Europeans debate Islam and terror

The way the respective debates are being conducted reveals how ill-prepared some on the old continent are to formulate and address the relevant problems.

Lebanese caricaturist Stavro Jabra holds up his cartoon during a solidarity rally for those murdered at the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine, in Beirut on January 11. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lebanese caricaturist Stavro Jabra holds up his cartoon during a solidarity rally for those murdered at the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine, in Beirut on January 11.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The attacks in January on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris raised many questions that Europeans are currently trying to grapple with. Some of them concern the relationship between Islam and the kind of terrorism committed in its name. Yet, the way the respective debates are being conducted – at least that’s the impression I got from the German media that I have followed during the weeks after the attacks – reveals how ill-prepared some on the old continent are to formulate and address the relevant problems.
Shortly after the Paris attacks, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, proclaimed: “Terrorist attacks have nothing to do with Islam.” In part certainly inspired by the desire to prevent exploitation of current events by bigots, the statement represents a quite popular perspective according to which terror groups such as al-Qaida or Islamic State (IS) only instrumentalize an otherwise peaceful Islam for their political purposes. This point of view is increasingly being challenged by voices which insist that connections between Islamist terrorism and Islam must not be overlooked in the name of political correctness.
Among these voices are people such as Christian Democrat MP Wolfgang Bosbach and stand-up comedian and political cabaretist Dieter Nuhr, who are being joined by a growing number of journalists.
Many articles in the German media lately made the point that the assumption of some kind of relationship between Islam and Islamist terrorism have quite a bit of merit, need to be addressed and are not necessarily Islamophobic.
One of the problems is, however, that these contributions stop short of an actual analysis of what this relationship between Islam and Islamist terrorism could be.
Christoph Schwennike, editor-inchief of the political magazine Cicero, for example, concludes: “No, I didn’t read the Koran ... No, I didn’t study Islam studies. But I also don’t really have to. The trail of blood around the world is proof enough for, me: There is something wrong with this religion in its current state.”
Schwennike makes it openly clear that in this editorial he doesn’t mean to examine the nature of a relationship between Islam and Islamist terrorism. He simply wishes to state that some kind of relationship of this kind may be assumed. This is completely legitimate. Indeed, it is necessary in a society that until recently, it appears, didn’t dare to debate relevant questions, out of fear that this could violate standards of political correctness.
But it is not enough. As things are, the debate in the German media is exclusively about standards of political correctness, a debate about what may or what may not be said, rather than a debate about the actual problem. The Germans may be considered representatives of Europe in this case; Europeans are busy with themselves and their own debating-culture, rather than with the actual problem of radical Islamism, its cultural roots and the terrorism it inspires. It is reminiscent of an exaggerated debate on procedure, where an assembly spends hours on debating how to vote, instead of actually voting.
Historians, political scientists and Islam specialists such as Bernard Lewis or Bassam Tibi have produced a substantial body of literature that could and should now be applied to addressing the question of whether there is a relationship between Islam and the kind of terrorism that we most recently witnessed in Paris. Of course, it is much easier to just scream out “it must be allowed to criticize Islam” instead of buckling down, do some reading and produce some substantial content.
But if it should be the concern of European journalists indeed to analyze the background that led to the Paris attacks, rather than just finding a convenient excuse to blame and reject Muslims, they have to do some homework. If they fail to do so, they indeed leave the topic to Islamophobic movements such as Pegida or Hooligans against Salafists.
Could it be that many of the European journalists participating in the debate are just Islamophobes themselves who are actually not interested in a proper analysis? Or maybe the other way around: Could it be that many of the journalists who loudly demand that others show the courage to overcome the confinements of political correctness lack this courage themselves? After all, if they were to make an actual statement about the relationship between Islam and Islamism they could be criticized and attacked for the content of their analysis.
One of the reasons, I propose, why many in Europe are still so reluctant to pin down connections between Islam and Islamist terrorism is the fundamental misconception that this would equal a collective judgment of all individual Muslims. To recognize that Islamist fundamentalism and the terror committed by some of its protagonists has its cultural origins in the beliefs, cultural codes, history and political background of Muslim civilization doesn’t mean that all Muslims are terrorists. Recognizing the roots of social realities in certain cultural dispositions doesn’t mean to judge a culture or to ascribe attributes to individuals who in one way or another identify with it.
Ideological perspectives, political dispositions, social realities and patterns of behavior have their cultural roots. To determine these roots is one of the most important tasks of modern social science that for example teaches us that Capitalism has its root in Protestantism, while, in turn, Protestantism is a variety of Christianity.
But that doesn’t mean that all Christians are capitalists. Communism has its roots in the culture and the socio-economic circumstances of the 19th century but that doesn’t mean that all people in the 19th century were communists. Finally rationalism has its roots in the enlightened culture of modernity.
Yet the same is true for anti-rationalist forms of romanticism.
Hardly anyone would assume that the latter two observations are contradictory, as barely anyone would make the mistake of believing that the cultural origins of rationalism and romanticism in enlightenment would turn all people who relate to enlightened culture into the one or the other.
This list could be continued endlessly, only to show that social realities and individual actions need to be understood in the context of the cultural circumstances they have been inspired by. Max Weber called that the interpretation of realities in the framework of their “Kulturbedeutung” (cultural meaning). But that doesn’t mean that particular cultural structures influence each group and individual that somehow relates to them in the same kind of way.
This is true for Islamist terrorism committed by groups such as IS or al-Qiada as it is for any other social reality. But people will not fully understand that, as long as contributors to the debate only ostentatiously take the stage to proclaim that it needs to be permissible to criticize Islam, because they are too lazy or too anxious to actually spell out the actual cultural origins of Islamist terrorism.
The author, a former German journalist, holds an MA in Sociology and is a PhD candidate at Hebrew University.