The Elevator to Power

Saad Hafiz

Dramatic reporting and exposés on western news channels suggest that Islamic radicalism is flourishing in the member states of the European Union and in North America. News items tend to focus on a small segment of Islamic activists who espouse extremist and radical ideologies and who have resorted to violence and terrorism against both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This does not support the sweeping, superficial theory offered by some who represent the Islamo-phobic school of thought, namely that Islam as a whole — and not only its radical factions — is intrinsically militant, fanatical, evil, violent, anti-western and anti-Semitic.

Studies have singled out political Salafism, the fastest-growing global radical Islamic movement, which preaches a strictly conservative form of Islam, as attracting second and third generation immigrants in the West. This strictly orthodox and uncompromising form of Islam is attractive to young Muslims. The growth of Salafism and its offshoots, seen as the ‘elevator to power’ in some major Muslim societies, draws the impressionable youth. Slogans heard on Muslim streets like, “Ultimately Islam will become the supreme power” and “God is great” will reverberate “until Islam spreads throughout the world” also resonate with Muslim youth in the west. Mosques and radical clerics play a crucial role, using the victim card and laying blame on the west for the terrible, unfolding events where people are being killed for ‘being Muslims’.

Opponents see Salafism as a threat to democracy as it rejects innovation, frowns on interactions with non-believers and deems that the only legitimate laws come from God. Proponents argue that they are reaching the youth who would otherwise be lost to the streets. The young, charismatic imams (clerics), labelled by some as agitators, appear to know how to reach these young people. They are impressing young Muslims by narrowing the notion of religiousness. After hearing them, one could almost believe that the world consists of two dimensions: religious and non-religious, good and bad, heaven and hell. A popular young German imam explained, “Western ideology tells you not to obey anyone. God knows best what is good for the individual, which is why people must abide by his rules. And even if Allah were to instruct you to spend your entire life with one leg against the wall, you would have to do it, because Allah is your God.”

Reaffirmation of Muslim identity has also been attributed to the social exclusion, unemployment and discrimination that some Muslims experience in their adopted countries. There are cases of Muslim migrants mostly in Europe not fitting into their new societies and living life on the margins, described as ghettoisation. Turning to radical Islam is described as a defensive reaction by young Muslims suffering from an identity crisis, being trapped in competing socialisation environments: secular societies and institutions that proposed equity but in reality offered discrimination, and the traditional home with its passive religious values and narrow focus on the Muslim community and rituals.

Generally though, Muslim immigrants thrive on the western menu of personal freedom, market economies, meritocracies, gender equality, religious pluralism and consensual government as compared to the tribalism, gender apartheid, religious intolerance, statism and authoritarianism prevailing in their home societies. Muslims, as a group, enjoy a standard of living higher than the national averages, and do not reject or revolt against western materialism. Western Muslims are not desperate or poor turning to radical Islam for heavenly solace. By reducing the economic dimension to its proper proportions, and appreciating the religious, cultural and political dimensions, we may actually begin to understand the allure of radical Islam.

The terror attacks in the US and Europe, without any doubt, have resulted in the rise of Islamo-phobia across the western world. Western governments and societies have done well to avoid serious discriminatory policies directed at Muslims, as a consequence. Despite mixed results, various integration models incorporating citizenship, assimilation and multiculturalism should be continued. However, there is an immediate need to devise strategies for keeping away future generations from the clutches of radical Islamist ideologies. The comprehensive plan should address the root causes of radicalisation and include de-radicalisation and re-integration programmes for disillusioned youth, trapped in narratives provided to them by Islamic fundamentalist ideologues.

Moreover, governments and societies must continue to denounce expressions of religious terrorism, violence, incitement and indoctrination by Muslim clergy and politicians. They must take vigorous action to neutralise Islamo-phobic proclamations by radical pastors and politicians. It is important to maintain strict oversight over violent, racist, xenophobic and sectarian comments and messages in the print and electronic media.

On the other hand, the scholars of Islam, Muslim leaders and others should present a more complex and balanced picture, which distinguishes between radical, fanatical and political Islam and a reformist, partly political, pluralistic and even moderate Islam. Currently, things have still not gotten out of control and there are chances of quick recovery only if moderate Muslim networks join hands with governments and societies to jointly push back against radicalisation. The message that democracy is the only elevator to power needs reinforcement again and again.

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