Monday, January 09, 2006

Europe, Intellectual Freedom, and Islamism

In the wake of last Fall's riots in France's Muslim communities, Amir Taheri wrote a superb November 21st column about the status of Islam in that country. In his piece, Taheri pointed out that French Muslims actually enjoy far more freedom to practice their religion than they do in many Islamic countries:

What is remarkable is the rich diversity of the brands of Islam existing side by side in freedom and security. These include sects banned in almost all Muslim nations, where their members are persecuted, imprisoned and sometimes executed as "deviants." In one street, Pakistani shops run by Ahmadi, Jaafari and Salafi sects sit side by side; the owners have learned to talk together and even do business — something unimaginable in Pakistan, where militants of rival sects kill each other by the hundreds each year.

In this French haven of peace, you can live and practice your Islam the way you understand it — a gift rarely available in any officially Islamic country.

Such a gift exists because French society keeps the private space distinct from the public one. Your private space — home, business and place of worship — is protected by law, allowing you to organize and live your life as an individual in accordance with your beliefs and tastes.

Unfortunately, there is a growing and dangerous minority within France's Muslim community that wishes to change this situation. Taheri explains why:

The idea of religion as a private affair is abhorrent to most Muslims, for Islam aims to rule every single aspect of individual and collective life, from the most mundane to the most sublime.

On that basis, several Islamist groups in France have long tried to sow the seeds of anger in the community. Extremists regard France as part of the Dar al-Harb (the House of War), because political power is held and exercised by the infidel (kuffar). Moderates prefer the label Dar al-Sulh (House of Conciliation), implying a conceptual no-man's-land between war and peace. Still others use Dar al-Dawah (House of Propagation), which means that the chief Muslims are there is to convert the French nation.

All three concepts are based on the assumption that it is impossible for a Muslim to live in a society where secular law, not Shari'ah (Islamic jurisprudence), is in force. A Muslim could never regard himself as a Frenchman until France becomes an Islamic state.

While Salafists certainly hate specific policies enacted by European governments, Taheri convincingly argues that their fundamental motivation lies in a deep-seated rejection of liberal, Western society. In particular, Islamists hate the climate of intellectual freedom that is a hallmark of European democracy.

Radical Islamists have waged a long and brutal campaign of intimidation and even murder against writers and journalists who have produced works they regard as offensive or sacreligious. As shown by the Salman Rushdie affair, and more recently the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, Islamists are determined to suppress intellectual freedom in Europe as well as in the Islamic world. In the last year, Salafists have proven all too successful at creating a climate of intimidation and self-censorship in much of the continent. Many writers and opinion makers are now afraid to say anything negative about Islam or Muslims for fear of sharing the fate of Theo Van Gogh. Unfortunately, the Islamist threat to Europe's freedom promises to grow even worse.

Europe now has an estimated 18 million Muslims, with a birth rate three times that of non-Muslims. In the opinion of some experts, Muslims could comprise 20% of Europe's population by the mid-21st century.

As Europe's Muslim communities have grown, so has the level of Islamist radicalization. The recent riots in France were symptomatic not just of anger and alienation, but of an active desire among some Muslims not to integrate into French society. "Peaceful" Salafist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir have made substantial inroads among Europe's Muslims, while jihadists have succeeded in making the continent an active front in their war against the West. In addition to their atrocities in Madrid and London, numerous additional terror plots have been discovered.

Whether Europe's Muslims will be successfully integrated into liberal Western society, or seek to transform the continent in accord with the guidelines of Salafist-Jihadism is one of the crucial issues on which the struggle with radical Islamism will turn. As Taheri points out, the presence of so many Muslims in Europe offers an extraordinary opportunity to help Muslim reformers change their religion for the better. Preserving Europe's tradition of intellectual freedom in the face of the Islamist assault is crucial to enabling moderate Muslims to craft an alternative vision of Islam to that of the Salafists.


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