Three scenes that need to be recalled in terms of Samuel Patti’s death. The statements by former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls regarding the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, in which he describes his country’s circumstances by saying “the country is at war with extremism and terrorism, but not with Muslims.”
The second is remarks by Emmanuel Macron, President of France, asserting that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.”
The third is the exemplary actions of Ahmed Mrabet, the Muslim policeman who was killed while defending Charlie Hebdo. It is a vivid reflection of the integration and coexistence of so many Muslims in France, despite the insulting caricature which Charlie Hebdo published.
These three scenes stand in marked contrast to Macron’s speech which carefully distinguished between Islam and Muslims on the one hand, and terrorism on the other hand. This distinction is in keeping with Valls own views, and evidenced by the circumstances of Murabit’s murder.
In truth, the matter is not limited to Macron as an individual case. Indeed, this style of rhetoric has been circulating for years; one that alternately distinguishes and blurs the lines between Islam and terrorism. We can detect hints of the latter tendency in many remarks, including those of the Former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who once said “the West can’t remain in denial about the massive problem within Islam. Islam never had its own version of the Reformation and the Enlightenment or a consequent acceptance of pluralism and the separation of Church andSstate.”
The problem is sharpened by the tendency of terrorist organizations to cynically use religion as a cover. In this regard, they do not differ much in their exploitation of Islam from the manner in which other political factions exploit specific issues to promote their ideology and score gains. Sadly, this road all too often terminates in racism, violence, and terrorism.
Reducing Islam to terrorism:
In the wider Western world, after the shooting in Christchurch, many voices spoke up against the casual blending of Islam and terrorism. Although such calls are repeated with every incident where innocent Muslims are targeted, a baseline confusion between the two remains stubbornly persistent.
The constraints of space forbid an exhaustive accounting of all the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic hadiths which clarify the pride of place Islam accords to coexistence and toleration. However, a historian of Islam must surely conclude that it is wrong to reduce Islam to a single approach, and ignore all the other intellectual tendencies of Islam. Indeed, some of these schools exhibit intolerance toward the Muslims of differing views; such has been the prevailing approach of Salafi jihadism, whose adherents have come to be seen as synonymous with Islam in broad swaths of the West. This school depends mainly upon the exploitation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas, invoking them divorced from their original social, cultural, and political context. The subsequent developments in the emergence of Wahhabism, which has constituted a principle source of Islamist terrorist literature.
There are several substantial pieces of evidence for the Muslims’ call for coexistence, respect for others, and rejection of terrorism. Indeed, Muslims are the most party most harmed by such terrorism, especially from organizations which claim an affiliation with the Islamic religion. That body of evidence includes:
- US government’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), said: “in cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years”. This is ignored by demogoguic voices which erase the distinction between Islam and terrorism, and who claim that ‘moderate Islam’ is chimerical.
- According to the Global Terrorism Index, usually the countries which are most affected by terrorism are those countries that have the largest Muslim population.
- According to a 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Forum, it was found that 82% of American Muslims were concerned about extremism linked to the name of Islam, and 84% strongly rejected violence against civilians.
- According to a study conducted by CSIS entitled “ From the IRA to the Islamic State: The Evolving Terrorism Threat in Europe”, Terrorists speaking on behalf of Islam are the least likely to carry out terrorist operations in Europe in the period from “2012-2017”. This study revealed that attacks linked to the extreme right totalled 87 in number, while those linked to ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their followers came in at 71.
The Macron-Erdogan’s Controversy:
Against the background of Macron’s statements, controversy broke out between the French President and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan derisively asked “What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam?”, before adding that “Macron needs treatment on a mental level”. Apart from the recent French-Turkish political dispute on various issues, each party’s exploitation of the other’s statements, this incident is noteworthy in several other respects.
Viewed in a certain light, Macron’s statements intersect with certain ideas percolating on the extreme right, which view Islam as an enemy. Although Macron himself has often taken pains to distinguish between Islam and terrorism, as the quotes above illustrate, at other times he has seemed unaware of key differences between them. Perhaps this can be seen as a bid to siphon away support from the extreme right.
In either case, Macron’s statements inadvertently lent fuel to the Salafi jihadist movement and elements of the extreme right which, in turn, may further drive the reciprocal political polarizatin afflicting France as well as various other European countries.
In this way, Salafist Jihadists were able to exploit Macron’s remarks to strengthen the perception of a Western elite persecuting Muslims in the diaspora, especially in France. This enables them to recruit local terrorists who can carry out terrorist operations at home. And indeed, an editorial of in ISIS’s official newspaper, Al-Naba lent a prominent platform to Abu Abdullah Al-Shishany who called for more terrorist operations in the Western countries, invoking the statements of the late terrorist Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, “O monotheist, wherever you are; don’t be forced not to support your brothers and your country as much as you can, and the best thing to do is to do your best and your strength in killing any French or American infidel, or any of their allies”.
The second party (the extreme right) exploits such statements, particularly Salafi jihadist calls to encourage more attacks against Western countries to strengthen the perception that Islam and terrorism are inextricably intertwined.
A similar dynamic is at work in Erdogan’s statements, which ease the task of recruiting for terrorist organizations by fostering a state of hostility towards Macron and France. Moreover, while Erdogan’s statements implicitly promote the notion of a French state existing in an intractable posture of hostility towards Islam and Muslims. And, as with Salafi Jihadist organizations, Erdogan himself often presumes to speak in the name of Islam.
In conclusion, dealing with terrorist attacks despite the various affiliations of the perpetrator requires careful choice of words, to maximize condemnation of the perpetrators and minimize the harm done to innocent bystanders. Under no circumstances should actors on any side of the political divide exploit them for temporary gains; ultimately, all stand to lose.
Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil is an Al-Mesbar Center researcher specializing in political Islam and extremist groups.