Europe's Muslims Ask: Is Terrorism a Community Problem

By Ford, Peter | The Christian Century, August 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

Europe's Muslims Ask: Is Terrorism a Community Problem


Ford, Peter, The Christian Century


When 200 British Muslim imams declared that they would refuse to say funeral prayers for the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attack near London Bridge, their statement marked a striking and unprecedented rejection of terrorism.

"We don't take this matter very lightly," said Qari Asim, an imam in the northern city of Leeds, who signed the declaration. "We believe that the terrorists should not be accepted in our community, in life or in death. We are trying everything possible to deter people" from violence.

The move signaled a significant change of tack. For many years, the almost universal reaction among European Muslims to the rising tide of jihadi violence has been to disclaim any responsibility on the part of Islam and the Islamic community.

But the attacks in Manchester and London "have shaken the Muslim community [in Britain] very deeply," said Ziauddin Sardar, a London-based scholar of Islamic history. Now, Muslim leaders are beginning tentatively to acknowledge that their communities cannot shrug off all liability for the recent spate of terrorist attacks across Western Europe. "Our first task is to own up and acknowledge that these people emerge from the Islamic community."

The imams' decision not to bury the perpetrators came after British prime minister Theresa May, speaking in the wake of a knife attack near London Bridge that killed eight people, said that there was "far too much tolerance of extremism in our country."

But European Muslims, divided between many schools of thought and traditions, are unlikely to unite around a single approach to terrorism.

Demanding that Muslims address the scourge in the name of Islam "would imply that Muslims are potentially terrorists, and we don't accept that premise," said Imran Shah, a board member of the Islamic Society of Denmark. "We will not accept orders from someone pointing his finger at us saying, 'This is your fault.'"

But Sajid Javid, British communities minister, who is a Muslim, argued in a recent op-ed article in the Times that British Muslims bear a "unique burden" to tackle extremism. "It is not enough to condemn. Muslims must challenge, too," he wrote. "We can no longer shy away from those difficult conversations."

Naz Shah, a Labor Party member of Parliament from Bradford in northern England, says that her Muslim constituents have overcome their reservations and that "they are having conversations about empowering communities" to face up to extremists.

But she rejects the idea that Muslims tolerate terrorism. The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, had been reported to police by friends and neighbors on three separate occasions, she points out.

In France, too, the tone of the debate is changing, said Rachid Benzine, a member of a government commission studying imams' education. "In the past people were saying that terrorism either had nothing to do with Islam, or everything to do with Islam," and nothing to do with adolescent rootlessness, Western policy in the Middle East, social discrimination at home, or other contributing factors, he recalls.

Now, he says, "there is a recognition that jihadism is a product of both international problems and of the way Islam has been ideologized."

Though Muslim public intellectuals may think like that, many preachers in French neighborhood mosques "are hesitant to criticize" extremists "because they are afraid of stigmatizing the whole religion," Benzine said. …

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