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18 April 2018updated 07 Sep 2021 10:54am

Leader: the west is not imperilled by Muslim extremism

The challenge is to be equally vigilant against Islamophobia and against the misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism of radical Muslim preachers.

By New Statesman

It is 25 years since the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama first published “The End of History?” – a hugely influential essay (and later a book) proposing that the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded an age in which the values of free-market liberal democracy would reign unchallenged. He was wrong. Mr Fuku­yama failed to anticipate the rise of illiberal capitalism –
market economics harnessed to an authoritarian state – in China and Russia. Above all, he failed to imagine that a totalitarian religious ideology would capture states and mobilise mass terrorist attacks.

It is far from clear that radical jihadi Islamism poses a substantial threat to the stability of western democracies or indeed to an emerging superpower such as China, as David Selbourne argues in his provocative essay on page 24. It also cannot be said too often that overwhelmingly, most Muslims, whether as a minority in Europe and the United States or in countries where Islam is the dominant faith, are no more or less peaceful than any other people on the planet. To suggest that bellicosity is intrinsic to the faith is historically illiterate. At the same time, it is a disservice to the many millions of moderate Muslims to deny that a fascistic kind of extremism has infiltrated their communities. After all, those most at threat from Islamic terrorism – most often murdered by jihadis around the world – are other Muslims.

That the boundaries between piety, fanaticism and political violence appear sometimes blurred poses a quandary for the open societies of the west. At one level, it should be possible to distinguish between opinions that are unsavoury to secular liberals – regarding the subservience of women, for example – and pursuit of an extreme agenda by violence. The former is tolerated as the price of pluralism; the latter is plainly criminal.

The question arises of whether an apparatus of cultural separation and reaction that isolates a community from its neighbours facilitates the transition from religious intolerance to something more sinister. This dilemma cuts both ways. Lazy depictions of Muslim communities as an anti-western fifth column reinforce the alienation of minorities who may be struggling to integrate. This abets extremist recruitment and a deeper sense of isolation. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that the most horrific act of mass murder committed on European soil this decade – a terrorist act by most definitions – was perpetrated by Anders Breivik, a Norwegian far-right fanatic, operating in the name of Islamophobic white supremacy.

Among the least helpful responses to these questions is the Manichaean view, most recently espoused in a speech by Tony Blair, that a global struggle is under way between western democracy and Islamic extremism. It is a general assertion that unravels when applied to certain countries and regions, each with its political and cultural specificities.

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Yet sensitivity to complex cultural dynamics, including criticism of the west’s foreign and imperial policies past and present, must not lure liberal and progressive minds into apology for unjustifiable acts or views. The challenge is to be equally vigilant against Islamophobia and against the misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism of radical Muslim preachers and their disciples, who would corrupt the faithful with systematic hatred. 

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