Sunday 18 January 2015

Terror in Paris: at war with... what?

The latest bout of jihadi terrorism has shocked the free world.  What people find most difficult to accept is that the perpetrators were not some oppressed and brainwashed Saudi, Iranian or Yemenite peasants, but European citizens, born and raised in ‘liberal’, ‘enlightened’ and ‘multicultural’ France.

Cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, this is by no means a new phenomenon: three of four perpetrators of the 7/7 London bombings were born and raised in the UK; all four were British citizens.  So were the two suicide bombers that blew up a bar in Tel Aviv on April 30, 2003.  So is ‘Jihadi John’, the ISIS terrorist responsible for the video-taped beheading of several innocent Westerners.  And while the 9/11 terrorists were all citizens of Arab countries, ringleader Mohamed Atta spent the last decade of his life in the free world.

With the initial shock waves beginning to wane, it is interesting to analyse reactions in the free world.  They tend to gravitate towards two opposite poles.

The extreme left position (espoused by the likes of Chomsky and parroted in various ‘diluted versions’ by left-inclining politicians, academics and media pundits) is that the Islamist attacks ‘have nothing to do with Islam’.  Depending on how far left a particular individual leans, s/he may also imply that such attacks are understandable (if not justifiable, excusable or just ‘marginal’, ‘desperate’, etc.) reactions to the free world’s ‘original sins’: colonialism, imperialism and support for Israel.  Left-wingers may add that Islam as such is a religion of peace; extremists are just a tiny minority, while most Muslims are ‘moderate’ (whatever that means), if not outright progressive and liberal.  Since for leftist ideologues capitalist economics are the source of all evil, it follows that extremists ‘find fertile ground for recruitment’ among Western Muslims, because of the latter’s socio-economic deprivation.

Conversely, the extreme right position (supported with a sympathetic wink if not overtly espoused by the likes of Marine Le Pen) implies that extremism is some sort of inherent manifestation of Islam, making all adherents of that religion suspect of harbouring terrorist designs.  For extreme rightists – whether they overtly say it or just slyly suggest it – Islam is a religion of war.

Frankly, I find both positions equally stupid.  They represent knee-jerk attempts to force reality into the rigid mould of pre-determined ideological convictions.  What is needed is a sober assessment of the reality, based on objective data, analysed with intellectual curiosity unpolluted by ideology or political correctness.

Dr. Ruud Koopmans is a Professor of Sociology and Migration Research at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Guest Professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Amsterdam; he is also Director of the Research Unit "Migration, Integration, Transnationalization" at the WZB Social Science Center in Berlin.  Under his scientific guidance, the latter institution has funded a study of Muslim immigrants and Christian native views in six European countries: Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden.

Researchers have assessed the level of ‘religious fundamentalism’ by asking 9,000 persons from a Muslim (Turkish and Moroccan) background whether they agree or disagree with the following statements:

-          “Muslims should return to the roots of Islam”
-          “There is only one interpretation of the Qur’an and every Muslim must stick to that”
-          “The rules of the Qur’an are more important to me than the laws of [survey country]

The native Christian respondents have been asked whether they agree or disagree with the same statements, except that the references to Muslim(s). Islam and Qur’an have been replaced with ‘Christian’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘the Bible’.

The results are eye-opening: circa 60% of Muslims agreed that “Muslims should return to the roots of Islam”, as opposed to 20% of the Christians, who believe that “Christians should return to the roots of Christianity”.  75% of the Muslims agreed that “There is only one interpretation of the Qur’an and every Muslim must stick to that”; only 18% of the Christians believe the same about the Bible.  Finally, 65% of Muslims believe that religious rules are more important than the laws of the country; only 12% of the Christians shared that belief.  44% of Muslims agreed with all three statements, as compared to just 4% of the Christians.

Clearly, the levels of religious fundamentalism among European Muslims (as measured by this methodology) are not confined to a ‘tiny minority’.  They are held by a large proportion of that population.  Furthermore, this is in stark contrast to the Christian population, among which fundamentalist views do represent a tiny minority.

Next, Prof. Koopmans further analysed the data, to understand whether the discrepancy may be explained by differences in socio-economic parameters.  His conclusion is that
“regression analyses controlling for education, labour market status, age, gender, and marital status reveal that while some of these variables explain variation in fundamentalism within both religious groups, they do not at all explain or even diminish the difference between Muslims and Christians.”
So contrary to leftist lore, this has nothing to do with socio-economic status.

Moreover, the survey showed that in the case of Christians, fundamentalism was more frequently encountered among older people and was less common among the younger generation; but the younger generation of European Muslims was just as likely to exhibit religious fundamentalism as the older one.  In other words, not only has the West opened its gates indiscriminately, i.e. including to people who do not share its liberal values; more worryingly, it failed to impart those values to the next generation of Muslims, those born and raised in the free world.  And there is – at the very least – strong anecdotal evidence that, under the complacent noses of Western governments, fundamentalism is being instilled into yet another generation of young Muslims.

But should religious fundamentalism per se be considered a problem?  Surely not, some would say, unless these deeply held beliefs translate into some kind of anti-social attitudes.  To test the extent to which religious fundamentalism correlates with hostility towards ‘the other’, Prof. Koopmans’s team asked the respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with another set of statements:

-          “I don’t want to have homosexuals as friends.”
-          “Jews cannot be trusted.”
-          “Western countries are out to destroy Islam.” (Christians were presented with the mirror-image statement “Muslims aim to destroy Western culture.”)

While no less than 13% of Christians reject homosexuals as friends, that proportion is 60% in the case of Muslims.  45% of Muslims agree that Jews cannot be trusted, as opposed to 9% of Christians.  The presumption of ‘evil intentions’ by the other side is held by 54% of Muslims and 23% of Christians.  After studying the correlation between the two sets of responses, Prof. Koopmans concludes:
[R]eligious fundamentalism […] turns out to be by far the most important predictor of out-group hostility and explains most of the differences in levels of out-group hostility between Muslims and Christians.”
In other words, religious fundamentalism is not just another innocent opinion; it is responsible for anti-social views and hostile attitudes.

What Prof. Koopmans did not measure is the propensity for such hostile attitudes to translate into violent acts.  Admittedly, this is difficult to determine using surveys.  However, we can gain at least an inkling from the results of a poll conducted by Pew Research in 2011.  Pew pollsters asked a sample of American Muslims whether they agreed that “Suicide bombing/ other violence against civilians is justified to defend Islam from its enemies”.  13% agreed (5% said that such violent means are 'rarely' justified, 7% said that they are ‘sometimes’ justified and 1% opined that they can often be employed.  Interestingly, that extremist opinion was more common among US-born Muslims: 20% justify suicide bombings aimed at civilians, as opposed to just 10% among foreign-born Muslims residing in USA.  This is, needless to say, further evidence of the West’s abysmal educational failure.  Of course, there is a difference between justifying acts of terrorism and actually committing them.  But it is also obvious that actual terrorists are recruited or recruit themselves from among the ranks of those believing that terrorism is justified (i.e. ‘just’ under certain circumstances).  Admittedly, 20% is a minority; by contrast, in the Middle East a majority of Muslims (according to Pew Research 78% of Palestinians, 62% of Egyptians, 60% of Lebanese) believe that suicide bombings aimed at civilians are justified.  Still, it is sobering to understand that one in five Muslims born in USA approves of indiscriminate violence directed against innocents, as long as it “defends Islam against its enemies”.

So, is Islam ‘a religion of peace’ or ‘a religion of war’?  Well, that’s a stupid question and a false dichotomy.  Islam is a religion – full stop.  A system of beliefs and precepts.  It cannot and does not make war.  Its followers, of course, can and do make war or peace – depending on how that particular group or that particular believer interprets/uses Islam’s beliefs and precepts.

“We are not at war with Islam” cried recently the Prime Minister of France, reiterating similar assurances given by the Presidents of the United States and Israel.  Indeed: we are not and have no reason to be at war with Islam.  If nothing else, that would place us inadvertently and foolishly at war with those Muslims who are not fundamentalists and certainly not extremists.  But they are not the enemy; on the contrary, they are natural allies.

So are we supposed to limit ourselves, instead, to a ‘war on terror’?  That would be just as foolish, because such a war cannot be won.  How is the free world – while remaining free – supposed to defend itself against the next attack, by an individual or cell acting in secrecy and isolation?

No, we cannot afford to combat (mostly post-factum) just the occasional bursts of extreme violence; we need to find and eliminate its root causes.  Which are not in Islam, but in Islamism.  And let no religious extremist and no right-wing propagandist fool you by conflating the two: Islamism is not Islam; it’s not a religion; it is an extreme, supremacist political ideology.  It is the enemy.

Let’s advocate against it; let’s legislate against it; most importantly, let’s educate against it.

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