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The West's terrorist challenge

February 27, 2015 11:10 IST

There is no war against Islam, but there is definitely one against Islamic radicalism, says Claude Smadja

This week in Paris, the head of the Muslim community has taken offence at the remarks of the head of the French Jewish community, who said that “all violence today is committed by young Muslims” while adding that “of course, this is tiny minority of the Muslim community and Muslims are the first victims”.

Just a few days ago, in Washington, in an international gathering organised on the topic of “Countering violent extremism”, US President Barack Obama tiptoed around the issue, engaging in verbal and semantic contortions to avoid anything that would suggest that he was connecting the wave of terrorism and violence -- from the barbaric executions of the Islamic State to the multiplication of terrorist acts in Europe and the mindless bloody rampages of Boko Haram in Africa -- to Islam.

Similarly, most political leaders in Europe -- starting with French President François Hollande -- have been carefully avoiding squarely naming Islamists as the enemy, and stressing again and again that they were not fighting against Islam.

There are, of course, understandable reasons for this caution: it is indeed the purpose of organisations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to turn this into a “Western world versus Islamic world” confrontation.

No Western leader would want to give credence to the notion that his or her country is at war with Islam, raising the spectre that the notion of the “clash of civilisations” announced in 1992 by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington is now becoming a reality.

In addition to that, it is true that the majority of the very large Muslim communities in every European country comprises decent, law-abiding citizens. It would also be extremely dangerous to go into some kind of amalgamation that would radicalise young people feeling victimised by prejudice against their faith.

However, we have to come to terms with the fact that what is now being waged is truly a war against this new widespread, multifaceted wave of terrorism. And whether we like it or not -- and whatever the reluctance of political leaders to admit it -- the terrorists committing the acts that have been shaking different parts of the world have been defining themselves as fighters for Islam.

They claim to “legitimise” their actions by linking them to the notion of jihad, to some specific verses of the Quran, or to the distinction made in parts of the Islamic theology between the “House of Islam” and the “House of War” or the “House of Unbelief”, covering the countries where the rule of Islam is not observed and towards which strife and war are legitimate.

Granted, it is difficult to find the words that will define the struggle against the different groups and organisations waging war against Western societies, their lifestyle and the values they claim to embody -- or to establish their domination in parts of Africa. Being too vague, as President Obama was in his speech at the conference against “violent extremism”, elicits the accusation of not daring to name the enemy. Trying to be too specific immediately triggers protests not only from Muslims who fiercely condemn terrorism but from many different sectors of the public that reject any misguided amalgamation.

It, thus, boils down to the fact that this is definitely not a war against -- or a confrontation with -- Islam as such, but a war against Islamic radicalism, the ideology it is promoting, the initiatives it has launched and the terrorism it is trying to expand in different parts of the world.

A war that has been initiated by jihadists and that the targeted countries and societies have no other choice than waging with utmost steadfastness and resolve, with all the elements at their disposal in various domains -- military, security, psychological, educational and media-related.

This confrontation will be a lasting one. We have seen already how all the illusions, created by the weakening of al-Qaeda and the elimination of Osama bin Laden, about the waning of the terrorist threat have proved to be short-lived. In fact, the terrorism threat and the fierceness of the Islamic radicalism challenges are today more prominent than ever since 2001.

In this confrontation, there is one prerequisite to be met: it is absolutely clear that the forces of Islamic radicalism will not be vanquished without the active support and contribution from the moderates in the Muslim world as well as in the Western countries. It is among the Muslim communities that the fight has to be fought to identify, isolate and neutralise the extremist radicals, the propagators of jihad.

It behooves moderate Muslim theologians to reject and declare obsolete some bellicose parts of the religious texts of Islam or their interpretation, and to deny any kind of pseudo-religious legitimacy to the groups claiming to wage war or/and terror in the name of Islam.

There are limits to what military action or security enforcement can achieve without the involvement of modernist, moderate Muslims. However, many of them feel -- or actually are -- threatened by jihadists and they need to be sure that the support and the protection they are getting are strong and reliable enough to speak out and act.

In the same way, the challenge is to continue to support the moderate and modernist regimes in the Muslim countries without this support being the kiss of death for them as it provides the pretext for the radicals to label these regimes as “traitors” to Islam.

There is also one trap, or illusion, to avoid falling into as the confrontation against Islamic radicals is being waged: it is the notion, widespread in some circles in Europe, that if conditions were improved in the neighbourhoods of the big cities in France or in Europe, if Western countries refrained from taking this or that action, then this would reduce significantly the terrorist threat. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and one may suspect that these “sociological” or political explanations are being advanced as a way for people to reassure themselves, to consider that there is -- basically -- a reasonable solution to a problem that has rational causes.

The fact of the matter is that most of the leaders of these groups come from wealthy, privileged or at least middle-class families. Their rage towards the Western world is not caused by the actions -- or lack of action -- from Western societies, but by what these societies are, what they represent. And so, basically, it is not by changing this or that policy, by making some kind of compromise, that the countries under attack are going to come to terms with radical Islamism.

Of course, a better education and better conditions for Muslim immigrants in Western societies could deprive jihadist leaders from some of their potential recruits; but the experience so far suggests that the results would be very limited and this would not take care of the very nature of the challenge we are confronting.

The developments of the last year are here to tell us about the long-term nature of the challenge we are facing. Political leaders as well as the public at large are now beginning to realise how much resolve, clear-sightedness and clarity on values and objectives will be needed to address it.

The writer is president of Smadja & Smadja, a strategic advisory firm

Claude Smadja
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