Opinion |

The Only Way Europe Can Defeat Violent Islamic Extremism

UAE counter-terror chief: The West sees freedom of speech as sacred. For Muslims, respect for the Prophet is sacred, too. There needs to be dialogue, and action: Muslims need to integrate. Europe needs to respect Islam

Ali Al Nuaimi
Ali Al Nuaimi
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Ali Al Nuaimi
Ali Al Nuaimi

As the world watches Europe fall into another wave of violent Islamic extremism, it’s time for leaders not only in France, but across the West, to address the challenge of integration.

Muslims need to feel a part of society. Europe, and France in particular, have so far failed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in their countries, with a huge number of home-grown terrorists emerging from its soil.

In less than two months, France has seen three deadly attacks on civilians in the name of Islam, an Islam hijacked by these extremists. With last week’s knife attack at the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Monday's attack on Vienna, it is clear this threat is more global than many had realized.

Terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood use two narratives.

The first is voiced within France by those members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who stand with the government and condemn acts of violence. Meanwhile, Muslim Brotherhood leaders outside France, especially in the Muslim world, are igniting a global campaign against France and President Macron.

People hold posters with caricatures of France's President Emmanuel Macron, depicting him as a dog, left and right and as devil, center, during a protest against France in Istanbul. October 30, 2020.Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

This latter narrative helps extremist groups turn the French government into an easy enemy. They are intent on pushing the idea that there is a war between the French government and Islam, a trap the West must not fall into. As groups such as Al-Qaida and Islamic State fight to stay relevant, the nature of the narrative is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, when you look at Islamic extremism in the West, it is easy to see that it stems from a loss of identity and a lack of integration. Young, disenfranchised Muslim men are failing to connect with the secular-Christian mainstream. They feel they belong more in their country of origin.

Muslim groups cultivate close ties with religious leaders from their countries of origin, and that only exacerbates these divides: between Muslim and French, and also between Muslim and Muslim. Muslims' loyalty is divided; they are confused about which version of Islam they should adopt.

Integration must reassure Muslims that they can both preserve their religion and, at the same time, feel a sense of national pride and patriotism that goes far beyond religion. As long as these divided loyalties aren't addressed, there will be a threat to national security.

France must win the hearts and minds of Muslims both inside and outside France, and this is the time to draw that line between true Islam, a religion of peace and tolerance, and the terror organizations who push the rhetoric of "them versus us." It’s vital that Muslim community leaders lead that campaign and capitalize on the trust of the Muslim population.

However, who those leaders are is equally as critical, as there are many thriving from the divisions French society has created. Muslim leaders who really believe in crushing extremism should come forward and try to defend the security and stability of their nation; they must have the courage to counter all the hate narratives and, ultimately, to condemn the atrocities.

Members of an Italian Muslim association stage a sit-in and prayer to condemn ‘persecution’ against the Muslim community in France and against the publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Rome. OcCredit: Andrew Medichini,AP

But there is another side to this issue. France's national motto of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" is clearly not working when it comes to respect for religion.

As long as France allows freedom of speech to include insulting the Prophet, it perpetuates a dual narrative. We are speaking two languages. While the West fought for freedom of speech and deemed it a sacred value, to those within Islam, respect for the Prophet and the religion is holy too.

We have to create a balance to garner respect from each side. Muslim communities must be educated as to why Western leaders are promoting and defending freedom of speech, and equally, there is a need to educate the general public, as well as political leaders, teachers and society as a whole, about why Muslims feel it is equally their right to protect the name of the Prophet.

This dialogue should create empathy for religious sentiments, just like the Muslim community must understand the French right to defend their heritage.

French soldiers patrol near the Saint Gery church in Cambrai after the knife attack in the city of Nice, France, November 1, 2020.Credit: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/ REUTERS

Islamic extremism must be viewed not through a Western libertarian lens, but through a deep understanding of the essence of the religion. Only then can governments get to the heart of the issue.

All the stakeholders in the country need to be part of this process; the educational system, community leaders, religious leaders, public figures, the police and NGOs, promoting the values that will bring people together on the basis of respect and trust between all communities in that nation.

For France’s politicians, this is a political problem; many other governments in the West think the same way. The security agencies deal with it as a security threat. Religious leaders deal with it as a faith issue. But instead of fractured interests addressing only their side of the issue, stakeholders should form a united force.

Western-based Muslim communities are creating their own version of Islam, but it is a version based on their countries of origin, rather than creating a version that complements the laws and regulations of where they now live. Until we speak the same language, and understand the diversity within Islam, the West can never win this war.

Dr. Ali Al Nuaimi is a member of the UAE Federal National Council for the emirate of Abu Dhabi and chairman of the Council’s Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee. He was previously Chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University and is the founding chairman of Hedayah, the center for countering violent extremism, based in Abu Dhabi. Twitter: @Dralnoaimi

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