By Dr. Doron Pely
In the wake of the recent wave of Islamists-led terror attacks around the world – most recently in France – there is a palpable sense of despair amongst Western experts and citizens who are all asking: “Where do we go from here in our relations with Islam?”
This is not a new question, but the despair has deepened and the attacks have intensified. It seems that we are running out of options, and the only way forward is outright conflict – a war of civilizations. Before we cross that Sambation, however, here is a proposal that may – in time – show some promise and positive progress.
To begin with, all involved must realize that within itself, Islam has not yet developed a way to differentiate clearly between “normal,” life-loving and life-seeking Muslims (the overwhelming majority) and Islamists (a tiny but very powerful minority). Such a clear differentiation is essential if Muslims themselves are to be able to make a choice about how they wish to live their lives. Islam is currently held hostage by its Islamist wing; it allows itself to be cowed by the ever-present threat of Islamist violence.
Even devout Muslim/Arab leaders are starting to figure this out. In a recent speech at Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of Islam’s core theological bastions, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said: “Islam has become the enemy of the world. It is inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!”
Having raised a point that is rarely discussed this way in the Muslim world, President el-Sisi went on to provide some clear analysis, calling for a “religious revolution” and pointing a finger at those who, in his opinion, are primarily charged with changing this situation. He said: “Is it possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants so that they themselves may live? Impossible. I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting for you. The entire world is waiting for your word because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, and it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”
Indeed, until and unless Islam shakes itself free from the inside, until communities and leadership gather up the courage – and courage is definitely needed – to stand up to the Islamists, nothing good will happen – for Muslims or the rest of the world.
If Muslim leaders are starting to look the issue straight on, it is time for leaders in the West, like French President Francois Hollande, to stop pretending that such terror attacks “have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” Islamist terror is a Muslim problem, as well as a global problem, and it is very much up to Muslims – together with the rest of the world – to work hard to present a solution. Political correctness in this case may create acceptable sound bites, but it will not create the climate required to start dealing with the very real issues that trouble and will continue to trouble mixed-faith communities – effectively the whole of the Western world.
So what should be done?
In the West, a major effort is required to develop (together with Muslim communities in each local) programs that create the space and the opportunity for Muslim silent majorities to express themselves much more forcefully – essentially posit a counter-narrative of “sane” Islam that will challenge the narrative of militant Islamists.
Muslim constituencies around the world – East and West – should demand their leadership put all their moral, theological, and legal weight on the side of a “sane” Islam – one that is about peace and tolerance. This should be done in clear language without “ifs” or “buts.” Silence is also no longer an option. To remain silent is to align oneself with the Islamists.
To facilitate such changes, Christian and Muslim leaderships around the world must establish programs that will create external and internal incentives for communities to take a position, provide secure channels of expression for those willing to take the first steps (those will be the most difficult), and encourage (indeed insist) on the maintenance of an ongoing internal dialogue within Muslim communities. National/state/local leaderships (Christian mostly) should start an intensive dialogue with Muslim communities, invite them to work together to create an active, visible, even aggressive “sane” alternative to segregation and isolation. Everyone’s lives depend on it.
Alongside this proposed mass movement, there should start a robust integration program of Muslims throughout the Western world. Such programs must not be based on multi-kulti premises but on the creation of “local” versions of co-existence, variants that work for both the majority and minority communities. These should be monitored and modified consistently to ensure that Muslims integrate into their new environments.
For example, alongside a concerted effort to integrate Muslim youth into schools and other educational and recreational activities, parents (Muslim and others), educators, and community leaders must make it their business to communicate, discuss, and rapidly resolve conflicts and other issues that are sure to crop up regularly. Without persistent involvement of all concerned, such programs have no chance of making an impact. Even with significant commitment, progress will be slow and inconsistent. But -the core message should be: “Sane of the World Unite!” and all involved must be acutely aware of the cost of failure.
Those who oppose these programs in illegal ways (e.g., threats, intimidation, physical and psychological bullying) should be pursued and prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law. Within immigrant communities, hard educational work should focus on explaining the meaning of freedom of expression and stressing that it does not include the freedom to behave criminally. Sanctions must include extended prison sentences and decisive deportations where necessary. Muslim communities should be encouraged to police themselves as much as possible and to use traditional sanctions (where they fall within the scope of the formal legal system) to stress zero tolerance for religious intolerance.
None of this will succeed without the direct and deliberate action by Muslim communities and their leaderships around the world. It’s time Muslims who claim that they represent a philosophy of peace and co-existence demonstrate the power of these concepts to themselves and to the world. Parts of this vision appear hard to perceive and implement? Consider the grimmer future awaiting all of us if we don’t act now.
Dr. Doron Pely is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Israel. Doron studies and teaches Muslim customary conflict and conflict management practices. His experience combines military (Lieutenant), police intelligence (field and analysis), business intelligence, executive duties, and academic and field research. Doron earned his PhD in Middle East Studies from King’s College in London.