Islam - the link between the spread of Islam in Europe and the conflicts in the Broader Middle East
With our publications on Islam we experience a lot of prejudices and generalizations on both sides. There is a need to clarify the terms used in this discussion.
We want to make a clear distinction between what we call “moderate Muslims” and “radical Islamists and Jihadists.” We expect that visitors and immigrants who come voluntarily to our European countries accept our culture and its framework, which is characterized by democracy, pluralism, equal rights, no discrimination because of gender, race and religion, freedom of speech and free media, the partition of power and the partition of state and religion.
I think that moderate Muslims can accept these principles without losing their identity. The majority of our population is ready to integrate these people.
On the other hand, we have to fight against the radical Islamists and Jihadists who want to abolish our constitution, our laws and rules as well as our way of life. They often use moderate Muslims as a camouflage and cover. A new kind of threat derives from the so-called homegrown radicals – European citizens of the third or fourth generation.
Based upon these assumptions, this interview conducted by Dieter Farwick, Global Editor WSN, with Jonathan S. Paris, a most acknowledged, London-based Broader Middle East and Islamic movement analyst, covers both burning issues – the Islamic movement in Europe and the Broader Middle East – that are closely intertwined. They fuel each other.
Dieter Farwick: Demography plays a vital role in the Islamic spread that is taking place in Europe. Within the next years to come, the Muslim population will win the majority in some European communities – especially in bigger cities. Within the majority of moderate Muslims, radical Islamists and Jihadists “swim like the fish in the water.”
Any Western countermeasure against the spread of radical Islamists and Jihadists depends on the awareness of the threat. Are our societies too naïve? Do we practice already a kind of self-capitulation? Or do want to “live and let live?”
The first step to countering extremism is to recognize that there is a problem. One of the difficulties in attaining awareness is the slow motion effect of demography. What we are seeing in Europe is a plunge in the birth rates of native Europeans next to higher Muslim birth rates coupled with immigration from North Africa and South Asia. I am struck by the denial that locals exhibit. People who have lived in cities in the Midlands, UK or Antwerpe, Belgium seem not to notice the changes that more objective visitors/outsiders notice.
A second obstacle to awareness of the threat is pervasive political correctness. There is a growing feeling of Muslim solidarity among European Muslims, yet government agencies and ngo’s hesitate to look at people in terms of groups, and prefer to look at individuals. I think that is a valid approach in the sense that the solution to the threat to Europe lies mainly in the promotion of citizenship and individual rights. But if a rapidly growing minority has leaders who encourage group solidarity, governments must formulate strategies to counter this. Denial in the name of pc does not work.
DF: There is a limited window of opportunity to counter the long-term strategy of radical Islamists. What role does the Muslim Brotherhood plays in this context? What are their strategic goals and objectives? What is the distinction between public behavior and official declarations and their clandestine activities? What type of society do they want to impose in Europe?
I am more concerned by the non-violent political Islamists than by the violent extremists. Extremists are easier for security services to identify. They isolate themselves from society. They refuse to vote or participate in daily life of their neighbors. The Muslim Brotherhood is an increasing force precisely because they have chosen to exercise their constitutional rights and to organize politically. While I am not a conspiracy theorist who sees an organized strategy of the MB to take over Europe, I do think that many MB sympathizers would like to see Muslim millets or cantons ruled by sharia law in towns and neighborhoods in and around major European cities. They will push out as far as they can until they meet resistance.. Their credo is Islam first, national allegiance second. The effective countermeasure for this creeping Islamization is to push back and insist that civil law prevails over all civil matters, and a nation’s criminal law supercedes religious criminal law. There may be an arena within family and domestic law where Sharia law has a role, but here again, the European laws protecting gender equality may clash with religious rules that favor men over women. I believe this choice of law controversy can be resolved through consultation between government officials and community leaders. On the other hand, a “live and let live” multicultural correctness is not the right approach. European values should be asserted. Otherwise, what is it that immigrants are supposed to integrate into?
DF: What can be done? Are there moderate Muslims that we can count on? What can we do to isolate the radicals? How can we encourage moderate Muslims to speak up and distance themselves from the extremists who hurt them as the indigenous people? Where is the bridge between the Muslim communities and indigenous Europeans? Where is the balance between bridging and bonding? Do we need an orchestrated European strategy?
There is much that can be done. First, I hesitate to use the adjective moderate or radical in front of the word Islam. The problem is not with Islam, but with those extremists who misuse Islam. Moderate Muslims are the Muslims.
Second, European Muslims are beginning to articulate their vision of coexistence and integration as a counter narrative to the extremists. There are strong forces for bridging into the wider community through shared language and values with European majorities. The civil rights, economic opportunities and social welfare system provided by European governments are far superior to the absence of these components in the countries from which Muslims immigrated. They know that. Otherwise, they would return to their countries of origin more frequently than they do.
The identity shopping of second and third generation Muslims in Europe is a fad. Unfortunately, the fad has latched onto a narrative of extremism generated largely from the Middle East and South Asia. That is why articulating a convincing local counter narrative to extremism is critical in ensuring that the fad remains just that – something that a young male will grow out of.
DF: More and more people in Europe have come to the conclusion that a so-called multicultural society is an illusion and creates more problems than it solves. If and when the current development goes on without major changes, what is more likely in your view: A European Islam or an Islamic Europe?
It is hard for me to believe in the end of Europe. First, globalization and internationalization means exposure to modern values that are an effective answer to the backwardness offered by extremists. Consumers, Muslims and non-Muslims, will ultimately reject any attempt at extremists to impose backward values on modern European society. Already, you see the secular inhabitants of Gaza protesting against the heavy handed rule of the Islamist Hamas.
I predict that there will be a serious struggle within Islam and that the moderate forces will prevail. Islam has been and will continue to adapt to Europe. It would be helpful if the forces of extremism led by the rulers of Iran and Al Qaeda were knocked down a peg so that young European Muslims are less likely to view backward-looking extremists as winners in the struggle against modernity.
DF: Let’s switch to the Broader Middle East. Do you feel that the Europeans perceive the problems there as a European issue and not just an American one? Do they sufficiently recognize that their future depends on stability and security in this region – not just because of the problem of energy security? Do they recognize that a defeat in Afghanistan and/or Iraq has a direct impact on the influence of Islamic extremists in Europe?
As I began to say at the end of the answer above, what happens in the region does affect the climate of extremism in Europe. Suppose this Iranian government is able to produce nuclear bombs, Hamas consolidates its rule over Gaza and undermines the West Bank, the US-led Coalition leaves a vacuum in Iraq without stability, Musharaf falls, plunging Pakistan into turmoil, and Karzai is overthrown as Taliban unleashes a civil war in Afghanistan. A Muslim European sitting in Lyon or in Leicester might begin to think that the extremists are the winning team, and that the West is in terminable decline. This perception would directly and adversely impact the integration of European Muslims. In fact, it would lead to greater separationism, extremism and potentially violence in European cities. The key is to watch the Muslim fence sitters, who are those that feel sympathy toward the radical narrative but still like the benefits of living in western society with western freedoms. They now offer tacit support to the home grown Jihadis living in their communities, yet they themselves are not terrorists. By convincing the fence sitters that the extremists are going to lose in the Middle East and in South Asia and elsewhere, the fence sitters might someday start turning their Jihadis into the authorities. That is the key to containing extremism in Europe. Getting the fence sitters to go more convincingly with European values.
DF: Let’s start with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many observers see as the main source of the conflicts in the Broader Middle East.
Is there any chance for stability? Or is another war involving Syria, Iran, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah and Hamas, the US as guarantor for Israel, UN forces and European countries inevitable?
This is a very complex set of problems for which there are no simple answers. Yes, there is a chance for stability. This requires that the West, Europe and the US, stand together to face down the Iranian-inspired efforts to destabilize the Middle East and to become a nuclear military power. Iran uses Hezbollah and Hamas as pawns to provoke the West and Israel but their main focus is on internal issues, i.e., which circle within the ruling Islamic Republic of Iran will prevail after Ayatollah Khamenei passes from the scene. The different factions use international events to gain domestic support against rival circles and factions. Unfortunately, elements in the regimes leadership and the Revolutionary Guard are training and supporting terrorists and providing sophisticated i.e.d’s and other arms throughout the region. Sooner or later, they may lose control over the forces they’ve unleashed and this may come back to haunt them.
DF: In the prelude to the US presidential elections in November 2008, the political discussion in the US is dominated by the debate over Iraq. Without any doubt, the Bush administration has made a lot of mistakes after the rapid initial military success. That’s history.
A quick and unconditional withdrawal of the bulk of American and allied forces would throw the whole region into chaos. What is in your view a realistic political and military strategy of responsiveness in and for Iraq?
It is interesting that President Bush chose to compare Viet Nam and Iraq in a recent speech in August 2007. In fact, once the US left Viet Nam, the communists in Viet Nam started fighting the communists in Cambodia and even China. As long as the US remained in Viet Nam, they unified the region against them. Once the Americans left, the nationalistic elements within these Communist countries dominated, leading to a series of mini-wars within the Asian Communist region. Likewise, many predict that Iraq would plunge into deeper chaos with the removal of US-led Coalition forces precisely because the only thing that keeps the various opposition elements from “really” taking their gloves off and going after each other is the occupation.
Iraq after the US withdraws will become a battleground for pro-Iran forces vs. pro-Saudi Arabian forces vs. others. The stronger the central government of Iraq is, when the Americans leave, the more Iraq will be able to withstand these competing forces encouraged by meddling neighbors.
Is it wiser for the Americans to stay and avoid the potential vacuum. Post withdrawal Viet Nam suggests maybe not. However, a humiliating withdrawal coupled with a perceived victory by Al Qaeda and Iran would impact adversely the wider struggle against extremism, especially in Europe. That is why the US and the West face unpalatable choices in Iraq. The question comes down to, what is the least bad choice.
DF: In addition to Iraq we have Afghanistan. Western secret services have obviously underestimated the ability of the Taliban to reconstitute – mainly on the territory of Pakistan. In addition: The role of the warlords and the drug barons was equally misjudged.
Now, ISAF – formed by NATO with armed forces of about 35 countries – and US forces have to defeat the Taliban militarily to pave the way for political activities and civilian-led reconstruction. What is the most promising strategy for NATO and the US to make the commitment in Afghanistan a success?
NATO cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan. The Taliban are weak militarily, but are geographically embedded in very difficult terrain. This is a long struggle but not one that requires massive amounts of NATO troops. Training the Afghanistan army and showing economic development is critical in convincing the Afghan people that their future lies with the forces of modernization rather than of backwardness.
DF: In the mid-term, Iran causes the greatest problem. It is expected that Iran will develop operational nuclear warheads and far reaching delivery means. So far, Iran has ignored the UN sanctions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still wants to wipe Israel off the map.
Recent news from Iran has led to the perception that the UN sanctions are starting to work. People in Iran seem to get angry that the president does not deliver to them what he promised prior to the elections.
In your view, what is the best strategy towards Iran? Engage or attack?
I have written in a previous oped that the choice is not between engaging a revolutionary regime and attacking it. There is a third way, which is to facilitate dialogue among Iranians from inside and outside Iran as to what is the Iranian national interest. The regime does not allow or encourage such discussion and Ahmadinejad and his rivals are too busy jockeying for power to articulate this national vision for their country. It is a real tragedy that the Iranian people have to suffer economically and politically under the narrow-minded, incompetent and strong-arm rule of the mullahs. It would not take too much to mobilize Iranian publics to rise up against the regime. Cracks are starting to appear, the regime is less unified than ever, and the economic hardships precipitated by the mismanagement of the economy under Ahmadinejad are leading to petrol station burnings and other spontaneous outbursts.
Effective Western sanctions combined with mobilization of Iranian civil society will likely accelerate the crack-up of this government. What we saw when Syria was compelled by Lebanese popular protests to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 following the Hariri assassination is that authoritarian governments rule by fear, but once the fear among the people is gone, their rule becomes truly precarious. The Iranian people are still cowed by fear. What sort of event, like the Hariri assassination, would erode the public’s fear and lead to that moment of popular enthusiasm for change?
DF: The Gulf States – especially Saudi Arabia – seem to want to play a more active role – be it towards Israel or towards Iran. They are aware that even more chaos in their neighborhood will have a severe impact on their own future.
This future of more or less authoritarian regimes would come under more pressure, if and when Iran would become a dominant regional power with nuclear arms.
What policy can we expect from the Gulf States?
The Gulf States are worried about the rise of Iran. Remember, it is not so much that Iran is growing stronger, but that its enemies, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, were defeated by the US-led forces. Still, the current reality is that Iran is on the rise and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia are concerned. Their concern over this trend was demonstrated by their coolness toward the Hezbollah in last summer’s war with Israel. Saudi Arabia may attend the US-organized Middle East conference on Israel- Palestine later this year, though both the conference and Saudi Arabia’s participation are not yet guaranteed.
I do detect a subtle realignment in the Middle East in which the status quo Sunni Arab states now view Iran rather than Israel as the greater threat. Syria is the odd man out, but as can be seen in the recent public quarrel between Saudi and Syrian ministers last month, Saudi Arabia does not appreciate the growing axis of instability emanating from Teheran and Damascus. It would not surprise me to see closer cooperation and public alliances between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, Israel, the Lebanese government under Seniora and other moderate Arab countries against the Iranian-led HISH (Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and Hamas).
DF: The recent visit of French Foreign Minister Kouchner in Baghdad might open a new chapter of European commitment in the Broader Middle East.
In which conflict might Europe have the best chance to play a more pro-active role?
It is not a question of where Europe can play a role versus where America can play a role. Both are on the same team, the team of stability versus instability. The forces promoting instability, like the Assad family ruling Syria, have weak domestic support and need regional instability to justify their autocratic power over their domestic populace. Europe needs to give encouragement to those domestic forces for rule of law, accountability and transparency, and freedom of press in countries like Syria and Iran that thrive on regional turmoil. Europe will also continue to press for peaceful coexistence between Israel and its neighbors, including a Palestinian state, and support Iraq’s efforts to consolidate a legitimate government in Baghdad over the entire country.
France has a special role in ensuring that the Seniora Government in Lebanon remains in place and is not undermined through a Syrian/Iranian inspired insurrection led by their Hezbollah allies.
The best Middle East policy for Europe is to work with the US in partnership (a partnership based on real exchanges and dialogue, and also on a sharing of responsibility such as deploying NATO troops in Afghanistan) to maintain stability and encourage rule of law and reform in the Broader Middle East. The situation is not hopeless. There is a silent majority of people in the region who would like to have a better future for their children. I am cautiously optimistic.