The Challenge of European Islam
The horror of the March 11, 2004, bombings in the Madrid metro system has resounded throughout Europe and the world. Its effects have already been numerous. The Socialist party, formerly in opposition, won a striking victory in Spain's parliamentary elections held three days afterward. In great part the Socialist advance reflected their strident opposition to Spanish involvement in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq - many voters interpreted the atrocity as an Islamist reprisal for the presence of Spanish troops there. And the Islamist gambit succeeded: thus, in the words of a Spanish journalist living in Washington, al-Qaida won the Spanish election. Better might be to say that al-Qaida won the election for the Socialists.
But the conservative government of José Maria Aznar also lost considerable credibility in the scant hours between the terror attack and the opening of the polls, because of its obsessive insistence that only the Basque nationalist terror group ETA could be responsible for the attack. Even Spaniards who liked Aznar and had previously supported his Popular Party expressed disgust at what they saw as obvious manipulation of the situation. Spain believed for a moment that it had, through its involvement in Iraq, regained a position of power in the world. Still, a 65-year old with dyed hair can never pass for a 25-year old aspirant to romance.
The Populares focused on ETA because they could get away with accusing the Socialists of a soft position on the Basque movement, since the left had maintained a governing alliance in the Mediterranean region of Catalonia with a Catalan nationalist party, the Republican Left (ERC). Although in contrast with ETA, ERC has no history of terrorism, ERC's main leader, Josep-Lluis Carod Rovira, last year committed the ridiculous act of meeting with ETA, on the other side of the nearby French border. But nobody in Spain would have accepted an accusation by the Populares that the Socialists were soft on Islamist terrorism.
Unfortunately, the section of U.S. political opinion that equated Saddam's regime in Iraq with al-Qaida would certainly have been willing to make such an accusation, and will now accuse the Socialists, and Spain in general, of weakness in the face of terror. More broadly, the U.S. can be expected to react exactly the opposite of the Spanish electorate: with greater firmness and determination to defeat the terrorists. Ordinary North Americans sympathize with the Spanish victims, but not with Spanish voters who affirm the option of retreat in the face of terrorism. Arab journalists now ask if al-Qaida is not acting in Bush's interests. And regardless of the outcome in Spain, the Madrid massacre and further incidents like it could well win the next American presidential election for Bush.
Spain has its own historical reasons for reacting as it has to the atrocity. It is among the most antimilitarist countries in the world. Its army is not meritocratic, like the U.S. forces, but rather the preserve of inherited positions. Further, the Spanish army remains equated in the popular mind with the victory of Franco in the civil war of 1936-39, and not all Spaniards are unaware of the defeats their armies suffered in the Moroccan adventures of the 1920s. Catalan voters, who have a deep dislike of the military, gave even greater support, this time around, to the ERC of Carod-Rovira, with the party's representation leaping from one deputy in the peninsular parliament to eight. The Catalans have always appreciated una bella figura, and a vote for ERC on Sunday must have seemed to many of them the best way to deliver a multiple insult to centralism.
Some of the rest of Europe seems ready to join the chorus of surrender indicated by the Spanish outcome, and to assure the terrorists that not only did they oppose the intervention in Iraq, they are anxious to withdraw from all fronts of the U.S.-led war on terror. Europeans, as well as many North Americans and Arabs, continue to seek rational political motives in the actions of the terrorists. But al-Qaida is not acting to avenge Palestinians or Iraqis. Al-Qaida acts to destroy a whole way of life, and weakness in the face of its aggression indicates a lack of commitment to that way of life.
Naturally, the deaths and injuries in the Madrid metro also stirred fears in other European cities with major transit systems. In a sense, streetcars and subways are symbolic of the open society that has flourished in the industrialized nations. Yet even during Irish Republican Army bombing campaigns in Britain, and Arab and leftist terror assaults in Paris, during the 1980s, no anxiety emerged in the broad population of those countries that basic infrastructure was totally or permanently compromised.
Indeed, if we accept the theory that Al-Qaida or a group related or similar to it committed the Madrid atrocity, some further thoughts come to mind. The terror of radical Islamism seems deliberately aimed at the infrastructural developments that underpin modern existence. The ease of using commercial jets may have been a central consideration on September 11th - not only because it facilitated the action, but to express contempt for one of industrial society's greatest achievements, inexpensive air travel. Cheap tourism has bloomed thanks to low-cost air tickets, and the popularity of Bali as a destination certainly helped make it a target in 2002. In addition to pure hatred, the absence of high walls and legions of guards shutting off the Jewish remnants in Morocco and Turkey from their Muslim neighbors could have motivated the bombings in Casablanca and Istanbul last year. The enemy seeks to maintain old barriers, and to erect new borders between Muslims and non-Muslims living in mixed societies.
The Spanish Socialists may withdraw their 1,300 troops from Iraq, but will they also shut down their air flights to Muslim countries? Will they stop employing Moroccan agricultural laborers? Will they cease arresting other al-Qaida operatives that use the country's tourist-friendly environment?
If we ponder probable targets for the next spectacular action of this kind, the 2004 Athens Olympics immediately spring to mind. Nothing could better symbolize the coming together and civility of different cultures, which al-Qaida and others like it hate so much, than the Games, founded in the spirit of peace among ancient Greek city-states.
The new conservative government of Greece, which won power with little global fanfare at the beginning of March, will not bear with it the burden of anti-NATO demagogy that has been associated with Greek Socialist policies from the mid-1970s through 1999.
That means a new approach to Greek's neighbor, Turkey, since prior to the ascendancy of the visionary Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the Greek Socialists long combined hatred of the U.S. with visceral loathing of Turkey. Strangely, the Greek Socialists long held a diametrically opposite, indulgent view of Arab extremist activity on Greek territory, and for that reason Athens today may be no less susceptible to Islamist terror acts than New York on September 10, 2001, or Madrid on March 10, 2003. Terrorists do not reward those who are kind to them.
In addition, Greece faces the challenge of facilitating Turkey's accession to the European Union - a radical departure from earlier policies - conditioned on a workable, democratic settlement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, prior to Cyprus' own accession to the EU on May 1. Typically forgotten, Cyprus has been divided for decades in the same way Bosnia-Hercegovina is split, between Christian and Muslim residents.
Christian/Muslim conflict in the Balkans and on Cyprus leads to another topic explicit after the Madrid bloodshed. To repeat, al-Qaida and its peers aim to make it impossible for Muslims and non-Muslims to live in the same society; that is why Morocco and Turkey, with their Jewish residents, and Bali, which is Hindu in faith, have been targeted along with New York and Madrid. In both the latter cases, working-class Muslim immigrants were among the victims.
But European Christians cannot help, after Madrid, viewing Muslims with suspicion. They will not feel this way about people living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or the West Bank. They will turn their eyes with fear toward 100,000 Muslims now in Spain, overwhelmingly Moroccans, and, of course, the five million Muslims currently in France, almost entirely Arab. Radical Islamist recruitment can also endanger civil peace between the British majority and 1.5 million Muslims there, most of whom are not Arab, but some of whom have signed up to fight in jihadist forces in places as varied as Israel, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and the U.S. In addition, while Germany's three million Muslims are almost totally Turkish and Kurdish, and typically despise Islamist extremism, especially of the Saudi-backed Wahhabi variety, such details may well be overlooked by the broader German public.
Liberal and leftist Spanish and French politicians and intellectuals have already reacted to Madrid by promising greater efforts to prevent discrimination against immigrant Muslims, and to assimilate them into their societies. The French promise absorption under which French Arabs would be considered indistinguishable from their neighbors, and the Spanish pledge that Muslims will be equal citizens with all others in a new Europe.
To Muslims as well as non-Muslims, these promises must seem like fairy tales. Islam cannot be expelled from Christian Europe. Muslims cannot be rounded up and deported under general suspicions of sympathy with al-Qaida. But at the same time, the future of European Islam cannot be defined by immigrant populations that, notwithstanding the propaganda of bien-pensant politicians, remain outsiders.
Sympathizers of the Islamist radicals argue that the Madrid massacre should not blamed on al-Qaida because most Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq, and because the jihad is aimed at American "hegemony." Of course, they miss the point that al-Qaida seeks maximum civilian carnage, regardless of the sentiments of the broader population. But the raw reality is that even after September 11th, Arabs and other Muslims live much better, enjoy more opportunities, and have greater access to serious political influence in the U.S. than they are likely to enjoy in France and Spain - and even Britain and Germany - for at least another generation.
Finally, the danger of leaving the definition of European Islam in the hands of alienated and unassimilated Arab immigrants in the Atlantic countries is seen not only in non-Muslim European reaction to the Madrid events, but also in the growth of Saudi-Wahhabi influence among that continent's Arab Muslim immigrants. Symbolic of such infiltration, Saudi Arabia recently provoked a major and divisive uproar in Greece when it proposed to build a giant mosque near the Athens airport, its opening to coincide with the Olympic Games. After Madrid, such a proposition verges on the absurd.
Europe now needs an Islam that will define itself in unquestionably moderate terms, as one religion among others, with no claim to superiority in the public square, no demand for separatism, and no subordination to Saudi Arabia or other Islamist states. Such an Islam simply will not emerge in France and Spain, in the hands and hearts of immigrants and their children; at least not in the short term. It can, however, develop in a place still overlooked by Westerners: Southeastern Europe, especially in the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus, where Muslims are indigenous, not immigrants.
Unlike Arab Islam, which is increasingly dominated by the ultraextremist Wahhabi interpretation, Balkan Islam is based on the pluralistic legal tradition known as Hanafism. In addition, Balkan Muslims are deeply imbued with Sufism, a spiritual form of Islam that stresses the common ground between monotheistic faiths. Bosnian Muslims emerged from the horror of the 1992-95 war still committed, regardless of the pain and crimes they had undergone, to Europe. Albanian Muslims despise Islamism. Bulgarian and Macedonian Muslims have indicated no interest in Arab radicalism.
Greece, above all, has the opportunity to play a determining role in helping European Islam define itself positively for Europe as well as for Islam. Greece can assure an equitable settlement in Cyprus, reestablish a secure relationship with Turkey in NATO, champion Turkey's EU accession program, and empower its own indigenous Muslim population of some 170,000 - plus more than 500,000 Muslim migrant workers from Albania and southwest Asia who have settled in Greece in the past decade - as full citizens in an overwhelming Orthodox Christian society. By doing so Greece, in alliance with the Balkan Muslims, can lift the shadow of Madrid from the heads of Muslims throughout the continent.
Balkan, Greek, Turkish and Cypriot indigenous Muslims may also create a new zone of economic and intellectual exchange between the two cultures, taking Singapore and Malaysia as their models. Success in such an endeavor - in the strengthening of an indigenous, truly European Islam in southeast Europe - could even inspire emulation by Spain and its Moroccan neighbor.
To propose the existence of an indigenous European Islam may seem counter-intuitive to most outsiders. But it is clear that Islam in Europe must be fully European in its sensibility, or will not exist at all. The place to begin the Europeanization of Islam is in a place where an indigenous European Islam already exists: from Sarajevo, through Athens and Istanbul, to Cyprus.
Related Topics: European Muslims, Terrorism receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free center for islamic pluralism mailing list
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