Realism, Islamism and Islam: When Will Difficult Conversations Begin?

Abbasi Mosque

Western leaders cannot expect to defeat terrorism in their countries when they deny and evade acknowledging the roots of the jihadi phenomenon.

After the attacks in Manchester and London, British prime minister Theresa May called for “difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations” about the sources of extremism. In February, I called for soul searching among those who have refrained from speaking frankly about Islamism since 9/11.

So far, that soul-searching and those conversations have not begun, at least not in public. Perhaps we are at a turning point. Since 9/11, the leaders in the democracies have refrained from stating in public what they knew to be true in private concerning the connections between Islam, Islamism and terror. They did so for a variety of reasons, including not offending Muslims, gaining support from Muslim communities for counterterrorism intelligence operations, avoiding fanning hostility to Muslims in democracies and being accused of Islamophobia. Such a policy was thought to be a realistic effort to avoid the “clash of civilizations” that the Islamist terror organizations were trying to foster.

Donald Trump won in part because he denounced this apparent realism as political correctness run amok. Yet from the outset Trump’s inability to speak the truth about anything, his penchant for conspiracy theories and his toying with the anti-Muslim elements of his core supporters destroyed his credibility as a messenger about this issue. Instead, we need to look to other political leaders—and to writers and intellectuals—who had and have the courage to face down accusations of Islamophobia and to speak with intelligence and nuance about interpretations of the religion of Islam and the practice of terror. The three attacks in Britain this spring led Prime Minister May to state that “while we have made significant progress in recent years, there is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.” She added that “defeating this ideology” which she did not specify, “is one of the great challenges of our time.”

As the French writer Pascal Bruckner has argued in his recent essay Un racisme imaginaire: La querelle de’Islamophobie (An Imaginary Racism: The Dispute about Islamophobia) that for that to happen, criticism of Islamism, or Islam as religious doctrines, and the issue of their connections to terrorism should be regarded as legitimate as criticism and interpretation of religion has been in the modern West since the Enlightenment. The horror of the recent attacks, and the fact that Islamist terrorism has been a fact of life and death around the world since the 1990s, may finally convince leaders in the democracies to listen to voices of criticism that they have previously ignored.

It’s necessary to pay attention to voices that have been speaking and writing for a long time but were dismissed as Islamophobic. In his recently published Der Islamische Kreuzzug und der Ratlose Westen: Warum Wir eine Selbstbewusste Islamkritik Brauchen (The Islamic Crusade and the Helpless and Clueless West: Why We Need a Self-Confident Critique of Islam), the German journalist Samuel Schirmbeck cites the work of North African Muslim writers, scholars and journalists who, since the 1990s, were drawing attention to the connections between interpretations of Islam and the practice of terror by Islamists organizations. They did so, especially in what he called “the terror years” in the 1990s in Algeria, which is when between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people died in a civil war between Islamist organizations and the military regime. Despite the billions of dollars spent in counterterrorism efforts in Europe and the United States, the writings and views of Muslim writers and scholars such as Abdelwahab Meddeb, Fatema Mernissi, Zaim Khenchelaoui, Abdennour Bidar, Wassyla Tamzali, Tahar Djaout, Said Mekbel, Abdellah Taia, Said Djabelkhir, among others, remained either unknown or absent from the discussion about Islam, Islamism and terror in the democracies. While the essays and novels of Boualam Sansal did receive attention in Europe, on the whole, what Schirmbeck calls North Africa’s Voltaires and its “Muslim Enlightenment” did not find an echo in the Western press and public discussion.