When will it ever end? Month after month, year after year we are assured that extremist and terrorist networks have been uncovered and/or dismantled in the US, in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Headline news and spectacular arrests carry a powerful symbolic impact. But our troubles are far from over; despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden, fully operational cells remain capable of striking highly symbolic targets — public places, schools, religious institutions, sometimes specifically Jewish ones. “Islamic terrorism” is the spectre that haunts our era and is likely to do so for a long time to come.
I have frequently stated what must be tirelessly repeated: These tiny groups do not represent the values of Islam, their actions are overtly anti-Islamic and can only be condemned. There can be no justification for the killing of innocents, for attacks on civilians and public institutions. While criticism of Israel is legitimate and justifiable, it cannot be an excuse — in any way, shape or form — for anti-Semitism. In fact, recognised Muslim scholars (Sunnis and Shiites alike) along with the overwhelming majority of ordinary believers firmly condemn the violence of extremists and the actions of Salafist militants, wherever they raise their ugly heads. The world must hear this message and the Muslims must repeat it continuously. About this we must be perfectly clear.
Internationally, the Salafist militants and the extremists have long pursued dangerous political positions whose first victim, after those they have executed, is the Muslim populations as a whole. Extremism and terrorism do not afflict the West alone, but also Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Today, such movements — standing ideologically between conservative literalism and jihadism — are gaining a foothold in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and in northern Mali, while maintaining an active presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is imperative to confront the views of these groups and above all to curtail their ability to promote unrest. Over the last 15 years, but particularly during the last five years, they have demonstrated their capacity to bring people out into the streets in times of crisis. Though they remain marginal and opportunistic, the impact of their murderous and shocking acts on the perceptions and the imagination of a greater number of people cannot be discounted.
The young people who join extremist groups are clearly suffering from massive deficiencies in religious knowledge and are often politically gullible (when they are not attempting to salve pangs of conscience by cutting themselves off from a life of delinquency). They can easily fall victim to the kind of radical or populist rhetoric propagated by jihadist circles, just as they may become the instruments of predatory and manipulative government intelligence agencies. From Pakistan to the US, by way of Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Syria, not to mention England, France, Germany and Denmark, informers and provocateurs have successfully infiltrated these groups. Behind the religious sincerity and the political gullibility of youthful radicals often lurk religious or political authorities or even government secret services. All are totally devoid of religious sincerity and driven by a political cynicism as blatant as it is deadly. The ideology of extremism and the organisations that embody it are dangerous in many ways. Condemnation of them must be firm and decisive, accompanied by a rigorous analysis of their causes, their principal protagonists and their zones of darkness. There can be no room for naivete.
To this analysis must be added the strategic connection between the presence of such groups in the West and in Muslim-majority countries. Confronting terrorism and the cells that come into being in an apparently informal and disconnected manner, present particularly forbidding obstacles, as can be observed in Germany, the US, England, France and elsewhere. Above and beyond acts of terrorism that are followed by immediate political and military reaction by the affected countries, like the US in Afghanistan, then Iraq in the wake of September 11, 2001, the fact remains that operations against local cells, accompanied by intense media coverage, cannot be entirely disconnected from the foreign policies of western nations.
In fact, where terrorist actions occur, western military intervention is never far behind. Terrorism has been successfully used to justify increased surveillance of citizens in the West and military operations abroad once public opinion had been primed to accept it (just as the jihadist threat had become plausible at home). It may well be that France, whose president and prime minister proclaim that they will combat Islamic extremism wherever necessary, will soon seek a pretext for greater involvement overseas, particularly in Mali, now that the threat has been felt on its own soil (and that French hostages are still being held). The region is a strategic one and the petroleum reserves recently discovered there are at least as extensive as Libya’s — this is worth remembering in order to keep our feet on the ground.
Such considerations aside, we must remain focused on our responsibilities, and refuse to cast ourselves as victims. Once again Muslims — religious representatives, community leaders and ordinary believers — must speak out loud and clear in condemning what is done in their name by the extremists. Likewise, politicians and the media must take pains to avoid guilt by association. Not only by affirming, in times of crisis or terrorist actions, that the jihadists and extremists who do not represent all Muslims, but by finding ways to speak of Muslims in positive ways and not only in times of crisis.
So intense is the demonising of Muslim extremists today that, in dealing with individual suspects, everything seems to be permitted. While it is normal to detain persons who are acting suspiciously in order to forestall terrorist actions, the arrest and indefinite preventive detention of individuals without respecting their right to a legal defence cannot be considered legitimate. Today, men are imprisoned in England, Germany, France, Canada and the US who do not know what they are accused of and without judgement. They find themselves in a judicial “black hole” where all is permitted in the name of the “terrorist threat.” In any self-respecting democracy, not only must the jihadist-Muslim linkage be rejected, but the former must also be dealt with according to the rule of law. They must be allowed legal representation, a fair trial and an equitable verdict. These are the inalienable rights we all hold dear.
What we observe today in the West is a danger above all for the West itself, which appears to be abandoning its principles: Extraordinary illegal renditions, detention without explanation or reason, the sub-contracting of torture, incarceration and solitary confinement (as in the US) or, in Europe, degrading treatment, are incompatible with the professed values of human rights and dignity. It is not because we fight against terrorists — or those accused of terrorism — that we can transform ourselves into monsters at the very heart of a system based on the rule of law, granting ourselves the extraordinary right to violate the very rules we claim to protect.
The treatment of prisoners is a case in point. Such is the climate of mistrust that to practice Islam in prison has become all but impossible. In many western prison systems, in the US and Canada, and more and more frequently in Germany, Britain and France, treatment of Muslim prisoners (who account for between 20 and 50 per cent of the prison population in some European countries) is blatantly discriminatory and frequently degrading. Inmates find it difficult to pray, their food is inappropriate, spiritual counselling is absent or left in the dangerous hands of uneducated, self-proclaimed preachers. The root of the problem lies within the system itself. What is the point of reacting with horror to the radicalisation of Muslim prisoners unless specific measures are adopted to provide prisoners of all confessions with equal access to a chaplain’s services? The choice is a political one. In the prison system, the contradictions inherent in states themselves — particularly with regard to the oft-proclaimed equitable treatment of all citizens — are simply amplified. We may praise equal rights and equal status for all, but (as though seen through a magnifying glass) in everyday life and behind bars contempt, ordinary racism and Islamophobia are tangible realities. Were the intent to produce radicalism, a better way could not be found. Democratic citizens must demand and states must institute reform on an urgent basis. The treatment of convicts tells us much about the realities that lie hidden behind the fine words mouthed in celebration of our democratic societies.
Likewise, it is essential that the public be fully informed about the incidents that recur. When violence walks the land and our societies feel threatened, it is entirely legitimate — after terrorist attacks and/or failed attempts — to expect clarification and a basic explanation from the authorities. The question is not one of accrediting conspiracy theories, but of insisting on citizens’ fundamental rights to information and protection — rights that cannot be compromised. How to explain that in the wake of unfortunately successful terrorist acts there have been no independent commissions of inquiry to report on whatever investigation took place? How to explain that, in the name of the fight against terrorism, citizens are left adrift in the face of contradictory official statements from governments that admit no liability, since the terrorists are, by definition, “diabolical?” How to explain that arrested terrorists are systematically killed or reduced to silence so that their version of events is never heard? No commission of inquiry has ever completed its work; no conclusions have been reached; no explanations offered. A dire threat hangs over our heads and black holes surround us.
While conspiracy theories should be rejected, we must claim our right to information and security while at the same time defending the rights of the accused or suspects. How often we have been wrong! In France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Great Britain and in the US, women and men have served years in prison before it was realised that they had been unjustly incarcerated. Some were released without any apology or compensation whatsoever and at Guantanamo Bay, persons known to be innocent continue to be held as criminals. The suspicion of terrorism has transformed individuals into de facto “terrorists”, enjoying no rights and being dealt with as such, whether guilty or not. Faced with terrorism, our societies have been transformed; our freedoms have been sacrificed and humiliating treatment has been normalised and we must never forget it. Terrorism may well ultimately confront the West with its own dark image— in refusing to discuss the causes of terrorism, in doing no more than condemn actions and in dehumanising the guilty as well as simple suspects, we are normalising fundamentally racist and discriminatory attitudes.
No amount of pious declarations, after the damage has been done, will change a thing. The belittling of Islam in public speech, the horrified condemnation of extremists and militants and the shameful treatment of prisoners are forging a negative image of the Muslims among us. If we add the steady stream of crises (caricatures, videos, etc.) that fuel tension, we can grasp the outlines of a new enemy, both within and internationally. Islam suddenly explains everything involving Muslims, whether it be urban violence, social marginalisation, unemployment, popular frustration, dictatorship or opposition to Israeli policies, to name but a few. No need for political, socio-economic or geopolitical analysis. We have entered an age when all problems are being Islamicised, while simultaneously crucial issues of governance and justice are depoliticised. When religion becomes the over-simplified reason, when we cease to consider the complexity of political life, we turn to a populism that narrowly defines the other and holds him responsible for all of society’s ills because of what it is — precisely the definition of racism and of the politics of fear. A West so wealthy and yet so fearful is a West adrift, so far from its ideals, so near its demons.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is the author of Islam and the Arab Awakening.