of the religion guided and supervised by the state government. Although so many Europeans fear the concept of Sharia law, which is seen as a threat to the separation of church and state, this new law would explicitly link the two together. Additionally, such a law furthers the paternalism of essentially silencing Islam and making it conform to Western ideals with which people are more comfortable.
The rising terrorist violence throughout the last decade is a global concern, and it is natural that governments commit to combatting it. However, many of these new laws and methods are actually serving to increase the potential for terrorism or radicalization. Although there is a fairly large number of Muslims throughout Europe, they still constitute a minority in all European countries aside from Albania and Kosovo, according to Pew Research Center, neither of which are part of the European Union. As anti-Islamic legislation and sentiment continues to increase, Muslims are left feeling even further disenfranchised in a culture with which they do not identify and which will not claim them as its own. Some Muslims who feel that they will never find a place in an unaccepting Western society instead turn to Islamic groups where they are welcomed and can manifest this anger, sometimes through violence or terrorism in the name of radical ideals. Rather than continually exiling and accusing the entire Islamic community, the European Union and other Western powers must work towards a greater incorporation of minority groups into the larger society, recognizing the inherent worth in their beliefs and principles.
Much of this action requires an improved understanding of what exactly these belief systems are, as it is easy to attack something that makes one uncomfortable. Although it has been manifested in the wrong way, Macron’s recent plans to combat jihadist terrorism have included funds for extensive research on Islamic culture alongside calls to be wary of “denouncing all Muslims” for the actions of some radical groups (Wall Street Journal). While France’s laws and actions have continued to reflect inherent anti-Islamic bias, the push for greater examination and understanding of a unique culture and religion is a step in the right direction. Terrorism is not something that can be solved in a day, but encouraging dialogue and awareness between cultures and across borders is an important aspect in the fight for world peace and cooperation.
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